Let’s not lie to ourselves and try to sugarcoat the issue -- in many circumstances, gear matters. There is no shame in admitting that despite all your talent, some shoots can’t be done without the appropriate hardware. Here is why.
Even though the “gear doesn’t matter” movement carries some truth for the casual artist, the argument is often used by certain photographers in a macho attitude to imply that they could deliver good images no matter the camera. After all, they are so talented that gear is secondary to their greatness. Yet, that type of shooter often uses one of the latest professional bodies and high-end lenses. I wonder why they are not using a manual focus lens attached to an 80s film camera…?
Competitiveness and Efficiency
In a recent video titled Your Camera is Better Than Ansel’s, Ted Forbes from The Art of Photography explained that "every famous photograph was made with a camera less advanced than the one you are using now." He is right; any recent entry-level camera is more than enough for the neophyte photographer. The progress of technology allows to take solid pictures with a cheap camera and mediocre optics are a thing of the past. That being said, commercial photography is an extremely competitive business. Today, many professional photographers are faced with insane levels of competition, and job requests for “credit only” is quite common. Plus, I’m not even talking about making as much as 99 cents per images on stock websites.
In this context, aspiring professional photographers must be efficient and comparing your camera to Ansel’s 1930s Zeiss Super Ikonta B doesn’t make much sense business-wise. In 2018 you need the right tool for the job. You must be able to recover an image underexposed by two EV because we all make mistakes and they usually always happen at the worst possible time (there is one keeper out of 20), because you can’t ask the brides to repeat the ceremony if the SD card of your single slot Canon 6D Mark II fails. Your autofocus performance must be on par with the sports photographer standing next to you because his 1DX Mark II won’t miss an opportunity during an Olympic Game. Image editing is essential but having less work to do in post-production is critical, which is one of the reasons many portrait photographers don’t like Sony cameras. Sure, you can fix the radioactive skin tones in post but why bother when Canon images look right straight out of the box? Conversely, many landscape photographers appreciate the higher dynamic range offered by Sony’s sensors on Nikon and Sony bodies.
No amount of cash can buy creative skills but time is money, business is hard and you don’t have the luxury to compete with your hands tied in your back because of inadequate or outdated gears.
Reliability and Consistency
Reliability is key for professional photographers and many are willing to trade a few features for peace of mind because a missed shot in a critical moment is a waste of time. In some circumstances like weddings or news coverage, technical mishaps can damage your reputation and translate in lost customers. In this regard, the lack of weather sealing on the Sony A9 surprises me. Sony wants to compete in the high-end market but fails to provide an essential feature for professionals. Image quality, speed, dynamic range, and autofocus performance is useless if a camera cannot deliver consistent results at any time. On this field, Canon and Nikon cameras have a legendary track record whereas Sony is often associated with poor reliability, weather-sealing issues and overheating despite recent progress. In the end, dependability and consistency are what separate professional gears from amateur options. There are plenty of affordable tripods and lights out there but only a few will take repetitive beatings and abuse over the years.
Pricier and Larger Is Not Always Better
But jumping on the priciest and largest piece of equipment is not always the best approach. The key is to pick the right tool for the job. A street photographer may prefer to ditch his intimidating DSLR body in favor of a smaller retro camera like the Olympus PEN-F which won’t scare off strangers in the street or kill the spontaneity. An outdoor photographer heading for a long hike might want to travel light and carry a small Mavic drone instead of a bulky Phantom. The best gear is useless if it can’t be transported and deployed easily on site. In some situations, carrying two small Mavics for redundancy instead of one Phantom can be the safe option. Based on the job, a careful balance must be found between redundancy, portability, image quality, and features. Eventually, the most expensive and largest gears can be inadequate for certain tasks.
The Specification Shot
Sometimes there is simply no way around gear. This is what I call the specification shot: a technical centric situation where the deliverable depends on the equipment to capture the image. Do you want to create an iconic silhouette shot of the sunrise featuring a giant sun silhouetted along the horizon? You’ll need a long focal lens with a solid tripod.
Astrophotography is another gear-dependent discipline. Capturing stars at minus 10 EV requires a sensitive sensor (full-frame most of the time) coupled with a wide and fast lens (14-35mm, f/2.8 to f/1.4). There is no way around it unless you can afford to spend a lot of time fixing the noise and colors in post which might not be a problem for amateurs. However, as I mentioned previously, professionals need to be efficient and quick turnaround time is essential to run a business. The Internet is filled with examples of talented photographers on a budget who managed to create impossible images with low-end gears but they are not bound by schedule and can afford to miss the shot. Professionals don’t have this luxury.
Beginners and casual users should not worry too much about gears because modern tools are good enough to grow without being limited by technical specifications. On the other hand, professional photographers facing high levels of competition must rely on the right gears to deliver consistent images on time without glitches. But adequate gear doesn’t necessarily mean larger and pricier. What matters is to pick the right tool for the job. Not more, not less.