Why Your Gear Might Be Holding You Back From Being A Better Photographer

Why Your Gear Might Be Holding You Back From Being A Better Photographer

Have you ever found yourself thinking: “If only I had <insert expensive camera body/lens/lighting gear>, I would be shooting better images/be winning bigger jobs/get better and higher paying clients”?

If you’ve never had this thought, congratulations, skip this article and move on because you’re already part of ‘The Enlightened’ few.If however, you have ever thought this way, or do think like this, this article will aim to help alleviate an issue that often plagues photographers, and one that can be the cause of both financial and creative stress.

The article aims to address something that as photographers (and videographers) many of us tend to suffer from at some point. Gear Acquisition Syndrome (or G.A.S) it’s a dangerous affliction that can empty both our pockets and drain our creative mojo. Although not unique to photographers, it does tend to be a very common affliction amongst us, either because we tend to be very obsessed with gear, or because during those low ebbs of creative dry spells, it’s all too easy to be sucked into the marketing hype of a product that we feel will elevate us back into a stronger creative space.

The symptoms of Gear Acquisition Syndrome

Let me just be clear – knowing our gear and understanding the technical aspects of how to create an image with it are necessary skills. Forget style, vision, composition and your design sense – if you don’t know how to accurately capture what you see or envision in your mind with your gear, or how to use the lights and modifiers you've got, then you’re going to have trouble accurately (and consistently) capturing what you want  or need to.

Wanting to know and to understand the technical side of how to use our gear is healthy and important. At some point however, we can get carried away. We leave behind the understanding of the technical we have developed, and move in to a territory where we begin to see gaps in what we are creating because we feel we don’t have the right tools to create them.

There are obviously exceptions - if you’re a commercial photographer shooting billboard campaigns, you’ll probably need to be buying or renting medium format digital backs (although I have worked with commercial photographers who have shot billboard ads with DSLRs). If you want to shoot runway at Fashion Week, you’ll want your 200mm or 300mm teles. Wedding photographer shooting in low light environments probably will need that f2.8 over the 4, or a camera with better high ISO performance. The saying ‘right tools for the right job’ is apt.

However, at what point does the need to acquire the right tools for the job stop, and the obsession (or belief) of needing certain equipment to shoot better images begin? The line isn’t always clearly drawn. At some point, the scale can tip us into a realm where we actually feel that we are holding ourselves back from not having the right gear. Not only are we often misleading ourselves in this belief, but it can be damaging for a number of reasons to dwell in this space.


Why Is G.A.S So Bad?

1) This S*hit Ain’t Cheap

Buying photo and video gear tends to be an expensive habit to maintain. Don't think we need to dwell on this one, I think we're probably all too aware of this.

2) New Gear Does Not Guarantee Better Images

Even if you have deep pockets, I guarantee you that unless you are the fractional part of the population who is naturally gifted at photography, throwing more money at ever more expensive gear will not yield ever increasingly beautiful photographs or video. At some point, the return on investment between gear obtained and quality of output plateaus, or even declines.

Creativity Trumps Gear: The Evidence

1) Joey L

Joey L, a successful commercial photographer, started taking shots only a few years ago with a 1.4 megapixel point and shoot Olympus D600.  This image won him 2nd place in a DP Challenge competition. It actually benefitted from his lack of expensive gear. He says:

“Editing consisted of things like dodging and burning, heavy contrast, a duotone of black+red+yellow, an abused unsharp mask for a funky glowing effect, zoom blur with history brush and ect ect... Seems on the border of digital art, but it's the best I can do to obscure the lacking quality of my camera (1.4 mp)”. It was precisely the lack of gear that led to his workaround and editing style that gave the photo a greater visual impact.”

Having cheap gear can force you to be more creative and to experiment and push yourself in a way that having more expensive gear sometimes won’t.

2) Brooke Shaden

Brooke Shaden is a fine art photographer, creating fantastical dream-like images that she conjures up from her wonderful sense of imagination. I recently came across a blog post of hers that does an excellent job of exemplifying the fact gear isn’t what holds back your creativity. Brooke, like Joey, has a wonderful way of visualizing things in her head, and then using her equipment and her editing skills to bring her full creativity to bear on her images.

She recently went out and shot the following 2 images and then processed them similarly in Photoshop. One was shot with a Canon Powershot S95 that retails on Amazon at just over $600. The other with her 5D Mk2 and a Sigma 24mm lens, a combination that would set you back somewhere in the region of $3500+. Can you tell the difference? Brooke answers which is which in her blog post.

Fstoppers_Davidgeffin_Brookeshaden_dslr DSLR or Point and Shoot?

Fstoppers_Davidgeffin_Brookeshaden_pointandshoot Point and Shoot or DSLR?


With almost a $3k price differential, Brooke demonstrated in the final two images that actually, the camera and lens choice had little to do with how the final image turned out. Sure a keen eye may spot greater detail in the DSLR shot, but really, does it make a final difference in the emotional connection we have with the image created?

Even the test shots without post process work provide an interesting benchmark to compare between the Powershot and the 5D.

Fstoppers_Davidgeffin_Brookeshaden_dslr_testshot DSLR test shot

Fstoppers_Davidgeffin_Brookeshaden_pointshoot_testshot Powershot S95 test shot


Brooke is keen to point out that yes, shooting with a camera that produces a high res image is critical if you want to be able to display your work on a large scale, for instance in a gallery as she often does.

The final output of the image aside, the point here should be very obvious – if you look at purely the vision Brooke had for this shoot, you can see that side by side, the camera and lens choice had little significant difference in the end result we see on our screens. Brooke obviously uses Photoshop to realize her creative vision, so of course both images have been post processed. If anything, this adds weight to the fact that it’s not your gear, but how you envision your end product, and – in this instance – the impact that post processing work can have on your final image, that means we should pay even less attention to the gear we are using.

Because Brooke exemplifies the rationale that it’s creativity and your vision over your gear, she provides an excellent example here for those of us that might be worried we are holding ourselves back because we don’t have ‘that lens’ or ‘that camera body’.

How To Overcome G.A.S 

For those out there still wandering how they can break the GAS cycle, I came across this great little blog post by photographer Olivier Duong who talks about his struggle with GAS and how he became to overcome it.

Final Thoughts

We should know how to use each and every piece of equipment inside and out so that it doesn’t impede the process of creating the visual image we have in our mind’s eye. At some point however, we can go too far, believing it is our gear that holds us back. Brooke summarizes everything beautifully at the end of her blog post:

There is always something better, something to reach for, something that looks shiny and new and amazing. And it very well might be something worth working towards. But never let that stop you from creating in the here and now. Never let the next amazing camera be the reason you don’t take a picture, or the excuse for delay. Let it be a goal that you work towards, all the while fulfilling your creative spirit with whatever camera you have right now.

There is no greater tool than your imagination – embrace it, create with it, nurture it, and share it. Be inspired by it.

Do you find yourself suffering from a need to constantly acquire gear? Have you got any insights you could share that successfully put you back in control of your gear acquisition habit? Please share your thoughts in the comments below, we’d love to hear what you guys think.

Image Credits [Brooke Shaden]


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Rich Meade's picture

Great Article...
My favorite new toy is a Canon EOS-M, been keeping people on their toes because they can't tell whether my shots are with my 5d3 or the M.

David Geffin's picture

thanks Rich - got a link to what you've shot with the M? Just curious to see what it looks like, not seen anything shot on it

Rich Meade's picture

Yeah I love it, I'm getting more into lifestyle and its coming really handy for the more casual situations.
I've got an album on my FB dedicated to it.

It wasn't that long ago that I was still shooting with Rebels (switched when the 5d3 came out), and the EOS-m has the same internal architecture as the T3i (I was using the T2i), the pixel count is even identical. So I'm really familiar with the files and the quality. The only thing I would change is the noise levels (but I'm spoiled with the 5d3).

Jonas Karlsson's picture

ive gotten a fair share of peace of mind from people who continues to shoot with their 1.8 primes even after theyve gotten so good that the 1.2/1.4 options wouldnt hurt their wallet much.

When i had my first aps-c canon and its 18-55 i got onto flickr.com and saw all the pictures in the 50/1.8 group. Wow, nice etc. Bought one. Really nice.

Started looking into the 50/1.4 group. All the pictures where so much nicer. The light, the bokeh, wow.

Had a look into the 50/1.2 group. Oh my god. The light. The people were so good looking. The shoots quality got from good looking into professional looking.

But all along you had these "morons". They were rare but they had the bad habit of taking amazing pictures with the lenses i already had.
I remember how offensive it felt when they uploaded their pictures to flickr with their exif's included.
They took amazing pictures. Much better with their 35/2 lens then i had seen in the 35/1.4 gallery.
Made me realize the finer elements of photography.
Im much more sensitive to facial expressions etc today due to this.

David Geffin's picture

"But all along you had these "morons". They were rare but they had the bad habit of taking amazing pictures with the lenses i already had."

haha what a great way of putting it :)

Jeff's picture

I see the same thing with my blogging. I have upgraded my keyboard again and again and currently use a Logitech DiNovo Edge ($299 amazon) and some smart guy with an old $10 IBM keyboard comes along and writes a better post!

Maybe I should go back to analog... Smith Corona typewriter, carbon paper, and then scan my posts... Does Adobe offer OCR conversion software?

Anders Petersen's picture

Yes, I could tell which one was which instantly. The DSLR one has sever posterization around the branches where the highlights have been butchered with curves, while the P&amp;S one does not because the blur was added in post (not dof). The DSLR shot has too much sharpening, probably to make up for the shallow dof and z-axis blur, while the P&amp;S one only has xy-axis blur.

I suppose the article briefly mentions it, but it's worth elaborating: Most people learn about gear to take pictures. But I'm an engineer, so I take pictures to learn about the gear. I push gear and processing to extremes not because I have some creative vision I want to fulfill, but because I want to experiment and see what happens.

Why wouldn't you want to shoot a 100Mpix 30EV nighttime cityscape?

Also, someone tell me if they have a P&amp;S with 110 to 5 degree fov range, with fast autofocus, 18+Mp, at least decent ISO800 performance, and &lt;1px radius chromatic abberation.

DeathNTexas's picture

You are correct, and you make the point of the article for them.

If you are interested in the technicality of the image, then you want images produced in the most technically advanced way by the most technically advanced equipment. Right tool:Right job.

However, most people who don't spend their waking hours studying image making don't respond that way to an image. Their response is emotional. And, although a finely detailed print (100Mpix 30EV nighttime cityscape) can create an emotional response, it is not always necessary or even preferred.

Sometimes we photographers forget that the audience is not always other photographers, but people who don't care— and shouldn't care— about the more technical aspects of image making. The average person will not notice technical artifacts of an image. The average person doesn't even calibrate their monitor, so they may not even be able to see them. I know it may be hard to believe, but to the average person, those two photos are completely identical.

Patrick Downs's picture

Average. To the average music listener, hearing a song via a compressed file on an iPod etc, via a Bluetooth mono speaker or earbuds (Dr. Dré crap), sounds "good" because our standards have diminished. If you play the same track for them on my modest (and vintage) hi-fi with pure 200 w/ch amp via passive line stage and good speakers, they would be blown away. It would be like a live performance by comparison. Analogy: like looking at a scene though dirty windows vs. binoculars. It's all relative, and all about the dynamic range and detail. An iPhone shot seen on a laptop can look brilliant. The same shot done with a D800, processed and printed well at 20x30, will blow away anything you can get from the iP or most P&amp;Ss. The size of the camera isn't the criteria though. In the film days, a small Leica with a prime lens could make images that were arguably superior to most anything shot with the equivalent SLR, because of the glass. Today, it's still about the glass, and also now about the file the camera produces. What you do in Photoshop is another issue.

David Geffin's picture

that's basically the point i was trying to make in this piece, glad someone got it DnT :)

Graham Marley's picture

My rule is, don't buy something JUST because you hear it's a good piece of kit. Figure out what you want to be doing, specifically, in a way that you can articulate to yourself beyond "better quality" and then find gear that can do that job. After a few years of shooting, I decided what would get me the looks that I wanted under the circumstances I shoot was a body with great AF and 4 or 5 fast primes, and some lights. That's what I got, and I'm happy. If i was doing other things, I'd want other gear.

DeathNTexas's picture

So true. I always advise my students to start out basic and add to it once they find out they can't do what they are trying to do. In other words, add only what you need rather than buying gear hoping to one day have a need for it— let your vision create the technical need, not the other way around.

Having said that, knowing advanced gear can be helpful. To this day, I have a hard time using my semi-auto modes (aperture/shutter priority, auto metering, etc) simply because for years I used nothing but manual everything cameras. There are times when taking advantage of the full technical capabilities of my camera would be useful, but it is a skill I still haven't developed.

JJWC's picture

General statements that gear doesn't matter is misleading at best. As with any tool it really depends on what you are using it for. For the type of photography shown in this article I completely agree that the gear doesn't make a huge difference as the portrait was post processed to death. When Fstoppers did the iPhone photo shoot piece it was based on "studio" portrait photography, a genre where lighting and post plays a much larger role. For the people who claim that gear doesn't matter try shooting professional sports, BIF, weddings, an African safari, etc. with your Canon S95 and let me know how that works out for you. Joey L. might have started with that Olympus but it certainly doesn't hold a candle to the PhaseOne that he currently uses for his large exhibition pieces. The bottom line is that you need to choose the right gear for what you are shooting. Perhaps the author of this article also believes Phil Schiller's claim that, in additional equipment, you don't even need to learn photography to improve as you can just buy an iPhone 5s.

David Geffin's picture

you are absolutely right - hence the right tools/right job stuff i added. I do agree with your point - the tech is becoming more accessible, more technically capable and cheaper to the point where we have more capability to shoot more genres with less/cheaper gear.

eric smith's picture

So basically what I got out of the article is that the most important aspect of photography is the version of PS you have and your technical and creative prowess with it.
The lines between "photography" and digital art become more and more blurred all the time...
When an photograph [in general] has been so manipulated in post that it doesn't even really look like a photograph anymore (an rather CGI), is it still a photograph?

Lukas Prochazka's picture

I have to agree with you because good photographer shouldnt just make a good picture only in PS....but what is photography? you mean that picture the camera sets a hue and saturation and sharpening the same tones for millions of photos, dont let camera to show you how should picture look like, well idk if thats ok or on this is just my opinion ...peace

grubbynumber's picture

Using Brooke Shaden as a comparison for digital photographers is incredibly weak.
Her formulaic images contain layers of textures, vignettes, paintbrush, curve
adjustments and numerous other elements.

Let's see this article compare a pro who shoots untouched landscapes etc and then we WILL see why this article is pretentious nonsense.

DeathNTexas's picture

Who shoots un-retouched landscapes?

The point you are making is valid; The more towards "straight photography"/less interpretative you go, the more important the camera/recording medium is. That has always been true. However, you are being dismissive of the entire genre of art photography, both modern and historically speaking.

And implying Brooke Shaden is not a pro is insulting. She is a professional photographer, just not a commercial photographer.

UNIQ.images's picture

Brooke Shaden makes more off of her Fine Art prints then grubbynumber will ever see in his life...

Patrick Downs's picture

Thomas Kincaid, a/k/a "Painter of Light", made a fortune off of cheesy clichés. So?

Leif Photoshopt's picture

Friends of mine and me shot using our mid-class DSLRs and our phones as lighting. Even without post this already looked like some upper class lighting gear :) See yourself:


grubbynumber's picture


Alain Davreux's picture


This article is quite misleading in my opinion, especially the 3500-600USD comparison. Please let me explain why.

First of all, yes you can do fantastic photography without too much money. It's about having fun shooting and meaning of your images first and foremost. Don't focus too much on gear.

That being said, making efforts to have an image and choosing the wrong tool to do it is a mistake imho :

- the compact has poor image quality, this can been seen without efforts even if the images are web-sized and retouched

- the compact limits greatly the creativity by offering only high DOF option, so if you want to blur the trees a bit that is not possible

- 600USD for a compact ? 3500 USD for an SLR ? what kind of poor choice is that ? an entry level DSLR (ex 550D or even the 350USD EOS M) plus a sigma 50mm f1.4 would cost you close to the P&amp;S (with a better quality than the Sigma 24mm delivered).

Would I take my 1Dx and 85II f1.2 to shoot that image ? Yes, because that's the gear I have at hand, but the EOS M and Sigma 50mm would make almost the same image at a much better cost.

You are only going to make each image once. Read that again : just once. Don't let one aspect ruin your efforts, don't pick an ugly background, don't shoot when the light is ugly, don't pick up the wrong lens (and, less importantly, camera), stay away from costly P&amp;S with tiny sensors and dark lens.

And most of all make it meaningful, make it fun, make it beautiful.


DeathNTexas's picture

You bring up a good point: Price has almost nothing to do with technical abilities.

I know why the author included the prices— to try to differentiate between the camera's "quality"— but that is a trap so many people fall into. As your rightly point out, the difference between the abilities of a lower and higher cost Dslr will be less pronounced than those of a Dslr and a P&amp;S.

I think bringing in the price points muddles the point somewhat.

Your point about the poor image quality is only valid if you are talking about an audience that cares. In this context, with this audience, everyone will pay attention to it, but the average person would not even notice that and would only go on an emotional response to the image without any kind of analysis. Te average person will always be able to tell you how they feel about an image, but they seldom have any idea why.

Alain Davreux's picture

I fully agree but would point out one thing : if the average audience does not see the difference, does it still means you should set the technical (not artistic, your point is well taken) bar at that level ?

People who matter for your photography (ex peers who you ask for advice) would probably notice, and you do not want to disappoint.

Yourself, becoming a better photographer will notice when you look back a couple years of work (that's why I wrote : you only take a photo once, so make it count).

And even the general audience, what will they say when they will all have 4K tablets in a few years ? The level rises, eyes get educated, don't start by being late (when it is easy and cheap to get better gear for almost the same price, I am not saying to go top of the line).

Finally I can also add that having poor gear like a P&amp;S will also drive you to modify the files quite a lot on the computer to make them look better. But with an APS-C sensor and a good 50mm, you get better control on what you are doing. I shoot neutral settings and almost do zero retouching, because I am extremely careful during shooting, and I believe that leads to better images. I am not asking everybody to do the same but I believe you need to learn to get the shoot right in the first place.

So, I would not compromise much on image quality. P&amp;S are bad. Buy some good lens !


EnticingHavoc's picture

Such articles are annoying insofar as they just scratch on the surface of the topic. While it's true that even a smartphone can deliver stunning images the majority of photographic assignments can't be dealt with by wielding a P&amp;S in the most fierce manner.

That much sounds like telling a painter that purchasing a $10 kiddy painting kit at Wallmart will be sufficient for most painting tasks. Decent reliable quality gear is one of the basic staples of a successful photographer.

The above mentioned example of the girl in the woods is so poorly chosen that it makes me cringe. While the DSLR provides me with a super flexible RAW file that enables me to go wild in post, the boorish P&amp;S gives me a JPG with a measly 8 bit color depth with almost no headroom for further processing.

marvinhagemeister's picture

I agree. As much as I tell everyone that gear is not important to get a good photo, it is kinda crucial if you do much in post. Especially in black and white images, where I have a more "destructive" workflow and tend to play a lot with curves.

Of course I love working with better tools. Who doesn't? Better gear makes my job easier and saves me time. The thing is that in the end photography is a form of art. It's not about the numbers but about expressing something with images, whatever that may be. I'd take a good photo taken on a crappy camera any day instead of a boring but technically perfect shot.

Karl Shreeves's picture

I don't think Dave was suggesting that compact is as good as a DSLR for a pro. The point I got was that the overall vision was the same; ie the artistic quality, not the technical quality.

Another symptom of wrong gear focus is that you force all your images to be ones that le t you use your new toy (and I don't mean intentionally shooting to learn how to master a particular tool -- that is part of your art). I fall into this now and again. I have to remind myself to envision the shot, then use what it takes to get it. If i constantly hit the same technical wall, it is time to think about a technical solution, but only then,


Carsten Schlipf's picture

Very true! I've bought an ultrawide lense and suddenly 50% of my photos were taken with that lense. Then I've bought a 70-200mm lense, and I was looking for images, where I am able to use that lense.

But I think that's perfectly normal: You buy new gear and you want to try it out and learn how to work with it. Good thing is that (at least for me) these phases are short lived. However that's another reason for not buying new gear within short time frames.

Travis Dewitz's picture

Can I tell the difference. Yes. There is a great difference between those photos. I think the point of the article is great but once you leave the armature stage of photography, you can spot all of the differences between those images. If I can see them now, I can't image what you would see at a 100% crop.


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