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.

Fstoppers_Davidgeffin_Brookeshaden_GAS_gear_ebayauction
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]

77 Comments

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Previous comments

The article is telling something different from what we see on pictures. I can't judge the sharpness and resolution differences (as the images are down scaled), but one must be blind not to see that the upper image is S95. Dynamic range, color depth, JPEG files...

GEAR IS AS MUCH IMPORTANT AS TECHNIQUE! :)

try to grab focus at -2+ ev on the bride dancing with the s95

Rich Meade's picture

Maybe, but my audience pays me very well ;)

Actually there is a huge difference between those shots and I found it noticeable without trying. That said I do understand the point you're trying to make and to an extent I agree. I have a very simple rule that applies to all technology I buy (not just photography gear). Can I list off the reasons I need it and how it will benefit MY work? If the answer is yes, and I have 3 or 4 definitive reasons the gear will help my work (whether it makes it better or faster) then it's worth the investment. If I can't, I don't buy. This is why I stuck with the D300 until I acquired the D800 - how many models were there between them? Well there was the D3, D4, D600, D700 at least - but none of them could I justify with a solid list. But with the D800 I knew exactly which things would help MY work, so it justified the upgrade. People love gear, but if you don't know whether and why you need it you're just throwing your money away. But if you do, then it's a tool that helps your work. No roofer is going to turn down a nail gun just because he can roof a house with a hammer.

Brooke sums it up beautifully!

Randy Curtis jr's picture

What a great way to start the day , thanks for this one it has really inspired me to keep pushing. You must have long term goals, so as not to be distracted by short term failures.

lol... let's see some prints at a SMALL size, like say 8x10.
No, it doesn't matter as much, for an instagram post.

Some people actually make prints and DON'T degrade our images for "creative" purposes (or to hide the poor quality of the image); so this is pretty ridiculous... She has this very disclaimer in the article.
I'm a photographer foremost, not an editor or a "digital artist" like Brooke here. This is more in that direction, the digital artists and photoshop workers, but this is more like a "photo based artist" than it is a "photographer".

Your gear doesn't hold you back, your mindset does.
If you're dumb enough to believe you can cook better with a high quality pan, then by all means, go on and buy the pan... buy all the great tools and knock yourself out.

The first image looks to be the DSLR one... seems sharper and more detailed..

Articles like this will always attract resistance from a lot of photogs. Although that Brooke Shaden example could have been done better, it does prove the point: lack of skills and imagination will always be a greater hindrance than gear.

If you were taking horrible pictures with an entry level DSLR, there's no indication that you'll do better with a $3000 one... And when I see photogs jump from one expensive kit to the newest and more expensive one with no noticeable improvement to their work, I cringe and automatically think they have G.A.S.

For me, I can care less about gears as long as what I have does the job without breaking my bank account. I've been shooting Pentax since I started 4 years ago and have been able to keep my kit down to just 2 prime lenses. Never once do I feel like my lack of gears is limiting what I can achieve.

Best,
Ed
http://edmaximus.com

I think that kind of post that inspire people like me - amateur - to continue photographing. Pretty cool, congratulations.

Brook's two images have huge differences. It's really easy to see a loss in quality on the details and large pixelated spots int he skies of the point and shoot version vs the pro set up. The general idea of the article is in a good spirit but I feel the examples and blanket statements are very misleading and biased. Yes you can create cool images with point and shoots, but yes they are limited. Anyone with a technical understanding of cameras can't deny that. Having more gear (if you can afford it) doesn't make it harder to focus or be creative, does having more paint colors cause an oil painter to become uninspired?

I've heard so many times from my acquaintances (can't say they're 'friends') that whine about the very same subject, 'can't shoot/produce good pictures, because I don't have nice gears...'

I've thought about this in my spare time, and I came to a conclusion, that there is more reasons to be stuck in 'GAS' state, that is one, or a combination of these things:

- Marketing campaign. Camera brands are always producing new gears, and saying nice things about their gears. This one can produce sharper image, that one can shoot better in low light, those ones can do the dishes, etc. This is normal of course, because as manufacturers, their mission is to sell their products as much as they can. Too bad, there are so many people got 'sucked' by their advertising campaign. Again, their advertisings are not false, but, like the article stated, 'do we really need it?'

- Laziness. This, in my humble opinion, is the most disgusting cause of all. Most of the whining people I've heard were too lazy to do things. Too lazy to set up a good photoshoot, too lazy to read photography articles and behind-the-scenes, too lazy (or prideful) to ask someone who knows more than they do, etc. Don't get me wrong, I'm a lazy donkey myself, but at least I'm fully aware that laziness won't get me anywhere. When I'm too lazy to shoot/set up a good photoshoot, I know for sure there's no chance in heck I'd get good pictures. The ones that disgust me are the ones that are too lazy, produce bad or 'mediocre' pictures, and proceed to the next step, which is:

- Blaming things. Long before they realize, and (possibly) blaming themselves (their lack of skills, or knowledge, or creativity) for their bad/mediocre pictures, they would find 1000 other things to blame. Lens not good enough, camera body not expensive enough, camera bag too small, tripod only have three legs, forests don't have electric outlets, sky is blue, etc. One of the easiest way is to blame the gears. 'What? My picture's bad? You don't like my picture? You must understand, I don't have nice gears like yours.....' While this expression can be true to some extent, there are far too many that use this expression to blame their gears for not being able to shoot good pictures

- Prestige. This is also becoming more and more common. More and more people would buy latest and most expensive (limited by their wallet, of course) gears they can get their hands on, for this reason: prestige. To some people I know, it's more prestigious to have expensive gears, then to have the ability to shoot good pictures....

Right on, I'm just beginning to control my GAS for a lot of reasons, mainly because I've become a breast cancer husband and my photography priorities and values have changed as my time is limited and I feel more like the great photographer James Fee.

Edward Porter's picture

The funny thing about mentioning Joey L is that he now primarily shoots with a Phase One medium format camera with Kino Flo lighting. When asked a few months ago about gear making a difference, he absolutely agrees that it can.

I think the only tragedy to gear lust is not using the gear you purchase.

The price difference keeps climbing in the telling. Like the fish keeps getting bigger. I don't know where you guys shop, but you should look for better deals on cameras and lenses.

you can also find the best camera reviews from here http://www.bestcamerabrand.net

Wonderful article! After years of using Hasselblads, Phase One, Leaf, 4x5 film, 120 film and DSLR's my main camera (now that I concentrate on fine art) is a 1971 Polaroid 450 with Fuji instant film. Nothing wrong with the aforementioned cameras-they're great. I get what I need artistically with the Polaroid.

Wonderful article. I've used Hasselblads, Phase One, Leaf, DSLR's, 4x5 film, 120 film and 35mm film over the years. They're all great. Concentrating on fine art now, my main camera is a 1971 Polaroid 450 with Fuji instant film and the irrepressible iPhone lol!

This was an excellent article. I work at a camera store where I live and almost daily people come in wanting a camera that takes better pictures. I should print this article out and give them a copy of it to knock some sense into them.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/photocontest/6th-annual/6th-natural-4.html...

Here is a link to a photo I took back in 2006. My Mom found out about the photo contest that Smithsonian Magazine holds every year. I submitted a handful of photos in 2008 and come to find out months later that my starfish photo won first place in the Natural World category. Today, I own several DSLR's and the lenses to follow. Back then in 2006 when I took the starfish photo I didn't have that equipment. I had Canon Powershot SD110. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=648038919669&amp;set=a.637785178...

As Chase Jarvis states "The best camera is the one that's with you." People get all hyped up about my 5D MK3 is better than your D800 and my Nikon lens is better than your Tamron lens. Equipment is equipment. Creativity and ideas and the drive will get you the shot you want with the tools that you have.

Gabriele Correddu's picture

Well, I'll admit I am one to think about gear. The truth is that, sometimes, you will face technical difficulties, with focusing performances, with dof, with ISO performance (even though it's not my case, but...), with sharpness, bokeh, or width of angle. With color rendition.

I, for once, shoot with my good ole' Niko D5100, and I love it! I know my camera, I know my lenses of choice (18-55 kit lens and 50mm F/1.8G), but I do know their limitations - well as their strenghts.

Some time ago, I got to shoot a couple of portraits with a friend's Nikon D800. I had a bit of trouble using some of the features (I know what they are, but when you're not used to them, you'll eventually get a bit lost). Once I got my mind over some lil tricks I wanted to try out, I noticed that using a new camera was both awkward and fabulous. But what I noticed more were final results. Using my 50mm, I got such a detail, a depth of field and colors I could have only dreamt with my D5100.

I am one guy to use Photoshop quite a bit, if necessary, but I'm no master, nor postproduction freak. I recognize that if you're not a good photographer, good gear won't make you one. But if you're one, or at least try hard, well... It could.

Maybe it's just me, but it's blatantly obvious which one of those is the DSLR and which is the point and shoot... The point and shoot photos are softer, have less vibrancy in the colors and don't have anywhere close to as much detail as the DSLR does... I mean, I get what you guys are trying to say and I agree, to an extent, but the images used to portray this thought are kind of disappointing, especially considering you could buy an entry-level DSLR for the price of the Canon point and shoot used here and get results that are MUCH closer to the 5D's images.

There are two answers I think, regarding the question "Does the gear matter?":

Short one: It depends.

Long one: Let the mission define the gear, rather than the gear define the mission. Duh, but I'll give examples.

There are plenty of analogous examples. I hunt, and I can tell you I know guys who have one rifle, maybe a 40 year old Winchester that is beaten to crap cosmetically but cared for, and accurate and (Listen up here!) - they know how to use it and how to hunt. Some of these guys have taken home 10X more game than all the guys with their $5000 custom "safe queen" rifles. "Beware the man with one gun" the saying goes, if he knows how to really hunt. The gun is just the tool. Not 100% applicable to photography, because one camera and lens will rarely do everything in many cases. BUT- one doesn't need a closet full of gear either. I also knew wealthy guys who had every Leica and Hasselblad under the sun, and were terrible photographers. The nickname for them is "gear queers." (Don't go all PC and bash me for that comment).

There are internationally award-winning photojournalists using P&amp;S cameras primarily, because they are working in very adverse conditions and having 3-4 of them means when one quits they have spares and they'll all fit in a small bag or backpack for working on the run (literally). Tyler Hicks did some great work in Afghanistan for NY Times using the iPhone. OTOH, photojournalist Tim Hetherington (RIP) did amazing work in Liberia during the civil war, often with a Hasselblad. His choice, both are right. Sometimes a small camera works ... there has been amazing, historically profound work done with a Leica M and 2 lenses, 28/35 and 50mm only. I could take a Fuji EX with 2-3 lenses, a waterproof P&amp;S that shoots RAW, and a GoPro and cover most stories.

Do you need maximum resolution and IQ for commercial clients or gallery prints? You might need a D800/5DMkIII or the like, or a medium format with PhaseOne back. Do you publish only on the web? A Canon Gxx or Nikon 5200, Fuji EX, Sony whatever, and zoom might be fine if you shoot RAW (which is essential imho).

In the film days, the camera was just the box and the glass was what mattered. The sensor was the film. My Leica Ms produced images superior to any SLR, because of the glass. A Mamiya 6 or 7 produced images better than anything in 35mm or sometimes than even the Hasselblad/Mamiya RZ (nominally, or in some cases), because of the glass. If you wanted best quality, you picked the largest film size you could work or that was applicable (i.e., not 4x5 for sports usually) and the best glass. The film was what it was ... worked the same in every camera. Now the sensor matters as much as the glass in many cases. Now, post production for SOME photographers, as illustrated in this piece, is arguably as important or more so to the final image as the camera/lens.

I work with full frame dSLRs (and my backpack is a heavy pain in the arse!) because I don't like the small viewfinder of DX crops cameras, and I used film SLRs for 30 years. It's what I know, what is comfortable. I also used Leica rangefinders for decades and miss them, and want the Fuji X/EX/X100s to be able to shoot the way I did with my Leicas ... discreetly with a small non-intimidating camera I can carry everywhere easily. I also used Hasselblads for decades, loved them for portraits, and would love to have a PhaseOne med. format camera/back if I could afford one. Can't, so I have a D800 and the quality BLOWS my mind. There is NO point and shoot or small camera on the planet that can compare with its IQ, for resolution, detail, dynamic range etc. Large prints knock me out ... If you saw a print of this you'd think it was shot on 6X7, an RZ, or even 4X5. http://patrickdowns.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Portraits/G0000jznsqn...

Do you need to see through the lens accurately? dSLR. Do you need 10 frames per second, and long glass, and high resolution, do you shoot in low light on moving subjects ... dSLR. Do you make large prints, and .... you get the picture. Sometimes, there's no substitute for fast glass and hi res sensors, fast and accurate AF, pro build (weatherproof/rugged) bodies, etc. Sports/photojournalism/wildlife photographers aren't gonna be able to do the job with even a high end P&amp;S, while a conceptual photographer who only needs a 24-85 or equivalent zoom, RAW, and live view might be fine with something less than a pro SLR or medium format. A Nikon 5200 and inexpensive zoom could be fine, and not much more than a high end P&amp;S, which might even work. Will it work with studio strobes and a CamRanger? (www.camranger.com) Do you work for hire? Image does matter, and if someone is paying you $3-5k to shoot a wedding, you'd better not show up with P&amp;S cameras ... same with commercial work. Sometimes, hip art directors are hiring photogs who have built a rep with the iPhone, but that's a trend I wouldn't bet on. It's novelty right now.

I shoot a lot in low light. often handheld, so having a 2.8 or faster zoom, or fast primes, is critical. $$$$. I shoot long lenses too so something that's fast in low light and has VR/IS is important. $$$$. Again, the right tool, for the job. I want a Fuji X100s with the f/2 lens, or EX, for when I want to go "unplugged" and work light and simple. The newest best EVFs are starting to amaze me and they'll be like an optical VF soon enough, and I am on the verge of thinking I can get used to that.

Fuji, Olympus, Panasonic, Sony ... they've seen the writing on the wall and are ahead of the curve in the next trend in cameras. dSLRS are big, heavy and more expensive to make than their non-SLR cameras. Nikon and Canon better catch up. EVFs will soon approach through-the-lens shooting and for younger photogs weaned on them, they won't feel alien. If one only needs superb 12X18 prints or even 16X24s, you can get that quality now from the M4/3s cameras and P&amp;Ss - maybe - and certainly from the APS-c sensors. Maybe they aren't equal to the D800, but that is overkill for many photogs. I am excited at the prospect of getting a Fuji X-Pro-1/XE and some superb primes and zooms, and being able to travel light. I LOVED doing that with my Leica Ms and felt freed by it. Sometimes working slow with the Hassy was my choice. Again, what do you want to do? There is no right answer, but you can buy a used D7000 or 6D and a few lenses today for $1500 and be able to do many many things well. I prefer my tack sharp 70-300VR Nikkor (which I paid $400 for) over my 70-200/2.8 ($2200) when I don't need 2.8 and don't want to carry that 2.8 brick around. The best glass does cost money, but sometimes if you don't need f/1.4 or 2.0 you can do well with slower lenses. That said, sometimes only something like a 17mm T/S lens or the 14-24/2.8 will do, and that rules out the P&amp;S and EVF cameras. Sometimes there are alternate workarounds, but not always.

Get a good tripod/head... one of the best investments you can make! Don't scrimp... Then you can use slower lenses if your subject isn't moving. Unless you want/need that wide-open bokeh! There's always a "but..."

Then we get into lighting gear, and that's another can of worms! :) I have about $5000 worth of pro lighting gear (some old, some new) which in some cases is essential. Sometimes, a $12 penlight is all you need, like this light-painted tabletop shot. http://patrickdowns.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Light-Painting/G0000c...

Again, let the mission define the gear. As Albert Einstein said: "things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler." I hope I didn't put anyone to sleep!

Try shooting a heron catching a fish with a point and shoot and then use a D4. That girl does what you tell her. Nature does not and it does not sit still. This article is strictly subject type based.

People who shoot birds calling other people boring? double lol.

Nursultan Tulyakbay's picture

Is anyone sick of these "gear doesn't matter" articles (and its not just you Fstoppers)? Every time some well known photographer shoots some campaign or other well publicized project on their iphone or point and shoot to prove to you that gear doesn't matter I want to vomit. Show me the throngs of professional working photographers that shoot every assignment with their iphones and I will eat my hat. Yes, all you need to make great photographs is a capture medium, photoshop and talent. If every assignment I had was not going to be printed, shot in perfect ambient light, I had unlimited time to shoot it and each client moved their deadlines around my schedule - I too would ditch the many thousands of dollars worth of gear and cut my cost of doing business dramatically. Do these photographers feel the need to justify themselves? I for one don't care that people have the perception that my gear makes my work. When they save up and buy a D800 and then can't do what I do - they figure it out for themselves.

Was out on a shoot today with a repeat customer, and they asked if I've picked up any new gear in the last year.
My answer kind of shocked them when I said 'nope, this hardware is still all perfectly in order, the only thing I did this year was have this lens serviced and cleaned....'
I guess that GAS is the expected norm for many photographers, but I've got a love affair going on with my now 5 year old bodies and lenses.
Yes, better High ISO performance would be nice, but realistically, the cost of just replacing bodies every couple years is absurd, and frankly, it's one less cost you can pass on to your clients.

It's pretty evident which image came out of which camera. However, let's leave it with this: use the tool that's appropriate for bringing your vision to the photograph.

My only issue is when I get to the point where I've reached the limits of my gear. One example is I shoot with a 70-200 2.8 non vr lens. I've loved it for the last few years, but I'm starting to get frustrated when shooting low light, as I shake a bit more than I used too and have issues with motion blur at times.

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