It’s Not About the Gear, but it Helps

2018-02-27T22:05:47+00:00

This photo was taken January 24, 1999, at Brasstown Bald, Georgia.

I’ve been a “photographer” since I was very young. I remember in my early teens I had a Kodak 110 Instamatic and was on a family trip to Ashland, Wisconsin. I wanted to take a photo of a long dock, and since it didn’t fit all into the frame, I took 2 photos — one on the right side of the dock and the other on the left side where it ended into Lake Superior.

I had just accidentally discovered the rule of thirds.

Composition has always come naturally to me, with my eyes always arranging nature (and un-nature) in groups or lines, or patterns. I think we all have this natural ability until we get older and fill our heads with other stuff we feel is more important.

You don’t need the latest gear, but then again, you do.

Since then, I’ve upgraded my equipment, constantly searching for more resolution, better features, dynamic range, etc. but I’ve never really changed much in the way I see the image I intend to capture. I look, I set it up in my mind, and that’s it. That part is free.

I’ve seen the article hundreds of times. Professional photographers with 100k followers on instagram, sponsorships from Canon, Nikon, Sony, and all the big names, are always saying the equipment doesn’t matter. They are saying that the gear doesn’t matter. These people really bug me, because gear does matter, it matters a lot. They can afford this gear, because that’s their career, that’s their need. They say the clients demand high quality and the most expensive equipment. They make lots of excuses.

They are wrong. High quality gear in photography is essential.

But there’s more to that statement. Just like a Lamborghini or F1 race car, if you don’t know how to use the gear, it’s a waste of money. I see people all the time spending their cash on the most expensive gear they can, and then it sits in their closet, unused, except for a few family snaps around the holidays. This drives me nuts.

As my career in photography progressed over the years, I bought new gear. I had a Pentax K1000 in college, I had a Ricoh XR-M, various Kodak digital cameras including the DC260, which I used to take this shot, one of my all time favorites.

The Kodak DC260 was ahead of its time. It was one of the first digital cameras suitable for professional work, and it came out at the time professional photographers scorned at digital and swore to never give up film. At 1.6 megapixels, 1536×1024, and 3x optical zoom, it wasn’t close to the same quality as film, but it was a digital camera with a decent lens, and stored 95 images on an 8mb card. You can even still but this on Amazon.com, with reviews going back to 1999.

But the DC260 did not make me a professional photographer. What made my photos great (or not-so-great) was my mastery of the image. How did it feel? How did it look? Did it tell a story? All of these things are critical to the quality of the image, much like a Picasso, or Dalí, but that’s not all there is.

Picasso, Dalí, and me?

Part of the story of the image, just like the Picasso, and just like the Dalí, is who made it. You probably don’t want to hear this, but your image is irrelevant except as a pretty picture unless there’s a story behind who made it. You are as important to the image as the image itself.

There are a few exceptions to this, like the weasel riding the woodpecker, like the photo-journalism great images that shifted public policy. These images are rare, and if you manage to catch one, congratulations. For the rest of us, we are stuck with our images in our computer, wondering if anyone cares. And for the most part, they don’t.

Instagram gets millions of photos uploaded a day. The last count was 95 million. Think about that for a moment. 95 million images and you think that your photo matters. It doesn’t. You matter. Here’s the equation if you need a visual.

You + photo = value.

Ok, you say, I get it. But how do I add value to… me?

Let’s fast forward to today. For the past few years I have been using Canon “pro-sumer” gear, specifically the Canon T5i, then the Canon 70D. These camera bodies are all crop sensors, and for various reasons not really good enough for commercial work, but in my mind I had a professional setup. I didn’t. It wasn’t. And my photos suffered.

The issue is not that these cameras can’t create good looking images, and if you have everything perfect — exposure, aperture, shutter speed, focus, there’s a chance you can get a top quality image. The problem is that all the effort in getting to the location, composition, waiting, and all the things necessary to make the image, is spent on a camera that just doesn’t create the quality of image necessary to join the club as a professional.

Before you jump on me for criticizing your camera choice, or point out that some pro photographer somewhere swears that gear doesn’t matter, and that he/she validates your choice of gear, hear me out. Maybe you don’t have enough cash to invest in gear and you don’t want someone telling you that you suck because you’re poor. That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Everyone takes great photos. That’s not the point.

I’m saying that the bar moves with every generation of camera sensor and camera body technology that comes out. These innovations push the bar higher so that, without new gear every few years, you will be left in the dust behind the professional photographers who coincidentally tell you gear doesn’t matter while they get the latest, greatest, highest quality gear and you don’t, because you don’t have an unlimited budget. You have a house, a family, a life, and you can’t shell out $5,000 on a camera just because it’s got more megapixels or better ISO sensitivity.

If you talk to some of these pro photographers, you’ll find that they need this new gear to compete, not just on quality and features, but compete with other photographers trying to get the same gig. They have to have the latest gear or they won’t get the job. All of this while they tell us that gear doesn’t matter.

Gear does matter, because the buyers also need to push the limits of photography to meet their needs, requiring photographers to upgrade their gear to meet these needs of the clients. Every time there’s a new innovation, it quickly becomes necessary to be able to meet these requirements.

Those special effects are not that special.

Think about the movie special effects industry. Remember in 2009 when Avatar came out? This raised the bar for everyone in the special effects industry and they nearly threw out all of their gear and upgraded. Moviegoers now demanded higher quality special effects. In a way, James Cameron ruined it for everyone. He does that a lot.

The same thing happens in the still image capture business. Remember when us photographers just took pictures? Now we all need to video, use drones, work social media, just to meet the demands of the client to hire us for something that may be completely unrelated.

If you live in a small town and there’s one photographer that does baby pictures, and that’s you? This doesn’t apply, but I’ll warn you — as soon as you get competition, and the new guy has 5,000 followers on Instagram, and a YouTube channel, and a website with prices lower that yours, you’re going to start to care.

Weddings, real estate, family reunions, and hospitality gigs have been changed forever because of the drone camera. Clients see this on their competitors web sites and ask if they can have one, too. Then they ask if you can do 4k videos, even if they can’t even see them. You need to deliver, or step aside for the new guy who has this gear.

There is no longer a place for the one camera, one lens photographer in the commercial world.

Lenses are the most important part of your gear.

Speaking of lenses, there isn’t the same type of innovation in lenses that there is in the camera bodies. A lens (as you know) is just a piece of glass in a tube that rotates for focus. Then lenses got aperture rings that rotate for the light. Then the technology slowed to a crawl until auto-aperture, then auto-focus, then full computer control of all of these, then stabilization, and finally different types of glass and coatings. There really isn’t a lot of innovation in the original idea that a lens is a piece of glass to focus the image onto the film (or sensor as we use them now) and that’s it.

For some reason camera companies keep updating their lenses, even though they use the same optical design, and trying to sell us new lenses every few years or so, even though nothing much has changed.

The irony here is that while we’ve established that the camera matters a great deal, the lens matters even more. If you have the latest camera and a slow, low quality lens, the camera no longer matters.

The camera matters. The lens matters. The gear matters. The photographer matters more.

It needs to be a closed loop. A bridge built only 95% of the way functions 0% of the time. It needs to be a complete loop. When buying a violin, a saxophone, or any classical instrument, you need to get the finest make you can get, or your sound will be horrible, regardless of your talent. Camera gear is the same way. You need high quality gear or your image quality will suffer, but if you don’t know how to use this gear, or you don’t have a personal story, the bridge doesn’t get to the other side.

There is some good news here, though. It’s called used gear. A used Stradivarius is going to give you the level of quality you need as a an artist but save you money in the long run because it’s been used before. Camera gear is the same. If you want professional gear, you can get used professional gear, get similar quality to the professional photographers, and build your skills, along with the personal story, and grow.

You don’t need to upgrade to the latest feature. Upgrade to better quality.

Don’t get sucked in by camera companies that say you need this brand new pro-sumer semi-pro camera because it has wifi, or bluetooth, or wireless charging, or whatever new feature they are pushing today. Go get a Canon 1D Mark II N for $90 and use those 8.2 megapixels like a pro. Get a used Canon 400mm f/5.6 for about $500 and you’ve got a professional level system for $600 that can get you a head start.

Build your story, make a website, get Instagram up and running and post daily. It’s all free. As I am writing this I’m getting hundreds of likes on my 1.6 megapixel photo that I took nearly 20 years ago with the Kodak DC260.

The gear does not make the photographer, but it helps.