Gear: Get Over It

I took part in the Photography Q&A Series right here on this blog a few weeks back and I’d like to start by sharing one of my answers. It was this answer that motivated this post today – I want to expand further on the idea of getting over a lust for photography gear. The question was:

“What’s the one single thing that has had the largest positive impact on your photography so far?”

My answer:

If you were asking me what has improved my actual photography though, as in, making photographs, I’d have to say that the one single thing to have improved me the most has been to just give up the gear obsession. It really is that simple.

By not obsessing with gear you free up your mind to focus on the craft. Rather than searching the internet for new lenses and figuring out what I was going to buy next and watching YouTube Reviews of the latest equipment. I instead found myself reading articles on vision, on business, on light, on technique and so much more. I learnt more about photography the moment I gave up this silly obsession with shiny lenses and the latest camera’s. Furthermore it saved me money too!

So many ‘photographers’ have all the gear, but in truth (and we all know this) the thing that separates us from Uncle Bob or the photographer-next-door is our vision and eye for light combined with a moment. WE are the difference. Not the gear. Sure, gear is important. The right lens for the right job and all that, but really, I think I’d be pretty confident to say that I could shoot a wedding or a portrait with less than full professional gear. The reason I say this is because camera’s and lenses are all of such a high quality now that you’d be amazed at what you can do with some of the lesser equipment. For example: remember that photograph of the great Muhammed Ali, knocking down Sonny Liston from back in 1965…what gear do you suppose Neil Leifer (the photographer who made the photograph) used for that photograph? He sure didn’t have auto focus, or an LCD screen to check out if it was all in the frame. The gear matters very little, you matter more than anything. That has been the biggest revelation to my photography. If you can give up an obsession with gear you will become a photographer unchained.

Get up and Fight!
Ali – Liston: Photograph by Neil Leifer

Some people may look at the above photograph and think very little of it. I mean sure the moment is very special (and the moment is of course arguably the most important element in a photograph, in addition to the light) but the reason some may not think much of it is because camera’s today have an ISO performance that photographers such as Neil Leifer could only have dreamed of when he made this photograph. Neil had to know exactly what he was doing with the gear he had. Capturing this photograph technically perfect with a D4 or a 1Dx would be arguably easier than the camera and lens (and film) that Neil was using. Hell, you could do this with a 5DIII, a 7D, some may say a 600D or an EOS M…the point being that almost no matter what you’re shooting with today it is you that will make the difference. Let me be clear I’m not saying your photograph will have the same substance and importance as Neil’s. What I am saying is that it would be easier to frame and compose a clean shot in the same way. The moment that Neil captured was because of his skill – not the camera.  (sorry for all the Canon mentions there, other camera manufacturers are available 🙂 )

You could put the worlds most capable camera into the hands of a trained gorilla. Is he likely to make a photograph of the calibre of Neil Leifer’s Ali vs Liston? I don’t think so.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that Neil Leifer or any photographer who knows how to use a film camera is instantly more talented than those photographers who have never used film. But do you think that if you were handed an old film camera such as a 35mm Olympus OM10 – would you be able to create a photograph as good as Neil’s? Would you be able to walk the streets of a city and still makes photographs on the fly?

We are in a fortunate position where camera’s today have so many features and functions to help us make a photograph. We shouldn’t believe for a second though that all these features and functions make up for what we as photographers may lack. It’s the same with so many other industries, from racing car drivers to brick laying: if you rely solely on the tools you’re fooling yourself – you need to have a practiced and honed skill. That, in ADDITION to the modern technological benefits will make you an even better photographer. Add your skill and craft to the features of these cameras, rather than just relying on the camera to do it all.

Diminishing Returns

A few weeks back the incredibly talented David DuChemin released a post titled ‘Towards Mastery. Again’ (read the full post here). I would like to share a paragraph from David’s post that really resonates with me. I read this and it really distilled into words the exact message I’ve been trying to share for quite some time. David said of photography gear:

In a few days, or so, I’ll publish some thoughts about my mirror-less experiment in Africa. This is the preamble: none of it will make you a better photographer. Collect all the gear you like. Gear’s good. And it’s necessary. But isn’t it possible we’ve passed the point of diminishing returns and our hunger for gear is outpacing our hunger for beauty, compelling stories, great light, and amazing moments?

‘Diminishing Returns’ were the words that really jumped out at me. “That’s what I mean” I thought to myself… (Thanks David!). It seems to me that so many photographers are obsessing with the next camera model up from the one they have, or that camera with a higher fps rate, or the low light performance. Whilst all of these things do make a difference, sure, you do reach a stage where you’re looking at a 2% improvement at the cost of £2,000. Are you really going to see a dramatic enough improvement in your photographs for £2,000 or more?

Why don’t we take that £2,000 and invest in training? Or even use the £2,000 to go somewhere more interesting to make more interesting photographs. If the camera is going to give you a 2% improvement then you could probably get the same 2% improvement or more from simple practice, from learning the craft and from training. You could spend a fraction of that money and learn lighting and to learn posing and so much more!

If you read this and think “But I already know lighting”, well your mind isn’t open enough. You can always learn more and you can always improve.

The current trend at the moment in the industry is the Micro Four Thirds system. Cameras such as the Fuji XT1 and X100s, the Olympus OM-D EM-1 and EM-5 and the Sony A7 and the A7r. Aside from the Sony’s these cameras aren’t full frame. They don’t have the world’s fastest fps performance. They’re not huge and they certainly don’t give the stereotypical look of a professional photographer. What they are however are highly capable camera’s, yet they certainly are not the best camera’s on the market in terms of their specs. So why is it that so many pro’s are flocking to these cameras? Why are so many people hailing these compact systems as the future and calling the death of DSLR’s?

Why is it that after years of chasing the holy grail that is the full frame DSLR with amazing low light performance that we’re now intentionally looking towards cameras with Micro Four Thirds sensors and APS-C sized sensors? It’s because the gear is not the most important thing. The craft, skill and technique is the most important. Whatever camera enables you to fulfill your creativity is the right camera, not necessarily the camera with the biggest sensor or the biggest selection of lenses.

If you’re a photographer starting out and your end-goal is to own a top of the line camera then I’m afraid that is an expensive, lost cause. Don’t get me wrong go for it if you want, some niche’s such as sports photography and the like warrant such cameras. That’s what they’re made for. But these cameras will be replaced every few years and the goal posts moved. Then what do you do? Where do you go from there? Do you buy the next latest camera and convince yourself again that having the best camera will make you an even better photographer? Surely that would suggest that the only time you will become better as a photographer is when the next iteration of your camera becomes available, right?

My advice if you’re in the first few years of your photography career is to get a camera, whatever that may be, stick with it, learn it inside out and know every button so well that you don’t have to pull away from the viewfinder to change the settings. Let your photography become instinctive. Look for the light and reach the limits of the gear you have. Then, when you feel like you can’t get any better with the gear you have – go on training or try something different. Don’t just look for a better camera. Learn the craft.

Join this discussion and more over in the Ready Steady Pro Facebook community.

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7 thoughts on “Gear: Get Over It

    • Thanks Dade. It really does doesn’t it.

      What I didn’t say in this post (I may have to go back and add it in) is that obviously the introduction of these mirrorless cameras is helping to level the playing field. Photographers can now proudly walk around with a micro four thirds or a camera with a crop sensor, rather than feeling inadequate if they have a crop sensor DSLR, which all seem to be just about the size and spec.

      I’m hoping this introduction is a big push of the reset button and things will move back towards craft. Fingers crossed gone are the days of “wow, that’s a great camera you have there! It must take amazing photographs”‘. Although…I doubt it 🙂

  1. I agree entirely with the article, but I’d like to add a slightly different slant to it. I actively pursued getting my gear to the best level I could afford (full frame, 2.8 lenses etc) for the sole reason that it did truly give me no more excuses not be shooting the best work I could. I’d always have a nagging doubt in the back of my head “if I had this” or “if I had that” but by reaching the end of the rainbow so to speak it sort of lays your photographic ability bare. You’re right that the gear isn’t important, but sometimes it helps with a mindset.

    I can’t say “if I just had full frame” anymore or “if I just had that 70-200” which I could use a crutch for not pushing my ability far enough. “It’s clearly the gear that’s lacking, not my ability” but when confronted with the best gear you can get, that crutch disappears and truly allows you to focus on the craft and getting better.

    Hopefully that makes sense!

    • I agree with what you’re saying Chris. I do. My fear with this though however is that it’s out of reach for a lot of people. A large majority of photographers, whether they’re working photographers or not, may struggle to reach the top end of the gear spectrum. Many photographers over stretch themselves and can get themselves into financial difficulty. My message here is that it’s fine to not have the highest end gear available, in fact, in many cases it’s overkill. I would argue that unless you’re a working photographer the idea of diminishing returns is amplified – you have to justify that £5k investment either with financial return or absolutely outstanding photographs.

      I think far too much

      I think both our approaches arrive at the same end acknowledgment, but we’re just going about it different ways. I think I’m just encouraging photographers to err on the side of caution. Photography can be all-consuming. Some people, unfortunately, will never have the same amount of innate creativity or skill in wielding a camera than others. For some no matter what gear they have they will reach a plateau. For those people a heavy investment would be unwise.

      I’m saying just get good first, forget about the gear and then you’ll see an immediate improvement. If that trend continues then upgrade as and when is appropriate.

      I know someone with a lot of gear who never uses it. She made huge investments whilst riding a crest of a wave and now it’s all gathering dust. I’d hate to see others in that situation.

  2. A good read Michael – straight out of ‘one camera one lens’.. My sentiments entirely as you know…Just a small point you mention 4/3 cameras Olympus etc… The Fuji doesn’t have a 4/3 sensor it has a 1.5 crop 16 Megapixel APS-C X-trans CMOS sensor, which produces a slightly larger file than a normal 1.5 CMOS ‘sensored’ camera ie Nikon D3200 and upward). This is due to its colour filter array which is slightly biased toward green ( ala Fuji Velvia -film/transparrency)…
    Although I know of many wedding photographers using the Olympus 4/3 system I know a lot more that use the Fuji because if this slightly larger sensor. As Zack Arias has said and I think I have to agree the large DSLR’s are dead!

    • Hey Paul,

      Thanks for taking the time to read. Yes, I’m aware the Fuji has an APS-C sensor. Paragraph 3rd from the end eludes to this when I say: “we’re now intentionally looking towards cameras with Micro Four Thirds sensors and APS-C sized sensors?”. It’s in this that I’m referring to both MFT systems and Fuji’s APS-C.

  3. Dear All, I agree with the point that so many photogs and especially photographers-enthusiasts are obsessed with the gear talk and new gear purchases. I decided to went through a learning path to buy a new equipment. After i reach a certain level where my gear limits me and my creativity then i am going to buy a new camera, lens etc.

    I live in China currently, and especially here people who are photography amateurs are focused on the gear race and buying a new equipment all the time. I am sure that all photographic equipment are beating sales records in Asia by so naive approach of their final users.

    Gear will not make you a better photographer, what’s really matter is your “EYE” and that how you perceive the world.

    Most of the Chinese photographers and photography enthusiasts ask me on what camera i used to take particular photograph… then i used to say: Nikon D70S.
    And i believe i do not need to explain shocking reaction on their faces…!

    I have Nikon D700 now, and it will take some long time until i will go to the next level as this camera provides me everything what i want!

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