The Writings

Finally Answering The Age-Old Debate: Is It the Gear? Or the Photographer?


There has always been, and perhaps always will be, a fixation on the latest and greatest gear. And there always has been, and perhaps always will be, a debate between photographers about the difference one’s photographic equipment makes in generating quality images. Personally, I think it’s a matter of one’s skill and photographic eye that creates the stunning images we see, but top-notch equipment certainly doesn’t hurt. So, which is more important? The photographer? Or the gear?

When a photographer is just starting out, the equipment is usually something more simplified. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, which is good for any beginner, since you don’t want to overcomplicate things. Attempting to grasp basic photographic concepts is the key to building a solid foundation, and success at this level is establishing a basic understanding of one’s equipment.

However, that still doesn’t stop these folks from coveting their neighbor’s better-quality gear. Gee, it sure would be nice to have that fancier DSLR or that fancier lens! THEN my photos would look a BAJILLION TIMES BETTER! Or so goes the reasoning. They see the professional photographers - or even astounding hobbyists like Thomas Hawk - creating beautiful pieces of art and want to replicate that into their own portfolios.

So, they figure out which cameras, lenses, lights, and accessories their photographic heroes own and go out and purchase them all. Because THIS is the missing link between where they are now and where they ultimately want to end up: the equipment. Rather than mastering the gear they currently own, to this stage in one’s photographic career, it boils down to having the better gear.

And then one of two things happens: the photographer begins to master this device and is able to accurately and creatively express their unique vision. OR, more likely and more often than not, the quality in their work suffers. The photos are dull, lacking any form of expression, to the point where they would be better off shooting with an old point-and-shoot.

Meanwhile, other photographers are quick to mock these folks for their lack of knowledge or even inferior equipment. Because THEY invested more money into better gear than these folks did, THAT is the reason their images are coming out far better.

But what leads to this spiral? Why is it that some photographers are able to shoot amazing images that these others are unable to achieve with the same gear? I think it comes down to one simple concept: they lack a clear vision, missing the entire point of photography in the first place.

Photography is not a muscle-flexing contest about whose camera cost more. Photography is about being able to tell your story and share your view of the world with the world.

When I started out, I got a Sony Alpha 200. It was a great, basic camera that had essentially Minolta glass (after Sony bought them out) and I got some good photos out of it. At the time, people would ask what I shoot with, and when they learned it wasn’t one of the big two, they scoffed.

“Really? Not a Canon or Nikon? Why?!” they’d exclaim, astonished.

Because the point of creating photos isn’t about having the best camera; it’s about knowing your camera, no matter what camera that may be. Film, digital, even an iPhone... whatever your medium, as long as you’re able to express your vision and who you are as an artist, it shouldn’t matter.

I tell this story every time, and I’ll share it again. My friend, Alicia Griffin, who is a podcast alum, by the way, had a Canon Rebel which she used on a lot of her food shoots when she first began. She shot Chef George’s and Wolfgang Puck’s The Source with this camera and generated gorgeous shots of their food.

After excitedly announcing on Facebook and Twitter that she had picked up a Canon 7D, she received COUNTLESS inquiries about her old camera and whether she was selling it or not. People wanted her camera because they thought that, since she was able to produce amazing works with it, that THAT camera held the magic formula inside it to take great pictures. They would buy the exact same camera model - or even those fancier DSLRs - and for some astonishing reason, their photos never came out as great as hers! Shocking.

The explanation is quite simple: it’s not a matter of WHAT equipment you own; as long as you know how to use it. It’s just that easy of a concept, people.

Julie uses film cameras, and I have used film, digital, and even iPhones. At the end of the day, I understand what I want to photograph and how I am going to go about expressing that vision. Granted, it’s not to say that should a 5D Mark III drop into my lap, I’d turn it down - you bet your sweet ass I’d happily accept it. However, it comes down to understanding the equipment I currently have to create the photos I want to make.

“But Patrick,” I can feel you snarkily and arrogantly ask, “if that’s the case, why do you rent a 24-70mm lens when you go on shoots? Why not stick with what you already own, if it’s all a matter of understanding your equipment like you say!”

Oh, you want to play that game? Alright, let’s play.

The reason is also simple: I understand the strengths of my equipment, which means I also understand the WEAKNESSES of my equipment. While I like the 7D because of its ability to have a faster frame rate than the 5D, which is great for sports, I also understand that it’s going to require one heck of a lens that can handle, say, the terrible lighting conditions of a dark and seedy concert venue. The lenses I currently own won’t achieve my vision, which is why I pick up a better lens.

Understanding your equipment is about understanding both its strengths AND weaknesses, and being able to capitalize on its strengths (such as the 7D’s fast frame rate) and its weaknesses (such as the 7D’s less-powerful light sensor and lesser image quality). At the end of the day, however, as long as I’m able to create the images I want to create while simultaneously pleasing my client and meeting their needs, I say mission: accomplished.

You can brag about whatever camera you have, and if it makes you feel better about yourself, then good for you. But at the end of the day, it comes down to being able to use what you have as a means of expression. It’s not a dick-measuring contest. It’s an art.

Until next time,

- Patrick