One of the most cliché phrases about gear in photography is that it doesn’t matter. I think that’s a very big misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up. Sure, there are times gear doesn’t matter, but sometimes, it does matter and does have a direct impact on what you can produce.
Buckle up, let’s dive down the rabbit hole of the gear controversy. Most people who claim that gear doesn’t matter own high-end cameras and are full-time. I partially stand by that point; there are a lot of instances where the client really doesn’t care what you have: Nikon, Canon, or a 5x7 view camera. Although, if you show up with a 5x7 to a sports shoot, you will get a lot of looks. But that’s not the point. If we look at people who claim that gear matters, they often refer to one brand as being better than a different one, which itself is a huge topic. In this article, I will break down times when gear doesn't matter, but with a focus on times when it does.
When Is Gear Unimportant?
To really understand when gear does make a difference, let’s first clear up when it doesn’t. Most of the time, clients don’t care about the brand you use. Nor do the art directors. The brand photographers use to make their images is often a choice they made when first starting out. Take me as an example: I shoot Canon only because I started out with a Canon camera. Had it been Nikon or Sony, I would've been shooting with them. There are arguments about the lenses those brands make that I will discuss later on. But anyway, the same is with flash. Broncolor, Profoto, and Elinchrom all make excellent flashes that last decades. My flashes are all used, and I don’t have a problem with that because I can rely on the quality to take me through the most important jobs. Sure, if there’s a budget, I rent the packs, but even the older big-brand stuff is still incredible. The brand, be it Profoto or Broncolor, doesn't affect that at all. In a nutshell, the brand you choose to create your images, provided you’re happy with the quality and the brand itself, doesn't matter a bit.
Adding to that, the argument of Sony versus Canon or Nikon versus Sony is often based on pure spec-comparing. The equipment used to make images, most of the time, be it Canon or Sony, doesn’t matter. Just because a photographer shoots on Sony doesn’t make them a better photographer than that one who works with Nikon.
Tech Advancements Open Up More Possibilities
Photography is an art that is heavily tech-reliant. The world's best photographers have learned to embrace tech changes and adapt to new technology. If you’re about to write a comment saying that I didn’t adapt to change by not investing in a mirrorless camera, I suggest reading this article. In a nutshell, adapting to new technology is part of being open-minded. Openmindedness is a vital characteristic of an artist, which allows them to work with ideas and create work to brief.
Client Briefs and Commercial Jobs
The word brief is crucial to my next point. As tech advances, the briefs get more complicated. A few art directors mentioned to me that in the 80s, one could take a photo of a pretty girl and get fashion photography jobs. Now, the game is different. As technology advances, new creative possibilities open up. Harnessing those creative possibilities is a natural course of action. Just imagine how boring advertising would look without Photoshop or CGI. Being able to access gear that can provide the possibilities to respond to a client brief is crucial. Here’s a case study.
Suppose you were to get a job shooting for an active clothing brand that would showcase their new waterproof collection for outdoor sports. The brief would say something along the lines of having the model interact with water. As a photographer, I would imagine the model being splashed in one way or another.
To respond to this brief, I would need quite a lot of gear. First of all, a camera that is capable of capturing fast action. The 5DS will likely not work, as it is not the most action-suited camera. Alongside that, I will definitely need flash packs that are able to freeze splashes of water with their flash duration, something along the lines of the Profoto Pro-10 or the Broncolor Scoro. Now, those are expensive flash packs very few photographers own. The same goes for some cameras: they are rented when they are needed. Rental houses stock these products because gear matters in a lot of situations.
Gear Opens up Possibilities, but Do You Need Them?
But it matters, quite a lot, in a very unexpected way. It is not about the brand the gear is from, although most prefer to work with the same brand for convenience, it is about the creative possibilities that that gear offers. Saying that gear doesn’t matter, or the camera body doesn’t matter, or the flash does matter is often misleading, as it tends to show beginners that the gear they have should produce photos similar to the ones taken on a Phase One with huge crews and weeks of pre-production. The camera body, the lens, and pretty much everything else makes a difference. The difference is in what you can do with the gear.
That said, I don’t want this article to become an excuse to people looking to buy a new camera they’re excited to try out. If a piece of equipment offers new possibilities, it doesn’t mean that you need those possibilities. At a professional level, gear choices are often made to suit a particular style of work, not to cover all bases. A still life photographer doesn’t need a lens with good autofocus because most of the time they’re manually focusing. A sports photographer needs the best autofocus there is. It is impossible to cover all bases with a piece of gear. Being a professional about gear purchases is very important, as it not only saves money but also allows you to focus on the craft and creativity. I’d like to finish by saying that photography is an art form: the tools make the image, but they’re not the image.