Photography Gear Matters a Lot

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.  

Log in or register to post comments

32 Comments

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Illya Ovchar, you are quickly becoming my favorite writer here. First because you write your own stuff, and two because you seem to laugh to the face of photography taboos. My light gear is 100% selected to do anything a client may ask me to do. Power, battery, back ups, delays, HS... No I don't use it all all the time, but I don't have a rental house near me and my market is small enough that I have to have solutions in place before opportunities knock at my door. Peter Hurley got his name from natural lights, but as recent videos have shown, he seem to have even more continuous and strobe lighting gear than most studios, and he only does portraits...

Illya Ovchar's picture

Thank you very much! I am glad that you're liking my articles. Cheers!

J.d. Davis's picture

When I read "Just imagine how boring advertising would look without Photoshop or CGI." I wondered how interesting it would be if all the computers and software vanished and 'photographers' had to create in front of the camera rather than digitally.

My catalog work? Done with an 8X10 Deardorff vintage 1972.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I agree with you on that part. It's rather boring to seat in front of a computer for days in order to try and recreate reality. Additionally, no interaction with anyone, it's a very cubicle way to do things.

Mike Ditz's picture

I would rather sit by a computer than work in a darkroom!

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Well sure, but it depends on what you call a darkroom and what you do. Barely anyone spends time is a photography dark room nowadays, this was a different time when we interacted with computers a fraction of what we do now. I was mostly referring to cgi where most of your time is spend in front of your computer recreating something.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Oh I rarely retouch my work, I hire a retoucher to do it. They are a professional at that so they do a far better job than I would, and save me time which I can spend shooting.

Mike Ditz's picture

So you don't retouch but hire a retoucher...a difference without a distinction. ;^)

Illya Ovchar's picture

Well, it's not a question of laziness but of convenience. Sure, I can do all my work in sunlight on an 8x10, but I would only have 5 minutes to shoot it, need a lot of flags, and be a huge inconvenience to everyone. Photoshop makes my work easier, not necessarily better.

Mike Ditz's picture

If using photoshop is not making your work better you are not using it's full potential.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I believe in keeping things natural, to some degree at least. Photoshop enhances the images by a lot, but it doesn't make the image.

Mike Ditz's picture

Sometimes there is a lot of photoshop/retouching to make something look "natural". It doesn't make the image but it finishes the image...IMO

J.d. Davis's picture

Never said it was 'lazy' or 'convenient' - what I said was (and this is the important takeaway):

"I don't think any of the computer wizards today could create many of the effects they rely on in any iteration of software. They don't know how to light, compose, color balance or expose, let alone place props where they belong! In essence, software has taken away creativity and the ability to think."

Also ~ who said sunlight? I have Hot Lights and commercial strobe equipment that can light a roomset with models. Godox might work for headshots but doesn't have the OOMPH for a 3 room setback.

rodney simba masarirambi's picture

Oh my goodness Illya Ovchar thank you so much for this.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Thanks for reading!

Benoit Pigeon's picture

For your freeze splash shot, you can achieve 1/8000s with HS and utilize full power contrary to HSS. That would make your splash shoot work just like a Scoro. Yes, some packs can go faster than 1/8000s but with tiny amount of output. Any slower pack or monos will work.

Illya Ovchar's picture

There are wild inconsistencies with HSS, and the power drop is too large to justify.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I know most devices that work in HSS also let you use ttl, that could be why but I don't use ttl or hss and don't know anything about how those strobes really work. HS with Broncolor is accurate 100% of the time and allows 100% use of the device power (1600ws and probably would work with some 3200ws packs too) but is more of a manual set up and with no ttl. The only draw back regarding HS is that it is not widely commercialized. I used to have PW but despite many tests, many hours, HS never worked for me. Broncolor HS has worked perfectly for since day one, radio to radio or radio to build in device radio (Siros). I can also trigger a Canon speedlight with a radio set as transmitter and one as receiver and get it to work at any speed above camera's sync, but I would have to play with the radio just like a PW to get no curtain showing. I am not looking to make those tests. It appears that something in ttl capable devices makes it harder to find the proper delay. I have low end Bron packs that work perfectly when my radios are set to HS. Again, there are no ttl devices with Broncolor that I am aware of.

Jan Holler's picture

I experience a noticable drop in light starting at 1/2000s. At 1/8000s I estimate it is less than 1/4. This with Elinchrom ELB 400 and a special HS head. You get full performance at 1/8000s? Amazing.
For the scene above, the action head of the ELB 400 with its very short flash time could have helped.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Bron probably works the same way only does not require a dedicated flash tube. Despite the delay, because the opening time gets shorter as you increase the shutter speed, less light gets in and eventually you'll get the greater reduction of light entering when you have reached the full 424ws. I don't need to reach 1/8000 but if I did I would use my 1600ws packs to increase my dof. You don't have much flash duration control in HS, but you get the same or simitar decrease with fast t.1 packs. When you shorten the duration with t.1 you get less output. The difference is that at t.1 you still have camera sync limitations. HSS has limits due to the energy needed for the pulse and from what I understand, they top the max output to half of what the device is capable to deliver in normal use.

Jan Holler's picture

Thanks.

Hans J. Nielsen's picture

Well written article about the subject but...
I think you are taken the phrase "Gear does not matter!" more litterally than it is ment to be.

Everybody knows (or at least should know) that gear matters if your camera and photo equipment is not op to the task. Your client wants 8K videos, well you buy an R5 course an R6 won't cut it. You need a 40MP picture you use a Z7 instead of the Z6 and if you need a video file from a dark cave in Bolivia, you better take an a7S camera with you instead of an a7R.

But Cindy Sherman or Robert Frank did not have access to any of those cameras and yet they made stunning images and made themself famous as photographers.
Would they have been able to take better pictures had they had access to modern cameras? Yes, undoubtedly, but they didn't, and it doesn't matter now. People don't ask what "gear" they used when they see any of their pictures. They just admire their creative skills.

The word "gear" should really be changes with the word "tool" as the phrase "Gear does not matter!" is Not about the technical limitation of equipment, but about your enjoyment, and your creativity in photography no matter the tool you use.

If you want to listen to a piece of music, you can use a high end HiFi or a Walkman, yes, the musik sound better on the HiFi but your enjoyment might be higher listening on the walkman.
You want to make music, well you dont need the newest Fender or Gibson guitar to make it to the top of the charts.
Your creativity is what take you there.

That is the true meaning in "Gear does not matter!". People just have a way og misinterpret it.

Mike Ditz's picture

I think the "gear doesn't matter" statement is often made by people using very good gear like Profoto, Canon, Sony, Zeiss etc. not usually a 13 year old Rebel 3 with a kit lens.

In photo school one of early assignments was using a Holga or Diana camera. It was an interesting equalizer as they had a slow and fast shutter speed and close and far focus setting. Going back to basics was enlightening, especially after saving up to get a 500/cm with an 80mm lens.

Like someone said long ago, "Most cameras are better than most photographers"

Illya Ovchar's picture

Well, I use Profoto and Canon. Gear does matter haha.

Jon Martin Solaas's picture

I think anyone writing the sentence "gear doesn't matter" put a different meaning into it :0) The article is written from the perspective of a professional, but you often read the sentence when it's about amateur or beginners equipment. And of course it would be very demotivating for a beginner to read that the kit you just bought is useless, which it is absolutely not.

I also think "price doesn't matter (that much)" is a better way of putting it. It's all about compromises anyway. In most cases you simply can't get good bokeh with a kit zoom. I imagine it could be very frustrating for a beginner not knowing that, trying to make portraits with creamy backgrounds. But you can get it with a Helios 44 at the cost next to nothing. It may have other limitations, though, like not focusing to infinity on a F-mount, not handling flare well etc. But those limitations may help your creativity. Sometimes I like to just stroll along with only my old D90 and the Helios. Then I enter some kind of focused zen-mode, because there are so many potential motives (eg. distractions) that suddenly aren't relevant, and I have to focus on small stuff no more than say 2m. away. Limitations can boost creativity. That's where the kit zoom fails, all compromises and flaws are evened out, so it's not really , really good at anything, but more importantly it's not really, really bad at anything either... This doesn't mean you shouldn't use a kit zoom 90% of the time, but it will not help boosting your creativity.

Speaking of guitars, I once heard Keith Richards say "Give me five minutes and I'll make them all sound alike". (I think it is in "Under the influence" which may be available on Netflix). This is of course true if you are Keith Richards, still it is true in many other settings as well. But then take a look at Joe Bonamassas "Welcome to Nerdville"-film on Youtube ... JB is from a guitar-dealer and collector family so "gear does matter" is engraved in his DNA. I'm kind of hooked on his Evil Mama track these days and have noticed he plays it on a Fender in studio but use a Gibson live. So maybe it's all about picking the right tool for the job? I think a kit-lens will not be a good choice for learning that. It's good for learning basics like exposure, focus etc. and it will tackle 90% of what an amateur throws at it just fine. But it won't help boost your creativity, and you won't learn much about limits and strengths of different gear from it, because it's all compromise. Just adding a cheap prime will help a lot. For a pro it may be different, they can't carry with them all kinds of funny vintage lenses with various creative flaws, it would be totally nonsense, they need no-compromise equipment that will just do the job, be it on the sports arena or in the wilderness.

So gear does matter, but in so many different ways. And remember; no gear, no picture ;-)

Peter Perry's picture

Bokeh and the kit lens are entirely possible to fake. Plus, 2.8 - 5.6 are where many pros shoot their portraits anyway, so that is entirely possible with a kit lens, assuming you like the clarity and contrast the lens provides. Do not confuse YouTube personalities with working professionals.

Illya Ovchar's picture

To be honest, my portrait work is mostly in the f/8-f/11 range. I don't see why people have a fetish for f/1.2 portraits as they look particularly strange.

Jon Martin Solaas's picture

Of course you can do a lot in post-processing. Then you need post-processing gear. What you can do and what you should do is a whole topic on its own. With a drawing-program you can do even more :0) And then there is bokeh, and there is nice bokeh. You have Nikon 135mm f/2 DC, 58mm f/1.4G etc. I don't think they're sold mainly to youtube-personalities and I don't think kit lenses are sold mainly to professionals. Actually I don't watch Youtube photo-personalities that much, either.

Peter Perry's picture

Wait a second, you do not need that ridiculous lighting to freeze water, a couple of Godoy Tt685 speed lights could do that.

As for Gear, I have seen a lot of professional looking work done on cameras as simple as the X-T20 and years ago, 5 or 6 FPS bodies were considered fast, yet people still made a living with D100s and 10Ds.

Now mine you, many Leica lenses are MF only and that’s likely an issue too.

So, does gear matter? I would argue the only place I have seen a huge improvement in quality would be lenses. With regards to lenses, yes the gear absolutely matters, but I wouldn’t worry too much about the bodies or the lights.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Yes, speedlites are one choice for freezing water, however, their recycle time is not the best. I think gear requirements are dictated by the shooting style.

Mike Shwarts's picture

I think your "waterproof collection for outdoor sports" example may not be the best. Seems like you tailored the example (splashes) so you can point out the need for special photography equipment. You could have gone in a different direction. How about the model splashing in a puddle of water? Lesser lighting equipment could have handled that. You don't even need splashes. A photo that highlights the beaded water on a rain jacket would not need anything really special in equipment. The example might make sense if the client specifically said rain splashing on the clothes.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Hi Mike, thanks for reading and commenting. A lot of the time I don't have a say on what the final image should look like. That is decided by the ad agency. I am there to execute what they gave me in the brief. But yes, definitely there are multiple ways to do this campaign.