Gear Does Matter, But Not How You Thought It Does

Sep 8, 2015

Stefan Kohler

Stefan Kohler is a full-time retoucher. He’s from Germany and likes bacon. In the last years, he built up a broad community around his retouching classes at the Infinite tool’s website. You can follow his work oninstagram.

Gear Does Matter, But Not How You Thought It Does

Sep 8, 2015

Stefan Kohler

Stefan Kohler is a full-time retoucher. He’s from Germany and likes bacon. In the last years, he built up a broad community around his retouching classes at the Infinite tool’s website. You can follow his work oninstagram.

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The most popular (and worn out) “advice” given to aspiring photographers is probably “It doesn’t matter which camera you use”. But is that really true?

A while back ran a little experiment, which involved the comparison of two images: one was shot with an iPhone, one with a Hasselblad. The results did in fact support the claim that gear doesn’t matter.

So we went ahead and created our own “on a budget” challenge, where we tried to realize a rather complex shoot just with a couple of Yongnuo flashes and an entry level DSLR with kit lens. Of course, it worked out pretty well and the final image is still one of our favorites.

Canon 550D + Tamron 18-55 Kit Lens

But that was just the first part of the challenge. A year later we did a second shoot with the same “theme”, but this time we used a truckload of high end equipment:

Multible Flashes, Multiblitz, Nikon D800, Sigma ART 35mm
Multiple Flashes, Multiblitz, Nikon D800, Sigma ART 35mm

And yes, you can pull off something great with cheap equipment. And yes, you probably won’t notice any difference, when you view the images on the internet or as a small-to-medium print. But I still don’t believe that “gear doesn’t matter”.

After using various bodies, countless lenses, both cheap and incredibly expensive flashes, setting up two studios and shooting round about 550,000 pictures I think I finally have gathered enough experience to weigh in on this everlasting discussion. Here it goes:

1) The Challenge

When I looked at the EXIF data of all the fabulous images on Flickr or a couple of years ago, I often found myself thinking “Man, that’s a really nice lens (or camera). I need (NEED!) something like this.” These images were light-years better than mine, and of course I assumed the magic must be in the lens and the camera. So I started saving and bought me some nice lenses and a “pro” camera.

Naturally my images didn’t improve. Yes, the quality was stellar, but it did nothing for my photographic skills. After a short and intense high I fell into a hole of desperation. BUT from this desperation grew something really great: motivation. I started to think “Ok, it’s not in the gear… so what else do I have to learn?”. And that’s it… After I discovered, that the gear didn’t make me a better photographer, I could learn “freely” without having this little “You have to buy better gear”-voice in my head. It’s a little bit like the whole “Don’t put your hand on a hot plate” thing. You can tell somebody countless times, that it’ll hurt… but in the end they need do experience it themselves.

Same here: You have to experience that it’s not the gear. Unfortunately that happens only after burning through a lot of $$$.

Motivation and curiosity make you want to improve as a photographer.


2) Strategy

With enough equipment, you can take on more complex projects: If you don’t have a flash you’re only able to shoot available light. If you got two flashes you can add a rimlight. If you got 5 flashes, you can make the world your own by lighting everything just like you want it to be… and even bring along an emergency flash just in case.

While that’s great for your flexibility it also forces you to think about strategy and planning. The more flashes, flags, reflectors etc. you got in your arsenal, the more chaotic things tend to get. So you start to plan your projects, which is awesome and crucial for your success.

Thinking about your strategy makes you a better photographer

Planning light setups with Set.a.Light 3D

3) Limitations

If you take a look at modern technology it’s easy to be impressed. The camera on your mobile phone has better quality than the point and shoots from 5 years ago, entry level DSLRs have more power than professional gear from 2010 and the list goes on… that’s just how things are.

And it’s no shame to work with outdated equipment, but it has its limitations. Cheap cameras can’t go faster than 1/4000s, you just can’t tether into Lightroom 5 with an old 5Dmk1, old lenses need more time to focus and don’t get me started about all the noise issues when shooting with a higher ISO: The 5Dmk2 at ISO 1600 is comparable with the D800 at ISO 6400… That’s two complete stops more with the Nikon, so photos are not as blurred anymore.


4) Efficiency

If you’re just taking pictures of your dinner, you probably won’t mind that your memory card doesn’t work all the time. If you’re shooting someone every other week, it’s no big deal if the flashes have slight differences in color temperature and fire only 9 out of 10 times.

That suddenly changes if you have to produce something professional on the spot. Take sports photography for example: The time frame for getting the right shot (that one that’ll feed the family) just might be a couple of milliseconds. That’s the point where you need professional (read: reliable) equipment that suits your needs perfectly.

Just recently we did a series of stop motion movies luckily we had our Multiblitz X-System. That gave us constant exposure and color temperature which is crucial if you don’t want to see any flickering in the finished movie. The day before we tried it with a cheaper system (not naming names, but it’s not unpopular) and it produced a mess of irregular temperature (up to a difference of 150K) and exposure (half a stop variation), which simply doesn’t work for a stop motion project.

Your equipment is your toolbox. If you want professional results, you got to have professional tools.

Multiblitz X-System
Multiblitz X-System

5) Your Reputation

Ok, this might be a controversial one, but hear me out. If you’re shooting for clients regularly, you probably know the little “gear small talk” that usually starts with something like “Oh, that looks expensive…”. It can be frustrating, after all apparently nobody cares that you carry lightstands around, adjust exposure for different kind of ambient light and entertain the models and clients all day long… all they see is how expensive your equipment looks.

We know it’s not true, but in the eye of an uneducated client, that’s the big differentiator between an amateur and a pro: The gear. If you use something “cheap” and the client has no clue, you can get away with some pseudo-pro “Yeah, but the old ones have much better sensors…”, but as soon as client’s son has a “better” camera than you and the same two speedlights it all goes down the drain.

Better equipment makes the client perceive you as a better photographer.


My personal conclusion

New gear is always fun. A new toy, new motivation, new possibilities to explore. But you still might ask yourself:

Do I really need a new camera for this?

No, you don’t. There a plenty of examples of great work done with cheap/old gear. But usually the creators of these “low budget but still amazing”-images, who of course also proclaim “You don’t need fancy stuff”, are the ones swimming in thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. Yes, maybe they were lucky and got a great shot out of an entry level DSLR with available light, but if they go to work, they usually taking their full frame cameras and $12,000 Broncholor parabolic umbrellas with them.

I really like working with professional equipment and without buying some really expensive stuff, I wouldn’t have come as far as I did. After all, working with pro gear showed me how to work more efficiently. That’s probably not true for everybody, but it’s also not true that better gear doesn’t improve your skills. It can happen in weird ways, but it still can happen.

Here’s a bit of a discussion I had with another photographer the other day:

F: “If I had known how expensive this is, I probably wouldn’t have started at all.”
S: “That’s true, but it makes one really happy, too. I still can’t get to sleep on a night before a big shooting.”
F: “Yep, and don’t forget all the people sharing this awesome fetish with us.”
S: “If I’d known that earlier in my life, I’d probably have started much sooner.”
F: “It’s a great fetish.”
S: “A healthy fetish, which keeps you up at night and makes you wake up with a grin.”

And that’s it: If you love this fetish, taking pictures, capturing moments and all that, you will get excited about new gear. And it will bring you joy, motivation and inspiration. And that’s good. But it’s also good to grow, become a little more relaxed and don’t jump on every “New gear” bandwagon that comes along every now and then, isn’t it?

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Stefan Kohler

Stefan Kohler

Stefan Kohler is a full-time retoucher. He’s from Germany and likes bacon. In the last years, he built up a broad community around his retouching classes at the Infinite tool’s website. You can follow his work oninstagram.

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7 responses to “Gear Does Matter, But Not How You Thought It Does”

  1. Jim Johnson Avatar
    Jim Johnson

    I teach at university level, and my advice is always the same: Use what you can afford until you are having trouble making the gear do something you want it to do (i.e. take photos in low light). You should never buy gear on what you might want it for later, but for what you need it to do now.

  2. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
    Kay O. Sweaver

    Whenever I start to feel an episode of GAS I’ll go over to Flickr, Vimeo or 500px and type in T2i which is what I’m still using today. I am regularly blown away by what people are able to do with it and redouble my efforts.

    Then, I borrowed the Pentax 645Z from work this Labor Day weekend and damn. It was revelatory. You really CAN do more with a fancier camera! When I got those shots into Lightroom I couldn’t believe the sharpness, the detail and how much I could push the image before it fell apart. This is cool.

    As soon as I hear of a new technology or feature my mind immediately begins racing, trying to figure out what’s possible now that wasn’t before. Its a fun exercise, but more often than not I return to the basics. Good light. Good composition. Good concept.

    That said I’m really tired of having to adjust off camera speedlites manually. I’m about ready for a set of YN622s. New gadgets are helpful, they can save time and open doors, but chances are you still haven’t unlocked all the potential of your current gear. I know I haven’t.

    1. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
      Kay O. Sweaver

      P.S.: Stefan, I love both of those example images.

  3. Steven Gotz Avatar
    Steven Gotz

    I could not possibly agree with this more. When I decided to upgrade to a full frame DSLR, going to the Nikon D750 from the Panasonic DMC-GH3, people asked me why. After all, it isn’t the camera, it is the photographer. Oh, yeah? Try letting in enough light, or getting a wide enough shot, with the 2X crop sensor. And sometimes 24MP is better than 16MP. Sometimes.

    I wanted to shoot headshots so I bought some flash and modifiers. More than I needed right away perhaps, but I didn’t want to reach for an Octa and not have it. Or a softbox, or a beauty dish or an umbrella. Each has its own properties. Can I take good portraits without a beauty dish? Sure. But when I want the light to look a certain way, sometimes I need something specific.

    I really enjoyed reading this. I enjoyed it more, I think, because I finally have started to slow down on my GAS. If I was still drooling over the B&H and Adorama ads, it might have just been annoying.

  4. Ralph Hightower Avatar
    Ralph Hightower

    For me, photography is a creative release. Although I bought my first DSLR in December 2013, I also continue to shoot with my film cameras (Canon A-1 bought new in 1980 and Canon F-1N bought used in July 2013). Why? Because they still work and film is still available.
    I am shooting more digital than film, but I will often carry one of the film cameras with the digital. The film cameras offer me options: one is loaded with B&W and the other with color.
    I need to invest in Canon EF lenses since I am currently limited to 24-105mm. With film, my range is 28mm, 50mm, 80-205mm, and 400mm.

  5. akshayjamwal Avatar

    The overwhelming perception by most clients (and non-photographers in general) is something to the tune of, “He/She must have a great camera!”. I suspect this is the way it will always be.

    1. Frank Nazario Avatar
      Frank Nazario

      the sad part of your statement is that it is true… a “display of professional equipment” on a photo shoot to an average or non educated client usually impresses them enough for them to hire that photographer over and over…even if the end product is mediocre… The clients get bragging rights with his friends/colleges/clients… because his photographer rocks with the latest and greatest hardware.