Gear Doesn’t Matter In Photography
If You Have Good Gear

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1. I Can’t Just Enjoy Things

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If you’re anything like me, when something becomes the target for your new hyperfocus it takes over your life. It becomes the memes you read, the articles you consume, the videos you watch. And for me recently, the current thing has been photography.

And I’ll tell you, it has been a blast so far. Photography, specially doing street photography has recently been a really great thing in my life. It helps me get outside and take my mind off all the bad stuff. I guess some people might just get a therapist, but I have found that photography has become an important part of keeping sane.

…If you’re anything like me, you can’t just enjoy something. The better you get at things, specially when you’re starting from scratch, you start to feel like that child in the emperor has no clothes, that is bursting at the seams to say what everyone should find obvious. And one thing that I have been struggling to enjoy, it’s this one thought stopping cliche I keep hearing…

Gear doesn’t matter…

— Literally every photographer with bottomless pockets

As a new photographer, this might sound like a good thing. Maybe you find it encouraging. Maybe it’s nice to know that no matter how much money you have, taking pictures on your phone won’t matter, as long as you have the Artistic Vision ™.

But I believe that this is just a form of toxic positivity, and a lie that gives new photographers that don’t know any better a lot of bad ideas.

2. What Can You Do With A Kit Lens And Enthusiasm

I have found so far that one of my favorite genres is street photography1. Specifically, I love shooting at night, after there has been some rain, as I really love how the puddles and wet streets reflect the light and creates some truly breathtaking scenes.

I started with a Canon EOS 250D and a EF 18-55mm 1:4-5.6 IS STM lens. Because the Canon 250D uses a ASP-C sensor (a crop sensor, unlike a full frame or 35mm sensor), you have to multiply the focal length by 1.6, which makes my lens 28.8-88mm. The lowest aperture at f/4.0 is a bit of a challenge, as I will explain later, but I have managed to deal with it.

My development went pretty fast, I think I only shot in auto for a day, becuase when you’re out at night you quickly realize that you need the fine grain control of manual to make everything just right. Generally, shooting at night, I had to be very technically aware.

The challenge of low light is of course primarily managing your ISO. If you’re not aware, essentially what the ISO setting on a camera does is that it takes the RGB values that the camera reads and multiplies them (applies gain), to increase the brightness in low light environments2.

If you’re just shooting in auto, the camera will increase the ISO to compensate for the lack of light, but this has some problems.

Primarily, the problem is that the camera sensor has a noise floor. Now, usually, if our camera is at its base ISO (the ISO setting where the camera is not applying any gain), the noise might be barely noticeable. The problem is that when we raise the ISO, the noise floor scales along with the gain. Thus, if we just use ISO to manage low light we get noisy images.

Now, to manage this, you have to use a combination of a large aperture (take in more light) and a slow shutter speed (letting more light hit the sensor between photos). This comes with its own challenges, as a larger aperture means a shallower depth of field, meaning you’ll have less of your scene in focus (which might also be an interesting stylistic effect), and you’ll struggle with shooting motion, as a lower shutter speed means motion blur.

If you wanna shoot a scene at night, you’ll also have to get acquainted with long exposures. A long exposure shot is essentially just keeping open the shutter, for a long time (woa). Now, you use this technique3 if you wanna have a nice bright picture of a static scene in low light. Usually, depending on your camera, lens, and how dark it is, you might easily be taking 30 second exposures, which is a time in which your camera should not move4. You’ll also likely need a tripod, perhaps even a remote to take the picture without disturbing the camera, or maybe you’ll just use the timer settings in your camera to take the picture.

Further, with an entry level DSLR/mirrorless, you likely will only have about ~10 stops of dynamic range, unlike the top shelf cameras that have around ~15 stops. That’s 33% less stops of light. Now, the human eye has around ~20 stops of dynamic range, so if you wanna take a long exposure of a scene in low light to really get all the details in the shadows or capture that annoying traffic light that is completely blown out, you’ll have to understand Auto Exposure Bracketing.

Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) is a technique where you take multiple shots, at different stops of exposure (usually -2 stops, 0 stops, 2 stops), and combine them all to create a High Dynamic Range (HDR)5 image in post.

That also means you’ll have to learn about post! And likely, even if you don’t wanna shoot static scenes at night, but just some street photography subjects, you’ll likely still find it necessary to get decent at post-processing6 to fix up your shadows and highlights, and perhaps to dodge and burn various elements that stand out too much in your pictures.

Using all of this, I was able to capture this picture at a shutter speed of 1/100, with a f/6.3 aperture at ISO 6400. And I was pretty proud that I managed to get such a decent quality in such low light.

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3. Gear Does Matter When You Only Have a Kit Lens

Then, I got a lens upgrade. I bought a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, a sweet little “nifty-fifty”.

And I remember turning on my camera for the first time with that lens on while still in the metro going to Copenhagen. I couldn’t believe it. I could literally just set my ISO at 100, and the photo was still completly blown out, I had to set the shutter speed to something like 1/4000 to get my histogram somewhat on the good side of the left, but still… WOW.

Now, shooting at night was suddenly easy. And not only was it easy, it was fun. I could capture things a lot easier. Surely, I’m still in manual, still constantly having to juggle settings to get a good shot, but I never got over ISO 1600 now, the f/1.4 aperture just takes in so much light.

And this really changes what you can even shoot. No amount of composition, color theory or “Artistic Vision” could get me the photos that I was able to take now. Maybe those had an influence on what I shoot, how I shoot it, maybe all the technical knowledge matters a lot. But without a nice lens, I just couldn’t take the shots I wanted.

For example, here is a picture where I just pressed down the button, at ISO 1600.

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To me it was quite clear.

GEAR DOES MATTER

I mean obviously! Without gear, you couldn’t even take a picture!

Now, that said, there might be a reason for you as a photographer to stick with your kit lens in the beginning, but it sure is not to get the best quality photos.

Being limited by gear means you have to become a technically better photographer to compensate, and when you get better gear at some point, it feels like a huge workload is taken off your shoulder. For that reason, you might find it a good idea to practice on bad gear first, just as we might perhaps imagine a programmer on slower hardware needing to write faster software instead of letting the hardware compensate. Yet, it would be wild to imagine a programmer that could create something like blender that ran on a old Thinkpad as if it had a flagship graphics card.

In case my example isn’t obvious, here is a video I just saw showing something that is quite literally impossible without really great gear.

4. Gear Doesn’t Matter When You Have Gear

Now who are the people promoting this idea that gear doesn’t matter? I’m not gonna namedrop, even though I have some names in mind (specially in portrait/fashion photography :3 ).

One characteristic you’ll often see is that it’s people that already have good gear.

So, one pretty obvious question you might ask is why these people who have very expensive gear keeps saying it doesn’t matter? After all, it’s not like these are just slightly more expensive cameras and lenses, we are talking a factor 10, maybe even 100 depending on how much glass and other stuff they have in their kit.

Well, I think there are two reasons.

First, the more noble one is that they don’t wanna scare off beginners. Maybe, when beginners hear that gear does indeed matter, they feel like they’ll never be good with what they got, and so they never start. Maybe they’re just trying to be positive and encouraging? Personally, I think that they should rather say that gear does matter but everyone (at least everyone good) starts on bad gear.

Secondly, I think the less noble reason is that when you have good gear, gear doesn’t matter as much. Since it doesn’t really occupy as much of your attention when you’re shooting, it becomes easy to forget that some of the shots you are effortlessly pulling off would be simply impossible with a less expensive lens.

And I actually have a third reason that I think applies as well to the smuggest, most high art types. Those with a whole studio, with assistants, with deep pockets and fat cat clients. Those that go further, and say that not only does the gear not matter, the technical parts don’t matter either.

Now, when you have an entire production team, of course the fucking technical parts don’t matter. You’re a spoonfed spoiled child. And to be frank, I don’t give a shit what some established “artist” that essentially clicks the shutter and leaves the rest of the process to their team thinks matters in photography. Like, they’re some David Guettas out there pressing the sync button while doing all sort of charades and teatrics to hide the fact that they’re just a front of an entire group of people that come together to create the creative vision, and they’re the worst part, the figure head, the organizational asshole that has to let out all the shit that makes their products sell, that makes the business go around.

And you know, when you’re standing there on your pedestal with no ability that can be stated explicitly, when you’re little more than a rich asshole hiring a band for you to sing in, and hiring a producer to autotune your awful voice, only so your rich dad can golf with the label company to get your shit out onto the radio and play it on repeat until it has finally stuck in the head of everyone… Well, then you’re idea of the process or whatever the fuck you think it is about just doesn’t matter! Obviously!

The most sinister part to be frank is ultimately that it glosses over all the capital barriers that photography has. You’re not shooting “better” photos because you have all the money to hire a costumes person and a makeup artist as well as a creatie director and an editor, you’re just a more creative person who has a sense of “the big picture”… my ass! Surely, no one cares that the pictures you take look visually stunning from a technical perspective, even if all you’re photographing, everything in your frame, the choice of the frame, the whole thing is the same as that shot by a child with their smartphone. Surely, the reason that people think the childs picture is just a random picture someone took is not that you have created this false perception that art is about “the real thing”, it’s not just some marketing nonsense, no no no, you’re just a “creative”. My fucking ass.

When people perpetuate the lie that gear doesn’t matter they perpetuate the idea that any of the untalented assholes are little more than rich people spending their money on a hobby, that — because they are rich assholes — can become a career.

But leaving aside those richer assholes, the less rich but still much assholes that say that gear doesn’t matter yet carry a camera that’s more expensive than what people make in a lifetime in some parts of the world are truly not of the hook. Ohh yea, gear doesn’t matter, have you tried just drinking water.

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5. Is This Univeral?

I’m not sure. Gear always matters, as does technical things, as does everything tangible. But some things have easier on ramps than others.

Photography as a steep on ramp, something like golf has an even steeper one. Something like coding or drawing has a less steep one, as does digital art, what with krita and cheap wacoms. Something like blender, less so, after all, even if the software is free, the graphics card is not.

Maths? Well, the on ramp is just access to the knowledge, but if you’re not getting that from a university, it’s probably gonna be a little steep, after all, a lot of the shitty textbooks in circulation feels purposefully mysterious as to make self study impossible so you have to attend the wretched lectures.

Programming? You need a computer, a shitty thinkpad will surfice, and an internet connection, as well as a place where you can sit in silence and hack. The place to sit in silence is a suprising luxury that many broken homes can’t afford.

Idk, all I know is I’m fucking tired of this lie that gear doesn’t matter in photography. I’d rather say that if your gear doesn’t matter then neither do you.

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Footnotes:

1

I’m gonna ignore the potential elitism and bikeshedding around that term as I find it unproductive. I define street photography as “candid” photography in urbane environments. If you define it some other way, that’s fine, it’s just a word, as long as we know what I’m talking about it shouldn’t matter.

2

This is a very unrigurous and wrong explanation, don’t expect your camera to work with RGB values natively. I’m just trying to explain the principle, and tbh pretending that the camera is just a sensor reading RGB values help me think about ISO.

3

You can also use this for artistic effects.

4

You can move it to create stylistic effects as well.

5

HDR is a bit like “retina screen”. It’s a vague and broad word that means so much that it doesn’t actually mean anything without a lot of context.

6

Use darktables. It is free and open source, and it’s literally better than adobe lightroom.

Author: Christina Sørensen

Created: 2023-01-10 Tue 20:02