When (High End) Gear Does and Doesn’t Matter
Another guest article today from Anthony Chang. Anthony discusses the merits of high end gear and when you need to have it. This is a long one, so get ready a cup of coffee and enjoy…

For the most part I’m the kind of guy that likes to believe in that silly notion that your gear doesn’t matter. Though there’s always two sides to a coin and so there are times where gear does matter, but for the most part I still believe that in the end gear doesn’t matter. Sure you do need a camera (preferably with manual controls), a lens, a computer and some photo editing software goes a long way as well but you don’t need to drop thousands of dollars on your gear to create compelling images. You can create a photo with a lot of impact with a Canon Rebel with a kit lens and the bundled raw converter, though a powerful editing program like Photoshop or Lightroom really does help. All you really need to do is learn how to fully utilize what you have and anyone can make a captivating photo with entry level equipment. Your gear will only help so much but practice helps even more. Also remember this is an opinion piece so take what you want out of this (assuming you’re crazy enough to read all this) as I’m just ranting here more or less.

 “Most cameras and most lenses are better than most photographers”

So to any other well read photographers out there this post probably looks pretty similar, and that’s cause I used both Ken Rockwell and Michael Reichmann from Luminous Landscapes essay’s and references. Now I know it seems odd for me to talk about why gear doesn’t really matter considering the amount of money I’ve spent on photography related gear. Though I blame the fact that I’m really just a gear/tech head cause I know I don’t need it I just want it. Guess it runs in the family since my brother is the same as well.

First lets talk about when and why gear does matter. There are times where that cheap kit lens or that little nifty fifty just isn’t going to cut it, even though quite frankly a simple 50mm F1.8 can do almost everything you need, but I digress. Gear matters when you start to specialize, besides that all it does it make the act of taking a photo slightly easier. Let me give you a few examples.

Odds are you’ll need/want a fast super telephoto lens like a 600mm F4 if you really enjoy wildlife photography and you want to catch that elusive bird in flight that’s about to kill another animal while your camouflaged in your little hide a hundred meters away. Or when you want to really see what your neighbors are up to. Not something you can’t do with a kit lens unless you get extremely close, which probably won’t happen unless you’re looking for a restraining order.

Another example is if you shoot architecture, odds are you’ll want/need a tilt shift lens or if you really want to go all out you can even use an old view camera which would work even better. You’ll want one just so you can shift the lens in order to get the verticals straight. That way the building doesn’t look like its about to fall over and crush everyone in the vicinity. Though you can do this without an expensive tilt shift lens and just fix the verticals in post but you’ll end up losing quite a bit of the image and the quality won’t be as good since you’ll be really stretching out that photo. Though its not just for architecture photographers, tilt shift lenses are used a lot by commercial photographers as well. Part of the reason why you never see a photo of a bottle of beer that looks like its leaning back about to fall over and shatter on the ground bringing a drunkards hopes and dreams with it.

Or maybe you’re the kind of photographer who enjoys shooting very small objects; well then you’ll want a macro lens for that. Even more so if you shoot things like bugs/insects, you’ll need something like a 200mm F4 macro lens just so you can get more working distance that way you won’t have to be an inch away from those little critters in order to get a 1:1 macro shot. So you’ll be far away enough not to disturb that jumping spider and still be able to get a full 1:1 macro shot of it. And more importantly far enough away that it wont be able jump on you therefore stopping you from having a fear induced panic attack causing you to scream and flail around like a child. Then again why photograph spiders if you’re scared of them? Either way if you don’t mind the idea of getting an inch away from your subjects and the threat of them jumping right on your face you can always just use extension tubes or even reversing your lens, hell you can even do both if you really wanted to.

Though most importantly you just happen to really like bokeh/shallow depth of field. And really there are only three ways of getting shallow depth of field; you can get a faster lens (like 2.8 or faster), a more telephoto lens, or getting a new camera with a larger sensor. Though I’m writing this article under the impression that you the reader owns either a mirrorless camera or a DSLR, which already have relatively large sensors. If you don’t own either and you happen to be reading this well either this is an amazingly interesting article or you’re quite bored. Odds are I’ll write another article later about the effects of depth of field and sensor size, as that’s a whole different issue few people seem to really understand. Kind of like the issue people (like me…) have with the words your and you’re. Hey never said I was a spectacular writer did I?

Even though for the most part I feel that gear won’t make your photos any more compelling there are accessories that can help with that if you know how to use them. Mainly things likes filters (circular polarizers and neutral density filters) and off camera lighting. I don’t really touch on that in this article, since again that’s a whole different issue, plus this article is already bloody long as is and I rather not add more to it so we’ll just leave it at that.

Those are just a few incidents where gear really does matter. Things like more megapixels, better autofocusing and better high ISO performance, image stabilization, higher frames per second, weather sealing, sharpness, corner sharpness, micro contrast, vignetting, chromatic aberrations, coma and veiling haze and the list goes on and on. Those are all things we as photographers like to dwell on when it comes to the tough decision of what to buy next. Almost as tough as deciding which child to sell in order to help finance it. I’m sure we’ve all see tests/reviews showing us two different shots between camera/lens A vs camera/lens B zoomed in at 100% and sure one of the two will preform slightly better and what not. Though you really have to ask yourself is that really worth X amount to you? And do you really have that much spare cash to throw around? If you do I’d be very surprised you read up to this, I feel as if I should reward you but hell you obviously have money and I don’t so buy yourself a treat. In the end you really need some large prints, and no 8×10’s are small prints I mean at least 16×20, to really see the difference between a cheap and an expensive lens when they’re in proper focused. Even than you have more things to worry about such as composition, and all that other jazz. Honestly most people who aren’t gear heads (or people who think its because its your amazing camera that lets you take god pictures) will care more about the final photo than what you used.

You can create compelling photo with much less then what I have. Take a look at Instagram for example, underneath the pile of bathroom mirror self-portraits and the “hey guess what I get to stuff my face with” photos there are A LOT of striking photos. Best part they were taken on a simple iPhone, or whatever other smartphones support Instagram. A prime example of this new camera phone photography trend is famous photographer Chase Jarvis and his book The Best Camera is the One With You. You can even read this article by renowned street photographer Eric Kim titled Why Instagram is the Future of Street Photography. Eric Kim also showcased several other street photographers who just shoot with their iPhone’s now. Now you may or may not agree with the current trend in camera phone photography but you have to admit there is some amazing stuff coming from it even if you have to wade in neck high piles of atrocious snapshots no one really cares about (kinda like this terribly long post!) to get to it. Hell apparently Kensington and Chelsea College in London will soon be offering a iPhoneography course.

So before you decide to tell that good natured sales person who’s trying to help save you money to shut up and take your money, just stop and think about it for a second. How is your current gear not capable of delivering the results you want? Then comes the hardest question to ask, is it really your gear that’s the problem or is it yourself? Like I said at the beginning, most cameras and most lenses are better than most photographers (just to be clear this easily applies to myself as well and I know it). So here’s a few questions to ask yourself if you want to determine if you actually need a new camera or just want one. Though in the end its up to you, I’m just trying to save you some cash here by being a voice of reason.

Also to really push this point home check out some of these entertaining videos from DigitalRev TV particularly their Pro Photographers, Cheap Cameras segment as it pertains to this post.

* What do you find myself shooting most often? Do your subjects tend to be static and barely move (like landscapes, still life and most studio work) or do they quickly move across the frame and often go in and out of focus (action, sports, wildlife). If your passion requires a camera with better auto focusing only then I’d consider upgrading if not then you’re probably golden with what you have.
* Is the amount of noise you get from shooting at high ISO’s really unbearable? Do you actually shoot at those high ISO’s enough to warrant a upgrade? More importantly why is it an issue? Is it just because you just don’t like the fact there is noise or because you lose some detail? …All I can say is get over it cause you’ll always lose some detail no matter what, most cameras these days can shoot at ISO 1600-3200 just fine (my 5 year old a700 shot at that range just fine) especially if you just upload photos to the web and don’t make any large prints.
* Do you often find yourself shooting in low light, handheld and just rely just on ambient? If you don’t do any of that well again no point in upgrading. If you do find yourself in these situations a lot and often have to bump up the ISO higher then you’re comfortable with (note what I mentioned above…). If you just really don’t like the noise and feel like justifying your next purchase then I can’t stop you.
* It has more megapixels! Well… All I can say is do you even do any large prints or hell do you even do any high quality prints at all? If not more megapixels means absolutely nothing, in fact its a bigger expense since you’ll need a better computer to handle the larger file sizes and more hard drive space to back it all up. Have you ever seen what a 36mp photo looks like on Facebook? Looks the exact same as a 6mp photo on Facebook, like crap! Facebook has this thing about horribly compressing photos and making them look terrible, mind you they got much better at it now but its definitely not showing off your new $3000+ investment in the best light.
* It can do 10 FPS! Again its one of those do you honestly need it questions? If you shoot action, sports, or wildlife then maybe you do. If you’re on the other side of the heavily armed “professional” machine gun photographers then guess what you can probably live with a modest 3 FPS.
* The camera has live view, it has a tilty-swivelly screen, it can record in full 1080p at 30fps, and do a whole bunch of other video related stuff that I’m not to well informed about. Well this is a tough one, cause if you already know you don’t care much for video then you answer is simple! If you’re interested and I mean really interested in video work and your camera doesn’t have video then this might be your reason to upgrade, you just need to know if you actually have any genuine interest in doing any video work or not. Same with photography I’ve seen people who were interested in videography dump several thousands of dollars on a rig and only use it once and they used it for fun (just to play with their new rig) and thats it. Turns out video work was a lot more work than they thought…
* And the bunch of other fancy miscellaneous features this new camera offers… Like panorama or HDR mode and all that other nifty stuff. Well odds are if you read up to this point there is a good chance you’re somewhat adept in photography and you don’t really use any of these built in features/modes and if you do you just use them for fun so… Forget about it.

Trust me it’s not hard to find amazing photos taken with old basic gear, and some simple Photoshop knowledge. And its definitely not hard at all to find bad photos taken by the highest quality equipment money can buy and also have access to Photoshop (they mentioned that they cloned out the Nikon SB600 flash from the photo so they have and know how to use photoshop to some degree). I found these two photos in less then 30 seconds on Flickr with the search words Canon 50mm F1.8 and Nikon D800 (If you can’t figure out which photo I got with each search word then either your not reading any of this or something is definitely wrong).

Alright damn this is getting long… Next the lenses. How often do you look at your photos at 100%, odds are you’re the kind of person that just uploads their photos online on Facebook or whatever, web sized photos definitely do not show off the superior quality of that $1000+ lens you justified buying. Unless you print large photos for galleries and exhibitions then maybe you might think its worth it to you to buy that optically superior lens, then again do your viewers, who are often not gear heads like me, really care? Most people can’t tell the difference between $10 000 camera or a $1000 camera, people who can (like me!) need to stop looking at their photos at 100%, stop looking at reviews and start shooting more (and get a life). Hell the photos above are the perfect example of all this, a cheap $100 lens with $2-300 camera (is what it costs now used, 4 years ago when it was released it was about $800) vs a $5000 camera and lens combo. So here we go again, a couple things to think about before you drop your money on a new lens (though I do recommend almost everyone who starts off to get a cheap $100 50mm F1.8 lens).

* Image stabilization/vibration reduction/all the other names it has! Well one of the newest and greatest marvels of modern technology is the introduction of IS. Its great for super telephoto lenses and great for video work as well. Though I have met some people with some odd misconception of what it does, simply put it just makes your photos less susceptible to blurring due to camera shake thats it. It does not let you freeze action any better, it just makes it easier to handhold your camera a slower shutter speeds without introducing camera shake. So that blurry shot of that basketball player speeding down the court isn’t going to be any better with IS (though it does help with panning photos). Though odds are that static court which hasn’t moved an inch will probably be nice and sharp and free of blurring from camera shake. IS has its applications but if you shoot in a studio, often use flashes, or good light or even shoot with a tripod and you don’t suffer from hand tremors odds are you don’t really need IS and you’re better off saving that money for that Lamborghini you’ve been dreaming of.
* It can open up to F1.2!! Well this is a two parter… Again a question of whether or not you really need it. Do you really shoot in low light that often that you need that extra 1/2 stop of light compared to a F1.8? Better yet are you the kind of person that likes to shoot at F4-11 to get optimum sharpness anyway and rarely shoot wide open to begin with well then the answer should be obvious, just get something cheaper and slower.
* Again it can open up to F1.2!! Part two of this, so not only does a fast lens let you shoot in lower light but it also lets you get shallower depth of field. Which in my opinion is much more important. Now if you’re a shallow depth of field fiend like I am that’s probably your main reason for wanting a fast lens, being able to shoot in lower light is just a bonus. You just need to look at your work and your style and see if you really are all about that shallow depth of field or not. If you prefer to normally shoot landscapes or even do studio work and like to have everything in sharp focus and want everything as sharp as it can be by shooting at something like F4-11 (just like above) then you’re better off getting a cheaper, slower lens. An example of this is Eric Kim who bought and Leica M9 and a Leica 35mm F1.4 Summilux, a couple months after owning this expensive set up he eventually sold his 35mm F1.4 and bought the 35mm F2 Summicron (though if he wanted to save more he could have bought a F2.8 Elmarit). He realized it was pointless to have the F1.4 for hit style of shooting, eventually he even sold his M9 and went over to shooting film with an M6 as well.
* I need something wider/telephoto. Do you really? Like I said above unless you really want to specialize in something you really don’t need a super telephoto lens, for the most part you can generally just physically move closer to your subject. Now for wide angle lenses that can be a little different, the wide angle look (the perspective distortion) of having your subject so close to you that you can reach out and just grab a hold of it really does require a wide angle lens. Though if you really just want a wide angle lens to fit more of that landscape then I have one word for you, panorama. I’ve done this many times, I see a landscape I want to shoot but I only brought say my 85mm lens, what do I do? I simply just do a panorama anywhere from 3-20+ shots wide and put it together in Photoshop its as easy as that, an instant wide angle lens with a telephoto lens. Mind you this only works if you have a program that can put together panoramas and you don’t mind the extra time in post, also it works much better with digital rather than film!
* The super silent and super fast USM/SWM/HSM and its many other names. Frankly unless you’re shooting something that will literally freak out and run away the moment it hears your lens focusing like a robber hearing a shotgun get cocked in the house they just broke into. Buying a lens just cause it has a USM in it is kind of silly. I’ve heard wedding photographers talk about how the silent focusing really helps during receptions, and I’m sure it does but the sound of that mirror slap is still loud enough to echo throughout that dead silent hall so I wouldn’t worry about having a standard motor driven lens if that’s a concern. Also again unless you shoot fast action and need unbelievably fast focusing that 1/2sec longer it takes to focus without a USM driven lens won’t kill you.
* But its so tack sharp across the whole frame, there is very little vignetting and chromatic aberrations you say? Well again things you really notice if you like to look at your photos at 100% or if you get some large prints done. Most of that stuff like corner sharpness is overrated, its really just for people who shoot landscapes/architecture or demand optimum sharpness at the very edge of the frame. Hell most people add more vignetting to their photos to draw the eyes away from those “soft, unsharp” corners since odds are your main subject isn’t at the very corners of the frame. Simple chromatic aberrations? That can be tamed in post if it really bothers you. Its not tack sharp you say? Well do you really care that you can’t see all that detail at 100% that you normally wouldn’t see even if you viewed it at say 25%/web sized? People seem to forget just how low quality photos posted on the web really are compared to printing them. And if that’s where your photos tend to go like most people don’t worry about it and stop looking and tests/reviews.
* Then there’s the talk about the brand name, build quality, the fact its weather sealed and all that other jazz. Brand name may mean something to some people but third party lens companies like Tamron and Sigma do a pretty damn good job and making more affordable lenses for us consumers. Now the talk about build quality is a little silly cause truth be told a lens made of plastic instead of metal isn’t going to make your photos any better all it’ll do is weigh you down a little more and look and feel a little nicer. Truth be told I rather take a lens made of plastic if it meant it would be lighter, and I abuse my gear and treat them like tools so they’re workhorses and I’m sure that cheap plastic will hold up just fine. But its weather sealed! Yea I know people with weather sealed equipment yet they still rather not expose their gear to light rain. Any camera can hold up to the rain, snow and dust just fine. Its only if you work in the extremes would I ever advise someone to get a weather sealed lens/camera. My non-weather sealed camera and lens have been in the drink 3 times now it goes out in the rain and snow a lot as well and everything still works fine. So stop babying your gear cause odds are it can take it. Plus do you even ever bother to go out let alone shoot in conditions like that?

You know I can go on and on about why your generally better off going cheap especially if your not a working professional and just an enthusiast but odds are I’m not going to change your mind. Especially if you’re like me. By that I mean your a gear head and you’ll get all the new fancy toys not because you need it but simply because you want it and enjoy having a bunch of stuff to play with. If I did somehow change your mind well great my job is done. Also congratulations to anyone that read the whole thing cause you know what, if I saw this wall of text I probably wouldn’t hahaha.

Before I end this, a funny story about my gear, more specifically my Sony a850, which is my main/only digital camera at the moment is actually a broken yet still working camera. Looking back at photos from two years ago when I got  it’s always been broken. Took me a couple months till I noticed it but the sensor in my camera is shifted and slightly titled. Therefore the right 1/3 of my photos are always noticeable out of focus. yet no one can really notice that on these little web sized photos. You can notice it on the several of my large prints I have up at my place if you get close enough. Even with my 17-35mm F2.8-4 at F16 the right 1/3 of my frame is nowhere near sharp and I’ve had to compensate for it ever since. Part of the reason why you rarely see any portraits I’ve taken where the subject is on the right hand side of the frame. Though if they are 85% of the time I actually held my camera upside down to get that photo in focus (or did a panorama!). Also because of this shift in my sensor you cannot accurately manually focus on my camera, even though the viewfinder shows the subject in focus, the focus actually is quite a bit in front of where I focused in the viewfinder. So I can only rely on autofocus with my camera as manual focus is out of the question. That’s because what you see through my viewfinder is exactly what the sensor sees especially if its out of alignment, and my photos have turned out fine for the past 2 years even with this problem.

One last thing, some more nonsensical rambling since I figure most people won’t make it down here. I wrote this article because during my two years at photography school I met a lot of people that were not as well informed or as experienced as I was when it came to things like this. A lot of people would ask for my opinion when it came to what they should buy next, almost every single time I would advise them to save their money and go cheap because I knew their style and they didn’t need anymore then what I suggested (there was also a number of people that in the end only took both mine and my professors advice with a grain of salt and let greed and the idea of having the best get the better of them… Their photos didn’t get any better with that new toy anyway). So more than half the time they never listen to me and in the end spent their money and got what they wanted in the first place. Though there were a few people who’s opinions I swayed, in the end I’d like to think they got everything they needed and best of all they got to save up for that Lamborghini they’ve always been dreaming of even if they did end up settling for a Toyoto Matrix…

You can read more articles by Anthony Chang on his website http://www.cloudagephoto.com/
Your comments and thoughts are always welcome.