Gear Realities

As someone who has had the great fortune to make good money and acquire a fairly extensive set of pro cameras & lenses, I thought I'd offer my personal insight into the age old question/fear of whether gear matters and if so, how much. I have used and upgraded lots of gear over the last 6 years or so since getting back into (D)SLR photography, so here are my thoughts.

The following discussion assumes good or maybe even great technique. This is a critically-important assumption as technique matters far more than equipment. The best gear in poor hands will always yield poor results, but that's a matter for another post, so we'll just go with the assumption for now. What follows is my personal opinion from where gear is least helpful to most helpful.

General Photography
Generally, a Rebel body with a kit lens will deliver excellent photos of most general subjects. Even in low light, the IS & STM work quite well unless the subject is moving. In good light, even sports and other difficult subjects can be captured with lenses like the 55-250 if the photographer has good instincts in terms of when to press the shutter.

Portraiture
The first step up in terms of gear helping is probably portraiture. The kit lenses are slow in terms of aperture making it harder to get that great shallow DOF style. Here, camera bodies matter very little other than to direct your lens choice, generally 50-85mm for crop, 85-135 for full frame. An aperture of f/1.2 to 2.8 is best and will give you a big step up from the kit lens. Standard EF primes work very well, though you don't need a fast lens if you shoot in a studio as you'll typically be at f/8-f/11 for most shots. What you save on cameras & lenses can easily be spent on lighting gear, but that's another topic. Just know that reflectors and diffusers used outdoors can acheive excellent results for very little money. The model/subject and your connection with them and their poses is the most important factor in getting great shots.

Landscape
The next step up is landscape photography. There are now a number of excellent wide and ultra-wide angle lenses for crop bodies, so the advantage of full frame in that regard is fading. Better bodies and equipment give you two real-world advantages - better durability and weather sealing for outdoor use, and better shadows in low light. If you don't hike to far away or rugged places or shoot before or after sunset in windy conditions where you need ISO 1600 to hold up in big prints, a Rebel body and one of the newer Canon or Sigma ultrawide zooms will serve you well. If you don't believe me, take a look at some of the winning landscape photos from major contests in the last few years. Most have been shot with crop sensors. One other thing worth mentioning are Tilt-shift lenses. While they are by no means necessary and won't revolutionize your work, they can give you unique shots and better control over DOF. They aren't easy to use, aren't weather sealed, and are all expensive manual focus primes, so these are best used once you've mastered landscape photography.

Macro
From there, I suppose macro photography is the next place where lenses and cameras make a difference. Macro shots are a bit misleading, though, as many of the zooms with short minimum focus distances work very well for close-up shots. What I'm talking about here is 0.5x (1:2) to 1x (1:1) and beyond. A true macro lens will make a huge difference here as you can get much closer, but focus tubes can work quite well with many lenses at a much lower cost. The 25mm tube and the old 24-70L took excellent photos and I used it a lot before I got a macro lens. One you start macro, you'll also realize that you're likely to need a lot of light. That means getting a macro flash, or a body that does well above ISO 1600, or both. I took lots of great photos without them, but trying to shoot a small flower in light wind at ISO800 is a serious exercise in patience. If you shoot still subjects indoors, there's no need to worry about, but for moving subjects or low light, it's important. Finally, focus rails and software like Helicon Focus can allow you to "focus stack" shots giving you much greater creative freedom, but again, it's not necessary.

Architecture
This is another specialty area where normal equipment can be used, but specialized equipment can make a big difference in your work. Full frame bodies aren't need for low light, but they allow you to use fisheye lenses and wide angles with complete freedom, but lenses like the Sigma 8-16 and third-party fisheyes can work with crop cameras. The exception are tilt shift lenses, which will give your work a professional edge. The TS-E 17 & 24 are able to straighten lines, give you better DOF and overcome issues that leveling the camera & cropping the photo simply can't overcome. If you can't afford this stuff, don't give up, though. A crop camera and a ultra-wide zoom + standard kit zoom will get you started and can generate excellent results in most situations if you take the time to learn how to use them and how to shoot architecture.

Event Photography
If you shoot weddings or other events, you will need to invest in better equipment. Fast lenses, especially f/2.8 zooms and flashes are very helpful to have. You will also need to have a back up camera, lens, and flash in case your main gear fails and to use for quick moments when you can't change lenses. More durable bodies and lenses are good to have as your gear will take a knocking. For some events, having a high end body with a fast frame rate and high ISO capabilities is also necessary if your subjects move quickly or the lighting is poor.

Sports & Wildlife Photography
As I said in the beginning, in good light, with good reflexes (and pre-focus) even the lowliest gear can capture great sports photos in the right hands. Think about the great sports photos before autofocus and digital...

Unfortunately, if you're serious about shooting fast-moving subjects (athletes, birds, animals, etc.) a camera with a 6+ FPS frame rate is going to be very useful. If you're getting paid, I would say it's mandatory unless you have incredible reflexes and anticipation skills. That doesn't mean you'll be holding down the shutter the whole game/time, but in quick bursts to catch the peak moment and using AI Servo mode to track the subject(s).

If you want to shoot those same subjects in low light or very low light, plan on getting a high end pro body (5DIII or 1D X). The same goes for lens choices. Athletes and wildlife are very sensitive about having cameras in their face, so telephoto lenses are needed for most shots, and lenses with a f/2 to f/4 aperture will help stop motion and allow good AF in low light.

Finally, I won't cover astrophotography or many other genres where specialized gear is essential. I think that's obvious :)

Summary
So in summary, the answer is - it depends. A good photographer can take good photos with any gear (see the DigitalRev series for proof), but gear does help some or a lot depending on what you shoot.
 

neuroanatomist

I post too Much on Here!!
CR Pro
Jul 21, 2010
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Nice summary, with one glaring omission…you completely forgot to discuss the gear considerations for cat photography!

;)
 
neuroanatomist said:
Nice summary, with one glaring omission…you completely forgot to discuss the gear considerations for cat photography!

;)
Damn, that's true! From personal experience, I can tell you that the 1D X + 300 f/2.8 II IS is nowhere near enough as they can still sense I'm there and they move way too fast for AI Servo tracking at 12 FPS + 1/8000s ;). On the other hand, even the camera on my phone works well during the other 18 hours of the day when they're asleep...
 

Dylan777

EOS-1D X Mark III
Nov 17, 2011
5,514
8
I still want to shoot with my 1dx + L lenses, regardless what situation I'm in :)
 

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DominoDude said:
Bloody well done, Mackguyver! You've certainly put together a great summary.
Thanks!

Dylan777 said:
I still want to shoot with my 1dx + L lenses, regardless what situation I'm in :)
Dylan, I understand and we have totally spoiled ourselves with this gear and it truly is a pleasure to shoot with it. However, looking back at shots I took with my Rebel XSi/450D + 50 f/1.4 (portraits), Tokina 11-16 (landscapes), and 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 IS or 400 f/5.6L (wildlife), it's amazing what can be achieved with less expensive gear. Some of my best and many of my favorite shots were taken with that gear.
 

Besisika

How can you stand out, if you do like evrybdy else
Mar 25, 2014
747
168
Montreal
mackguyver said:
Summary
So in summary, the answer is - it depends. A good photographer can take good photos with any gear (see the DigitalRev series for proof), but gear does help some or a lot depending on what you shoot.

** So in summary, the answer is - it depends.
Very true

** but gear does help some or a lot depending on what you shoot
True again

** A good photographer can take good photos with any gear
Hmmmmm ! let me think; give him a T1i with a kit lens to shoot boxing fights under dim lighting - you are going to wait 10 years for him to deliver 13 acceptable images for your photo story.


** I still want to shoot with my 1dx + L lenses, regardless what situation I'm in
+1
That's why I bought it. I cannot afford to miss too many opportunities, or going home only with one good shot because I am a "good photographer". Good musicians play with their respective best instruments.
 

Don Haines

Beware of cats with laser eyes!
Jun 4, 2012
8,265
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Canada
mackguyver said:
neuroanatomist said:
Nice summary, with one glaring omission…you completely forgot to discuss the gear considerations for cat photography!

;)
Damn, that's true! From personal experience, I can tell you that the 1D X + 300 f/2.8 II IS is nowhere near enough as they can still sense I'm there and they move way too fast for AI Servo tracking at 12 FPS + 1/8000s ;). On the other hand, even the camera on my phone works well during the other 18 hours of the day when they're asleep...

I remember trying to take pictures of a kitten playing in a paper bag with a P/S camera. The camera would strobe the flash before every shot, at which the kitten ducked back into the bag, and I ended with lots of pictures of paper bags and no pictures of kittens... Although I firmly believe that the photographer is the most important factor, there are definitely cases where gear matters!
 

FTb-n

Canonet QL17 GIII
Sep 22, 2012
533
8
St. Paul, MN
I do marvel at the great sports photos of yesteryear with the seemingly limited F1 body with a 250 exposure back and 3 fps motor drive. I'm shooting my kids' sports events with a 5D3 and 70-200 f2.8 II in the same high school gym where I shot yearbook photos as a student with an FTb-n loaded with ASA 400 Tri-X. I constantly wonder what shots I could have captured as a student if I had today's gear.

Best advice that I heard was to wait until your gear is holding you back before upgrading. For me, I was constantly pushing the ISO limit of my Rebel XT when moved up to the 60D. Then I pushed the 60D to its focusing limits before moving to the 7D. I was convinced that this was THE camera for me, but I kept relying on NoiseNinja to cleanup high ISO images until I finally took the plunge with the 5D3. So far, the 5D3 is handling my needs quite nicely. There may be a 1Dx in my future, but not any time soon.

Arguably, this may have been a more expensive path from the XT to the 5D3. But, it proved to be a necessary path to prove to myself that I could actually leverage the benefits of the 5D3 and shoot enough photos to justify the cost.

Decades ago, I sold cameras at Target and learned two things about a buyer's tendencies. First, it can be quite tempting to be drawn to the fancy gadgetry of the latest and greatest camera. It's the awe for the technology that inspired these sales. Second, it is easy for the less experienced photographer to confuse more automated modes with advanced photo gear and be sold on the idea that such automation can fill the void of experience and talent. These are buyers who look for "cameras that take great pictures" rather than looking at cameras for "photographers who take great photos".
 
Besisika said:
** A good photographer can take good photos with any gear
Hmmmmm ! let me think; give him a T1i with a kit lens to shoot boxing fights under dim lighting - you are going to wait 10 years for him to deliver 13 acceptable images for your photo story.
If you prefocus, use high ISO and something like DxO PRIME, I think it's doable to cover a fight like that. Not easy, not suitable for large prints maybe, but definitely doable. If you're getting paid for the shots, though, it makes sense to have appropriate gear. I have covered a dance production in a very dark theater with a Rebel XSi/450D and 50 f/1.4 lens with great results. I got better shots than the person they hired with his Nikon D3 and pro lenses, actually :). I have also had excellent results with the same Rebel XSi/450D and the 135 f/2 lens sitting in the cheap seats. In fact, the 2010 Miss Florida USA is using my photo (without permission or credit, but I'm not losing any sleep over it) instead of the official photo ;D. It's the photo of her being crowned, 4th row, center on this page. It's not the world's best photo, but my timing was better, and it was taken with the XSi + 135 f/2.
 

Dylan777

EOS-1D X Mark III
Nov 17, 2011
5,514
8
mackguyver said:
Dylan777 said:
I still want to shoot with my 1dx + L lenses, regardless what situation I'm in :)
Dylan, I understand and we have totally spoiled ourselves with this gear and it truly is a pleasure to shoot with it. However, looking back at shots I took with my Rebel XSi/450D + 50 f/1.4 (portraits), Tokina 11-16 (landscapes), and 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 IS or 400 f/5.6L (wildlife), it's amazing what can be achieved with less expensive gear. Some of my best and many of my favorite shots were taken with that gear.
Agree, it can be done. It just harder and more frustrating to get the shots.

I'm in the fav. of new Tech. It helps to get the job done right and easier. You get to bring your works to the clients faster = compensation in the bank sooner. Great for both parties :)

I might be in the minority, but I do not believe in "gear doesn't matter" theory. You can't win a race if your race car doesn't have speed, regardless, how good the driver is.
 

Don Haines

Beware of cats with laser eyes!
Jun 4, 2012
8,265
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mackguyver said:
However, looking back at shots I took with my Rebel XSi/450D + 50 f/1.4 (portraits), Tokina 11-16 (landscapes), and 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 IS or 400 f/5.6L (wildlife), it's amazing what can be achieved with less expensive gear. Some of my best and many of my favorite shots were taken with that gear.
One of my favourite pictures was taken with a 2.1Mpixel P/S camera in 2001.
 

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Besisika

How can you stand out, if you do like evrybdy else
Mar 25, 2014
747
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mackguyver said:
Besisika said:
** A good photographer can take good photos with any gear
Hmmmmm ! let me think; give him a T1i with a kit lens to shoot boxing fights under dim lighting - you are going to wait 10 years for him to deliver 13 acceptable images for your photo story.
If you prefocus, use high ISO and something like DxO PRIME, I think it's doable to cover a fight like that. Not easy, not suitable for large prints maybe, but definitely doable. If you're getting paid for the shots, though, it makes sense to have appropriate gear. I have covered a dance production in a very dark theater with a Rebel XSi/450D and 50 f/1.4 lens with great results. I got better shots than the person they hired with his Nikon D3 and pro lenses, actually :). I have also had excellent results with the same Rebel XSi/450D and the 135 f/2 lens sitting in the cheap seats. In fact, the 2010 Miss Florida USA is using my photo (without permission or credit, but I'm not losing any sleep over it) instead of the official photo ;D. It's the photo of her being crowned, 4th row, center on this page. It's not the world's best photo, but my timing was better, and it was taken with the XSi + 135 f/2.

I See what you mean!
 

Mt Spokane Photography

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Mar 25, 2011
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First of all, a good photographer who knows the limitations of his equipment and how to work around them can pretty much capture most situations.

However, it does get easier with better equipment. Trying to take fast action photos in limited light just plain requires fast lenses and a FF allows for faster shutter speeds with low noise.

I compared my 7D with my 5D MK II and later 5D MK III for low light theater use, and the 7D images really suffered from noise if a high ISO was used, or from blur if a slow shutter was used. In the end, I just stopped using it as a 2nd camera because so few shots from the 7D made it into the final selection.

With the cost of used FF 5D MK I's, I'd always grab one of them over a rebel. I see one locally for a good price, but I have too many cameras right now already, and I want to see what FF body comes out next year. Chances are that I'd go for a new lens rather than new body unless a miracle occurs and there is a breakthrough in sensor technology that I can't resist.
 

3kramd5

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Mar 2, 2012
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neuroanatomist said:
Nice summary, with one glaring omission…you completely forgot to discuss the gear considerations for cat photography!

;)

Not to mention book plagiarism photography, which requires pro high FPS bodies, super zoom lenses, and third party speedlights.
 

Jeffrey

EOS M6 Mark II
Jul 11, 2012
74
0
Nicely stated, mackguyver!

I'm one who believes in taking a gun to a knife fight. So, I buy equipment that might be slightly beyond my skills set at that time and work towards growing into the better equipment. I'm not so much interested in buying new equipment at this point as I am using the great equipment I am so lucky to own. Oh I might buy a trigger to photograph lightning but that would be about it.

I don't use 600mm lenses often enough to own one, but they are easy to rent and return.

All of that being said, the cliche about the best camera is the one you have in your hand is usually true. I've had great luck with my Ricoh GR, and thoroughly enjoy shooting my 1D-X. And, I am very happy with both cameras!
 

kennephoto

EOS RP
Jun 7, 2012
322
0
36
Minnesota
tat3406 said:
The most gear demand photography is test chart photography! ;D

Some of you people seem to make me laugh more than I should on this forum! Speaking of cat photography, my cat in the backyard taken with the very iPad mini I am posting with.
 

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AcutancePhotography

EOS 5D Mark IV
May 8, 2013
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Besisika said:
Hmmmmm ! let me think; give him a T1i with a kit lens to shoot boxing fights under dim lighting - you are going to wait 10 years for him to deliver 13 acceptable images for your photo story.

Dunno about that. I imagine that there were quite a few really good boxing photographs taken even before the advent of digital cameras. ;)

Just do an image search on The Googles and see some of the excellent shots made by photographers who really knew the sport and could anticipate. You could not spray and pray with a speedgraphic. ;D

I think a good photographer who is experienced and knowledgable about boxing could take pretty good pictures with pretty much any DSLR.
 

neuroanatomist

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Jul 21, 2010
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AcutancePhotography said:
Besisika said:
Hmmmmm ! let me think; give him a T1i with a kit lens to shoot boxing fights under dim lighting - you are going to wait 10 years for him to deliver 13 acceptable images for your photo story.

Dunno about that. I imagine that there were quite a few really good boxing photographs taken even before the advent of digital cameras. ;)

Just do an image search on The Googles and see some of the excellent shots made by photographers who really knew the sport and could anticipate. You could not spray and pray with a speedgraphic.

Professional boxing, sure...the ring is always brightly lit. I've shot amateur boxing where I needed ISO 6400 at f/2-2.8 to get barely adequate shutter speeds. I've used ISO 6400 film (well, Delta 3200 pushed a stop), pretty grainy stuff...
 
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