Gear Doesn’t Matter – Except When it Does

When I was a teenager, I got my first “real” camera, a Yashica SLR (single-lens-reflex; the kind where you look through the actual lens). My brother-in-law Larry, who taught me how to work in a darkroom, congratulated me on the new camera, but reminded me that Ansel Adams could take a better picture with a pinhole camera than Larry or I could with my fancy new camera.

Larry is a good teacher and I still accept as an article of faith that photography is more about the photographer than the camera, but with experience I realize Larry’s comment was not fully qualified. Yes, Ansel Adams could have outshot me with a pinhole camera for Landscapes or Still Lifes, or any number of subjects, but he could not have done this:

Or this:

Or this:

Actually, Mr. Adams was a very resourceful guy, so who knows, but my point is that I see a lot of people trying to use point-and-shoot cameras, cell phone cameras, and SLRs with short, slow lenses at theater, dance and sporting events. Folks, I have excellent equipment for theater and dance, and it has taken me years of practice just to get mediocre. I cannot blame my equipment, but you might be able to blame yours. Try it, it’s fun.

Now don’t get me wrong: the first principle of this website is: If you like it, it’s good. But if you don’t like the results you’re getting, and you’ve done your homework on technique, composition, and light, it could be your equipment. Yes, we reflexively say that “a poor workman blames his tools,” but a good workman chooses the right tools for the job at hand.

Compact digital cameras have very small sensors, which limits their low light sensitivity. They also tend to hesitate between your press of the button and the opening of the shutter, making it very hard to capture moving subjects. Many new parents buy entry-level SLRs after taking hundreds of images of the empty space where their child had been just a second ago. That said, most compact cameras can produce excellent images of most subjects.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching Brian DePalma movies, it’s that you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. Of course, a knife is a great tool for knife fights, and also for day-to-day tasks around the house. My pocketknife is the three-megapixel camera in my iPhone, with which I took these photos:

But I wouldn’t try to shoot this with a phone:

This image required a long lens because of the distance to the ape, and a flash unit to balance the bright sun. One would not necessarily need a fast lens or a powerful flash for a shot like this, but a slow lens or a compact camera might not render the background out of focus. Narrow depth of field isolates the subject in this image.

Those of you who wish to create art with your camera should check out Chase Jarvis’s “The Best Camera is the One That’s With You,” a collection of images made with his cell phone. Beware: you’ll have trouble complaining about your gear afterwards.

However, those of you who want or need to shoot moving subjects or other, more specialized scenarios, feel free to lust after bigger sensors, faster lenses, and more exotic lighting paraphernalia. Just don’t lie to yourself: make sure you know how to stretch the limits of what you’ve got before you spend thousands of dollars, only to discover that new gear hasn’t solved your problem.

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