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Let me start this out by saying I don’t want this to simply be another “gear doesn’t matter… just practice” post. I want to, more specifically, answer a question about why the pros always say “Gear doesn’t matter”, yet they are the ones always shooting the best gear right? It seems contradictory to may people.

Just the other week, I had some one ask an interesting question and I thought I’d share my answer here because it’s an answer I don’t hear enough about. Because constantly saying “Gear doesn’t matter” doesn’t really help anyone. You’re smart enough to realize that that isn’t totally true right? And once you read this, hopefully you’ll understand that maybe gear does matter… sometimes… but sometimes not:

Gear Doesn’t Matter?

The question I received went something like…

Hi Matt… you had mentioned in a video that a digital camera less than 4 years old could take amazing photos. Then near the end of the video you said what camera you use now, and it is one of the higher end ones. So if you use a very expensive camera, then why? If the cheap ones can do just as good as your multi-thousand dollar one, why would you spend your hard earned cash on that expensive one, if you didn’t need it to take great photos. The words out of the mouths of the pros just does not match where they put their money. How come?

The Answer

It’s a fair question, so I thought I’d write more about it here. Here’s what I wrote back:

Hi. Here’s an analogy. What would a pro golfer say to you if you asked them why they use expensive clubs and why not cheaper ones?

If you gave a pro golfer a cheap set of Walmart clubs from 10 years ago, they would go out and still play an amazing round of golf right? Probably better than any one of us reading this would play.

Would they have their best round? Probably not. These less expensive, older clubs are less forgiving. So if you don’t hit directly on the “sweet spot” of the club head, the ball goes off course more than with an expensive club. They’re not made of the good materials, so they probably won’t have the same distance and accuracy either. And what about golf balls. They’re not all created equal. Expensive ones fly better, spin better, and have better “feel” than cheaper ones.

So… while that pro can go out and play with the cheapest set of Walmart clubs, do they do it when they’re about to play an important tournament? Of course not. They realize that they can stack the deck in their favor by using better gear. They realize that their percentage of good shots vs bad ones is better with better gear. (let’s refer to this as the keeper rate)

Let’s bring this back to photography. Can a pro photographer take a photo with a less expensive camera? Of course. Will they get as many keepers, have the same focal length reach, and have the same responsiveness in auto focus, customization, etc… ? Nope!

I never said “you can do just as good” with a lesser camera/lens. I said you can still make great / amazing photos. And that is 100% true. But with better gear, in certain genres of photography, you can do better – which is why you see people (that really want the best quality photo and chances of getting that photo) invest in some of that better gear if they can afford it. 

The 80 / 20 Rule

Put simply, their keeper rate and quality of photos increases with this better gear. The vast majority of a good photo still comes from behind the camera. I person I follow (Steve Perry) refers to this as the 80/20 rule.

80% of the greatness of a photo comes from the person taking the photo. 20% comes from gear. I like that analogy because it recognizes that 20% of photography is indeed about the gear. Anyone that says “gear doesn’t matter” isn’t lying to you. They’re just not filling in the rest of the story.

The Rest of the Story?

You’ve all heard the analogies that go something like:

“Your cooking is amazing… you must have great pots and pans”

“Your paintings are beautiful… you must have great brushes”

The truth is, the chef does have great pots and pans. The painter does have the top of the line brushes to work with. They won’t argue that gear doesn’t matter, because they know that in some ways that equipment does matter when used in the right hands. IF some one says to me, “Wow your camera takes great photos!”, I would answer “Yep it does and I would never want to give it up”. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that gear matters… it matters in every aspect of any hobby and profession out there.

There is a But…

For some people, they have yet to reach that level of proficiency where they’ve max’d out on the 80% part. So adding better gear doesn’t always help. But for some one that is at the level of maxing out that 80% part, better gear gives you more keepers and better results. That’s because you’ve already pushed the 80% part (the person taking the photo) to its max so now you’re upping your chances by improving the 20% part.

You very rarely hear me say gear doesn’t matter. I’ve always been of the mindset that gear doesn’t matter, until it matters… and sometimes it does matter. If you take the same level photographer, who gets themselves in to great light, with an amazing subject, and amazing everything, and give them a lesser camera vs a better one, they will generally make a better photo with the better gear.

The problem is that for most people that ask me about why their gear isn’t performing the way they want, most of the time the gear wasn’t the problem. It was the photographer and the subject they chose to put themselves in front of, the light they chose to photograph it in, and the skills (or lack of) that they used in taking the photo.

Self Awareness

Hopefully that helps shed some light on a very popular topic and question. In the end, I think this boils down to improving your self awareness. It’s something every person reading this (including me) can always be better at. You have to objectively look at the situation and think “am I doing the VERY best in every other area but gear”.

Am I putting myself in front of an AMAZING subject? Am I putting myself in front of that subject in AMAZING light? Do I know my camera so well that I can adapt to the changing circumstances instantly without even thinking about it? Am I being patient enough in finding that amazing shot because I should NOT expect that they just happen? If you answer no to any of those questions while you’re out shooting, then there is a really good chance that gear won’t matter. You may up your keeper rate, but if your keepers are all not following the guidelines above, that won’t matter much will it?

Again, it’s about self awareness. I saw a question recently that started off with “Hi… I’m a VERY advanced photographer….” (yes, very was capitalized). They proceeded to ask a question about something. So out of curiosity I looked up their website. But all I can say is that there was not ONE photo on their site that said “Great!” to me. I suppose they were technically correct in most cases. But when some one says they’re “VERY advanced” I expect a level of proficiency in all areas. And based on the question they asked, their photography was not at that level. That is a person, unfortunately, lacking in self awareness.

So, the next time you’re wondering why people keep saying “Gear doesn’t matter”, and there they are shooting $10,000 worth of photo equipment, hopefully this helps frame that statement a little better and gives you a little ammo to look at yourself and figure out if gear does or doesn’t matter for your photography. Thanks!

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