It’s What’s Behind the Camera That Matters

As photographers, it’s very easy to fall into a trap of constantly comparing equipment, buying things you don’t need, and thinking solely about the downfalls and negatives of your current gear. You think “if I just get this specific lens I will take amazing photos” or “if I just get this new body with amazing autofocus I will be so much better”.

This line of thinking is expensive as best, and certainly misguided. Obviously, if you have a stellar fast lens and body with a fantastic sensor, you have the ability to get a much wider variety of shots with much greater clarity than with your phone. Ultimately, however, the basics will never change. As a photographer, you need to be aware of so many things that are not so much tied to gear — such as lighting, composition, timing, and the overall concept that you’re trying to capture.

There’s a saying in photography that “the best camera is the one you have with you”. This essentially means that the most important thing is the actual capture. Whether you are using an iPhone or the latest top-of-the-line Sony mirrorless body, you’re attempting to accomplish the same goal — to get the shot. It’s better to capture the subject in any way whatsoever than to give up a good shot because you’re fiddling with your gear (or it’s not with you).

That is not to say that you shouldn’t know the limitations of your gear. And while preparation is not always possible, when it is, you should be able to think ahead and consider how any such limitations will affect the outcome of the shot. Is your sensor weak in low-light conditions, and consequently the autofocus is not performing well? If you had no other choice, you can use the manual focus and be clever in post with your editing style.

Here’s an example — imagine you’re shooting a dim concert and you have no flash, and the multicolored lighting in the venue is horrible. You can crank your ISO heavily to get some semblance of a clear shot, then once you are editing you can consider desaturating everything and adjusting the image to have the ISO noise look a bit like film noise. Play with the contrast and curves and you can have a pretty good end result from a photography-unfriendly situation.

The most important thing is adaptability. To tie things back together, the capture is ultimately the most important thing. While there are certain kinds of shots that are borderline impossible to (consistently) get without certain kinds of gear, there are also many, many shots that you can be creative with and still capture almost regardless of what you’re using.

If you look at your overall skill level in photography, there are many branches of knowledge. There’s the editing after the fact, there’s lighting (both natural and artificial), there’s the workings of different lenses and the workings of different bodies — the list goes on. It’s only when you are consistently hitting the limits of your gear that you should be looking to upgrade. Otherwise, you should be looking to learn. Learning is much cheaper, and much easier than buying something new and shiny every time you want it.

If you give a top-of-the-line camera to a novice, you will not get good results. If you give an old beater to a professional, you will get good results. If it was the other way around, then photography would not be a profession! People would just buy nice cameras and they would magically get great pictures.

This also means that if you’re looking to pick up photography, you shouldn’t need to immediately splurge on the gear! Use what’s in your pocket — your phone. Or someone’s old camera. Once you have the basics down, you’re going to be in a much better position (and you’ll understand what kinds of shots you like, and whether you ultimately even enjoy photography).

With any skill, photography is constant learning, experimentation, and practice. If you get comfortable, that means you aren’t progressing — so watch out for that. It’s vital to keep challenging yourself, filling in knowledge gaps, getting actionable critique from others, and always always practicing.

In the end, it’s what’s behind the camera that matters. That means you. That means the collective skills that you’ve developed, whether as a professional or a hobbyist. The most valuable photographer is an adaptable photographer, and one that can make do with any situation rather than having to have it be “perfect”.

So there we go. Learning comes first, gear comes second. Don’t be one of those people with a top-of-the-line camera set on full auto.