by Ben Heys, August 7, 2013

Photographers love gear, it’s that simple.  The only thing more fun than finally getting your hands on a new toy to play with is the anticipation of said toy and even the picking out and choosing, reading reviews all that.

I was reminded of this as I poked my head into a new photography forum the other day. As I wandered around I discovered there was one amazingly long thread there. It was the longest thread, by a margin. So long it had been divided into pieces when the old threads hit their post limit and they had to start a new thread just to accommodate the sheer number of posts. This had been done apparently many times, at least half a dozen, as I followed a few links back to previous threads just to see where the rabbit hole began. However after a few clicks back to previous maxed out threads boredom beat out curiosity and I decided to go do something more productive. Which could have been almost anything really.

But what was this thread about? What subject could inspire such obvious interest and you’d think passionate discussion for it to last so long and remain so relevant? In a community of artists and beauty-seekers what could fire up this much activity?

Somewhat disappointingly and I think even perhaps sadly, it was a thread on what piece of gear people wanted to buy next.


The up side of gear

Now don’t get me wrong. Gear is fun. When it’s time to shell out for a new lens or new laptop, even camera bag or tripod then I really enjoy stomping through the internet. It’s great fun digging up reviews and comparisons, weighing features and benefits and coming up with the best combination of price and benefits/power for my needs and budget. That’s when I love going through those 200% crops at ISO 36gazillion to pick out which camera will perform best under these type of conditions (and then maybe once or twice in a body’s lifetime will I even push it past about 800).  I also enjoy going to youtube to find hands on gear reviews by real people of the various potential bits of kit I’m considering, especially bags and the like and I always feel a little bit like a kid waiting for Christmas as I order my new shiny toy and eagerly await it’s arrival in the mail. It’s a process and it can be quite a fun one.

Gear can inspire confidence & open new avenues of exploration. It can bring a little of the joy back to photography and satisfy the child in all of us who loves new toys. However I really think sometimes we can take this love affair with gear just a little bit too seriously.


A curious mindset

This obsession photographers seem to have with gear isn’t much of a secret either.  It’s funny, there’s a few things professional photographers hear a lot when they tell people what they do. But one rather peculiar (I think) phrase crops up more often than you’d think.  It’ll be some variation of “Oh, you must have a good camera then!” and even more often “So what type of camera do you use?”

I’m not sure there are many other professions where one’s tools are so bound up in people’s perception of how good they are at what they do. I’m sure surgeons don’t get comments on the quality of their scalpels, and when you meet a mechanic you don’t go inspecting his toolbox looking for certain brands, do you? Do we inquire as to the make of the vehicle when we book a taxi? And do we immediately wonder which brand of computer a writer types his work on?


The down side of the schwartz

There’s also a more negative aspect to this natural association people seem to have between photographers and gear.  I find many folks I talk to who are keen on getting more seriously into and improving their photography place a dis-proportionate amount of emphasis on the necessity of expensive gear to take the type of shots they’d like to take.

There seems to be a thought in many amateurs minds that to take images like a professional one needs to first have professional gear. You know, the hiking pack camera bag full to the brim with white barreled lenses and accessories. The digital slr that’s way bigger than it has to be because it incorporates (or has an attached) battery pack that lasts for 8 hrs of shooting, because apparently it’s better to lug around a big, heavy camera than it is to take 10 seconds halfway through a day’s shooting to swap a battery. The professional studio in the boat shed out the back loaded up with profoto strobes.

This can be a stifling and creatively destructive assumption to make and is one that in my experience isn’t at all uncommon.


The iphone fashion shoot

black and white artistic image of silhouetted female figure behind sheer cloth - links to tutorial

Click here for a complete tutorial on this look plus more shots from this shoot

There’s one piece of work I often like to try to gently bring into the conversation when chatting with a photography enthusiast who seems to me to be a little hung up on gear. And as much as it irks me to give props, even tangentially, to an apple product that piece of work is, of course, the iphone fashion shoot. Now ok, you probably aren’t going to get those shots submitted in a Vogue editorial, but we are talking about a fricken smart phone camera here. Something the size of the tip of my pinkie finger with about as much glass in it as there is beef in a big mac. And those images are at a level of quality, I dare say, that most that bemoan their lack of gear can only envy.

Another, more personal, example of using a minimal amount gear to it’s fullest potential is the image you can see to the right. This is one of my classic all time images and I couldn’t tell you how many times people have asked me how I lit it. I’ve had all sorts of crazy theories thrown at me over the years, always studio based and normally incorporating 3+ lights. The truth is that the setup for that image was created by pegging a 2$ length of cheesecloth type material I found in a discount bin to my garage door in the early afternoon. I then poured water over Lutetium (the model) and the material, positioned myself inside the garage and asked Lu to push up against the cloth in different ways. With the early afternoon sun over her shoulder her shadow created a silhouette on the sheet and I just clicked away merrily from inside the garage.

It took only minutes to set up, minutes to shoot and yet most people tend to think an image like this takes a mighty production…


The less equipment, the more focus

There are advantages to having a bare min of gear and concentrating instead on the image.  Many photojournalists will get around with a single DSLR and one lens, sometimes even a prime.  They need to move quick and get the shots they want at the very second they want to take them, they can’t be fussed switching and changing lenses or sometimes even reaching for another body/lens combo.

There’s also the example of a few National Geographic photographers that make their entire living on only 1 lens for major chunks of their careers, many others that just use 2 or 3.

Back when I started earning money with a camera I had all of about three pieces of gear: A 10D body, 50mm prime lens and a tripod. A 10D with a 50 prime on it has a bit of a photojournalist kind of look to it. So my gear might not have been typical “professional portrait/model” photographer material. However the resulting 80mm effective point of view on the 1.6x crop 10D had a pleasing enough perspective of models if I used it creatively. Also the prime got me moving, I was always moving in and out, up and down. This led to really pushing to try different angles, lay on the ground, even climbing on top of things and up trees etc to get the images I wanted. Many of them were rubbish but it enabled me to get a wide variety of experimentation every shoot and so I usually got something usable out of most sessions and bit by bit I learned what worked and what didn’t. Although to this day I still retain a little of that chaotic and frantic style of shooting I developed…my point is though that I managed to make quite decent money there for a while shooting on gear that you could get much better than today for a cost of around $1000.

These days I normally travel with just the two lenses, three if I feel in the mood to pack the macro. The two lenses I almost always have on hand are the 24-105 f4L IS & the 70-200 f2.8L IS. Between them they cover a very broad range of focal lengths, only the very short and the very long are left out. I also pack a 2x tele to lengthen that max out to 400 quite easily. I don’t use it much but it’s ultra portable and very light. Packing only 2 lenses means a minimum of lens swapping and they are both equipped with IS (Image Stabilization) which is good for a couple stops to give a bit more flexibility in low light conditions. My entire travel camera kit (minus my tripod which goes in checked luggage) is designed to fit in the one carry on luggage piece which also has to hold my jumper, laptop and book, snacks etc

I also find a distinct advantage to having a small 5D size camera. It means it’s more portable, and is less weight to lug around a long shoot.  However some do like the battery pack for the easy portrait way of shooting (the extra shutter controls on the pack).  That’s a personal thing I guess.  But there is much to be said for having one or two reliable lenses, a body you know inside out and a minimum of other junk to get distracted over or lug around.


Why are so many pro’s all blinged out then if gear doesn’t matter?

So do most professional photographers have professional level gear? yeah sure, many lots of it.  I’m personally rarely without my two L series zooms. But it’s generally as a product of making our living from photography, not the other way around. Expensive gear normally makes things easier, but really that’s about it. Gear is first and foremost about convenience and it should always be thought on that way, so as not to be over-relied on. Now sure for a studio shoot you generally need powerful enough lights of one form or another. If you are belting out lots of such work or are relied upon to shoot commercially in a repeatable fashion then you are going to purchase high quality studio flash gear. The ease with which you can re-configure the lighting to suit the theme of the shot, the long term reliability, the ability to replicate a setup you’ve done before perfectly. It just makes sense.

But this doesn’t mean that you need high quality and expensive studio flash gear to take shots in that style. This is where improvisation and a bit of lateral thinking, experimenting and perhaps more time in setup can make up for what you lack in resources and gear. For anyone that hasn’t checked out strobist you really need to. That’s a great site for getting big light out of small camera mount style flashguns.


Don’t concentrate on the finger

In the famous Bruce Lee quote he says “It’s like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!”  The finger in that metaphor can be many things, but in photography the finger can sometimes be gear.

A camera is a tool, nothing more, nothing less. Tools have helped shaped our culture and intellectual evolution it’s true, but we should never let them limit us. As man’s true tool, the one that makes all others possible and is in fact by such a huge margin his most important is his imagination. Use your imagination. Next time you look at a great shot don’t just think “I wish I could shoot like that” Actually study it and instead ask yourself “How am I GOING to shoot like that?” I’m not advocating copying others shots, but there’s nothing wrong with copying a style, an effect, a lighting position, an emotion and putting your own stamp on it. That’s what art is, an evolution of what has come before. Mixing the ingredients in your own, unique way.

Sure it’s fun to dream about the next bit of gear but I reckon it’s even more fun to use what you have in a creative new way and make some beautiful new images!



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