How Important is Gear?

It's been decades of seeing "gear does/doesn't make the photograph" claims that has made me almost unable to see them anymore (my brain is very good at editing them out now). 

However, as the holiday buying season comes upon us, there's a natural question that comes up about how much impact gear really makes on image quality and/or your enjoyment. Particularly new gear.

If you think about it carefully, we're dealing with a continuum. With no gear, you can't practice photography at all. The best you can do is try to store some more memories in your brain, which will ultimately keep post processing those nuerochromes towards full decay. Thus, you need a camera.

At the other end of the continuum, if someone could make a "perfect" camera—none exist that I know of—your photography could also be perfect, assuming that you read the manual and knew how to compose ;~). 

Consumer Reports just rated dozens of camera/lens combinations, and dozens of them got "CR Recommended" checkmarks. Put a different way, most of the cameras that are on the market today are closer to that "perfect camera" end of the spectrum and obviously well away from the "no camera" end.  

We keep chasing smaller and smaller gains. Technically, at this point in time, there isn't anything I want to do with a camera that I can't already do. Yes, in some cases I have to finesse something or rely some on post processing, but seriously, if you told me that my current gear closet is full and has all the gear I'll ever have, is there any output I can foresee wanting to use in the remainder of my lifetime that I can't produce? 

I can think of only one, and that comes back to Apple's Vision Pro headset and its ability to put you "into" 3D photos, panoramic photos, and videos. I'm not 100% convinced that there wouldn't also be a way to do that with my current gear, though at the moment Apple says only iPhone 15 Pro cameras can capture what you'd need. 

So when I get asked versions of the "does gear matter" question these days, my answer has become "less and less." As I pointed out at my recent presentation at Creative Photo Academy, this even applies to all those recent lenses Nikon has been making. Yes, I can extract a better image from my 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S or the 600mm f/4 TC VR S than I can from all the other Nikkors that hit those focal lengths. But the difference is pretty small in most use cases, and costs US$10,000 or more additional to obtain. The built in teleconverters are also nice, but do you really want to pay that much more money to flip a switch instead of mounting an additional objective? 

Thus, as you gear up for the holidays—possibly literally—think carefully about why it is you're thinking about gear you don't already own. What's your real motivation for upgrading or adding? Moreover, make sure you understand what the cost/benefit ratio of getting something new really is. 

That—cost/benefit—is one of the reasons why I'm hesitant to recommend Nikon's new Zf to Z6 users as an upgrade, for example. In terms of the tech side, the Zf runs rings around the original Z6, even though it uses the same image sensor, shutter, and viewfinder. The problem is that it's a very different camera to use and configure. It handles differently. How are those things going to impact your appreciation of the new abilities and performance? What do you have to learn that's new in order to achieve something different than you're currently achieving?

These are always tough questions. 

I long ago resolved myself to just living in a world of constant change. I grew up in Silicon Valley, I worked most of my career in Silicon Valley, and today I'm surrounded by a lot of gear that came out of ideas/innovations/products from Silicon Valley. I can point to almost any year all the way back to 1975 and show you the disruption that the constant change caused. Punch cards to switch flipping to paper tape to cassettes to floppy disks to hard drives to SSDs is just one of the many tech progressions I've already lived through. Both my curiosity and drive keeps me pushing forward, but I have to say that in many things—for example, word processing—most of the recent changes are really annoyances over substance. 

Thus, as Black Friday and Cyber Monday and all the other Days That Will Be Named come upon you, pay particular attention to that annoyance/substance bit. If something is currently annoying you that can be fixed by a new product, go for it. If a new product gives you little of substance over what you're using, don't buy it. 

Ultimately, though, nothing will have as much impact on your photography as instruction and practice, something I've been preaching (and doing myself) for decades. Gear matters, but brain matter matters more.

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