The Folly of “Gear Doesn’t Matter” and Similar, Poor Advice

I get it. You’re trying to give new photographers advice on how to go about buying gear and attempting to steer them away from making the same mistakes you’ve made in the past. That mistake is one we’ve all made: buying gear to compensate for a lack of skill or poor technique. Eventually, every photographer comes to the epiphany that the composition matters far more than what you captured it with as the viewer doesn’t care how you got the shot… they care only about the shot itself. Thus the “gear doesn’t matter” mantra was born and is parroted at every new photographer contemplating a purchase.

In some cases, this is purposely harmful. Some photographers, for whatever reason, will attempt to hold others back by giving this “advice.” However, this is not all of them or even most of them. For them, it seems to boost their ego to imply that someone else sucks because they’re buying gear. Ignore them, as they should be.

The majority are truly attempting to be helpful but are simply lazy. Instead of asking the person how they arrived at this decision, they simply drop “gear doesn’t matter” and walk away. Another thing they all share: they’ve all done it themselves. None of them listened to their own advice. NONE. When some of them say, “I know from experience,” they truly do… just don’t listen to them.

Wisdom, experience and knowledge are similar but they are NOT the same.

Knowledge is facts that are taught and learned. Experience is knowledge gained first-hand. Wisdom is experience, combined with knowledge, over time. By advising someone that “gear doesn’t matter,” you’re trying to instill your experience and wisdom into someone else as knowledge. You believe you’re saving them from the frustration and cost of experience when in fact you’re robbing them of it. Even worse, it’s hypocritical to advise someone to “go out and shoot,” to learn through experience, but then try to rob them of that very experience when it comes to purchasing gear.

Buy cheap, buy twice.

Take for example the humble tripod. The adage above expresses the fact that if you need a tripod in your photography, buying a cheap one will only result in buying a more expensive one later as a cheap tripod will not meet your needs, both immediately and as you develop. You just don’t know it yet. Sure, everyone tries to offer this knowledge, backed by decades of wisdom, but most don’t listen. I know I didn’t. I had to feel the financial pain of experience, that very experience others had warned me about. While it cost me a few hundred bucks as I bought 3 tripods when I should’ve listened and just bought a great one the first time around, what I got for my money was experience… experience I’m able to use from then on. Value, rather than price alone, is now something I calculate before every purchase I make. I never would have gained this wisdom had I avoided the experience, leaving the lesson to possibly be learned with something else. Granted, I’ve made the same mistake since with other things, to be honest.

The worst case for this is when a mentor doesn’t know their potential mentee’s situation. Maybe they’ve owned a camera for a bit and landed on a niche that suits them. In that process, they’ve discovered they lack the gear necessary to make their vision complete or that the gear they’ve chosen doesn’t meet the needs of their niche. Without knowing this, the mentor then advises they “go out and shoot more” and ignore gear purchases or upgrades. Advise they go get more experience but avoid the experience of a gear purchase? For instance, a tripod isn’t mandatory for landscape photography, but it will make things easier and expand their capability… so why would you advise against buying one?

Gear won’t make you a better photographer, but it can make it easier to accomplish your goals if you purchase the right equipment. Blindly advising someone that “gear doesn’t matter” just isn’t helpful. Certain cameras make certain types of photography easier. Lenses can give you the necessary reach, specific looks and access to your subject. Lighting and modifiers reduce your reliance on natural light. Filters help mitigate certain lighting conditions. Stands and tripods can make longer shutter speeds useful. Some items may be required for the niche you enjoy, others may just make it easier or more consistent. None will make your photos better but all will help you take better photos to some degree.

Then there’s the experience of turning your hobby into a money pit. I’m sure most who spew this advice are just trying to help others avoid the heartache and wallet pain associated with believing money will solve experience and knowledge issues. Some people can afford more and those with less may spew this “insight” out of jealousy. The worst ones will say things like, “the camera you have is far better than you’ll ever be,” or “that camera is far more capable than you are.” Are they right? Yes, but nobody could outperform the camera they have these days, not even themselves. There may be good intentions at the source of statements like that, but they’ve long since been corrupted by the arrogant and jealous attitudes of those who’d say it. Get whatever camera you can afford that inspires you to use it and ignore them.

If you can comfortably afford a Fujifilm GFX100 as your first camera, and it inspires you to be creative, buy it. Just don’t buy it believing that it will take award winning photographs more easily than any other camera because it can’t. Great photographs start with the photographer and is no more responsible for art than a paintbrush is for a painter.

For most, experience is the only teacher. Here’s where a lesser human will inject the “hot stove” analogy, no matter how much it doesn’t apply. You don’t have to get burned to learn a lesson, as observation, like putting your hand near the stove to feel the heat without getting burned, is just as important when it comes to learning. For those who choose to learn from the hot stove analogy, they’re robbing themselves of experience by accepting knowledge instead. The result is not wisdom… it’s purely an accumulation of knowledge.

You can’t play the blues convincingly by observing someone else’s heartaches.

For those on the precipice of taking the next step in their photography, go out and spend the money. Experience just how a gear purchase can be ineffectual to your goals directly and learn through that experience on what, and when, you need to spend money and, more importantly, when not to. Until you experience that lesson, you’ll need the wisdom and knowledge of others to make progress at certain steps, and that’s not proper growth. For some, all it takes is one or two purchases before they realize that money is no substitute for experience or education… for others, it could take thousands of dollars before they finally have an epiphany. Yet many others will quit during the process, falsely believing they don’t have the necessary funds to achieve their photographic goals.

If you can afford to spend, and that brings you enjoyment, by all means spend. Just don’t hope for it to increase your creativity and improve your photographs. For those of us who can’t, don’t. Take the slower track by being more deliberate in both your learning and your spending. Develop creative ways to overcome a lack of gear or money to achieve your creative vision.

There is one saying in all of this that WILL apply to both the big spenders and frugal photographers:

Necessity is the mother of invention.

“Gear doesn’t matter” is contradictory and attempts to confuse knowledge with experience via someone else’s wisdom, especially when given along with “go out there and shoot more.” Instead, necessity and limitation forces one to find creative solutions to achieve their goals. It’s all encapsulated in the idea that failure helps hone one’s edge by experiencing what doesn’t work to know what does. Trying to rob someone of that experience by way of a shortcut, no matter how well intentioned, is still detrimental to learning. The best photographers are the ones who are trying new things more often. Most of these ideas don’t work but the ones that do end up changing viewers’ perceptions and capturing their imaginations.

If you want to be a mentor, share your wisdom, experience and knowledge but know your mentee also needs experience to gain their own wisdom. Listen to their needs so you can dole out more meaningful advice. Sometimes the answer truly is, “yes, gear matters.” If it didn’t, and all that mattered was the result, we’d all be photographing sports with much faster, further reaching and cheaper APS-C cameras. Instead, you have sports photographers using 35mm cameras, who’d never consider trading in their camera for APS-C, advising new shooters that “gear doesn’t matter.” Hopefully you now see the folly in that advice.

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