Selecting the right camera gear: The best camera for you may not be the best camera for everyone
posted Thursday, October 19, 2017 at 6:00 AM EDT
We recently shared a video created by Thomas Heaton, which discussed the importance of gear in the context of comparing APS-C, full-frame and medium format cameras. This is a big topic and as someone who has been asked by many people over the years for camera recommendations, I wanted to throw my own $0.02 out there. I'd like to tackle two related primary questions. Firstly, does gear matter? Secondly, why and how does it matter?
Let's get one thing out of the way quickly, yes, gear matters. It matters for many reasons, but not the least of which is that your camera and lens, no matter the form they take, are the primary and often only tools you have to create a photograph. With the exception of using physical filters and/or editing your images on a computer, your camera is exclusively your photographic tool. No other artist would argue that their choice of tools is irrelevant, so I am perplexed that some photographers argue that gear does not matter.
Gear matters a lot. It's important to unpack that though, because I'm sure some people may take that to mean that you need to have the best available gear or very expensive equipment to take nice photos. This is not what I am saying; I am simply saying that gear matters a great deal for photography. The point is that a better camera does not always mean a better tool for capturing your vision.
Take for instance a photographer who wants to capture images on the street while remaining unnoticed. A big full-frame camera is a bad idea in this case and will impede that photographer's ability to capture their desired images. A small all-in-one compact may not only work better but ultimately result in better candid images because it can go undercover. Similarly, on the other end of the spectrum, someone wanting to capture faraway action in low light, such as sports at night, will need a fast camera and a large telephoto lens. That will be an expensive setup, but anything less simply won't work as well.
Your photographic equipment is important, but the ways in which it matters is context-dependent. What is always true is that the camera and lens you are using matters, but it is not always true that the gear matters in the same way for every photographer and shooting situation. Take me for instance, I focus primarily on landscape photography. This immediately creates a list of demands I place on my gear. A high-resolution camera and lens setup is better-suited for capturing the images I want to capture and ultimately present, either in exhibitions or to clients. The end goal for my images is not for them to be shared on a computer screen, but rather for them to be printed large and viewed within that context. While I thoroughly enjoy using Micro Four Thirds cameras, for example, it is undeniable that for me and what I want to do with a camera, that they are a poorer option than a full-frame DSLR camera. Other considerations include weather-sealing and native lens selection, while aspects such as speed and video features matter much less for me than they might for other users. Gear is as important to me as anyone else, but gear selection will vary in significantly different ways from one photographer to another.
It's critical to understand what you demand from your gear. When someone asks me for camera recommendations, the first thing I do is ask them what their favorite type of photography is and the budget they're working with. There are no universally perfect answers to give when someone asks which camera they should buy, but the type of photography a person wants to do is as good a place to start as any. From there you can often find a solution across a wide range of budgets. There are very few bad cameras released now, but some cameras will be poor choices depending on the planned use. It is wrong to push the idea that someone needs to spend a lot to find the right camera for them. For example, the Nikon D5 is a phenomenal camera, but it is not the right camera for me. A Nikon D850 or D750 would be better options and they're significantly less expensive.
To circle back on the original question, I hope it's clear that yes, gear matters. Buying a "better" camera does not mean that you have selected gear that is better for you. There is no question that a Fujifilm GFX 50S captures better images in basically every possible situation than a Fujifilm X-T20. That does not mean that for many photographers and their personal goals that the GFX is the appropriate tool for their photography.
When this topic is discussed, people often say things about how it's who is behind the camera that matters the most, not the camera they're using. I think that's true, but for a different reason. I think it's the planned use of the images captured by the person behind the camera that matters most because it immediately sets the parameters for selecting the right tool for the job. Photographic skills aside, your specific needs and a budget you are comfortable with should be the factors driving gear selection.