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For the Love of Photo Gear

Things would really take off for me if I just had a little more gear.

Ever thought this? I have. I love gear. It's like when I was a kid and I had a paper route that paid about $130/month. My brother and I would collect our riches and go to the mall to exchange it for valuable things. One of these times, I wanted to buy Dragon Warrior III. Let's be honest though. That was one of the best games ever made. I asked my dad if I could buy it. He said, "If you think that's the right thing to do, then okay." So I immediately went in and spent $60 on that game, which I played several times through.

Gear is like when you later go with your big brother to the other game store and spend the rest of your money on Magic Cards. Because you'd really be going places if you just had a couple of the rare cards you're missing. And you could sell the other rares back to the store to get more money to buy more card packs with.

It's like when you're a teenager and you have your first car, which is a piece of junk worth $3,000, and then you spend all of the wages from your summer job, which are more than $3000, putting in a stereo system and a loud exhaust system and a cold air intake on the car. Awesome.

I used to play table tennis competitively (you can call it ping pong. I'm not a snob), and I had some really nice gear. I had two paddles, each of which cost me about $130. I had them custom made with agressive rubbers (yes, they're called rubbers), and with custom wood that had some good spring at the cost of some control. The rubbers were nice and tacky which made it possible for me to achieve the spin I wanted. It was the perfect fit for my playing style. I would go to ping pong clubs several times a week to practice and try to reach new levels of skill. There were always these certain types of guys there (I'm not sexist. There were literally no women there) who would come up to me to talk gear before we started playing. They wanted to know what wood and what rubbers I had, and where I got them, and then would eagerly show me their paddle and tell me about what brand it was and what year it came out, etc. I just wanted to play ping pong.

I've noticed the same pattern among photographers. There are some photographers who take pictures, and then there is a horde of others who use cameras, but mostly just are connoisseurs of camera gear. They must just do photo shoots so they can try out their gear. Because every time I've been to a group photography event, or brought a camera to class back in college, I would suddenly be surrounded by gear collectors asking what I shoot with and all I would hear about was what new cameras are coming out and what they shoot with and all of this. They were almost always disappointed when I told them what I shoot with. But I wasn't embarrassed.

This is a shot I did back in college on a Canon t3i. A tiny, prosumer, crop-sensor camera really intended for video. In fact, that camera was made shortly after DSLR video was a thing. This shot was printed in Popular Photography.

These days I have access to great gear. I can get a 5DIII whenever I need one. But do I own nice gear? Still a t3i. The same one. I had a Red Scarlet Dragon. That's really nice gear. Sold it. Hopefully, if you're a gearhead, this will drive you crazy. "How can you not want really nice gear?!" Well I do. Like I said, I love gear. If I won a 5DIII in a contest, I'd certainly enjoy that. A 5D is way better than the t3i. When I shoot with the t3i, I feel like I can hardly see what I'm doing through the eyehole.

But what is gear? Is it your central focus? Do you shoot jobs so you can afford gear? Or do you get the gear you need to do jobs well? Do you buy gear so you can tell people what gear you have? Does that help you progress in a photography career?

If you have no intention of making money as a photographer, this article really isn't for you. Photography and its associated gear is a fantastic hobby, and there's nothing wrong with being a collector. This article is for people who WANT to do photography professionally but can't figure out why they can't seem to get there. "I have all the best gear and I still can't get a job!" There are lots of possible reasons, but if you are obsessed with the latest and greatest gear, that may be a clue that you are my intended audience.

Gear-obsession is a mud-pit you and your fellow pigs wallow around in. It's cud, and you're just chewing it over and over. It's your tail, and you won't stop chasing it. Gear ONLY matters insofar as it allows you to create great work. Gear is the means to an end, not the end in itself. Having great gear can be a terrific ego boost, but if your true goal is success, you have to let your ego go. Pro photography success requires the same attitudes and sensibilities as success in other professions, including cost/benefit analysis. I have worked for a few companies as a full-time photographer now, and all of them are slow to purchase the best gear unless there will be a demonstrable improvement in the images they will receive from that new gear. There is no interest in having profoto strobes for the sake of "looking professional" if the Alien Bees will create the same result. And if you want photography to be your business, it's important to think the same way.

I have owned the mother of all gear. The Red Scarlet. There were honestly people who wanted to work with me solely because I owned that camera. Also honestly, none of them were paying. The people who worship your gear are generally the people who can't afford to rent it. And if they can't afford to rent a Red, they're probably not going to be able to afford to pay you. That camera produces excellent results. But isn't it more effective to rent one when it is needed than it is to hold it while it depreciates, and while you cross your fingers and hope that one day that job will come? The gear doesn't get the work. A good portfolio and good marketing gets the work. There is almost no relationship at all between great gear and a successful business. It's just a tool. Like a cell phone. You probably should have one for running a business. Or a computer. Or a car. It's not special. It's a tool.

That camera right there is just a wrench. You are special. What people really care about is your vision, and your ability to execute it. If you need a $25,000 camera to execute your vision, so be it. If you don't, then stop coveting it. A Canon 6D has been great for me. I've shot some things on a 5D. I've shot on a Phase One. I'm using those cameras to get a result. And when you're hired, people are hiring you to achieve a result. Not to look like someone who can. And if you can learn to make great photos with lame gear, imagine what you can do when you do get your hands on something of higher quality.

So my message to you is, stop coveting. Stop collecting. Stop spending every dollar you make on gear. Start investing in yourself. You are your product. You are the source of your images. Practice, experiment and learn. Someday, when your images are good enough, the people that matter aren't going to really care how you made it. They will just want you to be on their team because they value you.

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