I’ll actually go the opposite way: do buy the best gear you can afford…
…as long as you are well aware of two important pitfalls
GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome
Basically GAS is a compulsion to buy gear with the only purpose of buying the latest and greatest gear but with the false reasonable justification that it will greatly contribute improving photography skills. It’s similar to be happy with your one-year-old iPhone and still queuing at the Apple Store to buy the new one, except that with photography it is easier to rationally justify. In Canon circles it is also known as the L-disease (L for the luxury line of lenses designed by Canon for pro), and even split between the mild form and the strong form, ie the mild is to only buy the less expensive (mostly black colour) set of lenses and the strong one including the purchase of the very big white guns which sets you down by more than 10’000 USD a piece. Birders tend to be affected by the strongest form of the disease…
More seriously this habit, similar to shopaholism (technically Oniomania), can be very destructive to both your photography and, more importantly, your life and eventually your family. Something to be aware of continuously… as the marketing of camera makers (All of them) has well understood it and does not hesitate to play on every possible trick in the book to make you buy.
Even worse, it does not stop at purchasing, it is even more acute with updates. Current owners should not forget that
a great lens, that made a living for many pro photographers for years
does not become crappy just the minute its successor is announced,
even if it’s successor delivers stellar image quality.
Better, Faster, Smarter…
Usually (unless you are some oil prince or Internet mogul) people start buying a consumer camera and upgrade from there. Many stay there happy to make snapshots and record life events, other will perfect their knowledge of their camera, its capabilities, its limitations and they come with amazingly creative images. Sometimes, as their gear is smaller, lighter than more advanced models, they come up with shoots impossible or much harder to achieve with pro-gear. However, helped by the marketing of camera makers, most will upgrade to newer and/or more advanced gear. That’s good too, you’ll have a camera with more capabilities, less limitations, your skill are transferable from your old camera to the new one (as you are likely to continue in the same camera system) and eventually as you’ll like the new camera more, you’ll shoot more often thus gathering more experience and sharpening your skills, thus proving the point that upgrading was a good thing in the first place.
“all that is good, right?“
Well yes it is, but there is a point where the only camera body you can upgrade to is the ultimate pro body of your camera system. If like me and many others like me, you are an amateur not formally trained in photography technique, your photography quality might decline after you make that last upgrade. Mind you this is not always the case, but I know more than one amateur photographer who went that way for a while.
I believe the reason is that with a super pro body we tend to become careless, lazy and let the camera take control for us. Partly because for a while we are overwhelmed by the capabilities of our new camera. Like a wild horse who needs to be tamed, the camera will go wild more often than once and, because the image quality will be intrinsically so much better than our older camera we won’t even notice. Gradually all that will remain is a string of shoots taken with a machine gun hoping to find a keeper in the lot… It is hard to regain control because it requires to realize it was lost in the first place and then take action, questioning your shoots, questioning your skills, and rebuilding from there.
My own little journey
This happened to me when I first purchased the Canon EOS-1D Mark III from a previous Canon EOS 40D, and it improved only when I upgraded to the next Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, some 3 years later…
Simply said I plateaued and my photography didn’t progress. I went from a relatively slow camera (by today’s standard a very slow camera) with which I had to think and wait for the right moment to take a shoot to a machine gun where it was sufficient to shoot once to get 8 images per second. None of them better than a snapshot I now realise but at the time I was amazed. Auto ISO was justified too because low light image quality was so good and even if slightly under exposed, raw files were recoverable with photoshop. In brief I went from “let’s take the challenge of doing this right in spite of the camera” to “I have pro gear and that image is good enough”.
It is only when I decided to not only accumulate thousands of images on my hard drive but also to show them, first in albums then on social networks, that it hit me: beyond some lucky shoots, many images were empty, not conveying any story, technically averaged (usually with weak backgrounds) and with no clear purpose. After that turning point I started again to be more careful, to plan more, to think to take back the control. There are times where using the machine gun makes a lot of sense, all birders know that with low light and unpredictable birds many shots are made in hope to get a few good ones, but that should not be systematically used.
With this understanding another reality hits: owning a pro body can make an amateur arrogant. Owning a pro body helped me a couple of times to blend with pros (who are not better as some will openly state that only owners of pro bodies should be considered as real pro…) but it did not make me a better photographer and led me to more humility. Accepting that while buying gear is fun, learning, being influenced by others and finding your own way is much more fun. Humility leads to accept that others were there before and learn from them, those are actually more than happy to share what they know
I cannot thank enough masters like Art Morris, Alan Murphy or John Arifin,
and other very experienced amateurs such as
Arman, Benson, Christina, Eng Boo, Uncle Fai, Francis,
Jeremiah, John, Johnny, Uncle Lai, Mike,
Malvin, Patrick, Philip, Stan, Sunny, Vincent, William
and I forget many others but they’ll recognise themselves from a certain facebook group
Closing the loop it made me want to share what little I know to others and it is maybe more rewarding than creating that unique shoot.
Amateurs vs pro
Those who upgrade to pro body and will keep, or take back, control will at some point upgrade less often, because pro gear don’t get updates as often as consumer products but also because they’ll enjoy their gear more and enjoy pro gear for what it is; not for its bragging rights but for its capabilities and its ability to deliver great image quality in extreme conditions.
I believe amateur go into photography for fun, by taste, as a personal challenge, or because they simply like camera gear. That’s great! They need to be warned that yes their photographic achievement will be more related to their skills than their gear but at the same time better gear means more flexibility. Their ultimate freedom is that they don’t have to economically justify their spendings, to a point. Pro benefit from amateurs: I’m not sure that camera makers would make the kind of profit they make and come up with ever better gear for pro if amateurs were not purchasing them too.
I don’t think that the debate “better gear won’t bring you good images” is relevant in the first place. Good gear might not be necessary but it can enable the photographer. Owning good gear does not exempt the photographer from learning more and be more challenged. Get the gear you can afford, the gear you are comfortable with and have fun. Just don’t loose sight of the possible consequences if you jump a too long leap in one go… As in life, the journey is the interesting part.
* The header image was created on October 18, 2003 at the Zurich Zoo (Zooh) with a Canon EOS 300D and a Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 IS at 225mm. Image captured in JPEG in camera, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/250s, Evaluative metering.