How To Tell If It's The Gear Or Your Skill :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Tell If It's The Gear Or Your Skill

by David Peterson 11 comments

One question I always get asked is how much your gear matters. Does your photography improve all that much when you take that leap and purchase a much better camera, or do you only need so much? Having thought about this quite a lot, I devised a simple way to test whether it’s you or your gear, and I came up with some surprising results. Do you want to know what really makes great photographers great? It’s not what you’d expect.

Are you still making basic mistakes?

Certain basic mistakes are entirely skill-dependent, and if you are still making them, new gear probably won’t help you all that much. A new lens won’t help you get the composition right. Neither will a faster camera or a better memory card. None of the following mistakes depend on gear, so if you still find yourself doing them, focus more on your skill and less on what to buy.

Basic mistakes:

  • Always placing the subject in the center of the frame. Doing so usually kills the intrigue and mystery of the image, forcing your viewers’ eyes to stop dead on your subject. Don’t buy a new camera. Try placing your subject anywhere other than the center of the frame, and you’ll notice a big improvement.
  • Always using flash. Excessive flash usage can alter or destroy the colors in your image. Try to take the picture with nothing more than the natural light you have available to you. If you have no choice but to use flash, place a piece of tissue paper over the flash unit and take a few steps backward to dampen the harsh light coming from it.

  • Let the natural window light illuminate your subject.
    You don’t need to use a flash all the time.

  • Not getting close enough to your subject. In most situations, it usually helps to get as close to your subject as possible. Try to fill the frame with your subject’s features, and pick one of them to emphasize. You don’t need a better zoom lens to do any of this. You can do it all yourself.

When To consider Making A New Camera Purchase

It’s only the gear’s fault when it’s virtually impossible to get the shot without the gear. Only a few types of images fall into this category. Imagine trying to get a closeup picture of a faraway surfer without using a big lens capable of zooming in that far. You could purchase a waterproof throwaway camera and go for a somewhat risky swim, or you could buy a digital SLR with a 500mm lens. There really isn’t a third option here.

Unless you really know what you’re doing in the water, you’ll need a lens that can zoom in this far.

Other gear-dependent shots include:

  • Macro photography with extra magnification. (Macro lens)
  • High speed action sequences. (DSLR with a fast frame capture rate)
  • Nighttime photography. (A professional tripod.... sometimes)
  • Images with a blurred background. (A lens with a large aperture)
  • Vibrant colors and sharper subjects. (Adobe Photoshop Elements and a computer)

It’s funny because I actually strained to come up with these examples. For almost all of them, there is some counterexample that doesn’t involve the extra equipment you’re considering purchasing. Nighttime photography is one of them. A tripod makes it a lot easier to control your image, but the gear is by no means necessary. You can use other surfaces to keep your camera still through the long exposure times.

In almost all cases, it’s not the gear. It’s you. The great photographers of history had much less gear than you do, and they still managed to create moving images with a distinct style. They did it because they worked harder than anyone else. The skills they accumulated are worth more than anything you could buy.

So if you’re ever stuck wondering if it’s you or your gear, always assume the former. Gear will come and go over the years, but it takes someone with a vision to make something great with it. The early photographers did well enough without face recognition and all of the fancy features we see on the market today. You can too.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. davmul says:

    So supab, David

  2. Thomas Louw says:

    I believe that the equipment can make a difference?

    I have used a heavy tripod with a remote and sometimes mirror lock, But I did not get the results I would like. (Canon D50 with Canon 50mm f1.4 or Canon 100*400)
    I upgraded to 6D with a Sigma 24*104 F4 DG OS HSMA and used it without a tripod now the results are significantly better than before.

  3. liviu says:

    Thanks David! I apreciate your teachings.

  4. Eric Swenson says:

    Another one you can add to the list, low-light staged performance photography. Sure, you can do it without f/2.8 zooms or fast primes and a decent High-ISO performing body. But the results won't be on the same level.

  5. Phil Parsons says:

    I've been a Fuji superzoom user for a number of years. A 300 S100fs has won me several competitions and seen a number of photos published. These cameras (and the new X-S1) are just so versatile and with care can produce great results.
    I frequently say to people in our local camera club, you don't need to spend a couple of thousand pounds on kit to win competitions. You need above all to hone your compositional skills and learn how to get the best out of the camera you own.

  6. Naik says:

    Really great, thanks David.

  7. Chris says:

    That kind of shot Is Quite do-able. I've taken pictures like that using a DSLR(nIKON D70S) with a tamron 28-300mm Af Lens & a Phoenix 2x teleconverter.

    Teleconverters are a MUST to get clean crisp distant shots. The good ones which go before the lens effectively Double or even triple the range of the lens (to use the above as example: a 28-300m lens becomes a 56-600mm Lens).

    Admittedly though they do bring down the speed by at least a full f-stop or more, but when you are going for the "up close and personal shots" they are the way to go if your gear is limited by your finances.

  8. balu says:

    but i too like with nikons in 300 mm ,which is best cheep rate macro lens

  9. Bert says:

    Paul how is it you can say that shot wasn't taken with a 500mm. Of course it was. I took a picture of and Eagle over a 1/4 mile away with a 500mm lens and it looked like it was right in front of me.

  10. Paul says:

    Actually there is a 3rd option.. and it's the one most used by surf photographers.. buy an underwater housing for your DSLR and a fisheye lens.. there's no way that shot was taken on a 500mm..

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.