Does Pro Gear Really Matter?
Yes and No.
I hear it all the time. If only I could afford higher end gear. That new Nikon D8s and the 24-300 f1.0 lens will really make my pictures sing with the voices of angels.
I'll pull the veil off of my own setup right now. I shoot with a 2 generation old, pro-sumer Canon 60d. Yep. Not even full frame. To make matters worse, I don't even use Canon L glass anymore. I've “downgraded” to Sigma lenses and yet somehow seem to survive. Quite the opposite I find that for the end result that I am after my Sigma lenses get me closer out of the gate than the Canon L glass I used to use. I have yet to have a story rejected by an editor on the grounds that my gear was somehow unacceptable.
You definitely need gear that is capable of producing and also keeping up with what you are trying to achieve. If you are trying to shoot skateboarders in mid air while outside in the rain and get a full sequence from launch to landing you may need something faster and more rugged than I am using. However for my shoots I typically have the option of communicating with my subject. Setting up the sequence of events that will cause that magic look to happen (we'll talk about that another time.) I can ask her to repeat if necessary. So, as long as I have enough resolution and dynamic range to go to print with what I capture, and as long as my camera is fast enough to keep up with a moderate level of movement, I don't need a whole lot more. The biggest constraint I face with my current camera is buffer size – the ability of the camera to keep shooting as it is writing files to the memory card. I hate to stop shooting in the middle of a sequence because the camera slows down. If the models on fire, let her keep rocking. Increase your capture volume during the times the model is performing well and you will increase your chances of grabbing something amazing. This is where technical capabilites beyond your normal requirements can come in handy. But its absolutely not necessary, it's a convenience. 15 years ago I was shooting with a Mamiya 645 Pro TL – manual focus, film advanced about 1 frame per second, 15 exposures on a roll of 120 film. I still shot movement. I still got magic frames. You should never blame your gear for a complete failure to capture something great. If it is mechanically sound, the problem is not the gear.
A big mistake I see a lot of photographers make is upgrading their gear too quickly. The camera itself is probably the very last thing I would think about upgrading if you already own a serviceable camera. I would even say don't go out and buy thousands of dollars in fancy glass to hang off that camera body right away. A higher resolution, sharper, more contrast-y version of a shitty picture is still, at the end of the day a shitty picture. Keep your kit lens. Buy a 35mm or 50mm inexpensive prime lens. A 50mm 1.8, 1.4 if you can afford it, a 35mm f2.0 are pretty common options available from most camera manufacturers and some aftermarket manufacturers that won't break the bank. These lenses will allow you to really have some options for isolating the model from the background when necessary, while still showing more of the models body than the kit lens will allow you to shoot with the same depth of field.
If you've just bought a camera, or are just really starting to dive into it's capabilities, the biggest thing you can invest in before buying gear, is knowledge. Seek out sources of information such as blogs like this (shameless plug alert) workshops (more on the different types of workshops and their value in a future post…), or my personal fave, throw yourself on the sword and offer to assist another photographer. You'll get the grunt work. Lugging gear. Retrieving lunch. Playing human sandbag (or kite if you aren't fat like me) holding a scrim in high wind. But you'll gain practical knowledge that you won't get from a youtube video, book, or some forum post written by some guy who may or may not know what he's talking about. Oh he does… just ask him, he'll tell you. He'll tell you what he read some other guy saying on some other forum...
With all that said, I will say that the lenses that pretty much live on my camera most of the time are (all Sigma – they don't pay me to say that I just like them) a 50mm F1.4, 70-200mm F2.8 OS, and an 18-35mm F1.8. That compliment of lenses covers 99% of what I need out of my setup. If I need a macro or some other specialized lens for a particular job or creative shoot I will rent. I usually rent from www.borrowlenses.com or www.lensrentals.com. Both have been hassle free, and I simply choose which one has the better price point for the lens and time period I am renting for.
It's easy to get caught up in wanting the latest and greatest thing, but its not necessary, and may even cost you the opportunity to do something that may be a greater contribution to your capabilities. Book a great model. Travel to an amazing location. Take a workshop. Sharpening your mental lens is way more important than having high tech running shoes before you learn to walk.
We'll talk about lighting in the near future.