Gear vs Skill

I remember a conversation I had with my brother, a few years back. He was talking about the amount of photographic equipment which he had been dumping money into purchasing, in the hopes of improving the output from his camera. After months, if not years, of ordering and collecting equipment, he thought that one more thing would make some difference. He then had an epiphany, after viewing a photo of a sunset taken with a $12 disposable camera. The full comment was:

It’s even more impressive that such a sweet shot was taken with that cheapass Dakota. Every time I get the fool notion into my head that some new and expensive piece of equipment will make me a better photographer, I look at this picture and think, “ah, yes. Right.”

I’ve been thinking about this, as I acquire more cinematography gear. At which point does it become less about the gear, and more about the wetware? (Wetware, for those who are unaware, refers to your biological “meat equipment”.)

I’m divided on this point. I do feel that there are certain limitations inherent in not possessing the proper tool for the job. To put a concrete example together: if you’re using a Canon EOS T2i, your image quality isn’t going to be the same as using a much higher quality camera and sensor (sticking to the DSLR for this point), but it’s theoretically possible to clean up footage in post-production to approach the type of output which you could achieve with a higher-grade sensor and optics. However, if you’re using a standard kit lens on that camera (which probably tops out at an f/3.5 if you’re really, really lucky), you’re not going to be able to get the narrow depth-of-field which is associated with most “cinematic” shots. A Canon 50mm f/1.8 “plastic fantastic” lens (on which I’ve seen far too many budding cinematographers rely exclusively) is an interesting start, but can’t completely replace a series of really wide open glass primes (sub-f/2.0).

The flip side of the coin is the point which my brother had made; if your eye sucks, your footage sucks. A lot of the cinematographers (and just plain old camera operators) with which I’ve come in contact have bemoaned not owning a RED ONE, or even a higher grade DSLR camera body – and assuming that any decent footage I can pull has everything to do with the equipment I’m using, and nothing to do with my ability to use said equipment.

Years ago, I remember a gig I had, as a bass player. At the time, I had brought a Washburn MB-6 (a strange Mercury series instrument with fantastic action, scored on eBay for very little money), and had finished a really heart-felt set. Some jackass came up to me and complimented the instrument. I figured, from that point on, I would just assume that if someone commented on my instrument, they were implicitly insulting me, by implying that the instrument provided the quality which they admired, and that anyone would have been able to do the same, given the chance to play that instrument.

To sum up, you need a good eye – more than anything else – but it’s also important to have the right equipment for the right purpose. Oh, and don’t forget to stabilize your shots …