why gear can't matter - even when it super does
I used around $4000 worth of gear to make these photos. Later in the same day that these photos were taken, it took around 4 seconds of bad practice to drop $4000 worth of gear off of my tripod and onto the waterfall-washed rocks of Skógafoss, catastrophically breaking my workhorse landscape photography lens. I was less than twelve hours into a meticulously planned landscape photography trip to Iceland. Oops.
As a Mechanical Engineering MS by discipline, I don't want you to underestimate how 'meticulously' I planned out the gear I'd bring along on this photography trip. I had spreadsheets, note pages, pros/cons lists, Amazon carts, B&H carts, purchases, returns, tests, tabs on tabs of reviews, hours at local camera stores, genuinely more time invested in preparing for this trip than I can hope to convey in writing here.
That all said, this time I was okay with it. I definitely spend too much time thinking about gear when it doesn't matter. But this time it did matter. I was on my way to Iceland! To take photos! Photography was my only goal, my only focus, and my only concern. When planning this trip, I couldn't help but feel that it only seemed appropriate to think carefully about my gear. If ever, then now.
Although I am sure there are some purists out there who would comfortably step into the unknown land of Iceland with nothing but a 35mm prime on one body (my travel partner being one of them), I am most certainly not that.
I definitely didn't want to be overloaded, but wanted to be confidently prepared. For the gear-nuts, this is what was in my bag:
- Sony a7ii - I shoot mirrorless. The batteries suck, but the small size is nice. Let's not fight.
- Sony a6500 - Mostly a back-up. Also handy when I have a need for speed.
- Sony 85mm 1.8 - Post the people.
- Sony 70-200mm 4 - Had some extra room in my bag...brought in case of fuzzy Icelandic wildlife
- Pentax ME Super w/ 50mm 1.4- Film is most certainly not dead
- Sony 16-35mm 2.8 GMaster - Astrophotography, landscape, etc., big pre-trip upgrade from my f4 version.
Guess which one I broke. Just guess.
It turns out that the Sony 16-35mm 2.8 GMaster is not an all-star in its impact resistance. I dropped the lens from hip height in the zoomed-out position, 16mm. In this position, the inner barrel actually sticks out the front of the lens. After hitting the ground, I picked up my body and lens to find the inner barrel actually bent to the side, jammed at an angle.
Needless to say, I panicked. I quickly removed the lens from the body, grabbed the inner and outer barrel, and forced the lens back into alignment. Admittedly, this was an aggressive move. That said, once things were aligned properly, it worked great! Engineering degree hard at work. It worked great at 16mm anyway. The lens focused well, was sharp across the frame, but was stuck at 16mm. The lens was covered under a drops & spills warranty, so all-good there, but more or less, I could have brought my Rokinon 14mm 2.8 prime that I already owned, saved $1900 and hours and hours of my time.
Once the panic subsided, a wave of realization swept over me that I literally could do nothing to resolve this. I was in the middle of an island, living out of a car and a tent. There were no camera stores for hundreds of miles, no opportunities for repair or replacement. I could do nothing to resolve this, except to start thinking ultra-wide, and take some ridiculous photos.
Every single one of those photos was taken with the broken $2200 GMaster lens. Every single one of those photos also could have easily been taken with a $300 14mm 2.8 prime lens. All of my expectations were that gear would matter this time. If ever gear would matter, it was this trip. Genuinely though, and as a gear-head I absolutely hate to say this, after a couple hours post lens-break I had more or less forgotten about it. I marched on with my 16mm 2.8 prime to photograph windswept coastline sunrises and the enveloping, milky-way and aurora painted night sky. I used this lens and my 85mm to create perspectives maybe more diverse than I would have with a zoom.
I'll be the first to tell you that gear does matter. Give the same photographer better gear and they will make better photos, period. At the same time, though, your specific gear can't be all that allows you to make pictures. Surely, you may work differently with different equipment, but when everything goes wrong and you break a critical piece of kit, you can't allow your gear to matter.
I've included only a few of my very favorite shots from the trip to help show you that no matter how important gear seems, and no matter how much time you want to spend building your kit, it could all be ruined in an instant. My recommendation, for what it's worth, is to not sweat it so much. Use the gear you have, or the best gear you can afford, or whatever gear you want...just go make some cool art.