Imagine a cascading waterfall, or a sand dune in a storm. A bird hopping in the air; a person stepping into a crosswalk and out of the shade. For photographers, in moments like this, the best camera equipment is invisible. It doesn’t slow you down or require troubleshooting. After a while – perhaps years – equipment that meets this standard, time and again, stands out. It becomes the photographer’s favorite. Irreplaceable. Today, I’m wondering what that is for you.
It goes without saying that camera equipment is not the most critical part of photography. Of more importance are light, subject, composition, and camera settings. Once you’ve gotten those four variables correct, you’ve largely succeeded at taking a good photo.
At that point, more than just a single set of equipment from a single manufacturer will be capable of getting the shot. I have a wide-angle landscape photo in mind right now. To get that shot, you could use anything from a 2008 Canon DSLR with a prime lens to a 2018 Fuji mirrorless with a zoom. Either way, the photo would succeed. Any differences in the photos will be superficial. Even a modern phone could get the broad strokes of the shot.
Granted, something like wildlife photography requires more specialized gear. That’s fair. Still, it is unlikely that only one particular combination of camera/lens/tripod/head can get the shot. You almost always have some flexibility.
Even image quality only matters to a point. Try swapping your modern gear for the equipment of ten, twenty, or even fifty years ago. If your camera technique remains solid, and you avoid edge cases like Milky Way photography, you can capture fundamentally the same photos with the older gear.
Why, then, am I writing this article? The reason is simple. It’s impossible to fully separate the process of taking pictures from the camera equipment you use.
As this article’s introduction suggests, some pieces of equipment will get out of your way more easily than others. The “best-case scenario photo” may not change between them. But your frustration rate – and your keeper rate – will.
In the past, I’ve replaced a heavy set of lenses with one that is lighter and covers more range (without a meaningful loss in image quality). Similarly, I’ve replaced a few tripod heads – one after the other – with ones that slip less than before. And while I don’t do too much wildlife photography, plenty of photographers upgrade their cameras to get better and better autofocus systems.
To me, then, the fact that you “could” take the same photo with a wide range of camera equipment is all the more reason to have a favorite. It makes good equipment stand out from the rest. Sure, you could get the shot with, say, almost any tripod on the market. But perhaps this one just makes it so much easier. That’s the type of thing you notice.
Other equipment stands out not because it is objectively the most capable on the market, but because it is deeply familiar to your style of photography and makes it seamless for you to get the shot. During the years I shot with the Nikon D800e, you could have handed me a Hasselblad, but I’d have gone back to the Nikon for a critical shot. In fact, I can say the same thing for my years of shooting with the D7000.
The key is that the best equipment does not have to be the newest or highest performance. At the end of the day, it’s simply equipment that makes you more likely to capture the shot, and more likely to enjoy doing so.
In that vein, I’ve thought about all the camera equipment I’ve used, and continue to use. Which one qualifies as my favorite? I nearly picked my tripod or my hiking backpack – both of which are, as near as I can tell, the Platonic ideal of a well-made tripod and backpack. However, as high quality as the tripod is, it simply costs too much. As for the backpack, it’s not too expensive. But, even as a landscape photographer, I find it hard to make the argument that a technical hiking pack counts as camera equipment.
Instead, my favorite piece of camera equipment is a lens: the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR macro.
This is one piece of equipment with no shortage of replacements on the market. Nikon has an older, non-VR 105mm macro, as well as manual focus versions before that. Third-party manufacturers have plenty, too, including Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, and others. I haven’t tested most of these, so I can’t make the argument that the Nikon VR is objectively better than the others.
But as I said earlier, being objectively better is not the point. The Nikon is the one I happen to own, and it’s made it easier for me to capture so many photos over the years. So, in turn, it’s my favorite.
To be more specific – using a macro lens for the first time opened up new worlds unlike any other equipment I’ve had. I genuinely don’t think I’d be doing photography today if, years ago, I hadn’t started out honing my skills on macro subjects. For that reason, this lens also has some sentimental value, although I like to think that my main reason for preferring it is practical.
Again, good equipment facilitates photography rather than getting in the way. The 105mm macro fits that qualification without question. It’s been in my bag longer than any other piece of equipment I have, going back to the days (more like a year) when it was my only lens. If “irreplaceable” is the metric for this article… well, maybe some day I’ll swap it out for another macro. Whatever successor it has, though, will be filling some pretty big shoes.
But enough about that lens! We all have stories like this, whether about a camera, lens, tripod, filter, lens cloth, or anything else. I’d be interested to hear yours.