It is not uncommon to hope that better gear will produce better photos. This is not untrue, but I ask, how do you define better?
Above: One of my earliest shots when I started my journey in April 2022 was shot on a used Canon Powershot point-and-shoot on manual with very noob level understanding thereof.
I cannot imagine that anyone can say they are not guilty of being influenced by the allure of 'better gear' regardless of the hobby or profession. I am guilty, for sure. I did it with guitars and musical instruments, with motorcycle and mountain bike gear. I am not allowing it to happen with photography though, having learned from my past. The simple truth is that of two things. The point of diminishing return and 'fit for purpose'.
In every line of gear, there are entry-level, mid-range and pro-level items. Now human nature being what it is, we tend to gravitate toward "better gear = better performance." That is true, no doubt, else why would companies bother producing those items? They are not dumb; they are well aware of the market and how to influence us to buy premium products. In fact, there is a whole discipline in engineering psychology that ties the way we think about consumer products to the resultant affirmation we feel in using them. Industry uses systems-based modelling to predict consumer behaviour. eg. They model the likelihood of you buying a (for example) Nikon Z system full frame camera based on the simulated level of exposure that you have to, say, your favourite YouTube photographers who use it. This is just one of many permutations that are used to predict consumer behaviour and influence how products are marketed.
I learned about this when I was proposing my PhD research in Engineering. I wanted to focus on engineering psychology, thinking that it was a subject that looks at the psychological effect of the industry on engineers. Turned out it was a far more nefarious field of study that uses the power of the engineering mind to benefit company bottom lines.
The point is that each of us needs to identify our needs and endgame. I believe that in every hobby or profession, you reach that point where the small benefit you get from upgrading equipment comes at a very high cost. This is the point of diminishing returns and is different for everyone.
It depends on how you perceive your outputs. This is a very important point. How YOU perceive your outputs. If your endgame is more about what others see, then you may well find that they cannot tell whether you shot a scene on a smartphone camera or the latest mirrorless beast. However, if regardless of that fact, it is important to YOU that the output looks a certain way then that will advise your choice. Also, as with everything in life, it will come down to what you can afford at the time. You must also ask whether the root cause of whatever is making you feel your images are not of a high enough standard, can actually be cured by using better gear. I actually prefer 'different' rather than 'better'. 'Better' is subjective to how you assess difference, in my opinion.
The thing to be aware of is to assess whether the advantage you are getting from that upgrade is significant enough to YOU to justify the cost. On my mountain bike, I can buy a new frame for R20 000 ($1000 odd) and save 500g on the mass or I could go to the gym, eat healthier and lose 2kg of body mass. At my amateur level, the latter would be beneficial for both my health and pocket! It is just a pity that I won't be able to brag about my latest carbon fibre high-performance bike frame. The ego is a logic killer.
Then there is the endgame. Why are you shooting what you do? Are you trying to become a full-time wedding photographer as your main source of income? Or are you a hobbyist who just loves taking photos? I find myself somewhere in between. My photographic journey started out as a source of therapy to calm my mind. So, naturally, wedding photography is out for me. Photography is not my full-time gig, and I am not sure that I would want it to be. I believe that sometimes when something we love becomes our primary source of income, we lose the enjoyment. We start to associate it with stress to perform rather than the catharsis that I sought after in photography. I am a Professional Engineer by qualification and in the midst of a PhD so perhaps will be a lecturer in future. So at most, my photography must remain a 'side hustle' because I don't want to lose the essence of what photography means to me. Even if I were to earn an income from it, it must be purely to fund the passion and enable me to share my learning with others (mentorship).
To that end, I am almost satisfied with my gear at the moment. My camera body (Nikon Z6ii), whilst by no means cheap, ZAR 50 000 ($2600), is mid-range, and I lucked into a deal a few months ago which saw me pay just over half that and it came with the FTZ converter that is normally ZAR 5000 ($268) on its own. I also sold my prized guitar (PRS McCarty 10-Top with Rosewood neck) to fund the camera purchase. By this point in my life, the situation was justified in MY evaluation of how photography made me feel.
I soon joined a photography club to learn, of course. However, no club is without its competitive elements. Then came the urge to improve my photography by getting better gear because, after all, how could I compete against people with R200 000 ($10 000) lenses? There are these competitions called 'Salons' where you are pitted against the rest of the photographers in your country or the world and judged on the image. Nobody knows what gear you used to capture the image. It is herein that I found my solace. If I could get my photos accepted into salons where only the top 20% of entries are accepted, then my gear is perfectly fine for my purpose.
This I have achieved, as well as photos of mine being featured in the local newspaper. In fact, one of my landscapes has been selected to appear in a national travel magazine later this month. I will share when it happens! The point is, this all happened within 18 months of starting my journey and with the budget-mid-range gear I have.
When to upgrade
I am at a point now where one of my lenses is in need of an upgrade. Let me share how I determined this. I primarily shoot landscapes and nature but have been shooting my fair share of birds (with my camera) lately. A few months back, I purchased a used 15-year-old Sigma 120-400mm DS OS HSM. The idea is to have a telephoto lens to pick out far-away subjects in landscapes and to catch the occasional bird. After shooting it for a while, I found that the sharpness across the frame was fine at 120-150mm, maybe even 200mm. However, the edges start to blur a little. At the long end, even centre sharpness is not good enough for competition or me really, for landscapes. The edge of the frame is not passable at all at 400mm. The lens is also heavy and I do a lot of hiking, which has resulted in me leaving it at home more often than not.
In this case, I have identified the use case for a sharper lens. Okay, this statement is very open-ended. I mean, who does not want the sharpest lens humanly possible? What I mean is that I purchased the older, cheaper lens, identified how I use it and confirmed what to look for in an upgrade BEFORE going straight to purchasing that pro-level 100-400mm. In fact, my plan is not to buy a pro-level 100-400mm because it is beyond the point of diminishing returns for me at this stage in my life. I really would love a Nikkor Z 100-400mm right now but that thing is like a solid 4x the price of what I could pick up a used Tamron 100-400mm on the second-hand market for right now. The image quality would be better, but 4x better, I am not sure. Will it make a huge difference on my images that are mostly viewed online, cropped and scaled down to 1080p for competitions? I can't justify it right now. I would rather put that money into going to more places and taking more photos.
Is my gear good enough?
The answer is a set of questions. Have I reached the limit of what my current gear can physically do? And do I NEED it to do more? What would 'better' gear do differently, and how would that make my (very subjective) art better?
Good luck finding your answers! I would love to chat about this and other photography conundrums that you may have! Feel free to reach me through any of the available channels be it social media or my website.