Your Gear Doesn't Matter
Okay, before everyone starts coming after me, this isn’t one hundred percent true. Let’s say you’re out shooting King of the Hammers out in the desert, having weather sealed equipment is highly recommended. Shooting motorsports in general means you should have something with a good continuous shooting rate and you’re going to want a good telephoto lens to bring the action close to you etc.
But the real argument I’m trying to make here, is that you don’t need fancy equipment, fast apertures, and cutting-edge bodies and lenses to take good photos. Really, the big things you get from pro-level equipment are ergonomics, build quality, durability, and usually weather sealing.
The most important thing in photography though, is the piece of the puzzle that sits behind the viewfinder. Give someone who knows what they’re doing a cell phone, and they’ll run circles around an amateur with the best equipment money can buy. The same way if you put a professional in a beat-up economy car they’ll still outpace the inexperienced person behind the wheel of a purpose built track car.
Most photographers have heard it before, “Oh your camera takes such good pictures”, or “I could take photos like you if I just had the equipment”, and a million different forms of that. But the reality is that knowing what you’re doing with the equipment you have is generally going to do much more for your photos than buying more stuff. Remember, the best camera in the world is the one you have with you.
So, after recently hearing the same arguments about equipment, and hearing from people who were dissatisfied with their photo instructors, I decided to give myself a project. I went out to the Hot Rods on the Tarmac show at Lyons Air Museum, and I left all my gear at home.
Okay, when I say all my gear that isn’t entirely true. But I brought with me three things: My cell phone, a circular polarizer, and a close-up filter. I shot the show on a Google Pixel 6 Pro, which has a wide angle, a standard, and a telephoto lens, which gives me some options but even a phone with a single lens would be more than fine.
There are companies that cater specifically to cell phone photography who sell filters to attach to your phone to give you more wide angle or telephoto if you wanted to get that deep into it. There is even specific phone CPLs and close up filters. The Pixel 6 Pro also offers the option to shoot RAW files, which is preferred but not 100% necessary, more on that later.
If you’ve shot cars before you already know that a circular polarizer, or CPL, is probably one of the most important filters you can have. It cuts down reflections in the paint or on the glass, helps to darken your skies, and gives your photos a little more contrast and saturation.
For purposes of this project I didn’t even grab one of my nicer CPLs, K&F concepts makes cheap ones of decent quality that you can pick up on Amazon. Don’t go super cheap though because they can affect image quality. More expensive ones tend to be nicer optically and some allow more light through. B+W and the like are good but get whatever your budget allows.
I also grabbed a close-up filter, and not necessarily for the reason you might think. I know that the Pixel 6 Pro has a good telephoto lens, but it has an annoying tendency to use the standard lens and digital zoom if you get too close to whatever you’re shooting. Digital zoom should be avoided whenever possible because it’s literally just cropping your photo.
The close-up filter will allow the camera to focus a bit closer. Telephoto is not strictly for bringing far objects closer, it can be great for detail shots to tighten up your field of view to eliminate distracting elements around the frame, and you get a nice compression effect for the background (there’s arguments about how compression isn’t actually a thing and it has to do with your distance in relation to the subject but that isn’t something we’re going to get into here.)
The same rules apply if you’re shooting with a phone as with any other photos, try to eliminate distractions and pay attention to your compositions. For the uninitiated, the rule of thirds is generally what you’ll use. Shooting at car shows can be especially difficult with all the people wandering around, I don’t believe you need to eliminate all the people in your shots, but it’s helpful if they aren’t a distracting element in your photo. This can sometimes involve a lot of waiting to get the shot you want. Patience is key.
This is more difficult when shooting on a phone because you can’t easily just blur the background out to eliminate distractions. Portrait mode on phones can help with that but when there’s a lot going on in the frame sometimes things get blurred that shouldn’t and some things that should get blurred don’t. Blurring in post is an option. But keep in mind that many phones when shooting in portrait mode will only save a JPEG file and no RAW file.
Which brings me to the next aspect. If you have the option, shoot in RAW. All the photos here are shot in RAW and processed in Lightroom, except the panning shots. Not all phones have the option to shoot RAW and it honestly isn’t the end of the world. You’ll have a little less flexibility when editing, but I find most JPEGS are more flexible than you’d think when it comes to editing. As long as you get the exposure mostly right you shouldn’t have too many problems. Your colors won’t edit as nicely and you won’t have as much latitude in the highlights and shadows for recovery. But you can still absolutely edit the files.
As far as editing your photos goes there are many options. Lightroom is generally the go to choice. Snapseed is a great free app that allows RAW edits directly on your phone. Linux also has Darktable. I prefer Lightroom but I will also use Snapseed for photos on my phone as well. I’m not going to get into editing specifics here but find your style and go from there. I find the Pixel tends to overexpose, so I end up making almost all the photos darker. But your mileage may vary and you can change the exposure in camera as well.
Some phones offer manual adjustments, or you can download a camera app that allows manual adjustments. The downside to using a separate app, if you’re shooting JPEGS, is that you won’t get the same processing on the JPEGS that the manufacturer builds into the native camera app. This could be good or bad depending on your personal taste.
Using slow shutter speeds will allow for panning, or blurring people within the photo if you want to set up a tripod, etc. You may need an ND filter to accomplish this without overexposing your photos though. Google however, has a clever panning mode built-in that uses internal processing to create a panning effect. I find that the majority of the time it nails it, but there are times where it blurs the wrong thing, or some other small issues. It isn’t perfect but it’s pretty good.
Also, these photos are only saved as JPEGS, with no RAW file. I haven’t found it to be an issue when editing but your mileage may vary.
This is all to say, that at the end of the day, knowledge trumps gear every time. Money can buy you a Ferrari, but a fast car won’t automatically make you a fast driver. I won’t be giving up my gear anytime soon, but especially with today's technology, phone photography is more viable than ever and you can get a lot more done than you’d think. Especially if you're shooting in good light.
So, if you don’t have the funds to afford a “real” camera yet, don’t let that hold you back from getting out there and working on your craft. I find limiting yourself can really help push your creative boundaries and can help you be more intentional about your work. I wouldn’t say you’d want to show up to a paid shoot with a client with only your cellphone, but I wouldn’t be afraid to use my phone as a last ditch back-up in an emergency situation. Knowing your equipment and having the knowledge to use it effectively to get the results you’re looking for, is going to reflect much more in your work than if your lens will shoot at F/2.8 rather than F/4.
Plus, unless you go around telling people what equipment you shoot on, when people see your work on social media, or your website, no one will know what equipment was used to make a particular photograph anyways. So go out, shoot more, and be intentional about your work, with whatever gear you happen to have.