It seems that popular opinion tends towards two extremes: the apathetic claim that one does need an expensive camera to take great photos, and the defensive tend to claim that “My phone takes great photos”, implying that all one needs is a phone.
So, who is right? Well, neither, really. But neither are entirely wrong, either.
There ARE reasons why people like me carry all that heavy gear about. However, it is important to realise that the reasons for this are not just image quality reasons. They're for reasons of having greater flexibility and control over our images and the subject. In short, all that gear allows one to get the kind of images a phone just cannot. A phone is primarily a telecommunications device with an inexpensive camera tacked on. That's absolutely fine, and it's always better to have any camera than none, but understandably, it has limits.
At the other end of the scale, a rucksack full of expensive gear, tripods and so on is of no use unless one can “see” images and one can use that equipment to get the image. Without a photographer's eye and a little photographic theory, all expensive gear allows are.....high quality failures.
They may be sharper, have more resolution, better colours than a “cheap” camera. But unless they're interesting, engaging and well put together images, they're still failures.
If I had to put my money on who would win: a good photographer with a phone versus a person who has not learned to “see” images with the expensive gear and who has no technical skills, I'd go for the former.
Yes, for ordinary purposes, you can get great images on a phone. In fact, you can get great images on any working camera. If you doubt this, take a look at the work of masters like Ansel Adams, the American landscape pioneer, or Henri Cartier Bresson, who back in the 1930's pretty much invented street and candid photography. Both used primitive cameras, with fixed lenses, with black and white film (mostly) and their method of “zooming” was to pick up the camera and walk!
What set them apart was their photographic “vision”: what was in front of them, what they saw, and how they chose to show it. All the technology in the world cannot help one to do this.
Over the years, I have seen camera fads come and go. (Takes a deep breath)...
Polaroid instant cameras, Kodak Instamatics (126 cartridge film), 110 cameras, disk cameras, 35mm compacts, 35mm “APS” (which allowed different image shapes and made loading 35mm film easier, allegedly), digital compacts, bridge cameras, digital SLR, medium format (6x6, 6x4.5, 6x7 and others). Some of these are still with us.
But each was mostly eagerly adopted by ordinary users and was often a disappointment. Why? Well, it is true that some of the above were pretty bad (110 film, for instance, has a negative not capable of much more than a standard photo lab print of 4 x5 inches). But mostly, it was because of the expectations camera manufacturers engendered in their advertisements: something modern photography magazines are equally as guilty of. Such advertisements as good as proclaim “With our camera, you'll suddenly become a great photographer!” and, of course, “With all this gear, you can't fail!”.
Well, yes you can.
Without the photographer's skill of seeing images, no amount of gear can help. So, how does one develop this “eye”? It starts with 3 things. And none of them cost money.
The first is to realise what it is you are trying to do. Photography is about LIGHT. Even when you're not carrying a camera, learn to study light. Not just in one place, but at different times of the day, or different times of the year. Autumn, for instance, (in Britain), frequently has early mornings with beautiful soft, golden light. Light is your palette. The camera is merely the brush. You are the eye and mind behind the brush. I will write a lot more on the subject of light in the future.
The second is obvious. Look at your images critically. What do they say? What were you trying to say? Are they sharp enough? Was the light right? Are you pleased with them?
Lastly- but absolutely most importantly- take LOTS of images. Get out there and take photos! Memory cards are cheap. If you can, have a camera of some kind with you always.
It doesn't matter whether you use a phone, an old Instamatic, 35mm, medium format or the latest offerings from Nikon and Canon. A photographer takes photographs. Go and take photographs!
And finally, to answer my own question (kind of). Do you need all that gear? That's up to you. Most keen photographers find that they want the level of flexibility and control (and, maybe) image quality a DSLR can bring. And some obsess over relative irrelevances such as megapixels, full frame versus cropped or endless tables on how lenses perform. Really, that's a sideshow.
Take photos however you want or with whatever you want. But take photos!