Look, I get it. You're a professional or at least very good with a camera. You're proud of that. And you can get a reasonable shot with any piece of gear put in front of you. You have put in the time and your results speak for themselves.
It's what many photographers aspire to. It's where serious photographers should aspire to. Learning the art and applying it, regardless of limitations like gear, is truly the pinnacle.
But here's the thing. Not all people are that good with a camera and nor do they desire to be. Not everyone is a serious photographer.
When Chase Jarvis titled his book this way, little did he know he would unleash a storm of social media posters who would quote the title at every opportunity.
Some people with cameras are only “good enough” and some aren't even that good. They have other things they are good at. Maybe they don't want to be professionals. Maybe they don't want to spend the hours, days, weeks, months and years becoming good enough to shoot an NBA game with a home-made pinhole camera.
Maybe they just want to take a reasonable shot of their kid playing soccer and the memories from that shot are worth an investment in a bit of extra gear.
And that's OK! (Hell, it's what keeps companies like Canon and Nikon afloat which is great for us all, so I would argue it's better than ok, but that's another argument).
Not everybody needs to have the skill of Annie Leibovitz.
So when somebody asks “what is the best _______ to shoot ______ ,” what they are really asking is, “Given my personal situation, what would be the fastest way to achieve great shots for a given category of photograph?”
Dismissing it with, “The best camera is the one with you” is glib and dismissive and frankly a little rude. For people who aren't aspiring to be great photographers, it's also a pretty easy question to answer without any snarkiness from most knowledgable photography hobbyists.
Everybody ALREADY KNOWS that if you really need a shot and you only have an iPhone on you, then that's what you have got to go with. You're helping nobody by pointing out the fricken blatantly obvious. It just makes you look pretentious.
Some facts about “the best” questions though
1. Not everybody is constrained by price – We have all met a merchant banker who has all the gear. When she asks “what is the best…” she isn't constrained by price like many of us are. She just wants to know the answer and not have to spend 243 hours researching it down to the pixel.
2. Actually, if we're honest, there usually is a decent answer. Best portrait lens? 85mm 1.2 is the lens that all others are measured by. Best general landscape lens? 12-24 2.8 is part of the holy trinity for a reason. Best photography software? Again, Photoshop or Lightroom are the standard by which others are measured for the time being. Best camera for landscape? Nikon D810 or Sony A7RII are top at the moment before you go into specialist cameras in different formats. Best street lens? The 35mm 1.4. These are the simple and polite answers.
Now, these answers might lead to a few silly arguments with some gear heads, but the answers aren't THAT controversial.
If somebody is asking a question like “what is the best…” then they have probably already revealed that they don't keep up with niche industry arguments about chromatic aberration, barrel distortion or dynamic range – they just want a simple answer to a simple question without diving into the minutiae of why.
3. You CAN put a qualifier on it. Seriously, everyone is intelligent enough to know there can be exceptions. The 12-24mm 2.8 might be the best wide angle zoom, but you can probably get sharper shots with a wide prime. You can probably save some weight by going with a slower lens. Of course circumstances matter. People understand this!
Tell them the answer and put your qualifier on it.
Better still, and perhaps even more helpful, is to ask them some followup questions and tailor your answer to their circumstances. And if you have time, maybe a few quick tips on how they can get great shots with gear that is a little limiting (Our article on how to get great portraits with a kit lens is an example of this).
4. People ALREADY KNOW that practice is better than gear. You're not telling them anything new when you intimate that they should get better at using the gear they have. They already know that. Everybody already knows that Michael Phelps could swim faster in pyjamas than they could wearing the latest Speedo speed suit. Federer would kick their butt in tennis with a wooden racket. Jordan could dunk on them wearing sandals. It's no secret!
But they have made the judgement that they would like to improve their gear (at least for the purposes of the conversation you are having with them) rather than their skills, so dismissing that is a little rude. It's not that hard to answer these types of questions with some genuine information.
5. Many times, they already have a camera that they have deemed not sufficient to their needs. Sure, a great photographer can get decent shots on an iPhone, but let's be honest – it's a lot easier to get decent shots on most mirrorless cameras.
6. YOU have asked these types of questions yourself. What is the best family car? What is the best accounting software? What is the best baseball bat?
When you asked, you were just looking for a simple answer or to narrow it down to a small range of answers. Even though there are potentially mitigating circumstances in every case. Even though the best car/software/bat happens to be the one you have available at the specific time you need to use it. Even though an expert could get more out of an inferior product.
Just as you considered these other factors, let's do others the courtesy of assuming they have thought of them too.
6. Some people just want some leads for their research. Yep, many have already made up their mind to get new gear. They just want to ask somebody knowledgable in the topic to give them some leads so they don't have to spend hours on Google trawling through silly forum threads by gear heads arguing over the minutiae of engineering differences. And who can really blame them?
What To Answer…
So let's start being a little more polite to amateurs and early stage hobbyists when they ask questions like this. It's no skin off your nose, can start some quite interesting conversations and actually helps people how they want to be helped. Give them a genuine answer, offer them some help and don't assume they haven't thought of the bleeding obvious.