I often get asked by my clients some variant of the following question: "What's the most important component in making a good photo? Is it the camera, the lens, or the processing?" I'm not big on suspense, so here's the answer... It's a combination of all three, plus two more very important items: the environment, and skill. Let's dig in to each component and find out just what makes it special.
In my opinion, the camera is the least important part of all of the components. I'm not saying that the camera isn't important, it's just that most modern interchangeable lens cameras (and even smartphones) can produce a pretty darn good image these days. In many cases, it's not even image quality that differentiates the expensive cameras from the cheaper cameras. The more expensive cameras have features like better low-light performance, fast shutter speed, more focus points, weatherproofing, bigger battery, more buttons, better screen, blazing fast continuous shooting, and on and on. All things that may help make a good photo in certain instances, but mostly are not necessary to produce high quality photos. Yes, I concede that the sensors in the more expensive cameras are very good. If you're the type of person that cares about MTF charts, then you'll definitely find some differences between the cheaper cameras, and their more expensive counterparts. But I'd argue that in most real-world cases, with limited resources, I'd rather put my time and money into one of the below components to make better photos.
To me, processing and lenses are about equal in importance. With proper processing, you can put your personal fingerprint on your images. You might want to have your images appear super crisp, or vibrant, or high contrast, or low contrast, or black and white, or maybe that faded film-emulation look that's oh-so popular, etc.... In the processing stage, you can take images from good to amazing. For me, this is where my images really pop. I personally have some default presets that are applied to my images upon import. I love watching the import process to see the preset get applied. The images first come in as a flat, dull image. Then a few seconds later, when the preset is applied I see the image come alive with vibrance, contrast, sharpness, and many of the other characteristics I set in my presets.
Another benefit about processing is the ability to fix mistakes. I know, I know, All photographers aim to get the exposure right in-camera (and if not, they should). But let's face it, sometimes we just don't nail the exposure the way we intended. Maybe we saw the perfect moment right in front of us with only enough time to lift the camera on the existing settings and snap a photo. Or maybe we accidentally had the ISO set on the wrong value (oops). Whatever the case, it happens to the best of us. And in that instance, sometimes we wind up with a photo that we absolutely love, but horribly under or overexposed. Luckily, with today's powerful camera sensors and a RAW file format, we can do a pretty nice job recovering photos in post processing.
You'll be happy to know that processing is one of the cheaper components, in terms of money. In fact, you can subscribe the the top image editing software in the world for $9.99 per month. That said, it's definitely not cheap in terms of time. It takes a lot of time and effort to become good at processing photos. More on this later (hint hint, that skill part I mentioned).
Equally as important as processing (for me) are lenses. The lens selected can have a large impact on the outcome of the final photo. For example, you might want to have a photo with a really thin depth of field (background blur) to really isolate the photo on the subject. Or, you may choose a long focal length to compress the subject and make them look slim. Or Perhaps you want to shoot and ultra-wide scene without much distortion. Perhaps you want the whole scene to be super sharp. To accomplish all of these things, you need to select the right lens.
Depending on the application, sometimes there can be a large difference between the starter lenses and the pro-quality lenses. Unfortunately, high quality lenses are quite expensive. Lenses can quickly get into the thousands of dollars per piece. That adds up pretty quick one you get a few of them. The nice thing about lenses is that when properly cared for, they can last a long time. In most cases, lenses long outlast camera bodies.
I almost didn't include this category, but I think it's a super important component in making a good photograph. I often get shown a Pinterest photo and asked to recreate it. The sample picture might contain the perfect baby, with the perfect expression, and perfect baby skin, with the most perfect light coming into the house shining through perfect decor. Then I look up and see a miserable baby with jaundice sitting in a dim cluttered house. To make amazing photos, you need amazing environmental elements. Your subject needs to be worth looking at in the first place. Hopefully this one is pretty obvious.
Truth be told, any amateur can go out and buy a top of the line camera and lens and make an absolute stunning photo. It actually happens quite often. In fact, cameras are getting pretty intelligent these days. Modern cameras are getting very good at intelligently detecting the scene and automatically adjusting the settings on the camera for you. So you might ask, why do I need skill to take good photos? The best answer I can come up with is the cliche "Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while". Someone without skill might get lucky and get an amazing photo. That same person will probably get 1000 other average photos for that one good photo. Someone without skill might also completely miss the first birthday cake smash because the pictures are all blurry in the low light. That same equipment in the hands of a skilled photographer will result in good photographs for the majority of the photos. The photographer will know that the child smashing the cake will be moving, so he'll need to adjust the shutter speed and ISO to compensate (or maybe adjust it the other way to show some motion). A skilled photographer will know to compensate exposure when it's snowing out, or to spot-focus on the right place instead of the stranger in the foreground... and a million other scenarios.
Photographers think about things like exposure, composition, posing, lighting, background, and much more for every single photo they take. Later, when they process the photos, they use an entirely different set of skills to make each photo just perfect. Each item, a unique skill that photographers spend years honing. Regardless of the equipment used, it's going to be hard to take a spectacular photo without the necessary skill. The best analogy I've heard to describe this is that of a chef. If you take someone that knows nothing about cooking and give them the best knives, the best pans, and the best ingredients, chances are you still won't have a restaurant quality meal. On the flip side, I've seen great photographers make some amazing photos with very little equipment.
Unfortunately, skill is the hardest of all of the components to obtain. Most of the other elements you can obtain with enough money. That doesn't necessarily work for skill (trust me, I've tried). It takes years of work, studying, reading, watching videos, taking classes, talking to other photographers, looking at other photos, experimenting with different styles, and so on. It's a constant process that is never finished.
So, usually when I'm asked this question by clients, my answer is a little bit more succinct, but it's still the same. Skill is the most important component. Now you know why.