Expressing our Vision or Collecting Gear?
Collecting gear or completing projects?
There is a sort of obsession in photography and that is the desire to collect camera gear – cameras and lenses- beyond any reasonable quantity. This is particularly interesting today with digital because much of what can be done with various lenses can be done in Photoshop through image processing. For example, using Photoshop Photomerge allows you to take multiple captures to widen the field of view without having to carry extreme wide angle lenses. Focus stacking replaces tilt shift lenses by allowing you to create photographs that are in focus from foreground to background with any lens. And distort, warp and perspective functions allow you to mimic the movements of a 4×5 view camera without having to carry cumbersome equipment in the field.
All this saves you from buying and carrying more gear. Of course manufacturers don’t want to hear about that since they will sell fewer lenses and cameras if the majority of photographers suddenly said ‘thanks but no thanks because I can do all this in Photoshop.’ Certainly, both photographers and manufacturers are watching for their best interests, which makes sense.
For me the issue is personal focus. Over the years I noticed that the more I focus on getting new lenses and cameras, the less I improve my photography. My best photographs were all created when I used the equipment I had at the time while focusing on projects instead of focusing on acquiring more gear. To name but a few projects I successfully completed, in Paris I worked on several year-long street photography projects using a Leica CL and one lens, the standard 40mm that came with the camera. In 1983 I completed a six month project working with an Arca Swiss 4×5 and two lenses, a 90mm and a 210mm Rodenstock. More recently I have been working on several landscape photography projects using a Phase One digital back and 4 lenses mounted on a Hasselblad V.
Each time, while working on these projects, I did not purchase any gear . This is because while I can do many things I cannot do everything at the same time effectively. When it comes to photography I can either focus on acquiring equipment or focus on using this equipment to complete projects that are important to me. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with either approach. I know because I have done both. It is simply a matter of knowing what the goal is and of focusing on reaching this goal. For me when the goal is to create effective photographs I need to leave the equipment acquiring process alone for a while.
I love gear
Don’t get me wrong. I love camera gear just as much as you do. I also love good gear, which often turns out to be expensive gear. To introduce but one piece of evidence, I used to subscribe to Shutterbug Magazine to have access to the multitude of ads and gear reviews featured in it. I wouldn’t read any of the essays unless they were about gear, which most of them were, and that made Shutterbug a worthwhile investment at that time. There was just one caveat: the heydays of my Shutterbug subscription were also the least productive days of my photographic career.
My purpose here is not to put down the magazine. It achieved its goal which was to focus on gear. My purpose is to put down my own shortcomings. While my goal was to create exciting photographs I instead spent my time lusting about gear.
I also had a moment of illumination, an epiphany if you will, after moving to the house where we currently live. The house is very large and for the first time I was able to put all my camera, lenses, tripods and other ‘stuff’ in one place. I selected a two-doors closet, 5 shelves high and about 6 feet wide, and by the time I was done I had filled all the shelves. It was then that I realized I had gone too far with gear acquisition. Until then the gear was spread out throughout the whole house and I couldn’t tell how much I really had. Now that I could see it all at once I realized it was time to stop.
But I got help
The good news is I got help. I met the right people who pointed to the futility of my endeavor and reminded me that using gear was more important than owning gear. I also did not have enough money to purchase the gear I wanted so eventually reality set in. Making good use of my time meant using the gear I had instead of lusting after gear I could not afford.
And I learned
Eventually I let go of my gear obsession and started photographing seriously again. What could have been a life-long rut ended up being an interlude that taught me an important lesson: using the gear you have is more important than lusting after gear you do not have. I realized that I am not a collector of gear. I am a user of gear. I need gear to complete projects, not to impress others. I want to impress myself with my photographs, not impress others with my gear.
I also learned that this lesson applies to software as well. While testing all HDR apps, all stitching apps, or all sharpening apps (to name but a few) may have some value, doing so ad infinitum is similar to collecting all the lenses from a specific manufacturer. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with doing so, and while it will extend your knowledge of software packages, it will not foster your creativity.
Understanding this made me realize that systematically testing everything that is available is unnecessary for me. One example is stitching software. At this time nearly 75% of my images are created through stitching, or collaging as I prefer to sall it. Yet, the only stitching app I have ever used is Photoshop Photomerge. Why? Because it does everything I need and it does it well. I could not improve on the results, so why test other software? At best I will find out that they do just as well. At worst I may find out that they don’t work as well, or are more difficult to use, or are flawed in some other way.
I don’t work with manufacturers
I have an ace up my sleeve when it comes to selecting which gear and software I use and that is I don’t work with any photography gear or software manufacturer. This means that I don’t have to review their gear or software, I don’t get sponsorship money from them, I don’t have to feature advertising on my site or anywhere else, and I don’t get free gear or software. Everything I use I paid for by myself and the reason why I use specific gear is because I like it not because I have a personal relationship with a company. Certainly, I have friends in the photographic industry. This is inevitable when you have been a professional for decades. However, these friendships are not influencing my decisions. I just like freedom. This is why I do this. I don’t like having someone telling me what gear or software to use. And I prefer to make money selling prints rather than getting money from sponsors.
Photographing what matters, not everything we see
The key element here is the necessity to focus on a project instead of taking photographs of ‘everything that catches our eyes’ which is what we naturally do if our energy is not channelled in a specific direction. This specific direction is working on a project that we design, plan and complete within a specific time frame.
When we focus on a project we let go of the obsession to purchase gear because our attention is focused on completing the project instead of looking for more gear. Working on a project is rewarding because the outcome of a project is a body of work that is coherent, focused and ready to be shown to others without the need to explain what it is about. If the project is done well, which it will be if you follow my teaching, then it is self explanatory. It stands as testimony to our vision, our skills and our passion for photography. It is something we can leave behind. It becomes part of our legacy. It stands as a body of work that we are proud of.
A project is also something that non-photographers can relate to. Only other photographers know the difference between an f 2.0 and a f 2.8 lens, or between a P45 and an IQ180, or between a Nikon 800 and 800e. Non-photographers may know what an f-stop is but won’t see the point of getting a lens with a wider opening. And I can guarantee you that none will know what a P45 is, let alone what the difference between P45 and IQ180, or between a Nikon 800 and 800e might be. It’s all Greek to them and while they may act as if they can relate to it, they do so only because they are afraid of revealing their lack of knowledge. Fact is, the only thing they can truly relate to are your photographs, because photographs have an emotional appeal and can therefore be enjoyed by anyone, with or without specialized technical knowledge.
In the end what we are talking about here is vision. Vision is expressed through projects and therefore the completion of a project is what we are after. If this rings true with you you need to take a look at my Personal Style Master Class Workshop on DVD. This tutorial is equivalent to a college course on the subject of expressing your vision and completing a project. A 20 pages eBook is available free at this link together with a detailed description of the course:
Make completing a project and expressing your personal vision your 2013 resolution. You could do worse to start the year in Style!
December 30th, 2012
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