Lightening Up

In Creativity and Inspiration, Thoughts & Theory, Travel, Vision Is Better by David38 Comments

My satchel, my iPod, and me on the boat to San Frutuosso, Italy. This is the least amount of gear I have ever shot with. Photo Credit to my friend Stuart Sipahigil. I know, I look very zen. In reality I think I was calculating the hours until lunch.

As an artist I’m scared of repeating myself. I don’t want to become the Thomas Kincaid of photography, so confined by my market or a known style that I simply plateau. Sure, you can make a good living giving people what they want, but I can’t imagine it feeding your soul and in the long-term that’s death for an artist. So I keep trying new things, and as this journey is pushing me deeper and deeper in love with the photograph it is also pushing me away from the gear-headedness that once weighed me down.

Lightening Up

On Thursday we’re releasing the first in the new The Print & The Process series. VENICE, A Monograph is the first work I’ve created with an intentionally limited bag of gear. And by limited I mean mostly one body and one lens.Β  Most days I threw one camera and two lenses into my satchel and grabbed my Gitzo tripod and a couple filters and that was it. Some days it was only my 5D and a 50mm prime.

Anyone who’s shot with me knows that’s practically a miracle. I usually shoot with 2 bodies and 5 lenses, a tripod, and a Think Tank belt & holster rig that looks like I’m part of a SWAT team. I don’t travel light. But an interesting thing happened when I pared it down a little. I got more creative. We always talk about “thinking outside the box” as the best way to be creative, but in important ways, thinking inside the box is even more liberating. Constraints free us. So for everyone thinking you can’t create great images until you have __________, it just ain’t so. Start with what you have and embrace the constraints of having less. I’ll go you one better. Have lots of gear? Put it away, simplify, don’t listen to the fear that tell you if you don’t have every piece of gear with you you’ll miss the shot. Too much gear and too many options can paralyze, not liberate.

Slowing Down

Having less also made me slow down. Having two bodies and two lenses lets you work faster – an advantage sometimes but creating work quickly isn’t synonymous with creating good work. Slowing down forced me to be more considerate of each frame. I think the longer I do this the more I internalize the fact that there’s no race to get the most amount of photographs into my collection. When I do assignment work I will carry as much gear as I need to, but doing my own work I am going to begin trimming down. Slow down, folks, it’s not a race.Β  Most of us don’t need more images. We need better images, more unique images, truer images.

In The Bag

I brought too much stuff with me on this trip, but walking around I was leaner than I have ever been, especially in Venice. If you looked at the EXIF on my images (and it’s all there in the book) you’d see a couple images shot with a 16-35/2.8, and a couple with my Zeiss 50/1.4, but the rest were shot on my 5D MkII and my 24-70/2.8L. One lens. One camera. And like I said before, a few filters and a light tripod.

One of the surprises was how much I like shooting out of a satchel. Before I left for Italy I tried to get ahold of a Think Tank Retrospective 30 but couldn’t, so I grabbed a Domke satchel and loved shooting out of it. So simple. And it forces you to go lighter. Now that I’m home I’ve got the Think Tank satchel that I wanted in the first place. If you’re looking for a great satchel bag that’s got a little more thought put into it than the simple Domke, the Think Tank has it. The Domke is fine, even good, but the Retrospective is fantastic. More information on the Think Tank Retrospective 30 can be found HERE. I like the large one because it allows me to toss in a sweater and a piece of fruit or something and still be easy to work out of. Small bags are harder to work out of.


  1. This is so true. In our rush to acquire that perfect piece of kit we miss so many opportunities. On a recent vacation, while I chose to bring a few lens with me I would select just one to bring out with me on any given day. This forced me to think about what I wanted to achieve on that day and I feel this actually allowed
    me to be much more focused.

  2. slowing down is always possible. you can drive 10 mph with a ferrari too! to slow down you just have to do it. to limit the number of frames you’ll shoot you just have to do it. it IS possible …

  3. Still living the Hasselblad, Clive, but it’s more a labour of love – and unpredictability at this point – than something I’d use for assignments or serious work that I need to rely on. But the more I use it the more I like it!

  4. Author

    @jingyi – Yes, I’ve used the TT UD60. Travel with it all the time as a laptop bag. I love it but I’d never shoot out of it. Just too rigid for me. But my friend Gary S. Chapman shoots out of his and loves it. Different strokes for different folks.

  5. I completely agree with you. This summer I’m gonna go to China with just a kit lens and 55-250 on a rebel, and I’m constantly wondering if I should buy a wider lens.

    But then I got this from a fortune cookie a few days ago: “do not let what you don’t have prevent you from using what you do have.” This totally made me think of your blog and i slapped myself πŸ™‚

    ps. this is a totally different topic but i was wondering if u used the TT UD60 before and how would you compare that to the retro 30? Thanks!

  6. Ah, very timely. I’ve been shopping satchels and had narrowed down between a 6 million dollar home and a Shootsac. Now I have the thinktank to consider too! Do I go minimalistic with my bag as well as my gear? πŸ™‚

  7. Thanks for sharing your words/experiences. I can get into the line of thinking, and even freak out, when I do not have “enough” gear. I have 3 lenses and often think about purchasing 2 more – but I don’t need them at all. Thanks and much love from Chicago.

  8. last summer, my dh and i – and a 9 month old baby – went to europe. and the only thing my dh asked was that i NOT bring my camera. and my lenses. and my tripod. he felt we would miss too much if we were schlepping all my gear…
    i freaked. then panicked. but then decided that this would be an awesome challenge…so i did it.
    paris and london, walking only, with baby and a G10.
    guess what?
    i survived and got some terrific shots along the way.
    did it challenge me? kind of:). but it was a fun challenge…although i did feel like i should have had a bumper sticker on my tiny camera saying “i left my real camera at home”.

  9. Maybe I got this from shooting so many sporting events, but I usually “shoot from the hip” or more accurately, from the shoulder. I usually head out with my 7d, a 17-40 lens and my camera strap. I rarely take a bag with me. It’s much easier to get around.

  10. You look quite relaxed in this image, I like it.

    Several months ago, I put away my zoom lens and now carry a 35mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.8, both light and small. The 35mm is almost exclusively on my D300. One of my primary reasons for these 2 lens is the creativity the fast lenses offer, such as working in low light and playing with the DOF. And, every once in a while I throw in my flash.

    I’ve been carrying a shoulder bag for years, the Domke and the 6 Million Dollar Crumpler. As I travel a lot with my work I carry only my camera, the 35mm with the R-strap, spare battery and CF cards, and my moleskin in my Columbia vest pocket. Simple.

    Thanks for the post!

  11. A few months ago I sold my Nikon pro zooms (14-24 & 24-70) because I wanted to go back to prime lenses. Since, I feel more at ease using my gear. Recently I was on assignment in Gambia and only used my primes. I didn’t miss my zooms at all.

  12. sorry for sounding stupid πŸ˜€ (english is not my native language) – a satchel is a bag, right? how do you shoot out of a bag and what is the great thing about it? πŸ™

  13. I do much of my shooting with a Sony DSLR (and generally with a 50 mm f/1.8). But, I always have a little, cheap Nikon L10 with me.

    …until two days ago. It finally croaked. Made me sad. It was such a simple camera, and it forced me to think. But I pulled out quite a few interesting images with it.

    So, I’m in the market for a new, el cheapo P&S. Having one, and using it regularly, keeps me on my toes.

  14. I still use my first camera satchel (the most) – crumpler 6 million dollar home… though the bright blue is a bit loud for any professional shoots so I’ve definitely got my eye on the retrospective 20 or 30 (good point on the 30 for room on non-photo gear… I do often forget to eat).

    I hear it’s got a great side-pocket that fits an iPad too πŸ˜€

  15. Reading this post made me feel so much better. I’ve had a Sony Cybershot DSC-H50 for a year now (and been shooting without the hood). My hubby bought it for me and he’s talked about getting lenses and flashes and stuff (he’s a graphic designer, knows less than me about photography). I’ve tried to beg nicely not to buy me more until I know how to use what I’ve got, it’s great to have some backing evidence from a pro.

  16. I go light because I’m broke πŸ™‚ I carry no more than 2 lenses and my D90 and that’s about it. One reason is because my old Lowe Pro bag is tiny the other is because I haven’t invested a lot in gear yet (just got my D90 6 months ago).

  17. Traveling light also makes it easier to roam farther afield, off the beaten track. I actually don’t own much gear, but every time I think about buying more, I ask, can I take it on a public bus in India? walk around with it all day in crowded cities or rural roads? carry it all with me on a bicycle? etc. It’s amazing how many photographers you see in the big cities, and how few in the tiny ones.

  18. I worked as a back up shooter at wedding ceremonies for a company here in Japan up until recently. I got to use all their gear which included every L lens suited to wedding photography there is, two 5Ds Mark II with battery grips etc, and 580 EXII stuck on top. At first I loved it. I mean, I got paid to walk around playing with the gear I dreamt of buying. But sometimes, when one of the other photographers needed the gear, I had to use two 50Ds with one lens on each. A 70 – 200L on one body, and the 18 – 55 EFs on the other. No bag full of goodies, just two bodies, two lenses, and two strobes.

    But after a month or so I started favoring the 50d set up regardless of whether the 5D goody bag was available or not. When the 5Ds were available, and I used them, I found myself shooting the ceremonies constantly thinking if one of the lenses tucked away in the bag would be a better choice. Like you mentioned in the post, the choices became a hindrance not a help.

    Once I decided to stick with the 50D set up I found I could concentrate on getting the shots and not worrying about anything else. I felt light as a feather skipping around the wedding venue.

    For my personal work I keep it even simpler nowadays. I usually take one lens out with me, usually a Zeiss 50mm with a 5D Mark II, or a 70 – 300. Sometimes I take the 24 -105L but only sometimes. That usually stays in the studio. I only carry one lens and love it. The only ‘extra’ items I carry is a battery, and a few CF cards.

    I honestly can’t think of any gear I really need at the moment and I love the feeling.

    Except for a battery grip perhaps πŸ™‚

  19. I’m inclined to agree with Craig $30 sure beats $195 for the ThinkTank bag! – Though I haven’t carried my DSLR with me everyday in about two years, I think it might be time to start doing that again – the variety of photos I got in those days was MUCH greater than what I get now…

  20. Wait, I am going to use my favorite quote, from this really talented photographer AND writer: ‘Gear is good, Vision is better!’ πŸ˜‰ Have a great week and, I would agree that a satchet (sacoche in French!) is also a messenger bag!

  21. Author

    And that’s different from a satchel…how? πŸ™‚ Same thing, no?

  22. I’ve never shot using a satchel before, though I’ve always wanted to. A lot more inconspicuous than a in your face, or behind your back, lowerpro knapsack which is what i’ve always been using. Thanks for the suggestion!

  23. Thanks for this. While I am not in your league photographically speaking (nor do I make a living out of photography) I am in total agreement with your sentiments regarding travelling light. The hardest part is making the decision to leave gear behind. Once I get over that I find that like you, the reduced amount of gear offers a liberation of sorts. What’s more, as an amateur, I find myself more likely to take a camera with me every where I go if I don’t feel obliged to take a whole lot of heavy gear as well.

  24. I’ve recently changed from Nikon to Canon (a 5D), and have traded my collection of several Nikon-fit lenses for as single f4 24-105mm IS L Lens. It’s kind of nice being stripped back to basics again. It’s making me think about my craft more, and is stopping me worrying whether I should have another lens on the body to capture just the right image. You’re right – Gear is good, but Vision is better – being forced to strip down my kit has helped me along the path πŸ™‚

  25. I agree that going with less gear can be advantageous. I shoot mainly wildlife so going light for me is carrying only my D300 body and 1.4 converter and 300 mm f4 lens. I have used it to shoot wildlife, insects, flowers, and scenery.

  26. Author

    @Dan B – Yes, I still use my R-Strap, though one of the things I love so much about it is the ability to quickly remove it. Sometimes I go all day without clipping it in.

    @Mac Payne – So true. I guess it’s what works for you. I draw the line at glass plates – that stuff’s heavy!

  27. If we carry this idea forward, our work might get as good as Edward Curtis. Nothing slows us down like having to coat our own glass plates.

  28. I like the idea of a satchel too. I’ve looked at the Retro, but have yet to pull the trigger. Would you still use your R-Strap?

  29. I declared 2010 the year of the 50mm. I’ve shot with it almost exclusively since January. I love it because I’m a lot more likely to pick up the camera bag when I walk out the door knowing it’s going to be light and because using the 50 forces me to move around, which in turn, forces me to think! I always do better when I have limits πŸ™‚

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