Last week I wrote about the crippling power of fear in the life and process of the artist. I think there are some fears that are universally felt among artists of every discipline, others unique to us as photographers. Chief among those fears, it seems, is the fear that we’ll “miss the shot.” And so we amass every piece of gear we feel gives us that edge. Longer lenses, stronger strobes, cameras with ISO ratings that would astonish us 5 years ago. We are pulled to this stuff like the moon pulls at the tides. So when I posted the gear I’m taking to Nepal it’s not surprising that so many people reacted with something like shock, shaking their heads and saying, “I could never go that light.”
Nonsense. Of course you could. Art is made within constraints. It always has been. If you’ve been hired to shoot an assignment you might choose to change those constraints, stacking the deck in your favour with the professional understanding that your clients pay you to shoot a specific brief, and you’d be an idiot to show up unprepared. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about that thing in my brain that screams and throws a tantrum each time I set a long lens aside in favour of travelling lighter. It yells profane things at me, reminds me the best shot of my life is out there and I’ll miss it without that lens. It guilts me, shames me, then sends me – in one last panicked ploy – to the B&H website to see if there’s a similar lens but lighter. You need it! After 10 minutes of this, never mind the days it takes me to finally zip my bag and head out the door, I’m convinced Peter Jackson modeled his Gollum after something dark inside me, as I mentally stroke my 300/2.8 and mutter, “my precious…” into the darkness. You need it!
Bullsh*t. Of course I’ll miss some shots. I’ll miss them without my 70-200 as well as without my 300/2.8. Or my Elinchrom Quadra and softbox. Or my tilt-shift lens. But I’ll miss more shots – many more – when I’m held back by the mentality that focuses not on what is there to be seen and photographed with the gear I have, whatever it is, but on the gear I do not. I will miss more shots by staying in bed, by refusing to follow my curiosity around that one more corner, or not slinging my camera over my shoulder when I walk to dinner, than I will by leaving the long heavy lens at home. I’ll miss more shots by chimping when the moment I was trying to photograph is busy unfolding itself before my distracted eyes. I’ll miss more shots by looking so damn hard that I’m unable to actually perceive. I’ll miss more shots by not slowing down, being patient, and waiting for the moment to happen. I’ll miss those moments because I’m wrestling with lens changes or a heavy backpack or the paranoia that my expensive gear is going to get damaged or stolen. I’ll miss that shot as often because of that lens as I will without it. And even when I “get the shot,” it’s worth asking, would it have been better with a wider lens? Maybe yes, and maybe no. But I was so damn sure when I was packing…
We all have a piece of gear we lean on – for many, the longer lens presents an opportunity to avoid getting close to a subject and risking rejection when we ask if we can make their photograph. Our fear clutches to that lens like a life preserver and as long as it’s in the bag we’ll use it. Leave it at home and you have to decide what you fear more – approaching a stranger or going home without the photograph. I think it’s a sign of growth as artists when we begin to embrace, even create constraints, instead of trying so hard to avoid them. It’s easy to blame a lack of gear on not “getting the shot,” and in some cases it’s true. But no one sees the photographs you missed. Only the ones you create. You can’t make them all. Neither can I. We’ll make better photographs, right here and now in this moment, when we’re not mourning the loss, or potential loss, of others.
I head to Nepal on Saturday. On Thursday we announce the launch of PHOTOGRAPH, a new digital quarterly magazine for creative photographers. When I head to the airport to fly to Frankfurt, then Bahrain, then Kathmandu, I’ll be taking my GuraGear Bataflae 26L camera bag. I don’t know where reader Carlos Celis is off to, but we drew his name today and Gura Gear will be sending him a Bataflae 26L, in the colour of his choice. Congrats, Carlos.
I took a B&W workshop class in college where I had to come up with an idea for a project and end up with five prints at the end of the course. I used a Mamiya RZ67 and the only lens that I had, a 150mm (which is about an 80mm on a 35mm camera for those wondering). For three months I shot with only a 150mm. Because I limited myself to a single lens, I had forced myself to learn how to work around its limitations. I soon began to understand the true capabilities of the lens. In a strange way, I began to build a “relationship” – if you will – with that lens. Much like how a wood carver can look at a specific sized/shaped knife and instinctively know what it can do. I instinctively knew the angle of view, how it compressed the perspective. I learned to frame a scene even without having the camera to my eye. I began to focus on what the lens excels at – and ignore the rest.
Great post. Thanks a lot.
Any nail hit squarely on the head David 🙂
Almost the same comment as on your gear list post: yes!
Recently, just into a one-week trip, my walk-around zoom broke. Down to two primes – standard and short telephoto. I missed a few shots, but I also got a few I would have never made or made as well otherwise. Constraints focus the mind!
I now sometimes force myself to do the same – bring a little less than I think I’ll need.
OK, gotta run now – buy that new camera:-)
I can so relate to these forces that urge us to make a myriad of gear choices. In response to opportunities missed during lens changing or general gear faffing I now only travel with 1 camera and 2 lenses (50mm 1.8 and 28-300mm). Between these 2 I have found that I get far more joy from making images without worrying that perhaps I should have used that “other” lens. Lovely to see someone else who is happy to travel light. Thanks as always for the wisdom.
Best thing I did was to get my girlfriend a great camera bag. I’ve never felt so light and free!
Interesting. I have been travelling for almost 2 years. I use a T2i and a 17 to 50. Constraints have been good to me;)
Self-imposed constraints work for me. A few years ago I sold my beloved FF camera and magnificent lenses and settled on a M4/3 camera and two lenses. This had nothing to do with weight and bulk (though it is easier to carry a smaller camera everywhere); I wanted to stop thinking about which camera, which lens etc?
My target was to spend a year with this constraint. In the end it was almost two years before I invested in another camera, because I was having fun and growing as a photographer.
After more than 30 years of making photographs, I now regularly create constraints. This removes distractions / excuses, and opens new creative doors.
So true, every artist in every field works with some sort of “limitations” because of choice of media, process, size, etc. But working within these very limitations had lead to some very wonderful work.
Plus, traveling light is so freeing to body and mind.
Have a wonderful trip and get some great images!
Enjoy shooting with what we have… all around the world…
A few years ago (35 to be precise) I discovered whilst humming in the shower of a large changing room, that as I hit certain notes, the marble surfaces of the shower walls would vibrate. If I sustained that note, the whole room would hum back at me like some scene out of close encounters or Dr Who. Not since that day in the shower in the late 1970’s has anything resonated with me quite like your writing on this subject David. My more succinct and uncharacteristic response to your piece can be articulated in just two words… SPOT ON.
the post is about gear, but i believe most shots are “missed” because of
– chimping in digital,
– camera turned off,
– battery low or empty
– film or storage card full
– being not attentive to the situation
than due to the “wrong gear”.
In my personal experience equipment, eg. camera being to slow (older model) in focussing gave me the most “missed shots when on the streets/travelling.
So my photography is mostly “missed shot”-driven, e.g. to make it better next time.
And most of the time the second best shots works out ok, when the feeeling that i missed it has left me finally.
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Should have sent you one of my Voightlander Perkeo II’s to take to Nepal!! Best, most compact 6×6 camera ever made! Fits in a shirt or pant pocket, cool pop out lens with bellows, …. a minimalist’s dream camera!!
Personally, I was thinking that seems to be a lot of gear for two lenses. A couple of digital rangefinders with those lenses and you could halve you weight again. Even a D800E or D600 to replace the D3/4 series bodies seems to make sense for a photographer that travels.
With my two M9s and a 15,21,35 and 90mm I barely hit 2kg and the whole lot goes in a waist bag. (Although I also usually carry a 50 and 135 as they’re my favourite lengths.) My tripod weighs more than the rest of the kit combined.
But I’ve got to agree that less is more, much of the time.
I’ll occasionally go out when doing street photography with nothing but a 35mm lens. I like the challenge and I’ve seldom been disappointed. I use only natural light, and for me that’s made all the difference.
Great post, David. If only I could heed this advice – I am so, so guilty of taking everything and the kitchen sink when I travel.
Great post David and so true. This may sound bit crazy but it reminds me of when I used to be a fly fisherman…no honestly it does, just hear me out.
When I first began fly fishing I felt I needed the latest fishing rod, reel, lines and hundreds of flies and lures in order to cover every occasion and catch wary brown trout. I spent so much time looking at and changing flies that I missed lots of fish catching opportunities…I was hooked on the gear rather than actual fishing. As I matured I began to take less and less gear to the riverside and guess what…I caught more and bigger fish because I focused my attention on the fish and what they were doing rather than on rod line and flies.
The same holds true with photography. If you stop fretting over your equipment you will have more time to observe possible subjects then maybe capture some special moments and as you say in your post…’You can’t make them all’.
I love this way of seeing photography. F**k gear, let’s make images, good ones and let’s be creative!
Thanks David for remaining us thoughts that should be EVIDENT! 🙂
So, sometimes it`s great to have only 18-55 mm kit lens in my camera 🙂 No thinking about other lenses 🙂
As some one once said, ‘The best camera you have is the one you have with you.’ The same with the lens and other equipment. Thank you for the wisdom you have learned and have, to my betterment, shared. Vaya con Dios.
Zack Arias had a corollary: “The best camera is the one you left at home”. And he still manages to get great shots with whatever mirrorless camera he’s carrying around.