All The Gear and No Idea?
Am I a photographer or gearhead (suffering from Gear Acquisition Syndrome AKA ‘GAS’)? At some point, this is probably the most fundamental question anyone with a love of photography will ask himself or herself. The answer can be ‘both’, but just as Goldilocks had to choose a bed to sleep in, it helps if you do too. This is not to say that one is ‘better’ than the other, but if your primary passion is camera equipment and this is where your head and heart invest their energy, the quality of your photography is likely to suffer. That’s not a problem if you are happy with the choice you have made, but so many gearheads are in denial.
For this person, every purchase is justified in terms of the impact it will have on their photography. Yep, I sure do need that Leica 50 APO Summicron asph at $8K for the additional micro contrast in the extreme corners at f2… the standard Summicron is just not up to it. I personally think the ‘I really want a 50mm APO Summicron asph because it’s a marvel of engineering and I can afford such whims’ is a much more honest and respectable approach to the same desire. So there we go: the gearhead part is very simple. If you want it and can afford it, you buy it. Just don’t go kidding yourself about the relationship between equipment whims and quality photographs. There’s just no need, because why should you not buy that super expensive lens? Sure, it’s going to make some people feel nauseous, but it does pay the salaries of the gnomes that make them, and their baby gnomes, not to mention everyone else involved in the business culminating in your purchase. This outlook works for me, but then again I’m the sort of person who walks past a Ferrari and thinks, “oooh, I’d love to have one of those (if I didn’t have to pay for it)” rather than wondering who is looking, while I find a sharp key in my pocket.
None of this is to say that fancy equipment cannot make your photographs look better. Heck, just enjoying holding and using a camera that entices you to keep taking photos is clearly going to do your image making some good, but how much? There really is no need to answer that question, but instead its best kept simple: using cameras that make you feel good, whatever the reason, is essential. Using cameras you do not like using, or find uncomfortable is just plain stupid. Is it therefore unreasonable to dislike using a camera that feels ‘too plasticky’? Of course not. If it were stupid we’d all be wearing cheap plastic underwear. There are, however, people who like that kind of thing, so as always, it’s a matter of taste. If you can afford a Leica M240 and love using it, will it help you shoot better images than were you using a Fujinon X-Pro 1 with AF you detest? Yes, almost certainly. There you go, you now have permission to spend the extra £4K.
Now that taste and personal preference is out of the way, we get to the matter of quantity. Here, things get more interesting. The internet is awash with people advocating one camera and one fixed lens (usually a 50mm) for an extended period, as a way of improving your photography. While it can certainly help some people, I think cutting off one leg, my right arm and wearing a blindfold (after surgically removing my middle ear) would probably have a less negative affect on my photography. The reason is simple: I see shorter and longer than 50mm and rarely on the button of that focal length. I don’t know why and I don’t care, because it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to be a fifth Dan Jedi master with a 50mm to be a good photographer, do I? In fact, why should I not have that 24mm to hand when its blindingly obvious that a 35mm or 50mm will not suit the intent nearly as well? It’s a great myth that Henri Cartier-Bresson only used a 50mm. He used wider and longer lenses, but 50mm was his favourite. Salgado, an undisputed master of composition (irrespective of what you think of his work at a more intellectual level), used 28, 35 and 60mm as a matter of routine, during his Leica R film days, with wider and longer lenses when he needed them.
Doggedly pursuing something that isn’t going well isn’t very clever, unless your goal is to improve on what you do badly at the expense of what you do well. So how do you know what you do well? This involves a bit of experimentation and finding your feet, which cannot be achieved with one body and one lens. I’m therefore an advocate of trying a few different approaches, finding which works best for you, then dropping the other options and reinforcing success. It’s the same when it comes to film and developers. A bit of casual experimentation without scientific methodology can tell you a fair amount about the various combinations and how they look printed. You don’t need a densitometer and a darkroom that would look over-specced in an ICI laboratory to figure these things out. The boffins would have you believe otherwise and the Photo-Spartan puritans will tell you the same about stripping your camera kit down until you are left with memory card taped to the back of a 50mm lens.
Once you have a camera system that works well for you (whther with one lens or five), there is a chance you will find other niche lenses (tilt and shift, very fast portrait lenses etc) that have their uses. Does owning them make you a gear head? Once again, of course not. Does wanting to own a Sony A7 kit to give a lightweight alternative to lugging about your massive Canon 1DX and L zooms make you a gear head? No, it makes you sensible. I would not dream of lugging my 5D III out on a documentary, or street project where I was going to be on my feet for days on end. I enjoy feeling light and mobile and I can see the result in my images. I walk further, I explore more and I am more willing to keep moving around to get the image.
So what are the warning signals that your sensible kit holdings have grown too large? I think its quite simple: when the demands made by your additional equipment are beginning to outweigh the benefits they confer. And there are a lot of ways that excessive equipment can become a burden and they echo idea that when you own too many possessions those possessions begin to own you. So here goes:
- You cannot remember how important functions work and have to keep looking them up… you know, because you’ve used sixteen different camera systems over last few weeks.
- You have to spend a lot of time and money maintaining your kit, without the images to show for it.
- You are running out of storage and your kit is a mess and/or buried in improbable places. You need a bigger house, or are considering selling children to free up space.
- You could use camera system A, B or C, because it doesn’t matter much. They’re interchangeable.
- You spend more time testing equipment and ironing out glitches than shooting ‘real’ images.
- You are regularly shooting important work on untested systems with which you are not utterly confident.
Every photographer is going to be different, because we all shoot different work, in different ways and have different personal preferences. As a documentary/travel/landscape type of photographer, if I ignore film kit, I am shooting on two and a half systems:
- Canon EOS (5D III and some film bodies).
- Leica Monochrom (and film bodies).
- Sony A7.
I say two and a half because the Sony system is largely additional bodies due to the range of EOS and M lenses that I can use on them. My Leica Monochrom does not shoot colour, so the A7/R bodies are essential if I do not want to drag the 5D III around.
How many lenses do I own? About twenty , although that figure will be down by about six or seven, after I have done my next big sell off.
What is my core kit? About three bodies, ten lenses and two tripods.
What could I shoot for a lifetime with, if I had to: One body, four lenses.
There is another factor here and it is that a huge amount of highly varied equipment can encourage us to chop and change how we approach our work and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Sure, I think flexibility is of benefit, but only when one has the time to explore a new way of working and take it some distance. Shooting a wide range of work on a wide range of platforms is a sure way to become a master of none. Having the equipment options to shoot the work you are in the process of realising is just common sense. The key is in finding what works for you and what doesn’t and his is where it pays to be brutally honest with yourself. As long as you aren’t pulling the wool over your own eyes, nobody else’s opinion matters a damn.