Enjoying Creative Limitation

A trap that ensnares many photographers, whether you're a casual snapshooter or a pro, is what's humorously called GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).  At the high end, this may mean the endless pursuit of a fast, new lens or the latest Canon/ Nikon/ Sony DSLR.  If you are into shooting vintage film cameras, this may entail collecting a variety of old rangefinder cameras.  If you're like me, you're highly susceptible to both.

There's nothing wrong with being a collector of camera gear; just don't confuse collecting with doing photography.  Some people just enjoy collecting and displaying cameras that they never plan to shoot.  The issue I'm concerned about here is the misguided belief that somehow this coveted piece of gear will finally propel me to the heights of photographic achievement.  "If only I could afford this great lens I could finally take the photos of my dreams!"  If and when we finally manage to obtain this magical item, we quickly find that it's not the be-all and end-all, and soon we set it aside and start the cycle all over again.

I'm as guilty of this obsession as anyone else.  In recent months, however, I've started to scale down my growing collection.  I've given away or sold at least a dozen film cameras, and have plans to eliminate a few more.  If they don't get used regularly what's the point in keeping them?  I even sold off my prized Nikon D7000, along with several nice lenses and a couple of speedlights, and switched to a smaller mirrorless camera with a single zoom lens.  I do have a lens or two in mind I plan to buy for professional use with my new camera, but really what I have now is capable of doing 90% of what I'd ever want to do.  And my neck and shoulders are thanking me!

As I see it, there are two major traps brought about by GAS: The first, as I've alluded to above, is that we're tempted to blame our dissatisfaction with our own photos on lack of adequate gear.  The reality is that limitations of gear are not our biggest handicap.  If you can't take a well-composed, visually engaging photo with an $8 disposable camera, a $7,000 Leica isn't going to improve your pictures.

Yes, if you're a wildlife or sports photographer you really do need some long telephoto lenses to get the shot. But in general, a good photographer is going to take good photos with even the simplest camera and kit lens.  More megapixels or sharper glass won't make humdrum photos better.

From a self-assignment I shot using my $20 plastic "Debonair" camera with b&w film.  With very few controls available, basic toy cameras like these free your mind to explore a scene with little regard for technical matters.

From a self-assignment I shot using my $20 plastic "Debonair" camera with b&w film.  With very few controls available, basic toy cameras like these free your mind to explore a scene with little regard for technical matters.

The second trap, equally as harmful, is that too much gear can clutter our minds and stifle creativity.  There's a principle in the art world called creative limitation.  And it's not just a high-flying notion for angst-ridden artists.  It's just what it sounds like: less is often more.

The painter Robert Henri gave this advice to artists in his book, The Art Spirit:

"Too many brushes , or too many sorts of brushes cause confusion. Have a broad stock, but don’t use them all at once. It is remarkable how many functions one brush can perform. Use not too many, but use enough." (pp. 73-74)

If you absolutely must own every lens, camera and accessory ever made, do yourself a favor and leave them all at home on your next photo outing.  Pick one camera, one lens (maybe two if you really, really need it), and go make some great pictures. You won't miss a shot by rifling through your camera bag wondering which lens or camera you should use. And you'll probably end up with a better photo by using what you have available at that moment.