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5.24.2012

What I learned when I dragged a Hasselblad on vacation. The myth of perfection.

Rome.

It was 1991 and most of my assignments were being done on medium format film with one or another camera from Sweden.  There's a myth that floats around the web like a party guest who's drunk and won't leave, that all the pros back in the film days used 35mm cameras.  Well, I know the four or five hundred sports shooters did but the other 200,000 professionals mostly used medium format...except for the ones that used 4x5 inch film.  With the exception of documentary photographers and event photographers very few pros used much 35mm for real work until the late 1990's and, even then, would quickly scurry back to medium format, given a choice.

Anyway, the dollar was strong and Belinda and I decided to take a real vacation, not just a quick jaunt to the coast or a long weekend in San Francisco or New York.  A real vacation.  Two weeks or so and out of the country.  We headed to Italy.  I packed light.  I brought a Hasselblad 500 C/M with two lenses:  a 50mm f4.5 and a 100mm Planar f3.5.  I also brought along about 100 rolls of Kodak Tri-X (magic film).  The camera was rudimentary.  Just a waist level finder and a couple of 120mm film backs. No meter. No autofocus. No motors.  Just my eyes, my brain and as much cool industrial art as Hasselblad could cram into a body.  My back-up plan?  Buy another camera on site if this one failed.  But I was using Hasselblads in the studio, shooting 20 or 30 rolls a day for years and I hadn't had one fail on me yet...

So, what did I learn hauling that around?  Well, to start with I like medium focal length lenses and I could have just left the 50mm at home.  The 100 was about the equivilant of a 60-65 mm lens on a full frame, 35mm style camera and it always seemed just right.  I learned to judge exposure by using the little slip of paper that came packed from Kodak with each roll of film.  They had printed pictograms of the most common exposure situations and the accuracy was better that anything we get using a meter.

I learned, with 12 exposures on a roll to be discerning about what I shot.  I also learned to be patient.  If I shot too much too quickly I'd be out of film just about the time something really cool was happening.  I learned that old, waist level cameras were invisible and anonymous.  And I learned for the 10,000th time that the square beats the crap out of all other photographic formats.

When I got back home I learned that a big negative trumps all the technology in the world for image quality.  I learned that 120 mm film made contact sheets where each individual image was big enough to judge with the naked eye.


Belinda in Siena.


Belinda in Verona

And I've learned over the years that the pursuit of perfection in photography is great if you are trying to exactly replicate a box of laundry detergent or a stereo receiver for an advertising project but that perfection tends to suck the life out of images that are meant to be savored and enjoyed.  

I'm happy if something is in focus.  I'm happy if the image reminds me of an experience and I'm happiest when I can see the grain.  When I can see the grain I know it's art.

Finally, if you are shooting art for yourself you really only need one lens.  Not an all purpose lens but a lens you can believe in.  A lens that, when you look through it, makes everything look more exciting and more real.  A lens that matches the vision in your heart.  All the other lenses are bullshit.  They make them so professional photographers can do stuff the way clients want it.  Really.  If you don't get paid to do this stuff just narrow down and narrow down until you find a lens that makes your vision sing and then sell the rest.  You'll argue and you won't believe me but if you do it you'll be so much happier with your work five years from now.  Honestly.  It's the one thing I've learned chasing business and clients.  You compromise your vision.  One lens is all you need.  In fact more lenses just cloud everything up.

The best fashion shooter I ever met just had one lens.  It was a Hasselblad 150.  The front element looked as though someone had put a cigarette out on it.  She didn't own any other lens so she never had to think about which lens she would use or how she would work.  She just did her work and it was stellar.  No choices, just the right choice.  No confusion just vision.  Amazing.  But now we're all so fearful we feel like we need to have "all of our bases covered" even when we're just doing this for fun.  That's why it's not as much fun.  

Zooms are for sissies.  I have a collection. I'm just a sissy.  Show me the guy with one 50mm lens and no bag and I'll show you an artist.  Or at least a guy without a back problem.....

You won't listen anyway.  Go ahead and buy whatever you like.

59 comments:

  1. A twin-lens reflex would have been perfect for what you were doing. I love the TLR above all other camera designs, but don't want the expense and hassle of film, so I bought an Olympus Pen EP series camera because I read in one of your blogs that I could set it to shoot in square format and that I could tip up the VF-2 viewfinder and look down into it.

    I have all the bases covered for commercial work too, but only carry that load when I have to.

    What in the world is that Canon machine in Belinda's hand?

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  2. Signor Kirk!

    it is always good to see some great pictures of my old country ... i left it over 20 years ago, and now i am realizing that i like it more every time i go back and visit, even if just for a few days...

    i am with you on the 'one camera - one lens' philosophy'! when i had the EP2 i took a whole trip worth of beautiful images in Guatemala using one lens only; on my last trip to India i had the M8 with -gasp!- THREE lenses in my bag, and ended up using only the excellent 40/1.4. I could have done just as well with the little Leica X1 - sadly, it had ONE major flaw, the lack of viewfinder, which caused its early departure.

    now that all the hype is over, i have finally ordered a Fuji X100, and i think it has the potential to become my 'go to' camera for walking excursions and trips.

    HOWEVER, your insistence in waxing lyrical over medium formats keeps pushing me dangerously closer to the point of getting one again, after having finally convinced myself that i was happy enough with digital!!!

    i need to find a good place to hide it from the wife :-)

    p.s.: it is a MINOR correction but, regardless of what Nissan thinks, Siena only has one 'n' :-)

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  3. Nice one, Kirk. I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels that "choice" in photography is merely an idea so that camera companies can sell more lenses! Choice is a distraction from photographic vision. That's why I'd kill for a cheaper "monochrom" camera so that I don't have the choice of endlessly fiddling with sliders and emulsion "simulation". The only reason I take my camera bag with me is to protect my reading material!

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  4. Sooo nice! And this is real good advice, too - for free even! Invaluable. Thanks Kirk.

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  5. I will listen.

    You know, when I owned a Rolleicord Va I barely ever used it as nice a camera as it was. In fact I only ever used it for landscape and can only clearly recall one single occasion that I used it on the streets. You have now made me regret that Kirk.

    Why did I not consider it appropriate for street photography? Size I guess. My Leica's were then and still are now my "go-to" cameras for discreet photography. But hey - I missed a *BIG* trick here and should have tried the Rollei with it's VF. I could have had lovely 6x6 negs with tonality to die for in my negative catalogue to boot. I hold my hands up and admit I made a mistake, I feel I really should correct it now but as usual it's going to cost me. Ah well.

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  6. Inspiring post, thanks for that Kirk!
    Too many choices dillute my vision and distract from the creative work.
    Not to mention too much "empty" shots, the result of the huge capacity of the memory cards and the no cost effect (actually it is quite a big cost = apart from the shutter counter, it is the time necessary to spend watching computer screen and selecting the right shots).
    But these are just my weaknesses, it is not fault of the equipment.

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  7. Nice article. I dig the "just one lens" too, lately almost all the time I shoot with my old Pentacon 28mm on my G3 - it makes you concentrate more easily once you start to learn what will be the framing in relation to what you see with the naked eye.

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  8. Kirk, as usual stunning photos, I'm a total fan of your style. It may not work for everybody but it certainly makes my skirt fly ! You are inspiring me to dare use 1:1 format (I've been stuck on 3:2 forever, even use it by default on m4/3). Maybe I also shoot RAW + jpeg in Monochrome (I'd always have the Raw file for color back up if needed).
    I'm rather comfortable shooting with just one lens, my PL25/1.4 hardly ever leaves my GX-1 anyway. Despite its greatness I find the Oly 45 a little "sterile" (as in clinical) in its rendering, and much prefer the output of the PanaLeica...
    Kirk, on another note, have you ever considered opening a section on your blog where your fans could share some pics ?

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    1. Claire there is a VSL-group on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/groups/visualsciencelab/

      But the policy there is to share only portraits and I'm still too shy to ask someone for taking a portrait :-{

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  9. A couple things...one I am again struck by your images, really, really satisfying.

    When I was a teen all I wanted to be was a photographer...I got my dream camera in 1976 an OM-1 with a 50mm. Well I never became a photographer, but rather a designer, but still have kept in interest in it. I went digital about 6 years ago and have been struggling with it, despite all the images I have made, I don't really like many of them. I don't really feel comfortable with the camera and the controls, too many menu options and it does not feel fluid.

    Recently I have been going thru old slides I shot and have been struck with the quality of the shots I made with the OM-1 and the 50mm, many when I was as young as 16,17. "Wow, I say I made THAT shot?" Good composition, lighting, exposure, all around great images. What the heck happened?

    I have the new OMD on order and have made a vow to try and re capture what I once had... but not sure how to do it, there is so much to learn it terms of software, both in the camera and out. I miss the old ways...

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  10. 1. It's "Siena", not "Sienna".
    2. As an Italian who lives now in dark England, I would like to say that the pictograms for exposures that you are referring to may work in normal countries (Italy, US, France...) but not here in England. In fact, in the rest of the world you may recognize situations such as: sunny, cloudy, shade, etc. Here you can't, it is all only different "shades of grey" and different amounts of cloudiness. Cloudy may be so thick you barely see anything. Sunny does not exist or, when it does, it is always hazy. Those rules do not apply here.

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    1. I am trying! Unemployed now. Applied to about 350 jobs in the last 14 months. I have an interview in the South of Italy next month.

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    2. 2. Back in the summer of 2004 I was doing some street photography in London with my old Rolleiflex E2 and Tri-X. It was 4pm and I was eyeballing the exposures, but it seemed a tad dim. I pulled out the LunaPro and checked. 1/30 at f5.6! The meter in my brain was off by about 2 stops. England is dark, no doubt.

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    3. England is indeed dark most of the time. The Sunny 16 rule does not apply here Bill, it's more like an "Overcast 4" we have to work with. :-)

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  11. I still shoot a 4X5 and carry one wide angle in my bag, almost never use it, and at most carry 10 film cassettes each with 2 sheets of film. Almost all landscapes. 20 sheets of film forces discipline. I usually end up only shooting one image of a given scene in a given light. One shot is all it takes when you know what you are doing. Often I end up waiting for that one shot! Oh yea it took me 6 years of continuous shooting to get to this point.

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    1. Your vacation story reminds me a bit of the summer of 1988, when I deliberately chose to use only a 4x5 view camera I designed and built myself. My lens was a new 150mm Schneider Symmar-S. A too-flimsy tripod, a few sheet-film holders, T-Max B&W sheet film, a light meter, a cape for looking at the ground glass, a blowing bulb, and a changing bag - that was my kit for three months. A 4x5 camera on a tripod, however, tends to attract attention. Definitely not something to use for anonymous shooting.

      I do agree with you that using only a single single-focal length lens is a good way to shoot. Lately I've become enamoured of my 50mm f/1.8 lens on an APS-C DSLR. It's a short tele that works well for me right now. Last night I decided to put a 24mm lens on the camera and walk around a bit and take some photos. I quickly realized the 50 would have been a far better choice.

      I love stories and words of advice like these. Please keep them coming.

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    3. Craig, I saw that your post had been doubled this morning and when I went to remove one of the duplicates the system ate both. I am sorry. I was not trying to edit or censor your response. If you have it intact would you please re-post it?

      Signed, the ham fisted Admin....

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    4. Kirk, no problems. The remaining post is exactly as I intended it. I actually meant for it to be a main reply to your posting. I think, however, it fits well under Wally's post too. Cheers.

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  12. Gorgeous images, all of them.

    Can't say anything definitive on your advice though, as I'm still internalizing; is a two-prime setup only a slight compromise, the beginning of a slippery slope, or already a large compromise because it still forces you to think which one is the most adequate? I imagine you'd go for the last one, but I'd like to think about my own feelings on the matter, which has proven somewhat difficult. It's true when I started out and economics relegated me to only the 50mm kit lens I felt much more comfortable than with any zoom, but it's also true I often dreamed of a 135mm when out shooting and I do think it would've made a positive difference, even in hindsight.

    But perhaps the whole issue is that I can't accept the 135mm might be the "one and only" lens for me, rather than the 50mm. Something else to ponder about. Still, thank you for making me think; it's the main reason I read your blog, even if the great photos don't hurt ;)

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    1. Daniel, I don't give out actual prescriptions. My writing is meant to stimulate your own internal discussion, just as it does mine.

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    2. Years ago (pre digital) when I traveled 50% of the time I had a one lens set up to entertain myself while on the road. It was a 135mm on a nikormat. I found it much better than a "normal" lens for all kinds of shots. What I found was you see life differently and find those shots that work well for the focal length stuck on your camera. I would not take a photo of the old church, but the old church door. And for people, I could get a great head shot, and step back for something wider. Yes, you can use a 135mm (full frame 35mm) as your primary lens and get some great photos.

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  13. I've got a Nikon 50/1.8 AI, it came with the black FE I bought for my wife. I probably take 80% of my shots, whether they're on film or digital, with that lens. I tried using a neglected zoom lens last weekend but ended up switching back to the 50 after a few shots.

    I normally go out with a 2 lens kit (24 and 50) but that unassuming 50mm just feels more natural. The odd thing is that the change in FOV between the formats doesn't throw me that much. I just end up standing a step or two closer with the film camera than I would with the digital :)

    Adam

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  14. Nice post. It needs to be said more often.

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  15. I couldn't agree more. My biggest problem I'm having these days is trying to decide between my Mamiya C330s or should i buy the Hasselblad 500 CM that I am currently borrowing from a friend? I love them both! Kirk, I'm sure you'll steer me to the Hasselblad but I'm just not sure..... They both have 80mm 2.8 lenses and give similar results. But anyways back on point....12 shots, One lens and tri X, there is nothing better. If anyone thinks there is, they haven't tried it.

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    1. Your post is old, but I'll just mention that Francesca Woodman used a Mamiya 6x6 for her amazing photographs, and boy!--what a body of work. Stunning photography. Its not the camera, it's the SOUL.

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  16. Very timely post for me. I've been thinking over the last month or so that I like the pictures from my Nikkor 105 better (way better) than anything else. I have a few bodies. It's the lens, not the body.

    It's all I've been shooting lately. I decided that it really doesn't make sense to shoot anything else, all though I thought I must be a little crazy shooting an interchangeable lens camera with one lens welded to the front.

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  17. I've been reading your blog for a long time. Some articles I enjoy and others I can't relate to but I can still see their value and appreciate your well articulated points. I have to say though, this is the first time reading VSL that I've wanted to jump out of my chair, and shout, "F@#k yeah, that's what I'm talking about!" This is the passage that filled me with such enthusiasm:

    "if you are shooting art for yourself you really only need one lens. Not an all purpose lens but a lens you can believe in. A lens that, when you look through it, makes everything look more exciting and more real. A lens that matches the vision in your heart. All the other lenses are bullshit."

    I can relate to that on such an intuitive level. I own only one lens. Mounted on my D80 is a 50mm 1.8. It works out to about 75mm-e. Does it dash my chances of fitting everyone into certain group shots. Sure. Can I swallow a room's interior with its field of view. Nope. Does it "make everything look more exciting and real?" Absolutely. I get excited every time I look through my viewfinder. I once owned Nikon's 35mm 1.8, common wisdom being it was the lens to own for APS-C if you were only going to own one prime. Its perspective felt dead to me. It didn't narrow down my world and crop out the extraneous like the 50 does. It got put up on ebay quick like.

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  18. You posts always make me think. Oddly my favorite lens is the Canon 28-135 on a crop sensor. It's reputed to be a poor quality lens but it works well on the crop sensor. Guess I'm just a sissy since it's a zoom.

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    1. Join the club, Bill. I have a drawer full...

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  19. Great post! I've been trying to follow this same advice I heard from another pro and not buy a new lens for a year. Well I broke down and bought a refurb for a great price, Huge mistake! The lens attached great to my A77 but then wouldn't release. I had to send it to the manufacture who removed the lens and told me the mount was no good. Strange that I can mount everyone of my other lenses. Anyway, I need to listen when the universe is talking to me and send the lens back. :)

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  20. Does it count when that "one lens" is a 35-100mm f/2.0 zoom? It's a monster, but I love it, and can't get past the gorgeous images it enables me to make.

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    1. Yes. If you are willing to carry it, it definitely counts!

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  21. I am still on my quest to find the lens that makes my heart sing. I believed for a long time that zooms were the way to go but I have been smitten with the trio of primes I use with my OMD. I also have the 75mm on the way. On my solitary walks I pick either the 12mm, 25mm or the 45mm. I find the 12mm & the 25mm to be the most fun for the street. The 45mm and the 75mm will be my tools for portraiture. Can't wait to hear the song in my heart.

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    1. Frank, I think one day you'll reach for the camera and you'll just know. You'll know because of all the lenses it's the only one you can't bear to be without...

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  22. Great post, Kirk, with some wonderful square photos too. My friend recently said that you can leave the middle prime of a classic 3 prime setup home. And when I look at my Lightroom library I see that he's right. These days my setup du jour is the Pentax K-01 with the DA21mm F3.2. If I'm weak I'll throw the DA70mm F2.4 in the bag but 80% of the time I just stick with the 21 and step closer if I have to.

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  23. Kirk,
    Wow! You nailed it with this blog entry. I fly fish and the gear trap is similar. People spend their lives chasing "the best gear". Find one combo you love (rod and line type) and get in as much water time as possible learning the fish. The simpler the better. Covering your bases complicates and weakens your efforts.

    In photography a body of work develops when you find your voice. Covering your bases diffuses and diminishes voice and distances us from passionate connections. Staying with one fabulous lens long enough is like writing a clear chapter in a book. Too much gear is like a story with no focus or clear purpose.

    Thanks for saying this so well!

    Steve

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  24. Hehe... says the guy who does 'walkaround' travel photography with just the 135L ... no other lens speaks to me like that one does...

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  25. "Zooms are for sissies."

    Best thing I've read today ;-)

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  26. I need to go back to Italy. It's been too long.

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  27. nice story, I still have a 500cm, bought new in '82, but prefer my Mamiya 6 now days.

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  28. I have two TLRs, a Rolleiflex, and (my secret favorite) a Minolta Autocord, that I use on the street from time to time.

    They are not unobtrusive. Every time I take them out, 3 or 4 people stop and ask me about my cool "antique" cameras.

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  29. Nicely said, Kirk with a real world experience to back it up.

    My "go to" camera at pretty much all times is a Hasselblad 501cm w/ the 80mm lens. I've thought about getting a wider or longer lens but then remember that I have these things called feet. I use them instead and save the money.

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  30. Though like you I have a drawer full of various lenses, the shots that end up singing most to me (and likewise get the strongest reaction from others) tend to be shot with my treasured Zeiss Planar 50mm f1.4 manual prime lens (on my 5D MkII, just upgraded to MkIII). I love the sharpness, and that I can never be tempted to flip on the AF. Plus it weighs a heck of a lot less than the Canon 24-70L Zoom.

    Thanks for reminding me that I don't need to take all the options along just in case, Kirk.

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  31. Excellent post, thanks for that Kirk. I will come back every now and then to read this and remind myself what is important in photography. It is not the number of pixels and the hardware, but the photos.

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  32. AlbertoBotturi@me.comSeptember 17, 2013 at 4:14 PM

    All your words ere so touching! Thanks!

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  33. Wow! I love this article! No one said it better than Kirk. I started to feel the same way a few years ago. The late fashion photographer Helmut Newton says that he only used "ordinary" lenses for his fashion work. by "ordinary" he means normal lenses, like an 80mm for example. When was the last time you guys saw this man's work? While he shot with 35mm sometimes (not even a Leica, huh) and a Rollieflex tlr with a normal lens ( you see, just a simple normal lens), he used a Hasselblad with a normal lens I'm not sure if it was an 80mm or a 100mm, but I have a documentary tape showing Helmut Newton at work. For one of his photo sessions while photographing Candice Bergen he was using a 100mm planar on his Hasselblad. He also used, at one time, the old 135mm macro Planar. Helmut Newton kept it so simple, and the other amazing thing about him is that he only used a 500 watt floodlight to shoot his sexually charged and often weird and mysterious fashion pictures. The thing I hate about fashion photography today is that all these fashion pictures are just too "over lit". You know,-- the Profoto 7b this or br8 or whatever the hell they are called these days, blah, blah, blah, not to mention the Breisi line of lights. (Also, Helmut Newton only used the 400 version of tri-x for all his work, processed in Rodinal,). By the way, even Robert Mapplethorpe kept it simple (I like his work more for the quality than the content): he only used the 80mm planar and 150mm Sonnar lenses on his Hasselblad. Simple equipment and a good imagination are all one needs for fascinating photography. Even I suffer from having more equipment than I need. I have 5 prime lenses for my Hasselbad system--all cfi's, and 98% percent of the time I use the 60mm along with 80mm or with 100mm. When I had the amazing 180mm CFI (purchased brand new), I rarely used it. I am a prolific shooter, but that lens would sit in my Pelican case for years and only use it maybe 2 or 3 times a year throughout those years, but I would use the the aforementioned lenses 98% of the time. So what did I do? I sold the 180.--I wasn't using it. But boy!—that 180 was sharp as hell!!

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  34. On a vacation to NY city several of my lenses were lost in the baggage systems. I was left with a 28mm on a 5DMKII. I learned to used that camera/lens in all times places with joy. A great lesson !

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  35. Hi Kirk
    Thanks for article. I completely agree with you. I remember my holidays with Kodak SLR\c and one 35mm lens - that was completely enough for everything. Another trip - i was with Fuji gw690 film camera with fixed lens - same. Nowdays i use Hassy 500c with planar 80 almost all the time. Its really natural to think more on subject then on selection of gear :) Also great advantage in weight.
    Good luck,
    Dmitry

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  36. Great pictures and Great post!. I went to Italy this for 3 months and i brought way too many lenses with me. My neck and shoulders paid the price. I'll be traveling much lighter on my next trip!

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  37. Absolutely correct about the 50mm lens. I favour mine above all the others.

    I don't have a Hasselblad though. I so WISH!

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  38. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)

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  39. G'day Kirk, I am looking at buying a 500c/m. Nice post. Can you provide any more info on the little piece of paper provided with the film>? Which paper is this?cheersJeremy

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  40. I believe the slip of paper no longer exists inside the box of film, but similar info is printed on the inside of the box itself. Open carefully!
    Interesting article. I took my 503cw to NZ and Fiji for 6 weeks. I took 3 lenses but really only used the 50mm. Occasionally the 80, and only 2 or 3 times the 100. Sadly, the lens I love the most for my large format work does not have a shutter or I would use it all the time. Getting it fitted with one costs several times what I paid for the lens itself.

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  41. Good post, sound advice. I'm finally learning this (after many years) and now have a Leica M6 with one lens; a 50mm Summicron and I rarely want to shoot with anything else. That said, I do fancy a Hasselblad for MF work...I have 645 but love the square :))

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