"Our focus becomes our reality." Star Wars.

Lonely, lovely west Texas Highway between Ft. Davis and Marfa.

There are many interesting pecadillos about humans. We tend to pick at details to the exclusion of the big picture.  

Instead of asking, "Is it interesting enough?"  We too often ask, "Is it sharp enough?"

If our focus is on making art then we will make art.  If the press of press turns our attention to the technical nuances of cameras and we let our focus wander down the "rabbit hole" of trying to divine where the ultimate compromise lies between the fascinating power of the 80 megapixel backs and the affordability and portability of the everyday cameras then that focus will lead us to occupy our time in a pointless flurry of research that ultimately yields nothing of real value.  Technology is a moving target, we'll never get in front of it.  But the chance to take time and shoot for yourself is also a moving (and receding) target and when you shift your focus from what you want to say to what you think you need in order to say it you inexorably push one train off the tracks and replace it with something else altogether.

Instead of looking for amusing images we start to look for images that will show off the edge acutance of our new lenses.

I read camera reviews sometimes.  I like the ones that Michael Reichmann writes on Luminous Landscape. He doesn't seem to care what anyone else thinks about his choices and he's not bound by the middle class thought trap that he must make the right decision.  He only needs to make a good decision.

Entertaining the idea that there is one right decision (when buying a camera) trains your mind to endlessly compare and analyze datapoints that may have very little to do with how well a camera works, feels in your hands or compliments your point of view. It focuses you on the process of evaluation. And ALL camera choices are a compromise of one kind or another.  You might choose a very expensive camera because you feel like you need the robustness of a "professional" body and a high pixel count to go with it but in doing so you might have to make the choice of allocating resources to buy the gear and not have enough financial resources left to follow through with the project of which you dream.  You might choose a camera because it fits in the pockets of your disco jeans only to find that it doesn't make the quality of images you imagined it would.

You might scrimp and save for a Leica M9 and one of the new, miracle Apo-Summicrons (because they are the best?)  only to find that the price was so dear you fear taking it with you if it looks like it might rain, or if the neighborhood you'll be visiting is too insecure, or the activity you want to pursue today might exposure your camera to some sort of damaging trauma.

You might buy a Canon 5Dmk3 and a big L zoom because of the presumed value proposition only to find that the weight of the combination hurts your wrist when you have to use it, handheld, for hours at a wedding or a riot.  You may end up wishing your research had turned up a less professional but more comfortable camera.

But the peril of researching all these choices is that your brain shifts what it thinks is its most important focus from making pictures to the endless task of evaluation.  And then you get into closed loop territory.  Your research tells you, "Yes, the TurboFlex Three is the ultimate camera for me!!!!" but as soon as you make that decision you start to hedge because you imagine that it will only be a matter or weeks or months before the much better TurboFlex Three N comes out.  And you get sucked into the next round of evaluation while the world spins and life goes on.

One day you wake up and discover that you know everything there is to know about the most obscure and least obscure cameras and lenses but you have no box of interesting prints, no grand work and no legacy of images to share and cherish.  Nothing to share.  You only have last year's greatest camera body and the need to get back to work researching this year's.

Do you find yourself shooting test shots all the time to reassure yourself that you bought the right thing?  Frustrating.  But our realitybecomes what we focus on.  Shift the focus and you shift reality.  Pick up the camera you have and head out the door.  It's that easy.

Ah.  But what if you need to measure how fast you can shift your focus?  Then what?


  1. This would seem to be a wider cultural phenomenon. Just heard a sociologist on BBC Radio 3 talking about her research on how the "paradox of infinite choice" creates a phenomenon in which a substantial proportion online daters, people who overwhelmingly express a strong desire to find a fulfilling committed relationship when they start dating online and see the internet as a potential source for that, become apathetic about all the potential partners they find there precisely because there seem to be so many different alternatives. What starts with the premise of using digital tools to survey a large number of people to find somebody who is "just perfect" ends up in the paralyzing fear that the next person you click on might be "even perfecter."

    You've got me wondering if we need to seriously rethink the way we educate people in general, and potential artists in particular, with a focus on focus. In a world where so much information is available, and the ethic of the moment seems to be the idea of perfectly "curating" an existence and a physical and mental environment that matches your needs and tastes, maybe we need to think of ways of teaching people to know when to jump in and take a chance on the unknown, and what the virtues of making do with whatever you have to hand are?

  2. If you are sharp enough, you will know that sharp isn't enough.

    "You can rob me, you can starve me...and you can beat me and you can kill me. Just don't bore me." Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway (Heartbreak Ridge - 1986)

    c.d.embrey, someone who has a very low boredom tolerance.

  3. Another great post, thank you.

    According to flickr my most interesting photo of the year is one I almost discarded because it was slightly soft. The perfectionist in me almost won out, but actually the end result was a strong image that i'm now very happy with, despite what might be seen as technical flaws. Similarly my wife's favourite photo of our kids last year was one that was slightly soft because of the slow shutter speed, but the moment and emotion it captured more than made up for this

  4. Analysis paralysis: Too much of that going around.

    Love the chairs.

  5. This post dovetails nicely with one I made yesterday. I quoted the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who said, "Art hurts. Art urges voyages – and it is easier to stay at home."

    We, as photographers, collectively need to stop agonizing over choosing what cameras and lenses to bring with us, and just take the damned voyage, already. We need to get off our butts and SHOOT SOME PHOTOS, or we'll never make any art. We're certainly never going to do it by sitting around measurbating and comparing specs on photo forums.


    - Rick

  6. Brilliant post. To follow up on David's comment above, my "stream's" most viewed photo (by a factor of 4) is of a camera......

  7. "Instead of asking, "Is it interesting enough?" We too often ask, "Is it sharp enough?" "

    Hitting on all cylinders lately... Nice job.

  8. I'm actually thankful that so many people stay at home worrying about their camera purchases and measuring lens sharpness instead of out getting in the way of my shots.

  9. I am not sure I have ever shot a test chart. But I do "window shop" online a bit too much.

    However I recently sold all my FF kit and moved entirely to m43rds with some 43rds lenses thrown in. It was liberating to stop looking at 2 camera companies, decide which lens to buy for which camera etc.

    My enttre kit fits into a small shoulder satchel, while the bigger backpack that used to hold my sony now holds my flash equipment.

    Now to get out with that satchel and take some pictures.



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