Performance has many metrics. Sharper. Faster. Brighter. More resolution. More snap. More speed and more endurance. And it seems inevitable that for every push forward in one of the performance metrics something somewhere has to be sacrificed. For instance, if you want a faster lens you'll need to accept the trade-off that you will have a bigger, heavier lens. If you want a full 35mm framed digital camera you'll pay a higher price and have less depth of field. If you want bigger image files you'll need more storage and perhaps a computing system with a faster processor.
The trick is to narrow down your choices and figure out what you really want (need?) and what you're willing to give up to get it. If I wanted the ultimate in photographic resolution would I be willing to give up part of my retirement fund or to go massively into debt to buy a Phase One 180 eighty megapixel digital system with incredibly expensive glass to go with it? It would mean doing without lots of other things and the trade off might only have temporary benefits that might get lost in several quick generations of new camera/sensor designs. What would I be willing to trade?
Recently I confronted two "wants" in two different fields that are strangely linked by one strong addiction. I wanted to swim faster and I wanted to be able to handhold my cameras at longer exposures at least as well as I did in my "fresh and happy" twenties. I also wanted to reduce my hereditary propensity for anxiety and all its nasty symptoms. What was I willing to give up that would accrue me advantages in all three areas? What beloved ritual/habit/addiction would I be willing to abandon in order to become faster, steadier and calmer?
About four months ago I realized that I had some anxiety when I tried to go faster in the pool. Increased anxiety manifested itself as tighter muscles (which cause a certain amount of physical resistance) and more difficulty effortlessly breathing as well as an elevated heart rate which slows down recovery between sets. Even as a college swimmer I was plagued with a certain amount of performance anxiety that could degrade my overall speed and endurance. Around this time I also realized that I was slowing down.
In my other world, photography, I noticed that I had developed more shake in my hands and body and that I wasn't able to hold a camera as still as I had before. While image stabilization worked fine not every camera and lens I want to shoot with has image stabilization built in. (Hello. Hasselblad...). Often I like to shoot on the edge of what might be possible. I like to get lucky shooting candid, available light portraits with medium telephotos like the 85mm 1.4 lenses; handheld. Wide open. The longer lenses magnify any sort of operational shortcomings and not being able to hold a camera still is a big operational shortcoming.
I made the (for me) momentous decision to stop drinking caffeinated coffee. Yes. You read that correctly. Kirk Tuck no longer drinks super strong, deep black, potent caffeinated coffee. The physical transition was quick enough, a few days of crabbiness (but I'd been so crabby on caffeine that no one really noticed a change...) some mild headaches and of course the standard bleeding from the eyes and ears and the grand mal seizures (just kidding about the last two symptoms..) but the psychological addiction was harder to shake (ha. ha.) I've read about addiction and overcoming addiction and I realized that I couldn't do this halfway. I couldn't vacillate. I mean, look at what I had at risk: Faster swimming, better photographs, more patience.
After the first two weeks I noticed that my swimming improved. Slowly at first and then more radically. People I had never been able to hang with in workout suddenly came into my sights. I no longer feared sets of 200's and 400's. My butterfly stroke endurance increased by leaps and bounds. But most important to me, my performance anxiety faded and then snuffed itself out altogether. I became both faster and much more relaxed in the water. During this time I was also able to concentrate more on the mechanics of my freestyle stroke. I watched an amazing swimmer named Kristen and began to copy her longer and more aggressive arm extension at the front end of her freestyle stroke, her perfectly delineated forearm catch and the decisive and powerful hip roll that kept it all rhythmic and flowing. Just this weekend my times for 50 and 100 yard repeats dropped again. I was muscle sore at the end of yesterday's workout but that was because the increase in my speed and endurance added another 1,000 yards to my usual workout. My fellow swimmers and coach noted and commented and that was nice.
But I know most of you don't really care about swimming and that's okay. In the realm of photography I started to notice that, in the first few weeks after my caffeine abstinence, my calmness (bordering on drowsiness) was yielding a diverse menu of positive results. My grip and hold on cameras gets steadier and steadier. At this point I feel as though I've regressed to my early thirties. A 50mm 1.4 is generally sharp for me down to a 1/30th of a second when I am mindful of the process. The bigger reward is more patience. More proclivity to wait for the right moment instead of hurrying through a shoot or a scene or a moment.
A surprising side benefit of eliminating the liquid speed and slowing down my brain is a calmness in other work situations. The best example is my recent portfolio show where I was able to be less guarded and more affable. I wasn't overly worried about the outcome and it translated into a better engagement with all the people I met and showed to. In all honesty, it was my first non-anxious portfolio show of my entire career. (that's sad just to read).
So, what did I really give up? The psycho-chemical effects were easy to give up. After two weeks all of the cravings were gone, physically, but I realize that I'd been drinking juiced up coffee religiously and with reckless abandon for the better part of thirty five years with very, very few breaks. The culture of coffee was interwoven in everything I did. I made extra time to get to shoots so I could drop by the coffee house and get a big cup of hot speed. On the way to track meets and swimming meets and other events with my son, Ben, the coffee cup was a constant companion. And I can't remember business meetings that didn't somehow revolve around the intoxicating elixir. Locations were sometimes determined by their proximity to the best coffee in town. And a bad shot (of espresso) could ruin my morning.
But I quickly learned that if I could get over my visceral repulsion to decaf that the meetings would still go on. I've saved over $7,000 in the last three months on coffee purchases (just kidding, my habit was maybe $5 a day) and that's enough to buy a new camera and a couple cool lenses.
The biggest benefit is that fact that I now sleep like a baby, don't yell at bad drivers, and I can handhold a camera steadier than I've been able to in at least twenty years. If that's not worth giving up an anxiolytic substance I always have my ace in the hole: The best set of 100 freestyles I've swum in nearly a decade. All for free.
What would you give up for better performance?