Does your insistence on using the same camera for years at a time hamper your artistic growth? How do you know?

I'm reading a book called, Letting Go of The Camera, by Brooks Jensen. The book is a series of essays by the editor of LensWorks. One of the many great essays in the book talks about the time that Jensen, who had used a 4x5 inch, film, view camera exclusively for over 20 years, finally bought a 35mm type digital camera. He describes the incredible sense of freedom and visual agility he instantly gained because he no longer was constrained to shooting carefully constructed images, on a tripod, requiring long set up times and motionless subjects. The transition helped him to realize that we all tend to be limited by the boundaries imposed by our habits. It's an example of the old saw that goes, "If all you have is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail." 

The main point of his essay is that working with the same tools all the time trains you to find subjects and ways of shooting that convenience or leverage the strengths of the camera and not your unique vision. Another essay talks about the difference between reprising your greatest hits over and over again or finishing with a creative vein of work and moving on to another, different way of seeing. There are photographers who have early "hits" and the approval of their fans, coupled with their basic insecurities, conspire to manipulate the photographer into basically doing the same kind of (popular) images over and over again. It's what their current audience expects and the act of disappointing the people who validate their vision is too frightening to consider for some. Their growth as artists comes to a halt.

But the great artists need to keep moving forward---like sharks---or they stop being creative and become greatest hit xerox machines. I think it's instructive for people to move outside their creative comfort zones as often as possible. Jensen mentions Joni Mitchell and John Paul Caponigro as examples of two artists who are constantly re-inventing their art and their subject matter. And he writes about their constant artistic growth.  The very act of looking at something through different frames may unleash a wonderful new way of seeing and sharing. And the very act of casting your vision onto a totally new subject matter can change everything.

In my career I've experimented with everything from 8x10 inch view cameras to Pen F half frame film cameras. Every time I pick up a new camera it seems to change the way I approach my photography. The acceptance of new boundaries keeps my eye and my art fresher. 

 I was perplexed recently when a very good friend who is also a very good photographer told me that my work looks the same to him no matter what camera I use. We discussed it and what we came up with is that when your work resonates across formats you've hit your innate style. Style seems separate from curiosity or vision or creativity. Style feels more like how you put your pants on in the morning or how you tie your shoes.  It only speaks to how your mind and eyes see ingest the subjects that interest you, not in the way that the a particular camera helps to shape the way you share them.  

I suggest changing cameras. I like to change cameras.  Actually, that's an understatement. Most VSL readers would say I change cameras as often as most people change air conditioning filters. That may be so but it keeps me interested because it makes me work in different ways. And then I can always brag about my real achievement as a photographer===I've figured out the nuances of the Olympus menu.


Anonymous said...

One of the problems of owning gear, is that in reality gear owns you.. If you own thousands of dollars of Brand X gear, this prevents you from using Brand Y gear (even if Brand Y is the better-tool-for-that-job.

Sometimes the 12Mp stills from a GoPro give you better results (for that particular job) than drum-scanned 4x5 'chromes.


Ananda Sim said...

I guess in a way, that statement is correct - with a similar brief and with cameras chosen for the same brief, your vision and presentation should be pretty near identical across platforms.

However, if there is no brief like in my case, and I shoot for my heart's enjoyment, I do change my visual depending on whether it is a phone cam, a small sensor camera or my Four Thirds cameras - there are clear constraints and advantages that each device has as signature which affect how I visualise.

And about the Olympus Menus? I just spent last night revising the spreadsheet and it won't be the last time - I had better write down my rationale about why I chose this or that because I'm very forgetful. :)

BTW, Panasonic may have less nested menus but they are also inscrutable (I have the G2)

Roger B. said...

I've recently been using lenses with a different angle of view, on the DSLR. Instead of the 12-20mm (18-30mm equivalent) range and the fisheye zoom that's nearly always used at it's widest, I've been using a 28-105mm film era zoom lens (42-165mm-E) and a Minolta Himatic F film camera with a 38mm lens.

It's got me away from the 'main subject in the foreground, wide view of the background, deep perspective' rut I'd been drifting into. Despite my fears, the around 40mm-E view is wide enough for most things. With the zoom, I've been isolating things from the background more than I used to. I've been using B&W film in the Minolta, too. that's most refreshing.

Rufus said...

Hi Kirk
Interesting statement from your friend, when he commented that your "work looks the same whatever camera you use". I can see what he means and , yes, you do have your own distinctive style.

I do not think it is the camera. It is the light. When you are outside you are blessed with Austin light - which is quite predictable and often sunny. In the studio, you have complete control and you know what works for you so you don't change it much.

The light that surrounds you also informs your gear choices. You have no need of full frame, fast glass with all the weight it brings, no need for MF either.

To reinvigorate your creative juices, change the light.

Shooting a favourite jazz musician in a dingy club, or a sports star in a floodlit field. Or an environmental portrait in sub standard light. This will not only challenge you more but also reveal the performance of your gear outside of its f5.6 to f8 , <ISO800 comfort zone...

IMHO. :)

Carlo Santin said...

There is also something to be said for becoming intimately familiar with your gear, which requires time and commitment. One camera, one lens? Think of the limits and compromises of any camera/format as an advantage and not a disadvantage. Take what the camera or lens gives you rather than complain about what it doesn't do.

I think it's entirely possible to end up spinning your wheels, changing gear all the time without it having any impact on your work. I know this has happened to me.

Also, while we are on the subject of artistic vision and changing personal styles, there is a Richard Avedon app for the ipad that is quite nice, and it's free. I've been enjoying it for the last couple of days.

Rene said...


Please... share with us other Olympus users the "the nuances of the Olympus menu."

Kirk Tuck said...

Rene, when you hit the menu button there are lots of choices. I start with card set up. Then I format. That's about it...

Mike Rosiak said...

I have found the Panasonic and the Olympus menus equally inscrutable, but each in its own distinct way.

Olympus makes me dig deep, and I often ask, "Why here?"

Panasonic's documentation suffers from both stilted English, puzzling adjectives, and seems to place emphasis on "what" something does, versus "why" would you ever do that?

They both yield to patience and a good investment in time - each a precious commodity in itself.

Of the cameras themselves, I like the "feel" of the Panasonics. Can't explain why.

Mark Davidson said...

"If all you have is a phone everything looks like a selfie."

I have long wrestled with the issue of what is my style. I used to hope that I would somehow evolve into something that resonated with clients that became my "secret sauce" and would catapult me into the artistic firmament. However, I see so many "styles" I wonder if some are, in fact, schtick. And success based on schtick requires adherence to the schtick except for those truly legendary sorts who can sell used tissues if they choose.

Now that I am older I enjoy the challenge of each new job as a problem solving exercise. "How can I make my client weep with joy when I deliver this project?" I feel that I am a problem solver using my creativity and experience to hopefully make that happen.
In other words I do not lead, I follow and embellish.

David Liang said...

Wouldn't the counter argument be if your work(style) shows through regardless of the camera you're using, why then the need to constantly change and use different camera's?

Kirk Tuck said...

Maybe. I'm not sure I really know the answer. Maybe it's different for everyone.

Claire said...

The one interesting thing (for me) is this :
I probably change camera slightly more often than you do, which does say something... ANd yet, looking at my pictures from the beginning of the digital era (which marked the start of my TRUE interest for photography), I'd say that, aside from the normal progress curve a soon 15 years period will invariably result in, I haven't changed my way of shooting much. Aside from getting better with low light noise and gaining wider DR, the (way too numerous to count) models of camera I've used have always served me producing the same kind of images that is unmistakingly... my own. Yes, switching to mirrorless did create a shift, because it changed the subject to camera relationship (less fear and intimidation) and also allowed me to get different angles, thanks to both stinky diaper hold and later flip screens. But I now have taken to shoot the DSLR again (alongside with my trusty NEX7), and I don't see a world of difference between how I shoot now, vs. how I shot my D100 in 2002.

Jeff said...

I think one's way of looking at the world and what they photograph can get fixed too, thus creating a comfort zone (and no upgrades). Having today's digital camera for 4 years isn't unrealistic.
It seems it is the photographer and not the equipment. Today there are weddings still shot on film, cell phone pictures that awe, and 3 year old interchangeable lens cameras still being sold new.