The unsettling discord of having too much choice. Not just camera and lenses but subject matter and access.
Being able to afford a range of photo gear and having ready access to various subject matter is both a blessing and curse. The blessing, where gear is involved, is the ability to match just the right camera or lens to whatever it is you are photographing in the moment. My camera buying, pre-pandemic, always was a bit predicated on getting the right stuff for my style of theater photography since that was the type of project that cycled through my work life most frequently. It was hardly the most profitable of the jobs I did but it was the most fun and so my attention to matching up the right stuff seemed important to me.
After years, no...decades, of photographing live action on stages, always from a particular point of view, I distilled down to what worked best for me. It was usually two matched camera bodies along with a wide-ranging standard zoom lens (24-105 or 24-70) along with a very well corrected 70-200mm f2.8 or f4.0. The longer zoom had to be nicely sharp when used wide open since that was the way I usually shot with it.
The wider zoom had to be able to cover the full width of stage from the vantage point at which I was usually situated. The two lenses covered everything I needed to capture, from full stage shots to tighter one and two person shots. Over the years, as full frame cameras became ever better at high ISO work, I found I never needed to go longer than 200mm because it was easy to crop in without losing much quality; if any. Lately I've been upgrading by rote even though the work done with older cameras was very satisfying. Habits, habits.
Now I've not shot this kind of work since March of 2020. That's a long time. I've spent it, poorly, adding, subtracting and messing around with "what I should have in my inventory" time wasting. No longer having the somewhat artificial boundaries of a twice per month ( or more often ) shooting regimen (in addition to regular commercial jobs) I've been left to my own devices and reckless approach to equipment acquisition to imagine what I might need as we go forward into a new age. And to buy it as a hedge against feeling stuck.
I have to admit that the endless theater assignments were somewhat of a crutch but were also an aid to having a consistent plan, where photography was concerned. Many of my video-centric gear purchases were based around my desire to provide much needed video content to the (non-profit) theaters in town and I didn't think or plan beyond what kinds of gear would best solve imaging requirements in that industry. That niche. In that specific point of time.
At some point in 2021 I looked over the equipment shelves, filing cabinets and gear cases and found that I was so overstocked with stuff that I couldn't rationally and efficiently decide what to bring along with me even on a simple walk. Much less on one of the now infrequent jobs. The problem being that having too many choices means one's brain seems to require one to ponder all the options before taking any good action. Weighing the pros and cons, the sharpness and the reach, the weight and the size, and to include all the peripheral concerns like battery life and file size. That became the thought process of choosing a camera, even if just going out for coffee.
And then there is the hubris-induced desire to make every shot at the highest quality settings, whether you need them or not. Whether the file will end up being erased at the end of a walk or archived in order to be printed for some mythical show that I might have in some flowery, and expansive future. If 24 megapixels is "okay" for a mundane street scene is a 14 bit, 47 megapixel raw file really a better choice? How about several hundred of those huge files; just in case?
At one point last year I was shooting video for the theatre as they produced a series of "socially distanced, outdoor concerts" on their plaza. The footage was professionally edited and each show streamed so that people who didn't want to venture out for entertainment could pay a small fee and watch the concerts in the comfort and safety of their own homes. It wasn't a really profitable idea, as it turns out, and we had very small production budgets which I tossed mostly into acquisitions that "might" make the product we turned out....better. What an easy, Teflon coated slope to cascade down...
We didn't need to worry about sound recording since all the audio came from the sound board, and the audio engineer was good at giving the camera a perfect mix. We started with two cameras because using just one stationary camera would be a recipe for incredibly boring, one hour videos. I added a second camera. That was better. But a third camera angle was better still. At one point we were up to five cameras per show and I went out and purchased two additional cameras to better match the three I started out with. I also found that micro four thirds cameras were easier to use with longer and longer lenses; which I also purchased. These micro four thirds cameras were in addition to the full frame cameras I already owned and the variety of batteries and mixed system lenses under my conservation grew and grew. Adding to an existing paralysis of choice for everything I did that wasn't for a client or a defined project.
After looking at the accounting for 2020 I find I spent multiples more on gear in order to do the various video assignments I undertook, mostly pro bono, than I would ever re-coup even if we worked on paying projects all through that part of the pandemic. Stupid? Sure. But ever hopeful that just one more piece of gear would tip our projects into a more successful posture. Surely being able to cut from a wide shot-- to a close up-- to a profile-- to a reverse of stage POV shot would make the videos more alluring...
But the reality was that people just didn't want to buy streaming local concert footage no matter how well it was shot and edited. Not when they could choose to stream national and international talents instead and for about the same cost to watch. I ended my engagement on the project and it reverted to someone with a cheap, single camera shooting snippets of the live shows for social media. The concerts continue but the secondary content (video) changed and all of a sudden I had multiple systems that were painfully redundant. And, of course, depreciating with a relentlessness of waves on a beach. Which always, always bothers me.
In one sense I have been lucky to be a fairly good salesperson for my photography. I could stretch and buy stuff without going into the red and without endangering my financial long game. But I saddled myself all through the last decade with more toys than I could comfortably play with, engendered by the rationale that I needed to be prepared and geared up for any assignment or project that came my way. And be able to do those projects with as much technical perfection as I could master...
The same applies to subject matter and access. Within reason, up to the time of the pandemic lockdowns, I could go just about anywhere and shoot just about anything. I'd see an article about a location and would consider going there only to remember that nearly every time I followed through on a big shooting trip I'd find myself remembering that what I really loved was shooting portraits and that I was wasting time and money trying to emulate work that Robert Frank and Josef Koudelka did better 50 or 60 years ago. But every time I booked commercial work I resented being locked down and thought I should be out traveling the world. Buckeroo Banzai had it right. "Wherever you go, there you are." It's all so self-limiting.
Even now I constantly wonder if driving eight hours to Roswell, New Mexico would really provide me with wonderful photo opportunities and whether those opportunities would, briefly, outweigh the pleasures and socializing provided by my routine morning swims with close friends. Would I regret the travel if the trips turned out to be a bust? Would I regret the physical decline of a week out of the pool? Has the pandemic made me crazy?
When I am inside I want to be outside and when I am traveling I want to be home. When I'm home I'm thinking about where I should go next. When I'm in the water I am in the moment when I am sitting in my office I'm confused about future plans and regretful about the lost time in the past. All the while surrounded by an embarrassment of camera riches that is an even harsher reminder of the paralysis engendered by having too much and too many options.
To some degree the switch I've been making to fewer cameras is an attempt to return to the beginning of my fascination with photography when I had fewer options and the choices all seemed like straight lines on the road ahead. Some paths were closed by the limitations of the tools I had at hand but those restrictions served to focus my intentions and my pursuits in a happy direction. As I gradually sank into more affluence, at least enough to buy alternative gear, I've found my vision, and my resolve to work at something meaningful diluted and diffuse. Like opening a box of chocolates with hundreds and hundreds of choices. Which singular chocolate will you choose in the moment? And will you regret that there are so many still to sample?
But like the chocolates the endless choices will either make you sick if you eat them all or hampered if you try each one serially without being able to decide "here! this is the one I like! Let's now get busy."
In many ways what you are reading here are the regrets of a photographer who far overvalued the idea of "perfect" gear and way undervalued the benefit of a tighter and tighter focus on getting his own work done. Every bit of "research" or conversation about the features and benefits or distractions of various new models and styles of camera were moments (hours/days/years) of willful procrastination. The reasons for procrastination are legion but for artists it's generally to put off something at which you have the very real possibility of failing. Or worse, being exposed as being mediocre. That seems to be the gist of it.
Habits of decades are hard to break. Money can be such a salve because it can engender the idea that working through more and more expensive gear is part of the process of defining a style or approach to the creation of photographic art. Sad to realize that the gear acquisition is inversely proportional to the creative spirit first gifted to the photographer. And especially sad only to realize this so late in the game.
Sure, people have brought this up to me over and over again but it's like any addiction in that the realization of your entrapment has to come from oneself. As does the will to reform. Or re-format.
Just a few thoughts on a bright and warm August morning on which I should be out shooting something profound with a camera that's serviceable but not remarkable. A camera I should be able to ignore instead of relying on its absent power to make my work seem better. At the core it's boredom that kills us. But it does us in so slowly that we hardly realize the decline..
a note of progress. I got rid of all my studio flash equipment last week. I realized it had been months and months since I last used it. And really, I hated using it lately... I got rid of every worn and beleaguered light stand, soft box and unused (usually for years) umbrella, modifier and duplicated case. Three cameras were gently evicted. Five lenses found new homes. Three ancient (and largely non-updatable) laptops got recycled. Each departure was painful in a sense. Like a friend leaving. Only later realizing that they had overstayed their welcome anyway. All the old stuff is like anchors rooting one to a way of photographing that locks one into a time and a methodology (even a way of believing about technical stuff) that hampers moving on to new work, new styles and a new sense of lightness and possibilities.
Now clearing out many old jobs from many hard drives. Not everything needs to be saved. Not everything needs archiving. The mentality of preserving all of the past is detrimental to living now.
That's all the cheery thoughts for the day. KT