Same lesson over and over again...

 Like many photographers who are inordinately fond of gear I keep looking for that one perfect lens or camera that will unlock my true photographic potential. Yeah...as if. 

If you read the blog regularly you'll see that I've really tried hard to substitute hardware for talent. Over and over again. But as the old saying goes: "Wherever you go, there you are." Or, in my world: "What ever camera you are shooting with you still have the same photographer." 

In a moment of delusional weakness I actually paid full pop for a Leica 24-90mm zoom lens for the SL system. I thought that this would be the one. But it's big and heavy and a slog to carry around, and when I did finally cart it everywhere with me I found my images to be maybe a bit sharper but by no means any better in terms of insight, impact or overall splendor. It took me decades to stumble into the trap of considering new gear as an important factor in successful imaging and I'm afraid it's also taken me additional decades to figure out (or to admit to my recalcitrant techie self) that all of that motivation to buy new stuff was an error. Not a life or death error but certainly a stumbling block of sorts. 

When you get bit by the acquisition bug you waste a whole lot of time doing mindless comparisons between products which are, for the most part, far better than anyone really needs them to be.  You waste time watching obvious shills for affiliates wax on and on about the "glory" of the latest 35mm lens or the perfect Q2 camera. You waste effort in working for more money only to give up a big part of your profits to buy yet another step "forward." You encounter many opportunity costs. Trading time you could have spent finding a great model, a great location or a great client in exchange for another piece of gear that will eventually, again and again, lay bare that the only important thing is the strength of your ideas and your own concept of a photographic vision. 

Why am I beating this dead horse once again? Hmmm. A few weeks back I came across an older zoom lens that was labeled with a brand badge that marketing people have inflated into an icon in the industry. It was an ancient, heavy, well used Yashica/Contax zoom lens made by Kyocera in Japan, but festooned with the Carl Zeiss branding on the front ring. It was offered used for "only" a couple of hundred dollars. I bought it.  I like it but I don't know why...

I went out shooting some landscapes yesterday and intended to do the whole shoot with my newly acquired Sigma 35mm lens just to see how that would work out. But, as an afterthought I put the Yashica/Contax zoom in the backpack and brought it along. After a few preliminary shots I got bored sticking with one focal length so I pulled out the big zoom lens. The Contax-to L-mount adapter makes it look even bigger than it really is. I added a cheap, rubber lens hood for some protection against flare. 

The rest of my time spent on the hot rocks was occupied shooting with the big, old zoom. It's a bear to shoot. It's used in "stop down" mode exclusively so you have the choice of slowing way down and opening the aperture to its maximum in order to fine focus. If you are shooting at f8 or f11 the depth of field delivered to the finder makes fine focusing hard. Really hard. Couple that with a "one touch" zoom mechanism and you'll really have to work to get stuff in focus and ready to shoot. It's hardly a quick process...

With the current Leica zoom lens all of this gets handled by the camera. No user sweat is involved in getting stuff in focus. 

But here's the deal, the $250 used lens was perfectly adequate for the photographs I had in mind out in the field. The reality is that we're mostly using the lenses at something like f5.6 or, even more likely, f8-f11 and at those middle apertures each lens is delivering image quality to the camera sensor that is more or less identical. Which, once you've spent five or six thousand dollars on a different lens is something that's hard to admit. Especially to such a critical audience as yourself.

It's a bit unreal to come to grips with the fact that you've duped yourself into believing that a specific piece of gear can be so, so, so important to a process that you can rationalize spending a fortune on a lens that you end up rarely using. Which also brings up the question of why I chose to drag along an older and supposedly less capable lens instead of instantly reaching for the penultimate lens in the collection. 

And I think, after pondering this last night, the reality is that working harder at making an image seems to be more fun than working less hard and letting the camera and lens do the heavy lifting for you. When I saw the image I'm sharing at the top of this post I also realized just how much post processing has to do with the success or failure of an image, tech-wise. The image is enhanced with a Leica SL2 preset I got from The Leica Store Miami and parts of the image have been selectively subjected to the clarity slider or have saturation of certain colors enhanced. 

That the $250 lens can make a file that can be quickly and easily post processed to equal the output from a much more expensive lens is deflating and basically delivers us back to the the same old story: It's not about the lens. It's not the camera. There is no "better" brand. There is no special sauce. It's all up to me. Or all up to you, or all up to whoever is out photographing. If we point the world's best camera and lens at something boring you get a nice, but basically boring photograph. Point decades old gear at an exciting subject and you capture the excitement without much (or any) compromise. 

My early work was all about people. As I got older fewer and fewer of my personal photographs have been of young, beautiful people as my age and access marched in reverse ratios to each other in lockstep. And here, now, I have relegated myself to photographing something I have very little interest in --- landscapes. And why? So I can "test" out my camera or my lens and share the results with people I have mostly never met. And who mostly disagree with my assessments.

It's not a very awe inspiring confession. But over the course of the last two decades the world, the universe and all of us have allowed for a near total homogenization of what was once a richly diverse craft to take place. At least where subject matter and style were concerned. Now it feels like we're just going through the steps in order to keep a sidelined hobby alive. Billions of cat whisker photos later...

Sobering. For sure. 

I'm sure I can fix this. At least I think I can. But it's tough if you have to learn the same lessons over and over again until they actually sink in and do some good.

I have moved from the hobby of taking photographs to the hobby of spending money with an almost seamless efficiency. I wish there was someone to blame other than myself. 

But there we are. 


Gordon Lewis said...

>>It's all up to me. Or all up to you, or all up to whoever is out photographing.

The good news is, there's only one of you, so as long as you're willing and able to express your individuality you will never be interchangeable with some other photographer who's using the same or even "better" equipment. As you note in your post, the equipment just needs to be good enough to get the job done; no more, no less.

Anonymous said...

I have a modest proposal. You are, first and foremost a photographer of people. Both in studio and on the street. Some of your very old European street work is wonderful. You have proven time after time to be an able photographer of young and lovely people. Try doing the same thing with older people. When you do I love the results, but you don't do it enough. Older people may not be smooth faced and beautiful, but the are crammed clean full of character and experience. I believe it was Noel Coward who said, "By the time you are 50 you have the face you deserve." Show us more of those.

Timothy Gray said...

Kirk, with all due respect, I really think you’re being quite hard on yourself.

I’ve been following your blog for several years, and in that time, I believe you’ve done your fair share of both gear acquisition and liquidation.

Just think of how extravagant your expenditures could be if only you’d make the jump (dive?) to medium format digital, where bodies cost as much as not one, but TWO new Subaru Foresters, and lens prices approach (and exceed) five figures!

I’m glad you’re at a stage in your life where you still enjoy photography and all of its gear.

ajcarr said...


I think that I've suggested in the past that you buy a Soviet Jupiter-9 2/85 Sonnar in M39 (Zorki/LTM, not the Zenit-3M mount). These haven't been made for at least a couple of decades, so buying one secondhand won't be funding Putin's war machine. Could be perfect for atmospheric portraits. If you get one in M42 mount, you have the advantage of a preset diaphragm (set the desired aperture on one ring and whist another to go between that and wide open for focusing). Review:


Another full-frame lens to look at is the M42 Meyer-Optik-Görlitz/Pentacon 2.8/135, again with a preset diaphragm.


Robert Roaldi said...

You're playing. It's ok to play. Really. :)

karmagroovy said...

I was going to say pretty much what anonymous said, but he beat me to the punch! Play to your strengths... your portraits are beautiful, intriguing and masterful. I'm positive that the quality of gear you used didn't play as big a part in the overall impact to the viewer as the lighting, your composition and your chemistry with your subject did.

Maybe a nice vacation from your GAS would be a purely for fun project? I recently put together a coffee table book, just for myself, and it was one of the most satisfying things I've done in years

Jeff said...

I really enjoy your blog and I hope you continue to write it for a long time.

My camera buying experience is: I took my favorite digital photos a number of years ago with a primitive Olympus EPL-1, and one very old Nikon manual focus lens on an adapter. I think (as amateurs) that the quality of our photos depends mostly on how excited we are about where we are, who we're with, and how willing we are to focus on photography versus whatever else we could be doing. The camera, as you say, is not so important (an expensive lesson for me too).

I think photos taken with modern "advanced" cameras have become increasingly homogenized looking and boring. Plus many of them are now very complicated and no longer fun to use.
I don't know if many other people have had this sort of experience but I wouldn't be surprised .

Rich said...

first, let me say (again) how much i appreciate the 'fellowship' of this blog for 8 (?) yrs now.
Sobering reflections today, yes, but courageous and humble. That in itself is commendable.

Kirk, I too have had serious GAS, and i suppose it is the fuel of this hobby 4me.

Looking at your pix, i'm struck w/ the impulse to invite you out to CA for a road trip next month. we would drive up Hwy1 through Big Sur, and Monterrey, where Ansel lived. Then cut east to Lk Tahoe, and down the eastern side of the sierras to Mono Lk and Mammoth, crossing the Mts again at Yosemite.

Finally, of the $2000 i spent on (mostly 2nd hand) camera gear last wk, what made me most happy was $60 spent on a tiny new all-metal TT Artisans 35 f1.4 for my Z50. Focus = ultra smooth and precise, w/ brilliant Nikon peaking. And = sharp glass!

Rich said...

I'm (> 1/2) serious about the offer Kirk. I work in Dubai, but call CA home. I will be there all Sept.
Drop me a line at richea7@sbcglobal.net

crsantin said...

I totally understand your search for that perfect camera and lens combo. Luckily for me, I realized a while ago that there is no amount of resolution or IBIS or ISO that is going to make me a better photographer. I am what I am regardless of the camera I'm using. I love trying new gear too, its' fun, but all of my current cameras and lenses are several generations old.

Perhaps you should make a concerted effort to get back to photographing people. Make that your focus instead of new gear. Use what you have. Or maybe just accept that you've moved on from that type of photography and get ready to embrace a slightly different subject matter for your personal work? Or maybe take a short break? Time away to reflect is time well-spent. I wouldn't let it worry you too much. We all go through these ups and downs and have these feelings of futility regardless of what we do in life. Then we die and it doesn't matter. Don't sweat it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk, while responding to a completely unrelated post on another forum, I encountered a short documentary from the Harman International folks (JBL, Harman Kardon, etc) called "The Art of Listening", about the value of really listening, (to music) while eliminating other sources of mental noise. Perhaps you'd find some value in it.


And lest anyone be tempted to go off on a tangent, I'm not suggesting that anyone make any purchases (an old iPod loaded with MP3 tunes ought to work nicely) or share details of their Very Special Audio Systems - there are lots of other places for that.

Jeff in Colorado

EdPledger said...

First, I agree about the seamless transition from the hobby of photography to the hobby of spending money. Isn’t that the evil nature of hobbies…whether it’s photo stuff, golf, fishing. While I think photographic art can be done with any equipment, pinhole, Kodak Brownie, a contact sheet, or the most expensive gear, the grind of commercial work just might require newer and higher tech to meet clients’ needs in a timely manner, esp video I bet…and for that isn’t the GH5ii or GH6 a welcome tool? So, I disagree about “it” not being about the lens or camera. Less so for the lens perhaps, as many good legacy lenses are excellent, at a minimum adequate. But the camera advancements which leave fewer impediments to image acquisition do make a big difference. Whether the hobbyist, the artist, or the commercial grinder can all settle on the same set of tools for their potentially disparate missions is an open question, and that is all the more perplexing for the individual who pursues these multiple goals.

JC said...

I think it's quite worthwhile screwing around like this. A few days ago, you put up a post about using an old Canon FD 50mm on a modern camera. I may be hallucinating, but it seemed to me, even on a video screen, to have a different character than modern lenses. Not in any way worse...it just kind of took me back to film days. I can't even explain why, but I like it.

Kenneth Voigt said...

why beat yourself up: you ENJOY the search !!!

Unknown said...

Better looking for perfection in a lens or camera than finding a
mistress who might last only until the latest and greatest arrives.

James Weekes said...

BTW, I am the anonymous who made the modest proposal. Sorry I hit the wrong button

Unknown said...

Kirk thanks for this article. I needed to be reminded that my GAS does nothing for my skills, since I have succumbed to it once again. I bought not just a SL2 system but also a CL system after being highly influenced by Photographer Who Shall Not Be Named (and has a blog with the name starting with V and ending with L).

I have a question, I also bought it from Leica in Miami but did not get any SL2 presets which you mention here. What are they and how did you get them?

Jon Maxim

David said...

I was thinking about this article as I was driving around yesterday doing chores. What I came up with is that it’s all about “the work”, whatever that means for you photographically. (For me, the work is producing 125 potential pieces of printed photographic art per year. Which I will then edit down to 25 prints for the “yearly collection”.) Does all the gear improve the work? Does new gear make you want to produce more of the work? Does the fascination with gear distract you from the work? Are you producing the work? These are the questions I think I would have to ask myself.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the question isn't whether we're riding the new-toy carousel, but whether that's the most satisfying use of our time. I wouldn't say that I've quit cold turkey, but I've been taking breaks away from it and (re)discovering other things.

I recently spent a month doing pretty much nothing. On some days I wandered around town with my camera until the heat drove me back inside. I played video games which I had purchased long ago and forgotten about. I read books (The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan, Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr), and went out in pursuit of tasty things to eat. But mostly I allowed myself the luxury of simply being bored. It was kind of a special nothing-special time.

Jeff in Colorado

TMJ said...

'Sufficiency' is the key.

Roger Jones said...

Let's start with, do you have ESP?? You must, as a friend, and I were talking about this very subject just two days before you wrote about it, about owning to much stuff. In this case camera gear, and how you only need 1 camera, 3 lenses, and a flash. Unless your in the business then that could change.

Remember when we had 1 or 2 bodies 3-4 lenses, but we had different types of film. If you wanted a different look you just changed film. You didn't have to change equipment just film. I for one believe in getting it right in the camera, with little to no PP. That's just me.

For me, and this is just me, I find having more gear is a bad thing. I don't know what to take with me so I try, and take it all which doesn't work either, it makes traveling or just going out more difficult, at least for me.

After this article we agreed you were spot on, and it was time to cut back. By 70% or more.

As for you reading our brain waves, well we've designed tin foil hats that will block you from probing our brains for more subjects to write about. LOL :) Senses you seem to like different hats, we could design a special one for you? A Kirk Tuck limited design. Thumbs up too that, what say ye mate? Want a Kirk Tuck Limited Tin Foil Hat?? :) You'll be a trendsetter in Austin, you could even paint it for a different look. LOL ;)) Or better yet, a limited signed additions!! Oh ya, I'm in.

Hope all is well with your son and his arm. Mine is packing, and getting ready to move in a couple of weeks. Off to college. The house is empty, too quiet. No more Bass Guitar too drive me crazy.

Be safe it's getting weird

Roger Jones said...

Oh ya, I forgot to say/add it's all about the image, not the gear. The image needs to produce, create feelings, emotions, it has to say something.

Bob said...

Great post. Great comments.