The burden of choice

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A benefit (or curse, depending on how you look at it) of the modern photography era is that we now have a huge amount of choice when it comes to equipment. A lot of it is pretty affordable, too; especially stuff that might be one or two generations behind the latest and greatest. Does it perform any worse than when it was new? Does it have any less potential? No. That still lies with the photographer.

That said, I’m as guilty as the next guy of collecting – nay, hoarding – cameras and lenses. The tactile experience of taking a photo matters to me; it should be just as enjoyable as the result. Nice equipment is a pleasure to use – ergonomic cameras, well-thought out controls, nice materials, bright finders etc. are a pleasure. I don’t like fighting my equipment – nobody sees that struggle in the final image, and it’s just frustrating. A camera that’s enjoyable to use makes you want to go out and use it, which in turn encourages you to experiment, and that – ultimately – can make your images better. It is NOT the same as collecting equipment in the mistaken belief that it will correct some fundamental deficiencies in your own skillset.

The upshot of all of this is two things: firstly, I’ve used a lot of gear over the years (see the CAMERAPEDIA! for concise opinions on everything I’ve used), and the amount that’s filling my dryboxes has steadily increased since I started doing this full time and could write off gear as a business expense. Actually, it’s gotten to the point that I had a sale last month just to clear the clutter. I’ve still got lenses and cameras I seldom use, which both make me feel guilty and like I should be out and shooting even more than I already am.

However, I digress severely. A couple of people emailed me recently asking how I pick what to use on any given day – this is not a straightforward question to answer, and it’s made more difficult by both a combination of lots of gear, a heightened awareness of image quality, and knowing that you have some very specific gear for very specific situations, some of which you might encounter during the day. It’s really about balancing compromises: you know that you’re going to encounter some situations that could benefit from a very small portion of your equipment; do you bring it along or not?

The immediate instinct of most people is to bring whatever they’ve got, just in case. I’ve done this before: in 2008/9, I went on a two week trip to Japan with a D3, D90 and pro zooms to cover 14-300mm. Without gaps. The thing that struck me was a) I really wasn’t enjoying myself by day three because of the weight; and b) at the end, I was only carrying one lens and getting much stronger images out of that. Moral of the story: the less gear you carry, the more you focus on making the most of what you’ve got. Although I’ve tried to follow that philosophy for all future trips and assignments, there are exceptions. And of course the more you shoot, the more things you see – I can count no end of the frames I’ve seen that would suit the FOV or perspective of lenses I wasn’t carrying at the time, especially more so in recent memory.

I guess it’s a very different feeling from carrying everything and wanting to try every lens in every situation to get a bunch of similar but consistently weak images; it’s more about seeing so many different potential frames that you simply do not have the time to shoot everything – to get that feeling like you’ve shot the place conclusively and captured all there is to possibly capture. You go away feeling that there are still more opportunities and possibilities you have’t yet explored or shot.

My solution to this is to focus on the essence: how can I say what I want to say in as few frames as possible? This might mean isolating a single key element and excluding every distraction to the point of abstraction, or including everything as context. But usually, anything in between just feels a little weak and compromised. I find that whilst this certainly helps me to focus, it doesn’t really do anything to appease the feeling of anxiety that I’m missing out on something. In fact, I’m finding that if anything, having more choice isn’t helping. My wife will tell you that I go through the same anxious thought process before every trip whilst deciding what to bring; in fact, it starts weeks before. I will make a list and then change it repeatedly, and in the end bring nothing resembling what I originally intended to pack.

Let’s take the last Japan workshop trip as an example. I initially wanted to go with the M9-P and perhaps GRDIII as a backup; then the RX100 came along, and I was toying with the idea of the OM-D; but if I was to bring the OM-D, should I pick up a 12-35/2.8 for an all-in-one solution? Or do I use the 60/2.8 instead of the 45/1.8? Or bring both? Should I pack the 100-300 for some very compressed perspectives, too? Would I even use it? What about the grip? And then to make things more complicated, I got the D600 and two pancake primes – the 28/2.8 Voigtlander and then 45/2.8P Nikon. The latter might be a bit short for my normal uses, but I could certainly make do. And the size was very attractive indeed, with no compromises in image quality. But how useable would manual focus be on the D600? And why not use a 50/1.8G instead of the 45/2.8P, which would give me AF and another stop? To top it off, I’d have to consider what my students might be shooting – which turned out to be a mix of DSLR, M9, M-Monochrom and compact.

In the end, they all entailed compromises; FX would have meant either size and weight or suboptimal manual focus and slower lenses; rangefinder would mean poor low light ability; M4/3 would mean not sharing a common platform with my students, and as much as I’d love to just shoot with a compact for myself – and did on the days I wasn’t teaching – it wouldn’t really let me teach the things I’d wanted to teach (or try out rare second hand lenses in Tokyo, but that’s another separate matter altogether). I went with the OM-D, 12/2, 20/1.7 (I didn’t use it), 45/1.8 and RX100. I felt like I could perhaps have gotten another 20 or so good images if I’d had the 100-300 too, but I certainly didn’t miss carrying it around, and leaving it behind in the hotel room would almost certainly mean that I’d see something at the precise time I didn’t have it – Murphy’s law and all.

Going on assignment is different, however. In these situations, I know specifically what kinds of images I need to capture, and in what style; more often than not, I have a shot list which I need to deliver, and there will have been a pre-shoot reccie trip to determine the angles, setup and focal lengths required. In short, I pack everything I might possibly need, and a spare or two – you simply cannot afford to have things fail when on assignment. And you never know when a client might ask you to try something different, or add in something extra, so it’s always best to be prepared. For commercial/ corporate style work, I pack the D800E, D600, speedlights, umbrellas/ stands/ diffusers/ modifiers, and the full suite of Zeiss lenses from 21 to 100mm; for macro work, it’s the same except except I’ll have the 60, 85 PCE and 100 macro lenses; for architecture, I bias wide and leave behind the speedlights. A tripod is a must in every situation. The only time when this setup differs fundamentally is when I’ve got to shoot a reportage job: depending on the range and light quality I’m likely to encounter, I might pack anything from the M9 to the OM-D and 100-300mm. But I’ll always have a minimal amount of gear in a waist pouch and two bodies ready to go – one with a wide and one with a tele – that way, you’re never caught unprepared, and you can move quickly.

The last situation I haven’t covered is when I’m shooting solely for myself. This is actually the easiest scenario: I simply take whatever I feel like using on the day, safe in the knowledge that I’m under no pressure to get any particular shots; this leaves me free to focus on purely creative work. I’ll usually take either the newest thing in the arsenal – something I’m least familiar with, so I can push its creative potential and see what I can do with it – or I’ll take the most compact and sufficient thing, just in case I happen to see something – this particularly on the days where photography isn’t my priority, but you just never know. These days, that’s the Sony RX100. I might even take out the F2T if I’m feeling particularly slow and contemplative, and the weather is being cooperative.

Bottom line: there is such a thing as too much choice. For amateurs, I think the best thing to do is apply a little forethought to the kind of situations you might encounter and the resulting type of shots you want to capture; this then translates into the kind of equipment you’ll need. Carry no more, because being a mule isn’t fun – nor is it good for your back. For the more advanced shooters – assuming you’re not on assignment with a shot list – it’s probably beneficial to creative development to focus on changing one or two parameters only – pick one or two primes, or a single format, etc.; I find this forces me out of my comfort zone and into experimental mode, especially if it’s something I’m not familiar with. (Depending on your self-discipline, you might want to carry a more familiar backup, too.) It’s possible that the pictorial results might be a disaster, but then again, they could also be a wild success – you never know until you try. But I do know that if you spend too long trying to decide what to bring out, the light is going to fade and you’re not going to get any pictures at all. MT

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Comments

  1. I have been guilty of lugging several cameras around. And even if I brought one body I had several lenses to choose from. After that phase, I moved on to bringing only one camera and a standard lens when I went out to shoot. I believed in using the same equipment to familiarise myself with it. To make it a part of me so that I see what the camera will be taking before I even bring the camera to my eye. When I switched systems I tried to keep it at the same focal length since I’m used to that field of view.

    However, this changed when I had to do an assignment over the weekend with a 24-70 zoom and a 16mm fisheye. It made me I realised how much I have been missing out by sticking to one formula. Especially at the wide end. This made me reconsider how I choose my gear.

    Having a lot of choices is a good thing. I don’t think it is a burden. I think we just need to be bold enough to tell ourselves that today is the day for this particular gear set up, and then we work to produce the best pictures with that. Thinking about what could have been or what would be before even shooting is the actual burden.

    • Perhaps I should have been clearer on the distinction: I bring the kitchen sink on assignment, because ‘I forgot’ is not an acceptable excuse for a professional. For personal work, I’m fine making do with less. Especially if a lot of walking is involved.

  2. “But I do know that if you spend too long trying to decide what to bring out, the light is going to fade and you’re not going to get any pictures at all.”
    That line says so much.
    I can spend days contemplating what to bring on an extended trip.
    And an hour for just a day trip.
    I’ve found, though, that if I allow my intuition to guide me, I always choose the right equipment. I let my mind wander and imagine what I might encounter, and then I make my equipment choices. It always works as long as I don’t let my brain get in the way.

  3. Thanks. The clincher was really the price. Thanks to a Black Friday sale, the LX7 came to less than half the cost of the RX100! A no-brainer, if there ever was one.

  4. Great article Ming. Hits at the heart of what I’ve been encountering lately too. As to the burden of choice, I now try to consciously limit my options to no more than three choices in everything and force myself to be satisfied with my decision regardless of its outcome. I decide; I move on; and I don’t look back. Keeps things simple, and keeps me sane. I believe perpetually second-guessing every decision, big and small, is a recipe for ill health and a short life. And I intend to be vibrant and free from debilitating stress for as long as I can be.

    As to my camera choice, I have an upcoming trip. And I decided on a Lumix LX7 compact over everything else. The sensor is not as good as the Sony RX100, but it is good enough. And that’s all I need. Because it’s the built-in lens that sold me. Nothing faster in its class, and that gives me the flexibility to trump the RX100’s better sensor, I think. No worries about heavier DSLRs and figuring out what lenses to bring either. The decision made, I can now move on. It will be great trip. :)

    • Sensible decision. Between the LX7’s lens – a stop on the wide end, two stops on the long end – and its much better IS, it’s going to run the Sony close; I think it loses out in operational speed though, and I’ve never personally been a fan of the Panasonic UI – but that’s very much a personal thing.

  5. Going down the adapted “legacy” lens rabbit hole definitely exacerbates the choice-overabundance problem. I now utilize more lens systems than I used to have, lenses! (Fortunately I only have one main shooting camera body…)

    • Actually, I find this one relatively easy to avoid, in the name of image quality: the older lenses simply don’t do as well as the newer, dedicated designs. This is especially noticeable if you’re putting say Leica M wides on mirrorless, or some of the older Nikon D/ AI designs on a D800E…

  6. just for holiday snaps in Melbourne, took my oly e-620, with its 14-42 and 40-150 kit zooms and a used OM 50/f1.8. the OM was good for food shots at the table in low light and i used the others outdoors for wide shots and on the street. and the great about 4/3, small lenses, all 3 fit with the body into a tiny lowepro rezo bag!
    back up was the camera in phone.

  7. This is very familiar to me too. I’m starting to think about the days when I only had a camera and three lenses, since nowadays one challenge is to choose what to carry an no matter where I go I have to make choices.

    For trip photography, one of my solutions is not to talk about gear selection to my wife until the last minute, that way she won’t get bored :-)
    For actual selection of gear for trips, I know pretty well what I want and how much I’m willing to carry. I would like a zoom, but I always need at least one close to normal lens that f2 or faster. Sometimes a PC lens is good for architecture. But whether to take a tripod or flash or nothing is the hard part; tripods can make all the difference, but they are not convenient to take around.

    • Actually, I don’t mind packing a small, lightweight tripod in my suitcase in case I need it or feel like there’s a particular night scene I’d like to capture – one of those very, very small collapsible Manfrotto pods (345, I think) is almost invisible in a backpack yet works fine as a support against a wall etc. These days I’ve taken to packing in the Gitzo 1542T. I definitely don’t bring a flash unless I’m on assignment and know I’ll need it, though – then I’ll have half a dozen of them :)

  8. I know what you mean about there being so many choices out there, not to mention all these rumor sites to further confuse the selection process. I’ve been using a crop sensor Canon for the past eight years or so, but with a sabbatical in Japan coming up next spring I wanted to get a smaller camera. It was down to the RX100 and the G15, got the Canon. I liked the feel of the Canon, so sacrificed Sony’s larger sensor. Great to have finally ordered it!

    • You don’t lose out that much – in fact, you gain a couple of stops on the long end and some reach because of the faster lens. The IS on the G15 is also better, I feel. Not such a bad trade off. Plus there are more external controls on the G15…

  9. I don’t shoot professionally for clients, but I shoot “professionally” for myself. I usually do 2-4 day trips to cities or two-week country trips, and I want to capture the spirit of a place. (I’ve never managed that on my first trip to a given place, but that’s another topic.) So anyway, I travel for the sole purpose of experiencing a country and its people, and I carry my equipment all day long, 12 days in a row, so flexibility but also weight are very important to me. I started with an APS-C body with 17-40, 50, 70-200 plus a flash, and I am now down to D7000 + 17-55 + SB-600. Yes, occasinally I miss the 11-16 and even more rarely I miss the 80-200, but it’s not worth it for me carrying them around and being distracted by the choises. I’m thining of buying a second D7000 as a backup to carry around in my backpack (but not in my photo-bag).

    What’s immencely enjoyable is the lack of anxiety before a trip. I clean my sensor, clean my lens, charge my two batteries, format my 4 memory cards and I’m ready to go. Any day, any time, any place. If I’m faced with a situarion where my one zoom is too wide or too long, I change my composition or I pass (and end up enjoying the situation without my camera).

    I wasn’t always this way, but once I realized that it’s me and not the camera that decides when to travel, where to, where to stand, how to interact with my subjects, what to leave in the frame and what to crop out, when to press the shutter, what should be in focus, how much DOF and how much motion blur I should have, I was able to let go of my equipment anxiety.

    Nowadays I need a fast camera with AF activation separate from the shutter button, easy exposure compensation and great IQ up to 3200. My current camera manages that with bravour, so I don’t need to think about equipment until my camera breaks or gets lost.

    • Sounds very much like what I try to do when I travel for myself. I want to look at the images afterwards and feel like I’m looking into the essence of the city. However, the difference I find is that I’m far more observant and receptive on the first trip, so invariably the images I make then tend to be the strongest; after that there’s a degree of familiarity and pre-conception that sometimes makes you fall into the trap of going back to the same places and thus getting similar shots.

      I’d look at a compact to supplement the D7000 rather than a second body – there can be situations in which it’s useful; either to give you more reach, or more stealth – the latter has been very helpful to me in the past.

      Sufficiency – that’s what you’ve found and realised. And that’s a great thing. :)

      • Steve Jones says:

        A camera. One high quality fixed focal length lens between 24mm and 50mm ( 35mm equiv. )
        Fast aperture. At least F2.
        Close focus ability. ( say about 1:2 magnification )
        I’m happy.
        But one of these three is always missing! usually the Macro.
        Another reason we have too many cameras is that they are all crippled in one area! At the time of buying we are dazzled by what they do well.

  10. Good article and resonates with my recent trip to Vietnam. The X100 has become my favoured travel camera, but I took along the D700 to get more experience to play with instead. Plus I obviously had to bring along a compact (XZ-1) as will as a film camera – the Olympus Mui 2.

    Lens is always an issue and in truth I don’t like changing lens at all when travelling. So a zoom is my compromise and I used an old 28-105mm. In truth it performed pretty well knowing its limitations, but at same time I missed the cinematic 85/1.8 G. Also with lots of moving traffic the D700 was a perfect tool. But at the same time I do like lower weight and the XZ-1 was used a lot more than I imagined – but it lacked a bit of that critical focus I wanted.

    So that really leads me to what I really want – a compact with some decent tracking ability to get to equipment bliss (unlikely). I just saw the price of the V1, that may tempt me :)

    • There is no one perfect solution for everything, but there is the right thing for each situation. Tracking focus isn’t that critical with compacts because of their extended depth of field. The only mirrorless cameras that can track well are the Nikon 1s; (I didn’t get the same impression from the Sony NEX-5R or 6) – and as you say, the current V1 prices are very, very tempting indeed.

      • I guess my shooting of motorcycles carrying chickens did push the whole extended depth of field thing to the limits :)

        Given the 1″ sensor seems to perform well, I think I will cave in a few days and get the V1. It looks good value at the current price – besides its xmas :)

        • I don’t think the kit zoom will be very exciting, but the 10mm and new 18.5mm should make for an interesting combination. Now if only they had something longer and fast…like perhaps a 30.

  11. 40 years ago Alvin Toffler predicted in his book ‘Future Shock’ that people of the “future” would be paralyzed by the abundance of choices in the post-modern hyper-industrial world. Barry Schwartz in ‘Paradox of Choice’ also details how choices could lead to anxiety, paralysis, dissatisfaction and perpetual stress. As a photographer, I’ve been on this destructive path of “overchoice.” Only by selling off lots of gear recently, I’m beginning to liberate. Thanks Ming for documenting and sharing this “burden.”
    Cheers to more “conscious” photography.

    • You (or Toffler) bring up a good point. Actually, overchoice isn’t just limited to photography; it’s with everything – you can get a huge variety of cars in a given price bracket, but none of them are quite right – how is this possible? Or twenty different types of toothbrushes. Or two dozen types of low fat milk, etc. It’s not so much the choice that paralyses you into indecision, but both the fear of making the wrong one, and societal judgement on your decision…

  12. Simon Beesley says:

    Hi MT,

    Thanks for this. I can’t tell you how much this resonates with me. I’m just back from a week’s wonderful Nile cruise. The decision on what to take plagued me beforehand. For about a week up to departure date, I had it in mind to follow your philosophy and take a couple of primes – wide and tele – and force myself to look for the shots that suited them. Then about a day before going I weakened, having read an article elsewhere about travel kit, and ended up taking the Nikon 14-24, 28-300 and a fast 50 for the night time. On reflection, I really think it was the wrong decision. The 14-24 got used once (very useful on a balloon flight, but that’s all – and I daresay a 24 would have been just as good). The 50 really was very useful and on one dusk trip around a temple I found myself composing around that length, which is what this is all about as well as being able to shoot in that atmosphere because of the fast aperture. The rest of the time I used the 28-300 and came back feeling dissatisfied. I thought this was a good compromise – but that’s exactly what it is; a compromise. Photographically, it becomes confusing – which length to use. And you find yourself trying to shoot everything and failing. There is an incredible amount of birdlife on the river, but 300 is just not long enough. Nonetheless, one tries to use it for this and comes back with weak images from a compositional perspective (forgive the pun!) but also soft images from a technical standpoint. I haven’t had time to review the shots yet, but I do have a sneaking feeling that I shall find the 50 images the most satisfying. Thanks for the site, as always. It’s my first read of the day.

    Simon

    • I go through the whole process for several weeks before a major trip. My wife hates it. I actually manage to avoid it when I’m busy right up to the date of departure; then I go into some sort of instinctive mode and just chuck everything I need into a bag. It’s easier when you go to a destination where you can easily get a spare if something breaks – Japan, for instance. Nepal was a little different…with their huge blackouts, I took enough batteries to power my D700 for a week of heavy shooting AND a spare body.

      Whilst it can be fun to try a new perspective once in a while, I think it’s also important to figure out which FLs work for you and stick to them; buy the best lenses in that range for whatever system you shoot, and be happy. I had much more fun on my last trip to Japan with the OM-D and 12/2 + 45/1.8 (24, 90) combination than my 2008 trip where I went with a D3, 14-24, 24-70, 70-300, 50/1.4 and a spare D90…I think I used everything but the 24-70 just a handful of times.

      Oddly I have taken to using a zoom on occasion – in fact, I bought the 24-120/4 last week – but only when I know it’ll be inconvenient to use primes, and I do have to shoot everything. The only situations I use this in are a) when I’m doing architectural work on foot, and will be in places where I have to get a fast shot and am likely to be seeing the building in a certain light for the first (and possibly only)n time; or when I’m working entirely stopped down with flash, and the wide-open optical quality isn’t an issue. But I certainly wouldn’t bring it on a trip because I’d feel the pinch of compromise.

  13. Kevin Dharmawan says:

    I’ve done the next best thing, though you might not agree with it…

    exercise those back and neck muscles haha

  14. Awesome Article! Thanks Ming!

  15. Hello Ming. Thanks again for the last series of thoughtful comments and shared observations. I just returned from a few days in Texas, where I met up with a childhood buddy and his wife. My wife wondered why I brought only the Rx 100. I explained that my friend, who had never been to Austin , would go crazy with his Leicas. And I knew it would be a pleasure to watch him, and perhaps get reintroduced to rangefinders. Both sentiments were accurate. Sometimes I learn more about photography when I do not have a camera in my hand. There is something to be learned from everyone, assuming they have a minimum skill set. As far as the rangefinders, I must say I miss them not a bit out doors. For my taste, way too slow for the street work that I do. Digital and film bodies were used. And in the end? All our “family snaps” were done on the Sony, whose sensor stunned him with its bite and lack of fall off. I had an X2 on order, but called my rep this morning and let him give my place in line to another . In the end, I really didn’t need it.

    • I’m guessing you got along just fine with the RX100, then. Rangefinders with moderately wide lenses are actually great for street work because they make hyperfocal shooting easy – and there’s zero lag and no second guessing your AF system. I don’t thin you’d get this experience on the X2 though, it lacks the physical depth of field scales for you to tell exactly where you’re focused – you will have to turn it on and play around with the screen and menus a bit.

  16. My approach to this problem has always been to buy small camera bags (Domke F-803 or F6) and never take more than can fit in the bag. Of course I’m just an amateur dilettante, but this scheme has served me well. Generally I always question whether I should take a long telephoto along. Sometimes I miss it but usually I do not.

    • I’ve gone even more austere of late – I just shoot with whatever fits in the pockets of a particularly capacious jacket I have. The thing is, by the time you’ve put in your passport, spare batteries and cards, point and shoot, you’re not left with much room – and it’s great because that means I not only travel light and unencumbered, but really enjoy both the place and the photography.

  17. Love the line up! We must make some choices and go with it. I must admit I love making packing lists of photo gear for travel. Which lenses, what bags? When I arrive at my destination I choose day to day what I’ll need. Carrying too much makes me cranky and tired.

    • My perpetual fear is always about security – why bring a lot of gear you probably won’t use most of the time, run the risk of having it go lost at the hotel or the anxiety of deciding what to shoot every day? I seriously admire those without the burden of excess gear; it’s liberating in a way that we commercial photographers only dream of.

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