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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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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