Less is more

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Too many options can be a confusing thing. Leica M8, 21/1.4

This article started out as an exploration of the liberating experience when shooting with the compact point-and-shoot camera. It then morphed into a small dissertation upon the use of the Sony RX100 is a street and travel camera; in the end I landed up rewriting the whole thing because I think there is a larger topic at hand here which is probably of more use to the photographer at large.

In previous articles, I have dealt with subjects such as using just one lens for a trip and shooting with compact cameras professionally. The August competition was the compact challenge which required participants to shoot solely with a fixed-lens, small-sensor point-and-shoot camera. I have also talked about points of sufficiency, and knowing precisely how much resolution or how much told you need for the job at hand. What I want to cover in today’s article, is something a concept spanning all of these subjects, and perhaps a little bit more.

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Ninja coffee. Leica M8, 21/1.4

Let’s throw the entire photographic rulebook and all of its associated dogma out of the window for moment. What really matters when you’re making an image? (I recently dealt with this too in a two-part article here, and here on what makes an outstanding image.) What is it that you audience sees when they look at your photograph? It certainly isn’t the camera, in so far as in that it created the image and the lens and format used enforce both perspective and depth of field properties; going beyond that, the View of a photograph sees light first. In fact, that’s pre-much all they see because without light of some sort, it is impossible to make a any photograph. Thus, the sole function of the camera is reduced to a light capturing, measuring and visualization device. Beyond this, it is all fluff and gravy.

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Color coordinated car. Leica M8, Zeiss ZM 2.8/21

Suppose for a minute that a photographer has no preference for any particular focal length, is able to see compositions everywhere they go, and utilize perspectives correctly. In short, they could use any camera and any lens/ field of view combination and still produce strong compositions. Let us continue to assume, that the same photographer also has the ability to recognize interesting light. He or she should also have some modicum of technical capability – perhaps the minimum required to understand the basics of exposure and mechanics of taking a photograph. Last, but not least, they should also be able to recognize interesting subjects. In short: we want a photographer who knows how to see, aim the camera, and press a button.

I don’t think this is a very difficult set of criteria to fill; I’m sure there are many, many people out there who would have no problems in meeting the brief. Now, notice how much the camera has been decoupled from this entire process; in fact, not just decoupled, but completely relegated to being almost unimportant. Photography is about writing like to create images. If the mind of the author is clear, and his command of the language strong, then the type pen and paper employed simply do not matter.

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Perfect spacing. Leica M8, 50/1.4 ASPH

In practical terms, what does this actually mean for photographers? Once a photographer has mastered the use of light, composition and perspective, identifying subjects, and I suppose the degree of postprocessing, it means that they are able to create magnificent images regardless of the equipment to hand. I remember personally going through this moment of liberation – a kind of ‘eureka!’ – after which I realized the camera really does not matter; any focal length or format is fair game. Light and composition take center stage, and all else is secondary.

Many of you have probably noticed a high level of consistency in the look and feel of the images I present on the site, regardless of whatever camera was used to capture them. I have actually been criticized for this in the past, with the prosecution claiming that I do not allow the natural qualities of the camera/ lens I am using or testing to shine through in the final image. I beg to differ; I believe that the ability to produce exactly what you envisioned in your mind at the time of pressing the shutter button means that your artistic vision is not compromised or tempered by the equipment. This is not to say that you may not choose to use a particular piece of equipment because of its artistic qualities; however, one needs to know exactly what these qualities are, and how their use affects the final pictorial impression of the final image.

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Questions or directives? Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

I think this liberation came about for me around the end of 2008, or perhaps early 2009. I was shooting with a Nikon D3 at the time in Japan; I carried lenses providing continuous coverage from 14 to 300 mm. Needless to say, this was an extremely heavy way to travel. By the end of the trip, I was leaving everything except my 24-70 zoom in the hotel room and just walking around with one camera and one lens. After a couple of hours, I realized that rather than seeing compositions which I was unable to execute because I wasn’t carrying the right lenses, I was now seeing only the ones I could; a little while after that, I was seeing potential shots everywhere I went.

The second phase came later in 2009. I spent a couple of weeks with the Leica M8.2 whilst writing a review for the magazine I served as editor of at the time; I was only given one lens – a 35/2 (45mm due to the M8’s crop factor). Being completely unfamiliar with the operation of a rangefinder; I stuck to that one lens just to try to familiarize myself with that way of working and seeing. Guess what: I liked it so much, and found the small size and unintimidating nature the camera so liberating, but I landed up selling my D3, and most of my Nikon lenses in order to fund the exact same combination for my personal use. I was never able to afford more than one or two lenses at any given time, given the price of Leica glass, and my humble occupation at the time.

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Looking for company. Leica M8, Zeiss ZM 2.1/28

This austerity by necessity actually forced me to focus on improving the quality of my images through the strength of the compositions; more importantly, I learned the skill of previsualization of both composition and perspective even before bringing the camera to my eye. The were occasions, for instance social gatherings, where I felt the need for a smaller one nondescript camera. I landed up purchasing the smallest Canon point-and-shoot I could find. That IXUS SD780IS landed up following me everywhere, riding shotgun in a pocket – simply because it was so small and unobtrusive. However, I don’t think it was the camera or its size that did this; rather it was me applying the previsualization techniques learned with the Leica M8 to the smaller format. I was getting images I liked, and which were compositionally strong – regardless of the format or type of camera. For the first time in my work, the camera became transparent.

Now, rather than buying something because the spec sheet looked good, or because it came with bragging rights, I bought equipment because it allowed me to achieve the specific look or feel I desired. Coupled with my postprocessing experience, I now felt completely in control of my images; I could create and share exactly what I saw in my mind’s eye.

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Rushing for the train. Canon IXUS 100 IS

Let’s take a step back and deconstruct my experiences along the road to compositional liberation into something which any photographer might find useful and actionable:

1. You have to begin with a reasonable degree of understanding of the technical skills for both capture and post processing. However, remember that these are merely tools, not an end in themselves.

2. Force yourself to shoot for an extended period of time with what you would perceive to be a limited set of equipment. This may be one zoom, or one prime; the point is that it conditions your mind into recognizing what you can capture and ignoring all of the things that you can’t.

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The ladder. Canon IXUS 100 IS

3. The ultimate distillation of this is using prime lenses, shooting a good number of frames with each. By using nothing except a single perspective on extended basis, your mind is trained to pre-visualize the angle of view before you look through the viewfinder. You know when you have mastered a particular focal length or field of view when you start seeing compositions everywhere, and you can execute these with the proper perspective and relative prominence of foreground and background. It’s even better if you can do this with the lens stopped down; by eliminating shallow depth of field as a compositional crutch, you are forced to fully think about and utilize all of the space in your frame. You cannot simply fill it with a merely pleasant-looking but non-contextual wall of blur. This of course leads to developing full control of composition, even in the out of focus areas of your frame.

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Canterbury Cathedral. Canon IXUS 100 IS

If you are able to shoot with a compact camera or perhaps a camera phone, and achieve the exact composition you intended, you have come full circle. Image quality, is of course the subject of a completely different discussion. Although many photographers believe that they could manage with much less equipment, or much simpler equipment than they currently have, almost none of them put it into practice. Even I find it difficult to select which get bring on a trip; I am sometimes drawn into the trap of bringing something ‘just in case’ rather than picking a practical selection and concentrating on working with it. It requires a strong and conscious effort to avoid this. (Once again, if I am on assignment then I have the opposite philosophy; this is because you have to be prepared for contingencies, and failure to plan and deliver because of oversight is simply unprofessional.)

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A little urban abstract. Sony RX100

Unfortunately, the fastest – and perhaps only – way to truly experience this liberation, is to go through the process. (If any of you have managed by other means, I would love to hear from you in the comments.) But I think it is important to at least try it if you’re serious about taking a photography to the next level; in my article on the stages of evolution of a photographer, you’ll remember that the most difficult thing to achieve is the ability to visualize your image first, and then execute it as intended. Strength of the idea and how obvious it is to your audience is paramount. MT

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Service. Sony RX100

Travel minimalism: one lens to go

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Canterbury in autumn. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

Every time I travel for personal purposes, I’m always torn between experiencing the place, and photographing the place. Photography is such a part of me that sometimes I feel that I experience and understand things more through trying to capture the essence of them. Or perhaps it’s because doing so forces you into conscientious observer mode, and this in turn makes one’s mind more receptive to things, and more willing to question what you see and find juxtapositions or contrasts.

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Canterbury Cathedral crypt. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

That aside one of the things which inevitably keeps me up the night before departure is trying to figure out what to bring equipment-wise. If it’s on assignment, then I bring everything I might possibly need, plus spares – to hell with overweight baggage, if you don’t have it, it could mean a lost job – on the other hand, if I’m traveling for myself, I’d rather carry as little gear as possible. Well, little enough that I don’t notice it after walking around for hours on end, but with sufficient coverage that I don’t get frustrated and feel like I missed a rare photographic opportunity because I didn’t bring along a wide angle. Or something along those lines.

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A Parisian in her natural habitat. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

My last personal vacation saw me bringing an Olympus Pen Mini, the 14-42 kit lens and a Panasonic 20/1.7 pancake. We went to the beach. Frankly this made the choice easy as I didn’t really want to expose any of the more expensive gear to moisture, salt and sand; the M9-P definitely would not have been suitable, and the D800 might have produced great landscapes, but it would also have worked fine as a boat anchor.

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Three conversations, Paris. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

I’ve been trying to fine-tune this over the years. I’ve been on trips where I did carry coverage from 14-450mm and a spare body; whilst I got some great images, I also had a sore back, and landed up leaving everything but one body and the 24-70 zoom in the hotel room for the last week. More crucially, I felt the images produced from that trip lacked focus; I brought everything, so subconsciously I was actually trying to capture everything. The upshot is a set of images that isn’t as strong as it could have been, and worse still, experiencing that slightly chaotic panicky feeling that you just might have missed a shot opportunity somewhere.

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Tate Modern yard, London. Ricoh GR Digital III

My preferred travel kit is a moderate wide, and a moderate telephoto – both fast – and one body. I might carry a spare compact or something similar as a backup, just in case. I’ve gone with the D700, 24/1.4 and 85/1.4 – this is an absolutely fantastic and hugely flexible combination – plus a spare compact, either the Fuji X100, Leica D-Lux 5, or my favorite, the Ricoh GR-Digital III. Most recently, I spent two weeks in Europe with an M9-P, 28 and 50mm lenses, plus the Pen Mini and 45/1.8 (giving me 90mm in a pocket). This was also an excellent combination, and in some ways better than the Nikon based setup due to weight and instant availability of the telephoto. However, it lagged hugely in low light performance. I think the next trip I take will probably be Micro 4/3 based; an OM-D and Pen Mini with 12, 20 and 45mm lenses will cover the vast majority of situations handily. And not weigh very much, either.

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Piccadilly Circus, London. Ricoh GR Digital III

So what’s all of this talk about a single lens?** Or single camera? There are advantages to this approach: firstly, you’re unencumbered and free to enjoy the atmosphere, people and culture without feeling like a packhorse; a small camera around your neck is probably much easier to manage than an entire backpack full of lenses. Also, you don’t have to worry as much about security – frankly, carrying several Leica f1.4 Summiluxes and a Noctilux around even safe Singapore made me pretty nervous.

**Let me clarify: I don’t mean going with a 28-300, though I suppose this might be a viable option for some situations. That lens has more compromises than strengths, and if you don’t know how to manage your perspectives properly, then you’ll land up with weak images too, because you’ll always be trying to ‘zoom in’.

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The Shard, under construction. Ricoh GR Digital III

The main advantage, however, is that it frees up your mind from having to think about what perspective to take for a scene. Do you find the essence in the details, or do you go for something wider and more encompassing, with context? Trouble is, there is often no right answer – and from experience, I know that inevitably you’ll land up trying to make both work and being satisfied with neither. On the other hand, if you’ve got just one focal length, then you can pre visualize what your frame will look like; with sufficient experience, your eye naturally looks for compositions that fit within the perspective and angle of view of the lens you’ve got. Thus: instead of wondering what perspective to use, you’re free to spent that mental capacity on fine-tuning the elements inside the frame of the only perspective you have. It can be liberating – providing you’re thinking about the photograph, and not about the equipment you left at home. There’s also the side benefit of not having to change lenses, and thus always being ready.

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The doorway, Hanoi. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

I actually did this on several occasions. At the end of 2009, I made short trips to Oxford, Canterbury and Paris; for these I brought two lenses (21 and 50mm for the M8) but only used the 21. I did it again in 2010; the first trip saw me bringing a D700 and several lenses, plus the Ricoh GR-Digital III; I only used the Ricoh and its fixed 28mm because it was both much more convenient, as well as matching the way my eye was tuned at the time after my first Leica-M experience. I got wiser on the second trip and left everything behind except the GR-Digital III. Hanoi later that year saw me using only the D700 and 85/1.4 G.

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A Vietnamese stereotype. Hanoi. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

If you are going to try this exercise, I’d recommend going for a wide normal rather than an ultra wide or a tele; for the simple reason that these are the most flexible focal lengths to use. 35-50mm can appear wide or moderately telephoto depending on how you choose to use the foreground elements in your scene. And at some point, chances are you’ll probably want to take a photo of yourself or your traveling companion (or both of you, or your family…you get the point) – and it’s generally much easier with something wide or normal than say a 300mm.

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Prague castle and stars. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Some people may find a telephoto easier to use in these kinds of situations because they can snipe from a distance; I’d personally advise against it because it’s very difficult to make images with context; and that’s one of the cornerstones of travel photography. The bokeh may be great, but if the background gives you no clue as to where the subject is, then the image could well have been shot anywhere – and that somewhat defeats the point of travel photography.

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A Viennese moment. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Personally, if I had to pick, I’d go with either a 28mm, or a 35mm – depending on whether my images would likely be more people-biased (longer), or more location-biased (wider). And it’d have to be fast, too; I’d be using the lens at night, and anything slower than 2.8 wouldn’t cut it. Frankly, in some situations, even f2.8 may be a little borderline. Finally, it’d have to go on something small, light and unobtrusive; responsiveness is important because your ability to anticipate things will be a little bit diminished thanks to the foreign environment. Right now, my choice is probably between the Olympus OM-D and Panasonic 20/1.7, the Ricoh GR-Digital III/ IV, or the Leica M9-P and a 35/1.4 ASPH FLE.

Give it a try. On your next trip, just use a 35 or 50 prime for at least a day or two; if it makes you feel better, bring along your zooms too, but don’t use them until you absolutely feel that you’re missing shots. MT

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Wat Arun and Boat, Bangkok. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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

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