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

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Service. Sony RX100


  1. David Keyes says:

    Very informative and interesting article, as well as the comments in this blog. One of my early cameras (after the old box cameras from the 40’s) was a Kodak Signet 40 acquired in 1956 for the wholesale price of about $40. Many of my best pictures were taken over the next 20-plus years with that camera–a consumer grade rangefinder with a 46mm f/3.5 fixed lens. It has been in my closet untouched for about 35 years. Your article tempts me to get it back in use, because I learned and loved that focal length and doing everything manually. It’s still in excellent condition, and I’m thinking of using it again for a few rolls, just for fun. Since the late 70’s, I’ve followed the trend of using SLR’s and then DSLR’s, as well as various brands of compact cameras. I love digital photography, but my photographic skills suffered as it has been too easy to use automatic programming modes and take lots of pictures, hoping to get a few good ones. Except for one early Nikon Coolpix, I was disappointed by the compacts that I took on trips; instead, I’ve been lugging around a heavy camera body, and I used to take all my lenses and a flash. Now, even when traveling “light”, this often means a heavy camera body plus a 28mm (or 35mm) and 85mm lens. I have never liked either 35mm or 50mm very much, and I am liking now the 28mm, but it’s nice to have some reach available when needed. To this day, I am most comfortable with the 46mm focal length from my old Signet 40–a rare length in today’s market, and I really notice the difference when I use either a 35mm or a 50mm. I could get to about 46mm with a zoom, but like many people and as you have commented, I tend to zoom either all the way in or all the way out, and maybe back off just a little. Your point inspires me that the camera and focal length aren’t so important–I should decide on perspective and composition and use whatever camera I have to try to achieve that; if the focal length or other camera/lens limitations don’t allow it, try not to waste time thinking about shots that are outside the capabilities of what I have with me. On the other hand, especially when traveling with minimal weight and equipment, one always hopes for the camera with good ergonomics, great optics, viewfinder and focusing ability (or easy manual focus) and a virtually instantaneous shutter release with good feel.

    • Thanks David. Not sure if the mechanicals will still be functional on your Signet, but hey, no harm in trying 🙂

      I think going fully manual will never be as fast as a semi-automated system you understand, but it will force you to slow down, think, and be conscious about the quality of light etc. Film forces you to do that to some extent too: you’ve only got 12 or 36 shots. I suppose one could use a very, very small memory card for the same effect…

      Maybe you want to try a) one of the 35mm fixed-lens compacts (RX1, DP2M – 40mm, X100s) or b) another roll of film 🙂

  2. Sorry, posted this comment in the wrong place:

    You wrote: “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.”

    If you can expand on this with an essay or two, perhaps with your new year’s resolution to “get” the 50mm focal length, how you go from the unconditioned mind to the conditioned one, or such, I would find it of great interest.

    Thanks in advance!

  3. Hi Ming, why do you find the 24 and 85 1.4G lenses frustrating on the D800 when they were perfect on the D700?

  4. Good article. Great blog – it’s climbing my list of must-see blogs!

    I agree whole heartedly with the idea of the camera being the least important part of the equation. In motorcycle racing they often say that the rider is 70-80% of the total equation for success and that the bike and everything else is the remaining 20-30%. This contrasts with auto racing where the figures are often reversed. I’d say that photography is more like motorcycle racing.

    I would like to point out one delicious irony though – a post pointing out that the camera doesn’t matter yet lists the camera used in each and every photo. I think the point would have been….more pointed…had the cameras not been identified.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks John. I’ve got people asking for EXIF data and people who don’t care what camera was used – I take the middle route: sometimes, you need to know what camera was used precisely to know that the equipment isn’t what made the photograph, or rather you can make such photographs even with unexpected equipment…

  5. Good article. I started shooting on the street with my D70 and 18-200mm lens. These days I use my FM2N and a 35mm lens. Knowing the focal length I have to use allows me to quickly visualize the content in front of me and whittle down my possibilities. Using film (I process and print it in my darkroom) reminds me that I should edit before shooting, instead of just shooting in the hopes of finding something later. Sure, I miss some shots, but I also find more due to the restriction of lens and the number of frames available to me.

    • Makes sense. I had a similar experience the last time I shot film some years ago: the cost forces you to really think before taking the shot, meaning that you experiment less but get more keepers.

  6. Ming, your latest series of articles are awesome! What a great companion article/essay to ‘Burden of Choice.’ You mentioned so many things in them that are worthy of further expansion, study and investigation. For example you said, “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.”

    This is my (brief) story. A few years ago I had a hand tumor which paralyzed my dominant hand, ending effectively whatever “photography career” I had at the time. During years of recovery, small compacts (Canon IXUS and Panasonic LX series, wish there was something like RX100 in the world back then) were the only cameras I was able to carry, forcing me to live in an “artificial bliss” of “Less is More,” albeit the “situational liberation” didn’t last too long. The moment I gained enough functional strength and dexterity, it was back to the DSLR and heavy equipment lugging ego. It’s not until recently, with your (articles’) help, among others, that I found, true and long-lasting liberation has to come from intentional deconstruction and practice. Hence the Micro-four-thirds, and being out there shooting as much as ever! 🙂

    • The trouble is, you don’t know what’s important until you’ve both had it and not had it. The experience lets you figure out what’s important for you – and that will differ from person to person. There are people who only want lightweight FX and a fast 50; there are others who are happy with 21 as a normal lens (I seriously know a couple of people like this) or even a film ‘Blad and instagram (what an odd combination). But perhaps the point is you need to know yourself better than the popular ‘more is better’ myth.

      I don’t have an answer for what that ultimate distillation is, at least not personally; if I did, I wouldn’t have three systems and two dozen lenses. I think I came close to it with the M8/21’Lux combination for personal photojournalism work, with a 50/1.1 for longer work, but that means I can’t shoot any watches. Likewise, whilst I love the D800E and 85/2.8 PCE combination for product work, it’s completely impractical as a travel camera. And even though the Nikon 24/1.4 and 85/1.4 G primes were perfect on the D700, they’re the source of many frustrating near misses on the D800E. So, the experiments continue. Hence the film and 6×6 I have incoming…

      By the way, sent you an email about NY/SFO. 🙂

  7. “Recognizing what you can capture and ignoring all of the things that you can’t.”

    I’ll add this to my motto~ Hahaha. Thanks for this. I usually feel guilty for not switching lens and not capturing that specific frame of a shot (event photos). I recently bought my 2nd lens (11-16mm), and ever since then I am having a hard time (or just getting lazy) switching lens for specific scene because I am used to shoot with one lens setup (a 30mm) — I shoot portraits by the way.

    • I think it depends on what you’re trying to do. I’ll never tell a client this in a commercial context, because my job is as much to recognise what can be executed as well as what can’t. But in a personal context – I think the issue is more of a trade off between enjoying the moment against holography turning into a task or chore because of the amount of gear you’re carrying, or the psychological expectations on you to produce images with all that gear you’re hauling around.

  8. Great article! Good way to get out of the trap of “needing” ever more gear and get back to making pictures.

    One thing, though: the link to the four stages of photography post is incorrect; the right one is this: https://blog.mingthein.com/2012/11/07/the-four-stages-of-creative-evolution-of-a-photographer/

  9. “#1 …these are merely tools.”

    This is the best site in photography. –

  10. Hi Ming, what a great article! I can’t agree more with your approach about less is more in photography (especially in travel & street). You remind me a great article of Craig Mod back in November 2010 who said “By using a prime, you train both your brain and your eyes to think in their space. A zoom lens allows you to shift the lens-space to your brain-space. But with primes you’re stuck in their world. You become intimate with life within their frame until composition becomes second nature…..”
    (http://craigmod.com/journal/14mm/) Today I use, almost exclusively, my OM-D paired with my set of primes 14/2.5, 20/1.7 & 45/1.8 trying to “seeing prime”!

    • A interesting way of putting it. But for me it’s more about training yourself to previualize perspectives. You’ll never be able to d that if of keep changing the perspective, which is precisely what a zoom does…

  11. Ming, I love your essays. Makes me do a lot of thinking. I have no idea where I am in the spectrum of the evolution of a photographer. I use a few primes for specific purposes on my OMD (and now NEX6 has been added), like family shots with my old 5.8cm Nikkor F1.4 with adapter. Or the new 60mm macro from Oly. But when it comes to travel my rather crankly (on a m43 body) Oly 14-54 sits on the OMD for its ease of use.

    I haven’t got to the point where I want to slow down the picture-taking process. I actually like going with my quick first instincts when I see a composition, and I get shots off quickly. One nice thing about the zoom is that I can compose a loose shot at 28 or 25mm-e and then zoom in to pick up more specific and selected compositions. This is good when showing my pictures to others later… I can show a beautiful overview and then go into some closeups…. all without changing lenses. If Oly ever makes a 12-60 for m43 I will be in heaven.

    On the other hand, in the 1970s I was perfectly happy using my dad’s Kodak Retina IIIC rangefinder with fixed 50mm lens. Maybe someday I’ll go back to that approach… but for now zooms are my thing with a few primes being added for specific specialized needs.


    • Thanks Peter. Do you find you get better images on first instinct or after thinking? Personally it seems to vary from situation to situation – sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s the other. If you think too much in a fast-moving situation, then you’ll usually land up missing the shot. You’ll probably find that after a while, you use the zooms at the extreme ends of the range only.

  12. Less is more – great article Ming! That’s my motto, not only in photography. You need and you have much experience to reduce the gear, Ming. My reduce Body Lens Kit is the OM-D and the Panasonic Pancake G 20mm F1.7 asph. Best regards.

  13. Carrying too much can be a burden but not every shot is a wide one. While I never carry the kitchen sink I do make a few choices on my photo outings before leaving the house. However If I had to pick one lens to live with it would be a 35mm on full frame or equivalent on a cropped sensor (18mm on my X Pro 1). That said I have ordered the Sony RX1 ( I would think you would appreciate that camera) and given thought to perhaps having that replace my M9 since I shoot with the 35mm summicron most of the time, that remains to be seen as of this time. However I am often just as happy if not happier with the quality of images I get with the X Pro 1 and sometimes though not as often as you the OM-D. One issue I have with the Sony RX100 and most little zoom cameras is that I don’t feel like I am shooting with a real camera and that does affect my image-making. While I have some classics from the past I find it hard to take them out into the field because they feel so heavy, slow and I have gotten used to the immediacy of digital.

    • I think you’re going to have the same issue with the RX1: it will feel like a toy because there’s no optical viewfinder, even though the image quality will be much better than you expect. I appreciate the technology required to cram a full frame sensor in there, but then again I don’t see why such a camera should be more than just a little thicker than the serious film compacts of the late 90s/ early 2000s. Not being a fan of 35mm, I’ll pass. And that price is frankly not worth it given you could also buy an OM-D and some great primes for less, without that much of a compromise in image quality and big gains in flexibility. If 35mm is your thing then I suppose it’d be a different story – I know I’d probably be much more enthusiastic about it if it were 28mm instead.

      • You can buy an OVF for the RX1, but it’s expensive…

        • Any 35mm finder will do. I like the Voigt 28/35 mini-finder, now sadly discontinued. The problem is that none of these finders will give you shooting information or even a little cross in the middle for locating your AF box, which makes them of little use unless you’re shooting fully manual and zone focusing – something which it appears the RX1 isn’t really set up to do easily, since most of the controls are modal and require use of buttons and the rear dial. It works on the M cameras because you can see the settings at a glance.

      • I held the RX1 at photo plus in October. It feels significant (more condensed Leica like) and not point & shooty. While I like the OM-D more with longer lenses (probably due to weight) like 45mm and up, looking at the 60mm macro too. I find the OM-D images don’t sparkle in a way that the X Pro 1 (though I hated the X Pro 1 the first few days I had it).

        Some people have 35mm vision while others have 28mm and still others have 50mm. I thought at one time that 28 suited me my now (and for the past 6 or so years) I’m more satisfied with 35mm. You seem to hit it no matter what you choose. I think it’s more about the peripheral view.

        But in the end it’s not about gear but the photographs you make with them and you can make fine photographs with any camera, the eye is what is most important!

        • Could be processing with the OMD. I haven’t found it to lack pop – if anything the files are wonderfully rich and saturated. That said, you will get the best results from a camera you enjoy using, regardless of what that is…

        • Is it the feel, or the user experience you’re referring to? Perhaps it’s just me, but I need viewfinder to take a camera seriously.

  14. As with so many of your articles, I enjoyed reading this one very much.
    I am not sure I took quite the same path – but what you explained so well in your article became obvious to me during the last couple of years: I would take my whole gear (that would be a 28, a 50, an 85 and a 135 mm lens plus a body) on a journey and then find myself just using more or less one focal length throughout the whole trip – when we visited Scotland in 2011, that would be the 28 mm – amazingly enough the lens I had deemed least useful before… That taught me that less is, indeed, more.
    Your article explains why I should feel so comfortable with just one focal length: I think it is very possible one starts pre-visualizing according to the camera’s capacities.
    Then again, at times, I have a picture in my mind and have to fiddle through al my lenses to get there – or not.
    Thanks, anyway, for this essay, Ming!

    • My pleasure! Oddly I don’t think the same outcome can be accomplished with a zoom: you almost have to go through the whole tedious process of swapping to force you to see withs the lens you’ve got on rather than just twist the ring. That said, once you have gotten over that hump, a zoom becomes nice and convenient: lots of perspectives without having to change lenses, but this time you can previsualize them all.

      • Ah, yes, I see your point now – completetly missed it because my first zoom arrived a couple of months ago with the RX100. So I was not thinking zoom.

  15. FTCK | frans says:

    Hello Ming,

    I could not agree more with you on this one. My first camera was an Agfa box from my dad. 12 photos on the roll, and I was dancing around for 30 minutes before I took the shot. Every photo meant a hole in my pocket money, so I carefully considered before releasing. Years later,my very first own camera was a Nikon EL2 and a 50mm lens. I was very happy and didnt stop “dancing” to take the best shots. To cut a long story short, I went throught the whole process of zooms, digitals, and more zooms, etc.etc.etc. But I missed the “dancing” Thinking about the photo. Position, composition, light, DoF. Realizing what I want to say with the shot, if anything. So my first step was a trip to London, taking the prime 50mm only. I enjoyed the heck out of it and started to realize how I became to much of a slave of technology and marketing. After careful consideration, I decided to purchase the Leica X2, and loving it ever since. Somehow mentally, I got back into the roll shooting. Like every photo costs and therefore has to be considered. It certainly raised my average shooting quality. I might change to a 50mm set up one day, because somehow I feel that my mind is still in 50 mm Best regards, Frans Kemper

    Sent from my mobile office. (Mind the tipos)

    • Thanks Frans. The ‘dancing’ you talk about is precisely why I’m shooting film again now: it makes me think more. And that’s slowly translating through to my digital work, too. I don’t choose between quality and quantity, but I’d rather have even more quality and less quantity; I suppose more of the thinking process is what I need. I seldom use more than two lenses for my own personal work, but I have to admit I’m finding a zoom actually quite convienient for my professional work – the irony is that most of the time it’s either in the 24-28 range or 85-120 range – surprise surprise, I’m using it as two primes. 🙂

  16. Very well conceived and written, Ming.

    I would also add that it’s possible to become so comfortable with a focal length (35mm for me), with a brain that always composes for it, that it becomes hard to appreciate your photography/composition other focal lengths (or hard to even try other focal lengths).


  17. Thank you for the wonderful article Ming. It really helps focus on the important parts of photography not being the camera.

    Best Wishes – Eric

  18. Ming, very good article. One question, though: Is there a more structured way to learn to “see” or is the only way to go out and shoot as much as possible in the hope that you develop an eye for good pictures over time? I usually find that I cannot capture situations that I like seeing with my own eyes with a camera very well and that, on the flipside, totally random shots quite often create very compelling images. It is a rare case for me that I know before shooting a scene that it will come out as a great picture…

    • Thank you. If there is – I haven’t figured it out yet. I think part of it is experimenting, and part of it is exposure to successful/ interesting images – and getting some objective deconstruction on both into actionable qualities that you can understand. I think for you it sounds like a question of perspective: do you understand ‘how’ it is you see? The general sweep of a scene vs a focused look is quite different in terms of field of view.

      • Yeah, the 16-32:9 I see with my eyes vs. the 3:2 I get from my camera is certainly one of the issues…

        • This is one of the few situations in which I’d recommend cropping…you’re not going to find many cameras with that native aspect ratio.

  19. Hi Ming, another great article! I’ve been studying Steve McCurry who is another example of less is more (his focal lengths are 24-70, 85, and 50). It’s also no coincidence that his hero is HCB who famously used mostly one focal length all his life.

    However, I beg to differ regarding one thing. I don’t think this article addresses the (equally? more?) important reason why there is “a high level of consistency in the look and feel of the images” on your site. To my eyes, that consistency is not about compositions or focal length characteristics, but rather color. The color consistency you are able to achieve among the myriad of cameras, or the same camera under various lighting conditions, is simple astounding. This is to say that, in order to arrive at the stage of “camera doesn’t matter”, postprocessing has to be a key ingredient. Part of this is just the eye; for example sometimes white balance is off in a photo, but people just can’t see it. Or they can see it, but have no idea it’s off in exactly what way and therefore don’t know how to fix it. Then there’s mixed lighting, etc. I have purchased your Workflow DVD but unfortunately it doesn’t get deep in these areas.

    In any case, for any shot the consistency depends on being able to (1) have a intended color (or tonal, for BW) presentation in the mind’s eye–you have mentioned intentions like “natural” or “cinematic” (2) sense that the image from the camera has differences with the intention; and (3) know how to address the difference in Photoshop or Lightroom. While (1) is hard, (3) isn’t any easier. Regardless of artistic merits, if one takes 2 photos of the same scene using the same parameters but different cameras, how to use photoshop to make them look the same is by itself a very daunting task. I hope you would address this somehow in the future.

    • 24-70 covers 50mm, and HC-B used a 35 and a 50.

      As for postprocessing and tonal consistency, I agree – one has their particular color preferences. But the DVD actually *does* address it – the eyedropper process plus subsequent final color correction step in PS is precisely what I do for all of my images. I can’t tell you when something looks ‘right’ as that’s down to personal preferences.

      In your situation 1) it’s down to lighting/ contrast quality in addition to color; 2) that means it’s before postprocessing; 3) you cannot change the direction or quality of the light afterwards, only whether it’s high/ low key, or enhance what’s already there. Your final question of exact same scene/ lighting and different cameras has its answer in the previous paragraph: the mechanics are that process. What you decide you want your image to look like is down to your own preferences, and ability/ awareness of color to remember what that tonal palette looks like.

  20. I really enjoy your thoughtful essays Ming. They make me think and look inside. As a photography hobbyist, early on I thought I too needed to have all the focal lengths covered. Plus, a big DSLR to all that glass on. Since I travel a lot for my “real” job, I found my hobby equipment became too burdensome to take along on my weekly trips. I can say I missed a lot of great photographic moments.

    Around a year and a half ago I needed a compact camera for a 12 day hiking trip in Northern New Mexico and would be without electricity and all the comforts of home for that entire time. My DSLR was out of the question. Waaaaay too heavy as my backpack already weighed close to 50 pounds with 3 days of food and water along with my clothing and other required gear.

    None of the “name” brand compact cameras caught my fancy at the time as they all seemed to try and do everything in such a little case. Somehow I came across the Ricoh GRDIII and for some reason it caught my attention. I had never really shot with a fixed focal length nor a lens that fast. Plus the size was perfect for my trip.

    What I learned in the couple months I had with the camera before the trip, during the trip and afterwards was the fixed focal length forced me to really work at visualizing each of my shots. My DSLR had really been the point and shoot whereas this little pocket camera allowed me to create “art”. I can say it made me a better photographer.

    I’m now shooting with the GXR-M and an older Leica 35mm Summicron lens (that’s all I could afford or should say justify with my wife) giving me a 50mm FOV which I’m finding perfect for my style of shooting. Its really all I carry now. In fact, my family and I just returned from over an 8,500 road trip with our travel trailer visiting many of our national parks in the western United States with just this lens. I found it liberating and only occasionally did I wish I had something a bit wider. (As of yet, there isn’t an M mount lens equivalent 35mm FOV on my GXR that offers an f stop of 2.0 or faster that I can afford.)

    • Thanks Duane. If you really can boil it down to one lens and one camera, then I think you’ve pretty much gotten there in terms of photographic zen. I can’t really do that for pro work unfortunately. But for the most part, I use 28 and 85/90 for my personal shooting and rarely see the need for anything else. Can’t think of anything that might fill your void apart from one of the Voigtlander Ultrons – I think there’s a 28/2 which isn’t quite 35mm, but does give you a fairly comfortable 40mm-ish.

  21. Your article totally reflects what I have in my mind. I went through the kind of process as what you mentioned and until I reach a point that a camera is just a camera. Pre visualize what I have in mind and from that, I know what kind of tools I need to execute it. At the moment I’m learning to achieve the kind of consistency that you have present in your work and for me that’s one of the reason I love looking at your work… Keep up the great work 🙂

  22. After using zooms and slr’s for many years my photography was gear dependent. Moving to a small Leica and normally shooting one lens teaches many things. A 50mm lens can have the look of a wide lens or a telephoto, it takes practice and knowledge of how perspective can be created using ones feet rather than the zoom ring. With one lens I can change composition slightly and see that slight movement can change bland images to powerful images, and vice versa. Practice, practice and more practice, one camera, one lens is much more fun.

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