Tradeoffs

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Not a people mover, and never meant to be. Similar things abound photographically: resolution, or bulk? Reach, or size? Ease of file handling, or quality? Edge resolution, or weight and filter size? Controllability or compactness?

The story of photography is really a series of compromises – I suppose the same can be said of life in general, though there are specific consequences and considerations when it comes to making images. At the risk of appearing to contradict myself*, I’m writing this post somewhere over the South China Sea, after having a little epiphany. The difference between life and photography is that compromises made in the former usually come with a mixed bag of consequence that are both unknown since we have affected causality and the flow of events by making a choice, but in photography, we almost always know what we’re giving up – or we think we have a fair idea of it. Surely this should make creative and technical choices in image capture easier to make?

*Forcing creative development through restriction is not the same as knowing you’ve stopped before you’re done.

From interactions with others and my own past experience, I’m inclined to say that this is rarely true. If anything, knowing what we might be missing out on creates even more anxiety knowing that it isn’t anything really out of your control holding you back from the shot – it’s your own decision. Let me give you an unambiguous example: a scene can be framed as a telephoto or a wide shot, but that critical moment of action you want only happens once. What do you do? You could pick your best tele and get that shot, or pick your best wide, and frame accordingly. If you can’t decide before going out, you’ve probably brought both or a zoom – but it still doesn’t change the fact that you cannot have both images*. Do you isolate the detail and eliminate potential distractions or include context? We are thus forced to make a choice – and both will have compromises.

*And don’t say bring two cameras, two tripods, and a cable release. That is a different set of compromises, but still very much a compromise.

Second example: you are deciding what to pack for a trip. You might own all lenses and cameras, but you can’t carry them all on the plane, and you’re much less likely to carry them every day in the field especially if you’re going to be doing a lot of walking. Complicating things further is the fact that no one system is going to be ideal or sufficiently versatile to cover every situation you encounter; some may be better for ultimate image quality, others for responsiveness, and others still for certain lens ranges or special functions (tilt shift comes to mind). This is not news: we know there is no one-size-fits-all and there never will be.

If you are shooting for a client, they may well have multiple and conflicting objectives/requirements for the shoot; you have no choice but to carry whatever is required to deliver the minimum image quality. In that sense, things are simplified: you are professional and get the job done. The compromise is more subtle: you may not get to shoot what you personally want to shoot or how you want to shoot it, but chances are, you’re probably not being paid to do that anyway. On the other hand, self-photography is much more confusing and I suspect the reason that most people do not progress beyond a certain level. What’s holding them back is the inability to make a consistent choice in compromises and stick to it.

The thing with being an amateur – and I use this word with the sole meaning of ‘not shooting for a living’ – is you have no real restrictions on subject, style, location, timing or equipment – only those which you choose to impart yourself. You are free to shoot with one camera and lens one day, and another one the next – nobody is stopping you from using only a 400mm on the streets, or a 12mm on safari. You may well produce some very interesting images, but you are also likely to miss out on a lot of other opportunities too – or be forced into a compromise. In this situation, I suspect a lot of people will just come back the next day with a different lens – whatever was perceived to be ‘missing’ the day before. You get the image you were expecting, and never figure out a compositional solution to the previous day’s challenge. The compromise is not consistent, and there is no incentive or need to push oneself. I think it is not difficult to see the net result is going to be one of mediocrity and conformation to expectation** rather than creative growth.

**The expectation may be self -imposed, but is still a product of all of the images you’ve seen before under those situations. The influence is subconscious, but you are still effectively going to be producing somebody else’s work. For obvious reasons, that isn’t going to break new ground, and the resultant image will almost certainly not be memorable.

Having said all of that, I think it is beneficial but not necessary to experiment with as many options as possible to see what appeals – but one has to do it for long enough that you give yourself a chance to face some compositional or executional challenges and figure them out; whether the result is something you find pleasing or not is not something I can answer. How long this is depends on how much you shoot, and how much you experiment. For me, I find a solid week is enough. Then once you find something that either feels like a minimum compromise or a massive one, I’d suggest sticking to it. In the former case, it allows you to shoot instinctively and experience/enjoy the moment then translate that into an image without having to think about the formation and execution of the photograph too much; I suppose it’s emotionally weighted rather than intellectually weighted.

The second, highly challenging situation, is one in which you are forced to get creative and really challenged to break existing preconceptions about framing and execution. The results are usually somewhat ‘cold’ or ‘structured’ or ‘stiff’ – it’s because you must consciously observe and consider every element, and that’s almost impossible in a dynamic situation outside your control. Either you will break the deadlock, or it will break you. For the longest time, I found 28mm a challenge – up to the point I used it every day for a year, and then it became instinctive. I’ve since done the same with 50mm and 35mm, and the former I now find instinctive and versatile, but 35mm still eludes me on the instinctive level – no matter how much I shoot it. I can make intellectual compositions but they just don’t feel fluid to me.

Notice the compromise again: photographing with one focal length/ camera/ other restriction that doesn’t initially seem to challenging actually forces us to not consider all of the other possibilities and constrain our minds to what we can execute, sometimes forcing intuition and emotion and at other times analysis. I don’t think this is a bad thing – even if it means knowingly giving up and image or two in the process because we had a view camera on a tripod and not a D4 with a 400mm for that fleeing glimpse of a rare bird whilst photographing a landscape. The tricky bit is balancing maintaining awareness and the ability to see – you can’t turn that off – with the anxiety of not being able to capture everything you imagine.

Whilst anybody who’s seen me work – either at a workshop or on a job – might think that I carry every bit of hardware to cover every possible eventuality – the reality is I agonize for days planning the precise bare minimum I can get away with for the photographic possibilities that I want to cover. This may be quite varied at the behest of the client, or because I’ve got students with highly varied objectives in a masterclass (landscapes to product macro to street in one week has happened before). For personal work, I apply the same philosophy: how little can I carry to ensure a) if I capture something worthwhile I can print it at a size and quality that is commensurate with my other work; b) I want to keep shooting rather than feeling tired; c) I enjoy shooting and experimenting rather than feeling frustrated with what I missed or couldn’t make work because the equipment wasn’t suitable; d) it doesn’t get in the way if my primary objective for that particular outing is not photography (increasingly common with a child). It’s usually just one camera and one lens, with a tendency to go a bit wider than what might initially seem prudent: you can always compose in more context or use geometry to fill in the gaps and/or emphasise lines to draw the eye in, but you might not be able to back away.

This is almost certainly why working to an idea of a specific portfolio or project yields a much stronger set of images than just photographing instinctively and ‘seeing what you get’. Curation of course remains critical, but is no replacement for being focused on the idea and thus in the right state of mind at the time of capture. You have to be looking for something in order to be able to see it. It’s of course only fair that I share the epiphany in a condensed form: make a choice, stick with it for a meaningful amount of time until you feel confident of being able to get something out of any situation presented with those compromises, and focus on what you can get rather than lamenting what you can’t. It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how much of a difference it makes. MT

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Comments

  1. Ming, Thanks as always for the thoughtful discourse. I attended a talk by the photographer Nan Goldin at the New Yorker festival this past weekend. While I think her approach is very different to photography is in significant ways different from yours, I was struck by one, shall we say, commonality. Goldin was trained in analog color printing but at the beginning of her career had no access to a dark room where she could print her work. This led to her use of transparencies and showing her work as slideshows set to music, a style she would become widely associated with. Choosing chromes, even out of necessity, brought a raft of constraints most notably ISO, and latitude. To solve for these limitations, as she was shooting in dark clubs and under lit New York Apartments, she added a simple flash unit to her kit. Her exploration of those constraints helped her unique style emerge from the work. Goldin is not a photographer in the mold of Ansel Adams or Andreas Feininger but despite the appearance of lack of “technique”, as you described in this post she worked with what the circumstances of “shoots” would allow in terms of equipment.

    • I have enormous respect for Goldin’s ability to ‘get in’ and as a result make unique images; I should have clarified what I meant by lack of technique: it always felt to me as though the story/subject/content came before the presentation of it. That may be as much because the strength of the subjects far outweigh the aesthetic presentation (and is probably necessary, given the intent of her message) as the technical limitations she had to work around.

  2. Brett Patching says:

    Just as an aside, it must have been good fun photographing the Koenigsegg 🙂

  3. Robert E Good says:

    Thanks for this article because many of us think about these choices and trade offs a lot. I don’t believe the following comments offer any stunning insights or pose pithy questions as the are just how I think about these things at the moment.

    PREFERENCES CHANGE AND LEARNING CONTINUES. I’ve found that over time my preferences on focal lengths have changed.. When I started out in the film days, I really liked 105mm or 135mm because it made composition easier. Now my favorite is 25mm because I like context and have become more skilled at framing foreground, middle, and background. I’m currently experimenting more with 18mm which I find challenging to shoot well in a variety of situations.

    PRE-VISUALIZING PLUS TREASURE HUNTING. In practice, I shoot cameras ranging from an iPhone to an A7R2 and focal lengths between 16mm and 300mm. Choices are made depending on subject (birding or portrait etc.), day/night, tightness of working space, and most importantly the type of images I’ve pre-visualized and hope to capture. Of course I always discover unexpected things too which often turn out to be the best treasures.

    THERE ARE ALWAYS PLENTY OF POTENTIAL IMAGES. As a recreational shooter, the maximum I ever carry are two bodies and three lenses. Usually it is just one body and one lens at a time and as you suggest, focus on what I can capture rather than missed opportunities. Usually it is more than enough.

  4. Great article as usual. (and any article starting with an exotic car pic must be great. 🙂 )

    I am going to San Francisco fleet week where Blue Angels will be performing and I can’t decide which focal lengths to carry. I can carry two cameras with all the focal lengths between 28-300 (I don’t have super zoom) and be miserable or just carry 40mm (summicron-c) and 180mm (Lanthar) on one small mirrorless body and enjoy the show….

    I think I may go with lighter setup. What if I miss few pictures. Nobody is paying me anyway.

    • Haha, thanks. Planes move fast and aren’t as close as you think when they’re in the air. I’d go 40 and 180, and hope you can focus quickly 🙂

      • Thanks for the advise. Not worried about focusing though. Somehow, my adapter thickness allows proper infinity hard stop at around f/8 (I will need f/8 anyway to slow the shutter speed to get some motion blur of background). I checked today by shooting far objects that infinity focus with f/8 will be fine even if the plane fills up large part of my frame (as close as 300m). The DOF calculator also agrees with me (f/8 on APS-C @ 200mm for object distance 300m extends till infinity for CoC of 0.02mm). I am not doing huge enlargements therefore I will be fine.

        Advantage of manual focus and math. 😀

        • Sounds like the adaptor is too thick if it’s not reaching infinity til stopped down…

          • Yes it is and that’s why I don’t use it on Nex-6 that much. Anyways I did enjoyed the air-show and got few nice shots. I ended up carrying 80-200 Vario R instead of 180 Lanthar but used only 200mm end (both have similar issues with adapter thickness since M adapter is common for both. R>M>E for R lens and N>M>E for Nikon mount Lanthar).

            I also ended up carrying 90m Macro-Elmar-M on M240 and I am glad I did. This didn’t require any focusing and pics were very sharp. Two pics are on my flickr link.

            40mm was too wide. I used that for on ground pictures.

            So what I learned? Auto Focus is a must for long lens in this kind of shooting. 🙂

    • Jayant I shot the Air and Water show in Chicago a few years ago withe a Leica M and the 35 Lux we rented a boat and used the skyline as a back drop, amazing pictures 1:00 in the afternoon just after a huge rain storm sky was bright blue planes came from the south between the building then down across the lake. Best shots were 4 planes with smoke trails against the skyline. Big zoom would have been a loser.

      • Yes the smoke formations look great too. This is why I am carrying 40mm as well. But since I will be carrying only one body, it will be either wide shot with backdrop and smoke trails of formation or closeup of planes. In this show, Blue Angels fly very close to water and against the major bridges across the bay (Golden Gate bridge) giving nice photo opportunity for a long lens. Since I won’t be able to capture everything, I will simply relax. 🙂

  5. Richard J Bach says:

    Another aspect of this that I don’t see touched on is how it pushes us to use the more “normal” focal lengths, by which I mean something in the ~28-85mm range.

    If we are going to use one lens/camera combo it had better be a useful one. While there is no perfect lens for every situation, I’m sure one would come back with much more keepers if they had used an 85mm exclusively rather than a 200mm. I learned this when I briefly switched from a full Nikon kit with zooms to an A7 an only a few manual primes. I had a 24mm and I quickly realized how was nice for landscapes, but not so nice for up close portraits. So I ditched the 24mm and now use a Coolpix A and the 28mm 1.8G on my D600 and find it useful for a huge range of subjects. I miss the 24mm sometimes for scenery, but not that often. The more extreme the focal length, the less utility we have across the imaging spectrum.

    Perhaps this is they these focal lengths are so common, they seem to be “transitional” in a way. I find that a 28mm from far enough feels sort of like a 24mm, while close up can feel more like 35/50mm. Same reason I love the 50mm focal length: it can feel a little wide or a little long depend on how it is used, while a 14mm lens for example has an undeniable signature.

    All of this is a good thing in my opinion: the challenge becomes seeing and framing, rather than relying on the effect of extreme focal lengths.

    PS: I might be the only person, but I wish there was something like the 28-35-50 Tri-Elmar for other systems. Something with the convenience of a zoom to find a focal length we are comfortable with, but also forces us to think in discreet focal lengths too. Something to ease into the one lens/one camera combo with a little less FOMO. I would happily give up my zooms for something like this.

    • I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case; you could easily choose to put a small 85/1.8 on DX or a 75 on M4/3 and land up withs something much longer. Similarly, wider; there are small 20mm lenses for Nikon like that Voigtlander f3.5 pancake. I think convention and the fear of missing out push us ‘normal’, but that makes interesting pictures much harder to make, IMO.

      50mm-e is the flipping point between what we perceive as foreground-dominant and background-equal, depending very much on your subject and foreground/background distances. It’s versatile in that sense but also not easy to use because we don’t have the crutch of perspective.

      I’d like a tri-elmar equivalent too, but you could skip 35 and just give me 28 and 50. For that matter, I only seem to use my zooms at either end of the range; it’s more like a convenient double-lens rather than a range of FLs.

      • I suppose you’re right. I think it is that fear off missing the shot because of having the right focal length that drives us to the normal focal lengths. Even if we stick with one focal length, we are still hoping that that one length will be versatile enough to cover every situation.

        Of course we can just use our zooms at the 28-35-50 stops and just forget about the intermediate focal lengths. Btu there is something a little different about using primes too…

        I have been curious about the short period (looking at your Nepal work) where it seems you were using a 24mm + 85mm pair. It is interesting to me because it seems that these both push the into the wide/telephoto territory without the middle. This intrigues me, as it seems to really push you to asses whether it is wide or tele shot as there is not mistaking those focal lengths’ signatures.

        • True; part of the reason was there just wasn’t a middle lens I was happy with at the time. I’m using mostly 50 or 100mm on MF these days, which is 38 or 70mm – the spread is getting closer together…

  6. Martin Fritter says:

    I’m mulled this a lot and, being a clever so-and-so, it does tend to boil down the Isaiah Berlin distinction between foxes and hedgehogs. Paul Strand, two cameras, one lens for 30 years. Or Lee Friedlander with his SWC. But, there’s Gene Smith: camera omnivore. In general, I come down on the side of Occam and his razor. But I don’t have to pay the rent with photography – thank goodness! However, the glory of _this_ blog is it’s author’s relentless pursuit of excellence, both technical and creative. I’m especially enjoying the artistic growth.

    • That makes me the omnivore, I’m afraid. I’d actually rather not be; it’s annoying to have to relearn a new camera’s foibles every six months. I think I’m pretty much done at the H system, though. Back 100% to the pictures! 🙂

  7. So I just shot with my Leica M and the 35 Lux for two days straight in Hong Kong the 35 was for years my only lens and it took some time to compose that field of view successfully. Then I broke down and bought first the 50 Lux then a year later the 21 why because I used to buy second hand (previously experienced) camera equipment so I had everything. When I used to go shoot I would take the kitchen sink, then one day at the top of a cliff in Oregon we were about to walk down to the beach to shoot the big rocks. Along with me was a great guy from Florida named DuPont he made shotguns and was carrying every lens made for his camera just then he said I’m only taking down this one camera and lens. At that moment an article I had once read flashed in my brain YES one lens and shoot the shit out of it make it work. Since then I have headed out to the street many times with only one lens! But for the street I find my favorite lens is my 21mm some images are not possible with 21 but the ones you get are great. It’s a much different picture when shooting in Yosemite for example I took the Hasselblad with the 120, 50 and 28 the 1.7x the HTS and the Fuji X pro 2 with a 16-55 and the 100-400. The result was, since your not going to far from the trunk having all that gear worked. The 28 is a tough lens to shoot with those hint mountains if you try to tilt the camera up too high the converging lines are very difficult to get rid of and for some scenes the 28 isn’t wide enough you need a 24mm. Amazingly no matter what combination you have it’s never perfect for everything so the lessened we soon learn is unless you have some helpers to carry your gear you better learn what is mandantory to take or how you can use what you have to make the images work.
    I’m a side note more importantly then the equipment for me is the light the more I proceess images I really see the light when it’s at it’s best and my angle to the sun is correct how image is affected. That’s the other thing about the 35 lux it hates the sun light coming in so you have to be extremely carefull shooting in to the sun, while when you 90-180 degrees from the sun the lens performs magicaly.

  8. Hi, Ming. There is always some clever so-and-so around who will post something counter to what you say. This time it befalls me to be the clever dick. :D) It IS possible to have two images at the same time and using only one camera, but it does involve another compromise, that of image quality, and it introduces issues of its own, as will become apparent.

    One of my “fun” cameras is the Fuji Real 3D W3 and which as its name suggests, and I am sure you will know, is a 3D camera. In fact it is two 2D cameras in the same body, and they can be set to function independently for zoom setting, colour settings and sensitivity when in 2D mode. In the context of your discussion, only the zoom is relevant. The lenses are not completely independent as there is only one zoom control. When the option is chosen, the right lens will be set to full tele and stay there, irrespective of the zoom position selected for the left lens. The on-screen view is that of the left lens only.

    So, at the instant of shutter release, two images are captured and which for all intents and purposes will be identical save for the slight separation of the taking lenses and the respective zoom settings. One can only guess at the FoV of the tele setting as there is no means to switch. But if there were, the delay would defeat the argument of two differing images at the very same time with just one camera.

  9. Great article Ming. A very good case that supports why GAS is so prevalent…..even though GAS won’t address the consequences of choice!

  10. As you wrote I – being an amateur – have total freedom of choice with my photography. When I started shooting more seriously the whole plethora of possibilities was a bit overwhelming. Luckily I found my favourite subject matter quite quickly, that is street photography. This allowed me to constrain myself to just one camera and one lens, which I have been using exclusively for a few years now. While shooting street it’s perfect. Not having to think about gear is really liberating and a few missed photo opportunities is a small price. Not to mention the benefit of having consistent look of images made with one lens.
    Problems appear sometimes when going on holiday. From time to time I am still tempted to bring something more – one wider and one longer lens – ‘just in case’ or ‘I might want to experiment’. Each time I surrendered to that anxiety of missing some ‘highly valuable’ shots, I ended up with more stuff in the bag that was never used and my rational mind nagging all the time – I told you so! However I found a solution to that problem. I just give my better half a more versatile lens-camera combo to carry and she documents all the usual holiday stuff. Good compromise.

    • No, your better half is not you and does not take, or misses, the same images that you see. In fact, your better half is faced with exactly the same compromise decisions as you, but taken from a different perspective. This is not the same compromise problem raised in Ming’s article.

      • Depends if the other half is a photographer or not, and if you’re just doing the documentary for social media (and the other half)…

        • Ming, not so sure I agree in the context of your article. The issue, as I read it, is what faces you as a photographer; there was no third party involved. And if there were, they will still see differently to you and thus be faced with the same issue of choice. There is no physical way that second photographer can take the same image that you would have done. There is the time displacement factor to overcome. So even if the images are just 1 second apart, if there is any subject movement the resultant image won’t be the same.

          This is what I read as your problem. You only get one shot at it. Go for tele or wide? Make the incorrect choice and the shot fails, but in deciding which, the subject has either moved or the opportunity lost.

          • Or look at it another way: you can make either tele or wide work, but you have to compose differently for either/each to be a success. Yes, it’s doable.

      • I did not mean that my lady takes pictures instead of me. She takes her own pictures for her own pleasure. However when she asks me for example to take a portrait of her in front of something, I can grab her camera and do it with a more appropriate focal length. She also documents all the usual holiday stuff. It means I don’t have to do it and I can focus on my own work.
        I believe my comment is on point – I wrote about the choice I made. I chose one focal length and I need to (and can) live with not being able to shoot everything. If I see a scene that requires a tele, let’s say there is something very interesting going on on the other side of the street, I let it go. If I see a scene that would most probably benefit from shooting with a tele I try my best to shoot it with a wide angle being aware of the compromise. I traded missed opportunities for simplicity, for being able to focus on one type of images, and for less pain in my back. Isn’t this article about making such decisions and dealing with consequences? I think it is. It does not matter that I made my choice way before seeing a photo opportunity.

    • I find a form of mental separation also works well: phone for the usual documentation, one camera for all the ‘serious’ stuff.

  11. richard majchrzak says:

    great advice Ming. I’ll take it personally and try working with / on it. thanks, chief.

  12. Michael B. says:

    Great article Ming. I saved this one 🙂

    A conundrum of late for me is that I would often take workshops to be tethered to the “flow” so to speak…almost an injection of juice and structure to keep me going. You are on that list for me one day 🙂

    Of late though, I have not been able to really afford much in the way of travel workshops and/or others because I am starting a newco at 51 in the non-profit space to help make kids lives better via visual storytelling – more creating campaigns and capacity vs. the content itself – we have a model for facilitating that. Anyway, we are just starting out, so no income coming in that would usually support workshops, portfolio reviews, and the “stuff”. Far as equipment, I let that GAS go, and have been shooting a M9/240 and Q consistently since the Q debuted.

    One thing I have noticed in that there is paradox happening. One – I have been shooting personal projects more, and shooting things that have been on my bucket list that don’t cost a dime, like a rodeo. The output has been pretty good. At the same time, I feel isolated and almost floating out there by denying myself more tethering to the education/inspiration/community part of it. I guess one could argue that inspiration and community do not have to come from a workshop. Still, I cannot help that I feel I am abandoning my creative self by not investing in it with education.

    So I guess my question is pretty simple. How do you keep yourself inspired to this commitment, while sort of untethered to a specific curriculum or clients or whatever – create structure for yourself. Is it really about committing to an idea and going after it?

    Feel free to ping me privately if this is overkill for the your boards.

    • Thanks.

      Once your education/skill has reached a certain level, you don’t need the structured guidance; this is normal. Think of academia: past a certain point, it’s self-inspired research rather than directed study.

      Personally? I just shoot what interests me – it might be subject or style, or both.

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