Unpreparedness vs opportunity

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Seen, and shot on the way to a meeting.

Or, more accurately: the fear of unpreparedness. (The actual chances of me going into a photographic job without sufficient planning, prethought creative options or backup hardware is somewhere close to nil.) Within the confines of an assignment or professional engagement, I would say the fear only manifests vis a vis elements you can’t control – weather, for instance. This isn’t debilitating and most of the time, there’s a workaround (chances are blue hour commissioned images exist because it was overcast all day, and the color temperature difference between artificial light and the fading twilight is the only thing giving the sky some color other than grey; flashes can be added if ambient is ugly). But my guess is that all amateur* photographers face the same kind of anxiety of limitation to some degree or other. So what can we do about it?

*I always use the word ‘amateur’ in the professional sense: i.e. you don’t make a living from it and there is no third party client, irrespective of your skill level. If I’m not commissioned, I’m also acting as an amateur.

The challenge really boils down to one thing: missing a shot. It can happen for several reasons: your imagination or ‘eye’ exceeds your skill in anticipation, or equipment manipulation. You can be physically in the wrong place at the wrong time even if you have the hardware with sufficient capabilities or the skill with which to capture the shot if you were there. You could get distracted by friends or family, especially if you see something at a time when your primary objective is not photography. Or simply you could have brought the wrong hardware – which is even more frustrating if you feel particularly strongly about that shot and already own the equipment, but left it at home. Lastly – and this is rare – the shot could simply exceed the capabilities of current hardware to capture (e.g. a very high shutter speed in extremely low light, handheld and on a distant subject). But, this is increasingly rare as the edges of the photographic envelope keep expanding.

I think the first thing we have to be cognisant of is that if your seeing ability exceeds your execution skill or hardware envelope, this is a very good thing. For the vast majority of photographers, it’s the reverse: you’ve got more horsepower than you can handle – in which case, work on your seeing first. In fact – always work on your seeing; no matter how good your observational skills are, there’s no limit to the imagination (and no limits to what we can produce with it). I would also argue that part of imagination is not just seeing things that are not obvious, but also imagining uses for the hardware that have not been tried or push the envelope of what’s possible.

The second thing, and largest elephant for most of us – is the ‘if only…’ factor. I think we have mainly physical limitations here: we can own everything, but still be limited by what we can carry with us. And what I think of as ‘exploration range’ or ‘willingness to see around the next corner’ is exponentially diminished every time the load factor increases, so the tradeoff is one of fully extracting all opportunities within a limited circle, or potentially catching serendipitous curveballs along a much longer single line. This is by far the greatest restriction: the more you carry, the greater your hardware potential, but the less far you’re willing to walk.

The funny thing is that when you carry nothing, you probably find yourself seeing opportunities and thinking ‘if only I’d brought a camera…’ – yet when fully loaded for bear, vision becomes constipated and it’s almost as though the weight of expectation holds you back. The ideal is of course to find a balance between attempting impossible executions with just your phone (and later attempting even more impossibly to make a passable print) and being a kitchen sink mule. I really do believe there is an optimum level of preparedness (read: weight) that gives you enough shooting envelope to be creative or experimental and at the same time not feel burdened. (This value probably changes a bit if you’re on a dedicated photo trip, of course.)

I also believe that we also need to seriously consider some tradeoffs, and alter our vision accordingly to match: one larger format camera and a single compact prime, or at most two. Or a smaller format and less ‘serious’ camera with a couple of slower aperture zooms – total weight, about 1-1.5kg. Something that goes over your shoulder and occupies at most an extra pocket. No bag. Minimal or no lens changes. Light enough to have with you all the time. But either focused enough to force you to see only the possible perspectives offered by your hardware, and get creative within those limitations – or flexible enough to offer some experimentation with perspective, but just over the ‘good enough’ threshold should you happen to come across an exceptional composition during that experimentation and want to do something with the resulting image (i.e. print it, but more likely not feel pangs of regret).

My own personal experimentation has resulted on me settling on two very different cameras for this same ‘casual photography’ role. It’s as much because I want a sufficiently differentiated shooting experience that I’m instantly put in a different mindset by the physical operation of the camera, as because sometimes one suits my way of seeing better than the other; they also combine to make a very light and flexible travel kit. You’ve probably guessed the first one by now – it’s the Hasselblad X1D simply because there is still no other option that delivers the rendering of a larger format and so much image quality per gram. However, I’ll pair it with a single lens – usually something light, either the Leica 50/1.4 ASPH-M, Contax-Yashica-Zeiss 2.8/85MMG (both adapted of course, and with attendant limitations of the leaf shutter) or the native 45/3.5 XCD if I know I need motion stopping ability in better light. The second camera is probably also no surprise – it’s the Olympus PEN-F, but paired with the Panasonic 12-32 and 35-100 consumer collapsible zooms. If I’m carrying both, then I’ll add an adaptor to allow me to use the 50/1.4 or 2.8/85 on the PEN-F, too.

I’ve experimented further on both ends, and found that anything smaller format leaves that regretful feeling image-quality-wise; anything larger in a single body makes me (personally) feel a bit burdened both physically and mentally to the equipment. It’s why even though a D850 and 24-120/4VR would almost certainly have a wider shooting envelope and higher average image quality across a broader range of situations, I don’t carry this casually; it’s simply a bit too much. Important note: for most, the ‘causal’ photography solution does not have to be different from the ‘serious’ photography one; often the only differentiating factor is how we approach the actual process of photography. It lies somewhere between mental focus and shot discipline. I personally don’t differentiate other than in focus: is my primary objective photography or not? Shot discipline should stay consistent regardless of the answer.

But by far the biggest adaptation is a mental one: you have to shoot the same hardware enough that you know exactly what the technical strengths, weaknesses and limits are, and you start too instinctively compensate for or work around them in the field. It also means you’re less likely to fumble a shot due to unfamiliarity. Once it’s all intuitive, then you stop consciously thinking about the simple/basic/executional stuff: you start asking the visual equivalent of ‘what if?’ type questions. And it is this experimentation that makes for interesting images – and opportunistically creative liberation. MT


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  1. Some how related to the points in this topic , I was really looking forward to the xcd 65. But the weight of the lens is a little on the heavier side. Still a x1d and the 30mm and the 65mm covers a lot of ground.

    • I started a pancake project too, but no idea what happened to it in the end.

      • Brian Nicol says:

        Hi Ming, I cannot believe they let such a valuable resource depart. I purchased the x1d because you were using it (it was a 3 year old camera getting mostly incompetent reviews like Leica, and I live in rural area where I have to mail order to fondle things). So I hope your input has some lasting impact to a stronger product family in the future. So I appreciate your rare wisdom on photography and hope people show their support and appreciation by using your purchase links that add no cost to their purchase but at least does a small contribution to your costs of doing this. Thanks Brian

        • I can’t speak for the valuable part, but the new owners/management made it clear they wanted to do things their way only.

          I’m still using the X1D and I do believe it’s become a more complete camera since we worked on improving the firmware. Mature? No, but it’s a first generation product. I just hope there’ll be a second generation one that takes into account all of the other operational refinements we identified…

          • Thats a bummer :/ I hope they do the smaller lenses. Recently I have only taken a 18-140 apc lens to conduct an experiment to find what focal lengths I use most. And the surprise for me was the F stops I used. It was 5.6 to 8 most of the time. I envy the 50 apo summicron. More companies should do such lenses.

          • Brian Nicol says:

            I have ordered a used Voigtlander heliar 3.5 which does amazing images and let you know how that does on the X1d. The x1d is first generation but the colour space is so amazing and the camera is amazing so why wait. I was in your crtitiquing program and had to drop out due to health and car accident issues. You generously offered to extend my time period but I honour the original commitment and got more than my investment so I am more than happy-you are amazingly generous and humble. I was an RF engineer and high tech exec that can no longer do math due to accident but the X1D has the simplicity (not as well done as Leica SL) but better on overall for my needs. It is unfortunate that most internet sites bash Hasselblad and Leica without any real competence but because it is “expensive “. Have they seen the price of a boat or great watch? By the way, I like watches so I may buy one of your “rediculously over priced “ time keeping devices one of these days! Keep up the great undervalued contribution!

            • Thanks Brian! I hope the effects of that accident are diminishing. I assume the Heliar is that tiny 50/3.5 anniversary thing that looks like a cone?

              As for price vs value: this is something most people don’t get. There isn’t necessarily more value in more features if utility is lower…

  2. Brian Nicol says:

    Hi Ming, less is more! Even more so as I am recovering from a rear ending car accident in April/18 with acute concussion syndrome and whiplash. So weight is a major issue. I have purchased the x1d and wonder how well the Leica 50 1.4 image circle is with it?

  3. Interestingly enough, I often I shoot with the Pen-5 with the consumer 35-100 or Pana GM5 with the consumer 12-32. You bring a slightly newer m4/3s, and 2 lenses. I am fine with the slightly older (16gig sensor) cameras, and only carry one lens at a time. I have been doing this for a long while now, well before reading your very well thought out (and expressed) article. GRIN

    • I quite like those two lenses too – the size benefits outweigh the loss of speed (and under most conditions you don’t really need it, either).

      Fully aware of the whys; just sometimes other tools are required for client needs or specific creative challenges…

  4. Scott Devitte says:

    Where does the Z7 with Leica 50 1.4 fit into this?

  5. Have you had an opportunity to try out the Lumix 14-140? That would seem to be a cracking good lens and compact as well 😉

  6. I’m in agreement with this. The real question is “should we be prepared for anything and everything, or not?”

    Sometimes deliberately limiting yourself, equipment-wise, can change your “I gotta get absolutely everything I see” mindset (which we all have, whether we admit it or not). I have two “photography modes”, so to speak : number one is when I’m out doing something else (going to work, etc) and I want to have a camera with me in case I come across something interesting (and, living in Tokyo, the odds of that are high). The other is when I’m out with photography as the main aim.

    In the first instance, I take one camera and one lens, which means either the DP Quattro 0, or the OMD-EM5 mark 1 with a 50mm zoom or 70-150 prime. I refuse to let myself take anything more. Then I find that it’s like I’ve told my subconscious to see only things which go well with that camera/lens setup. If I’m carrying the Quattro, I’m going to be looking wide and ignoring anything that even resembles a telephoto shot, and conversely when I have the 70-150 on the Olympus, I’m always looking long. This also removes some of the “oh, wish I had a (wide / normal / telephoto)” regret, at least some of the time.

    When photography is the main purpose, though, then everything plus the kitchen sink comes along. Interestingly, though, often I’ll find myself using one or the other almost exclusively – some days I only see telephoto shots, others only wides, and then you get days where you see both and all the gear gets used.

    That being said, for those who absolutely have to have every base covered, there are always things like the Sony RX10 series – pretty decent image quality unless you’re super-picky, and a ridiculous zoom range. This is especially true if you live somewhere where there’s always something going on and you need the flexibility – but it could also make you complacent…which brings us back to the original point.

  7. Amateur is a lovely word, it comes from the French and it means something like “Lover of”. That is exactly how I think must of us feel about photography, so, in that regard I am an amateur photographer and a fan of photography, be it exhibitions, history, books, blogs, everything. Of course I also like gear, but I am not into that much anymore.


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