Sometimes less can be more

Portrait of Boris the catBoris

I have very little gear.  My camera – the first and only DSLR I’ve ever owned – is about seven years old now, which in digital photography terms is positively antiquated.  I own one 18-250mm zoom lens, and a Lensbaby (plus bits for it), and those are my only lenses.  I do my processing using Photoshop Elements 9 – several versions old – and I have, but don’t tend to use, Lightroom 3 (I think there are two newer versions).

One reason I own so little equipment compared to most photographers is that money has been very tight for quite a few years now.   I’ve never earned much myself, and Geoff has lost three jobs in the last 3-4 years, and is looking for work at the moment.  We’ve moved house three times, two of them involving major and very expensive relocations, and now that we finally own a home again we’re not sure just how long we’re going to be able to afford to hold onto it, so buying photography gear is way down the list of priorities.

But would I buy more equipment if money wasn’t an issue?  I would buy a new camera, but for one reason and only one reason. My personal photography style is spontaneous and serendipitous and I like to handhold when I take the shot.  I loathe tripods, and using them makes me feel frustrated and constrained.  Because of that, I need a camera that has the highest possible ISO settings with good control of noise.  My own camera only goes to 1600 ISO, and 800 is the limit if I don’t want digital noise problems to render the images almost unusable – compare that to recently manufactured DSLRs where an upper figure of 25,000+ ISO is quite common and noise is well-controlled throughout most of the range.

A camera with better ISO would allow me to handhold in lots of situations where it’s impossible with my existing one.  It’s the one thing that would make a huge difference to my enjoyment of photography and my ability to produce better shots.  So, yes, I’d buy a new camera although if it wasn’t for the ISO factor I wouldn’t feel any great need to improve on what I’ve got.

But as for the rest, I’m not too bothered.  There are things it would be nice to have – a macro lens, for example – but I can do pretty much all I want to do with the equipment I’ve got.  My lens has a huge range and produces good quality images, and I can do macro with the Lensbaby plus attachment.  I’d probably upgrade my software given the chance but, again, it does the job.  And I’ve found in the past that when I do buy a new piece of equipment or software, it often sits there for a long time before I do much with it.  The anticipation of buying something new often turns out to be more exciting than the reality of having it, in my experience.

I do find it somewhat embarrassing when I’m teaching and my students have far better cameras than I have, which is very often the case.  I begin to see myself through their eyes with their expectation that, because I’m ‘teacher’, I’m going to have something super-duper, fancier and more impressive than their own.  They talk to me about Photoshop, and I have to admit that I only use Elements.  I can see them looking bemused.

I’m aware, though, that I know my way around what I do have inside out and back to front.  I know exactly what my camera does, how it behaves in different situations, and I can operate it without giving it any conscious thought.  My camera and I are good friends and have been together a long time. I also know that, because of what I’ve learned over the years, I produce consistently better images than the beginners with the fancy cameras.  Still, I can’t help feeling I’ve disappointed them a little with my lack of impressive equipment.

And I would dearly like a new camera.  The shot of Boris the cat at the beginning of this post was taken indoors in light that was OK but on the dim side.  I took quite a lot of shots but this was the only one that came out sharp – I just couldn’t get a fast enough shutter speed to avoid either his movement or mine.  You can see that the image below is soft because he was moving his head, and that’s such a shame because he has a great expression here and it would have been a terrific shot.

Boris the cat 2

But putting aside my need for a camera upgrade, my innate preference is to have minimal gear.  Having less makes me use and value what I have to the fullest, and take the time to fully explore what it does.  It minimises decision making – after all, if you only have one lens you don’t have to decide which one to use.  It reduces bulk and weight – if you only have one lens, you only have to carry one lens.  If you only have one camera bag, then that’s the one you take.  It simplifies things, and I like simplicity.   Too many choices can be counter-productive.

Although I talk a lot about vision being more important than gear, and although I’m saying that minimal gear is fine for me, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m against acquiring equipment in general.  I know some people thrive on lots of choice, and others take great delight in the gadgets themselves, and enjoy them for their technical sophistication and design, and that’s great.  I’m not knocking that at all – I’m just not one of them.  For me, the gear has always been a means to an end, and as long it does what I need it to do, I don’t have any desire to acquire more or to have the latest model.

However, having said that, there’s a little voice in the back of my head asking me if perhaps I protest too much, and that perhaps I’m trying to make a virtue out of a necessity.  I think there may be a little bit of that going on and it’s true that if I did have more money to spend, I’d undoubtedly buy more stuff.  I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to find out!  But honestly? – I don’t think it would make me enjoy photography any better if I had more or newer gear.  I find satisfaction in having just enough to do what I want, but without excess.  I may be a minimalist photographer by dint of necessity, but I do believe I’m also one by nature.  Which is probably just as well……..