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In this article, I’ll share my experience of working with less gear and how that lead to an increase in my creativity. The next greatest lens or new camera body isn’t going to help you make better photos. But having less might – read on to learn more.
A few weeks ago, I was packing for an 8-day photo workshop I was leading in the Alaska Range. It was autumn, which meant we’d be concentrating on the landscape, but there would likely be ample opportunities to photograph wildlife and create macros. That diversity meant that I would need to pack for every opportunity.
A year ago, or heck, three months ago, that would have meant my bag would have included: two DSLRs, a 500mm f/4 with a 1.4x teleconverter, a 70-200mm f/2.8, a 24-105mm f/4, a 17-40mm, a fixed 14mm, a polarizer, a variable neutral density filter, a big Gitzo tripod to hold that heavy kit, and a monster camera bag to hold it all. The total weight of all my camera gear would probably come in around 50 pounds, maybe more.
So there I was, packing my camera gear for more than a week of shooting the grand landscapes and wildlife of Alaska. I loaded my small daypack, topped it off with a rain jacket and a sweater, threw it over my shoulder and walked out the door. Total camera gear weight was under 8lbs.
I realized that all my gear, lenses, filters, and the enormous DSLR bodies; none of them were actually improving my photography. Plus, I was being hindered by all that stuff. I’d be out shooting and find I was more concerned about selecting the right lens or filter than I was about the actual composition.
And that, right there, is where creative photography goes to die.
So I cut back. I adopted the Lumix mirrorless system and acquired three lenses for the trip: a 12-32mm, a 45-150mm, and a 300mm f/4 (the only sizeable piece of glass in the kit). Since the Lumix system is micro four-thirds, all those lengths are doubled when compared to a full-frame camera. I can cover almost anything from 24-600mm in a kit that weighs a small fraction of my DSLRs. I could, quite literally, fit it all in my pockets.
When in the field, I can switch from one lens to another quickly and without fuss. I learned to keep the most likely lens set on the camera. If wildlife was a possibility, then the 300mm lived on the camera. When we were hiking and I was looking for wide landscapes, then the 12-32mm was the go-to lens. On gray days with patchy sun, the mid-range 45-150mm zoom was always ready.
When I saw a composition, I would raise my camera and shoot, re-compose, shoot again, and so on for several minutes, while other photographers were still working out the best lens, camera body, or filter for the situation.
I also found I had more time and energy to simply sit on the tundra, look, and wait. I wasn’t fiddling with my gear so I had long moments to experience the places where I was photographing.
Come to think of it, that may actually be why I feel my photography improved so much. I had the time to be creative.
As any photographer worth their salt knows, making images is not formulaic, it is creative. In order to be creative, we have to be open to the situation, not distracted. And we have to be ready when the light or action is happening. My gear, or lack of it, gave me that time and flexibility.
I’d like to say no, but there were times, that yes, I did miss my old kit. Cutting back my camera gear meant some sacrifices. Occasionally those sacrifices involved a particular focal length or filter that I hadn’t brought along. Once or twice I wished for the clean bokeh of my 500mm f/4 to separate a bird from a tangled background and on one occasion, the 24mm equivalent wasn’t wide enough to capture the expanse of the sky I was after.
But the sacrifice I remember most clearly (and I feel like an idiot for even mentioning this one) was my vanity. At one point, I was among a good size group of serious photographers not related to the workshop I was leading. There were more 500mm and 600mm f/4s hanging off sturdy carbon tripods than you could shake a stick at. Meanwhile, I stood there, an actual bonafide professional photographer, with a tiny point-and-shoot sized mirrorless camera and a couple of itty-bitty lenses in the pocket of my jacket.
I wanted to justify my compact gear, defend my decision by bragging about how good my kit actually was, even compared to their monstrous cameras – but I didn’t. Instead, I kept my silence, listened to their discussions of lenses, f-stops, and autofocus speeds, and thought instead about my next composition.
I bring up this somewhat uncomfortable subject because I think that this sense of inadequacy, in the lives of photographers, is very, very real. We want to be taken seriously. And when we are in the field, (when no one can see the images we are actually creating) we are usually judged by the gear we are carrying and using. There is a hierarchy in which those with the biggest, most expensive glass and bodies rise to the top, as though their investment is somehow reflective of their skills or knowledge as photographers.
There is a lot of pressure to BE one of those people with the huge camera bag and big lenses. But the reality is that your gear has nothing to do with how good you are as a photographer. Gear helps, it’s even necessary to a certain extent, but its presence or price tag is not reflective of you, the photographer. It’s the images that matter.
In the future, I’m going to try to let my photographs, not my gear, be the source of my pride (or inadequacy).