How to Find More Creativity Through Using Less Gear

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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.

How to Find More Creativity Through Using Less Gear

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.

How to Find More Creativity Through Using Less Gear

What happened?

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.

How to Find More Creativity Through Using Less Gear

Cutting back and using less gear

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.

How to Find More Creativity Through Using Less Gear

Time to be more creative

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.

How to Find More Creativity Through Using Less Gear

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.

How to Find More Creativity Through Using Less Gear

Did I ever miss all my equipment?

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.

How to Find More Creativity Through Using Less Gear

Comparison rears its ugly head

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.

How to Find More Creativity Through Using Less Gear

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.

How to Find More Creativity Through Using Less Gear

Gear doesn’t make you a good photographer

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).

How to Find More Creativity Through Using Less Gear

Though not the Alaska Range, I continue to embrace the minimal gear mentality. I made this image the night before I wrote this article, on the beach in Homer, Alaska.

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David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and wilderness guide based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. Dave offers multi-day summer and winter photography workshops in Alaska and abroad. Find out more aurora borealis workshops and other trips, his photography, and read his science and nature blog.

  • TByte

    Is there such a thing as “gearless snobbery”?

  • David W. Shaw

    Oh, I do hope so!

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  • Steven

    Here I always thought I brought too much on my trips and wanted to scale down; only one DSLR, two lenses and five filters.The only thing I wish I could leave behind is my tripod. But my recent trip to Niagara Falls made me want to try long exposure photography. Thankfully, the crowds were minimal. What I try to stay away from is planning my outings down to the most minute detail where if it rains one day, I feel the trip is ruined. I also try to stay away from catching the iconic shots for the same reason.

  • Simon Geard

    And this is why I stick to a bridge compact, rather than a DSLR… I’m willing to trade a little quality if it gives me the flexibility I want (notably a decent zoom) in a package that’s not too bulky or too heavy. Because the best gear in the world is useless if it gets left at home when I go out walking.

  • David W. Shaw

    I have a hard time leaving the tripod behind too. Occasionally I can do without but usually at least a compact one will come with me. Long exposures, telephotos and simple compositional strategies often require one. Still, I cringe at the extra bulk and weight.

  • David W. Shaw

    I’m finding with the current mirrorless systems like those from Lumix, Fuji, and Sony, there is very little loss in quality over their much bigger and heavier DSLR counterparts. I really believe that the continued use of big cameras has much more to do with what photographers think they should be using rather than image quality. I just a had a full page image and a double page spread published in a large national magazine made with my Lumix gear, and I’m certain the editors had no idea the photos were made with a point-and-shoot size camera. It’s time the photo world moved past camera size.

  • Kyle Wagner

    I switched from canon to a Sony A7ii. 24mp Full frame quality, at half the weight and size. I have no issues printing as big as I could ever want. One of the many arguments FOR bigger cameras is ergonomics, but if size is more important, it is hard to beat any of the full frame and crop sensor choices from sony and Fuji. Personally, i see no reason to go smaller than crop sensor as they are hardly much smaller than say, a sony A6000.

  • Kyle Wagner

    I bring my full size tripod if i know the weight is irrelevant (driving right to location, or not traveling with small packing constraints) just because it is more versatile, but i have recently gotten a manfrotto pixie for all travel and outdoor uses. I found for sweeping landscapes, i rarely ever need to be so elevated off the ground, and the pixie is small, portable and light.

  • Cutie2bihope

    I am impressed by your modesty. I loved your description of the others with their “gear” and you were the one leading the group! It goes without saying that it’s not what’s in your hand that “takes the photo” it’s what is in your mind that sees it. You could shoot all day and not have a great shot with the best gear, if you can’t see picture a great scene or shot.

  • Randall Youness

    I decided on my last trip to Europe I was going ‘minimalist’ gear wise and opted for only my Sony RX100 mark IV. It has an equivalent focal length of a full frame 24-70 at f1.8. It did get a bit frustrating at times when I wanted a longer reach but what a liberating experience not lugging the back-pack with my D700 and all the usual lenses I carry. Next is Morocco however and I’m going to compromise and take my D7100 with a Tamron 16-300 lens, that should cover everything except having a fast aperture.

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