dante stella stories photographs technical guestbook

 Machines are worshipped because they are beautiful, and valued because they confer power; they are hated because they are hideous, and loathed because they impose slavery
— Betrand Russell

The case for gearheads

The photographic world has some odd personalities whose mantra is that you should use "one camera and one lens" (or one system or some other artificially limited universe of equipment) and "master" it. This has a certain superficial Zen, antimaterialist sheen to it — but in this writer's opinion, it is a sclerotic attitude that has no useful application for most people.

First, from a mechanical standpoint, cameras just aren't that hard to master - and they all do basically the same thing. I believe that moderately intelligent humans will adapt to reasonably designed technology rather rapidly.

For example, I have had a Saab 9-3 with a six-speed manual for close to eight years. I got over the 10kg clutch impulse the first day I owned it, learned to master fuel efficiency with a high pressure turbo by the end of the first month, and by the end of the first year (actually four months from when I bought it) could start, stop and turn the car on a dime - and in snow. Have I learned anything about driving it in the past seven-and a-half years? Has that additional practice in any way enhanced my sporadic drives around the city center and out of it? No.

A car is not a camera. A car is actually far more complex to operate.  The stakes of operating it improperly are extremely high.  But it does illustrate why the initial question should be whether additional "stick time" with a camera actually builds skills. Perhaps it does during the early ownership of a camera whose control setup or loading method differs significantly from the last one - but that amount of practice is small.

Second, aside from the trivial matter of learning the controls and layout of a particular camera, the general photographic skills that one accumulates through practice are completely transferrable from one type of equipment to the next. These include:

  • Subject approach;
  • Composition;
  • Exposure;
  • Development or post-processing; and
  • Prep for and final printing

These are the things that really matter to photography. Switching input devices will not disrupt an established output path, overturn a stable sense of aesthetics, or change the physics or chemistry of photography.

Third, an artificially restrictive "limit your equipment" philosophy puts technique before end-product. If it didn't sound strange at the beginning, consider what happens when you try to apply it to other artistic discplines.  Should painters stick to oils? Use a single brush, say, a 1/2" synthetic sable? Utilize one canvas or type of gesso? For the same reason, studio photographers don't generally use small Leicas; street shooters don't use Hasselblad H1s, and macrophotographers don't use digital Minoxes that look like tiny Rolleiflexes. From a possibility standpoint, some things can be hacked, but from a practical standpoint, there is a right tool for the job.

Fourth, and more importantly, changing out equipment every so often forces adaptation and stimulates the mind. Humans and their art thrive on inspiration and flux – and this is a major reason why most art and literature is generated during wars. If one's sole tool is a single camera with a single optic (usually a "normal" field of view), then the immediate environment's photographic potential would be effectively exhausted within a very short time. It might be a relatively longer time in a place like New York or Paris, but most don't live in places where there is a wide diversity of subjects, don't have the opportunity to travel, and live in societies progressively more hostile to "street" photography. For them, an important way to expand their horizons to to change to a new and different tool that does something different. This might mean shooting panoramas with a wide-format panoramic camera, architecture with a fisheye lens, or nature with an infrared-sensitive camera. Imagine:

  • Jacques Henri Lartigue's Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France without the use of an embryonic focal-plane shutter;
  • The work of Andre Kertesz without the funhouse mirrors; or
  • Man Ray without the modern use of photograms.

It is very difficult for some to accept that what we consider the "great" works of photographic history were often the product of radical experimentation - and that such experimentation rewarded the first person to get to do something. Although it is true that the bulk of famous photographs was shot with conventional equipment, sticking with normal tools (or even the same tool) is not the be-all and end-all.

Finally, the idea of using different cameras certainly didn't inhibit the work of the world's greatest photographers, the vast majority of whom are on record as having used several different types of apparatus.  It is far from clear that any made a fetish of trying to see the world with one lens. If you took W. Eugene Smith, one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, you would see someone who used a different camera system for every assignment. Those great photographers who have written texts either omit the subject but demonstrate the use of several cameras (Ansel Adams) or caution only against getting distracted with having too many choices on hand (William Mortensen). That is a far cry from endorsing minimalism. Oddly and oppositely, the would-be ascetics who chant the mantra of sticking to one camera often seem to be short on output of any type. I guess no one told them that wasting time in online fora admonishing people about having equipment is just as much a distraction as having too much equipment? As they say, you can't hold a man down without staying down with him.

In sum, we shouldn't begrudge people the excitement of trying new things, particularly where doing so might spur innovation. That is not to say that people should compulsively bounce between new pieces of kit or build up to a "what should I use?" paralysis. There will always be equipment collectors and excessive accumulators and online-discussors (as there is with any hobby that attracts men of a certain age), but we should not thwart the creativity of the able by blindly reacting to perceived vices of the infirm.