Buying Cameras and Lenses
Simple. Smart. Economical.
The obstacle of gear and accessories
Use what you’ve got
Happy New Year everyone! Thank you for checking back in my absence. The last few weeks have been sprinkled with a combination of holidays and a stomach bug. As a result, the computer has not seen much use, other than a few movies. Now that the computer has finished its double duty as tea coaster and makeshift theater, I will be back to posting articles over the next few weeks before we head to Thailand at the end of the month.
Today, I’d like to offer an article of consolation. Instead of indulging in the masturbatory habits of those un-boxing videos that come with the holidays, we will turn our attention to gear we don’t have. Once a year, households around the world are abuzz with the anticipation of new gear. For some, we wait for the end of the year; for others it’s just an excuse to dump a few thousand dollars which will fly under the radar because everyone else is doing it too. It does not matter if you are buying presents for others, for yourself, or just wishing to death that some miracle will bring you the gear of your dreams, at some level most of us are wanting something to add to our kit.
Wants & Desires
What do you want Tom?
In my life, I’ve only met one man who had no need of ‘things’. While I was in the South Pacific a few years back, I had an evening conversation with my host Tom Kapula. Tom runs a small operation called Hidden Treasures on the western coast of the island with his wife Margret.
Conversations with Tom were filled with more silence than words. The rhythm would go like this…I would ask a question, Tom would think about it for a few minutes, and then answer. He’s a very thoughtful man and I never saw him rush to do anything, not even a sentence.
One evening after dinner, we sat with empty plates, full bellies and many questions about each other. After a week or so on the island, most of the false rumors I had heard about the Tannese were forgotten. They were not grass skirt wearing savages, engaged in territorial wars over land and religion. At least they weren’t the month that I was there. It was one of the most relaxed places I’ve ever visited that had people. Trees rarely fight with each other.
If I could describe Tom in one word it would be content. Which led me, on this particular night to ask him, “Tom, if you could have anything in the world, from off of the island, what would it be?” I imagined he might want some more business, maybe a car of his own, or a hot water heater. In fact, I was the one who wanted the hot water heater. A few weeks of 50 degree showers in 50 degree weather can get to you.
Tom thought long and hard. His glance shifted from our empty plates off into the the darkness of the waves hitting the volcanic shoreline. Two minutes later, he took a deep breath and started to explain to me,”Adam, I have the house, Margret and the kids. They are good. We have plenty of food and Lava (his brother who was named after the volcano on this island) has a car. We have the bungalows (these were 4 one room huts, one of which I used). So I think we have everything.”
To my absolute shock and complete ignorance I blurted out, “Really?! Nothing?…You’re good?!” In all my life and all my travels, I had never met anyone who could not rattle off at least three things immediately when asked that same question.
Without any pretense, Tom went on to explain that while they had tried a television, he just did not like the thing. So he did not want one. He stuck to his answer, he was good with what he had. It was a strange experience for me. Alone on an island halfway around the world, I was given a valuable lesson that I had heard from artists and dare I say my mother, but I never listened until that day.
Advice from an artist
Do you own the gear or does the gear own you?
The French impressionist Auguste Renoir pointed out that even with all the advancements in paint, artist were no better off than when they had only four colors. I’m sure if he lived another hundred years, he would have thought the photographer’s obsession with gear was completely laughable.
He went through life with the pleasant sensation of not really having any possessions. “Just my two hands in my pockets” as he put it.¹
“The more you rely on good tools the more boring your sculptures will be.”²
While not completely immune to the pitfalls of gear, I would generally describe myself as a simple artist. My lead holders for drafting were inherited from my grandfather, the drafting table came from a retired AT&T engineer for $100, and my camera gear is made up of more used gear than new. I prefer to do a lot with a little.
A good artist can make do with just about anything. It’s never their tools that define their work. This is something that gets lost a few times a year when the holidays or photo expos roll around. The gear websites and photography magazines feed into it too. The cycle draws attention away from image making to the tools that we use.
I have never heard of a painter waxing poetically about their brushes, except one type. The painters that talk about, “The luxurious way the hairs of sable sway from left to right as I touch the bristles to canvas,” are only trying to impress some young tart too naive to see that she is being verbally molested. Artists get brushes that work, usually the best they can afford at the time and get on with the task.
Photographers are sort of a rare breed because gear plays too prominent a role in the process. I don’t mean to say it’s not important at all, but if you are waiting for the next camera body or wanting an all Summilux Leica kit, step away from the computer. No great work of art suffered from bad tools. There is a solution to this problem of G.A.S. (and naming it G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) has got to be one of the silliest things I have ever heard of. Whoever coined that name must be laughing as photographers run around saying they have gas.)
Tool of Choice
Over the holiday break, I went through my four most recent portable drives. In the meta data, I wanted to see how many lenses my catalog told me I needed. I’ve shot everything from 15mm to 135mm on a Leica. It turns out that about 60% of all my images were made with a Leica 50mm Summicron. It’s a lens I started using on my Leica M6 and continued with on an M9, Monochrom and played a bit with on the M240. There is nothing too fancy about it, nothing too expensive, and that’s just fine with me. I bought the lens used for less than $1,000 almost a decade ago. It’s never failed and has only been serviced once. For what it’s worth, the 50mm Summicron has probably been the single best photographic investment I’ve made and also the most unremarkable.
The Middle Way
In an Alex Webb lecture I heard a few years back, Alex said that all “serious photographers” use one lens. This is misleading and I see many photographers struggling with a 35mm lens because of this type of advice. While this may work for Alex, it is not something I practice. At times a screwdriver is better than a pair of pliers, just as a 90mm might be better than a 35mm in a given setting.
When the focus is placed on the image, you know what tool to use. It’s one of the perpetual lessons I’ve been given through Zen practice. The extremes are never the solution. There exists a middle way to everything. So there is no need to empty your bag and sell everything you own. But if your bag outweighs your camera, maybe it’s time to distill things down a bit further. And on the flipside, if you can only get your hands on a fixed lens point and shoot, do not despair. Shoot the life out of that camera. Believe me, if you can produce great pictures with less gear and a shoestring budget, people will take notice.
In the end, the camera and lens are travel companions. And for anyone who travels often, they know that simplicity wins over luxury any day.
Welcome to 2014!
Quote¹ p. 198, Quote² p226