Jan 082014
 

Buying Cameras and Lenses

Simple. Smart. Economical.

The obstacle of gear and accessories

 

Leica Monochrom with 50mm Summicron and a Leica M9-P with 50mm Summarit taken at the Zen Cafe in Kyoto during the Kyoto Workshop 2013. Adam Marelli

Leica Monochrom with 50mm Summicron and a Leica M9-P with 50mm Summarit taken at the Zen Cafe in Kyoto during the Kyoto Workshop 2013. © Adam Marelli

Gear

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.

Tom Kapula showing off the treasures from his garden in Tanna, Vanuatu (South Pacific) Adam Marelli

Tom Kapula showing off the treasures from his garden in Tanna, Vanuatu (South Pacific) © Adam Marelli, 50mm Summicron

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.

Margret Kapula preparing me a delicious soup at home.  Adam Marelli

Margret Kapula preparing me a delicious soup at home. © Adam Marelli, 50mm Summicron

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.

Auguste Renoir, a man who was never impressed with fancy gadgets and credited photography as useful because painters no longer had to bother with family portraits.

Auguste Renoir, a man who was never impressed with fancy gadgets and credited photography as useful because painters no longer had to bother with family portraits.

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

–Auguste Renoir

 

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.)

This summer I visited the reconstruction of Constantin Brancusi's sculpture studio on the back side of the Centre Pompidou.  Brancusi's workbench and tools, as he left them at his death. Adam Marelli

This summer I visited the reconstruction of Constantin Brancusi’s sculpture studio on the back side of the Centre Pompidou. Brancusi’s workbench and tools, as he left them at his death. © Adam Marelli

Tool of Choice

50mm Summicron

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

Purist Dilemma

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!

Best-Adam Marelli

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Renoir, Jean. “Renoir, My Father” New York Review Book. 1958, 1962, 2001.

Quote¹ p. 198, Quote² p226

  7 Responses to “Buying Cameras and Lenses”

  1. Really fine New Year’s article Adam. Thanks for your story about Tom Kapula.

    • Thanks Brett,

      Tom was a real character…there are a bunch of other stories I’d like to share, but maybe over a cocktail rather than here on the site.

      Best-Adam

  2. Hello Adam, nice read.

    Something that I have noticed is that most websites recommend the latest and greatest, that amounts to thousands of dollars and so far I have found only 1 website that talks about the Yashica Electro 35 GSN that can be found on ebay for 60 bucks, it may not be a Leica but for someone like me that just bought a DSLR and would want to have something less intrusive for street photography, the X Pro 1 may be little too much because I just spent 2500 USD on a body and lens, why not more “antique” cameras that do not break the bank?

    Maybe I am just reading the wrong blogs.

    Thanks Adam, you are a great inspiration.

    • Hi Israel,

      Im glad to hear that you have found a home here. Its great that you share story here. The gear vortex is quite strong and sucks in more photographers than it should. The day that a camera solves all of my photographic problems will be when hell freezes over.

      All cameras are just tools. We buy what we like and what we can afford. I prefer less gear and more airline tickets.

      No need to break the bank on buttons and dials.

      Best-Adam

  3. Nice article Adam. I feel the same way. Many of my friends bought crazy camera setups and they never come out of the box.

    “The things you own end up owning you”

    You remind me of a man that would like the movie Fight Club. Many people watched it and thought it was about fighting but I watched it and thought it was about the necessities and knowing what you need. This post seems to work along those lines.

    I am checking back in to introduce myself and to say that we are going to meet shortly. My wonderful wife has purchased a workshop day with you and I must say she is a thoughtful being. I may save a few more dollars and come to an all day walkabout lesson in November when I can bring her and enjoy the city. Don’t worry she will shop.

    I have watched your youtube video for B+H photo countless times while running on the treadmill and she picked up on that and here we are. For some people who, like me, have had no formal art training except for a few classes in high school your video is invaluable. Unfortunately I saw all the classics in person before your video lecture and I would have searched those works through the lens of a photographer.

    Anyway I wanted to share how your video lecture has inspired me, I watch it often and share it with my students. Funny how life works, you search out a few videos to watch while huffing and puffing on the treadmill and the next thing you know your planning to go work with the person you watched.

    -Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      Thank you for your patience. I have been a touch slow in getting back to you. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would be watched on a treadmill. It always amazes me how many formats youtube enters our lives.

      Glad to hear that you enjoyed the video, that you shared it with your students and that your wife has picked up on the subtle clues to deliver you a fun present. I look forward to meeting you in person.

      Couldn’t agree more about your comments on “Fight Club.” I had a friend who was a die hard fan of the movie, so I ended up watching it more than expected. Once we get over the macho fight sequences, it becomes quite clear that the film has a lot to do with shifting a paradigm. Made me hate every piece of Ikea furniture I ever owned. Haha.

      And as for those master paintings…the nice thing is they have been around for centuries. My guess is they will stick around for a few more : )

      They are waiting for you!

      Best-Adam

  4. The best thing that I did for my gear compulsion is buy a silly little Sony RX1. Mine is a bit of a frankenstein camera, with an old Voigtlander 1:1 ratio viewfinder in the hotshoe for shooting square, and I seem to thrive with limited options. In fact, don’t tell anyone, but I even sold all of my other digital cameras, including my M9 kit! Simplicity works for me.

    Less time worrying about gear equals more time focusing on actually using the gear…and reading great blogs like this one. Thanks for the blog, Adam!

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