Episode 7

07. Limit choices to maximize creativity

Do you have a bad case of GAS? If so, you probably have a lot of choices to make regarding the cameras and lenses you’re using. And, you're probably making the creative process harder on yourself.

Show Notes

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Hello everyone and welcome to Photo 365, a podcast about how to be a photographer every day.

My name is Andrew Haworth, I’m a media producer and photography educator and I’m here to help you get through your photo-a-day, or any long term art project. If you’ve listened to any of the previous shows, no doubt you’ve noticed that I like to keep these episodes short and focus on some of the non-technical aspects of photography. My goal is to keep you inspired and help you think about the creative process.

If you’re shooting a project I’d love to see your images and hear how it’s going for you. So please reach out and feel free to contact me online at photo365podcast.com.

In this episode, I’d like to talk about a problem many photographers have, and why it may be stifling your creativity.

Many photographers love gear: Lenses, new camera bodies, accessories, and so on. Do you ever look at a great photo and wonder what camera the photographer is using? Better yet, has anyone looked at YOUR work and suggested “you must have a good camera,” rather than praise you for your actual skill or creativity?

Now, let’s face it, photography IS an endeavor that is based around gear. It’s what makes photography, well, photography.

Wide-angle lenses, telephoto lenses, full frame sensors, fast frame rates, high ISO sensors, ISO invariant sensors, image processors, and so on and so on. It all has its place, and it’s part of the creative process.

Owning a camera is empowering. How many people do you know, who aren’t even photographers, who place a high value on owning a “good” camera, even though our smartphones have cameras that are perfectly adequate in most cases. There is the notion that to take good photos, one needs a good camera.

A certain piece of gear may even define our personal style. Unlike other forms of expression, photography requires equipment, whether it’s a hole in the wall of a camera obscura, or uncle Bob at your best friend’s wedding, armed with the latest mirrorless rig. Capturing light is the common denominator.

And to be honest, playing with new gear is fun. And occasionally, it will stoke your creativity in positive ways. I mentioned my love for the Fuji X100 series back in the first episode, and how that little camera pushed me to take more photos.

At some point as photographers, we decide what we have may not be good enough, so we buy more stuff. The kit lens we started with isn’t sharp enough, or fast enough. Your images MUST get better because you’ve graduated to a full-frame sensor, right? Oh and, look at all these new lenses. You’re covered from 16mm to 300mm, and most of them are fast primes. Your new camera body can shoot 20 frames per second!

You’ve achieved gear nirvana, and you have the freedom to create any photo in your mind’s eye. Or do you? Freedom of choice makes us happy, but it also results in some missed opportunities. Instead, we face a paralysis of choice.

What happens when you go to a wine tasting and try 20 different varietals? You decide to buy a couple bottles to take home. But having tried 20 different ones, it’s impossible to make a decision. Maybe you don’t recall the first 10 samples, and after drink number 15, everything sort of tastes the same.

Too many options makes it hard to make a choice. This is sometimes called the paradox of plenty, or simply, information overload. It’s also known as Hick’s Law, which basically states, the more options we have, the longer it takes to make a choice.

Remember how I mentioned that I selected a single camera to shoot the majority of my photo a day? That camera has a fixed focal length lens. I can’t remove it. I’m “stuck” at a 35mm field of view. But I don’t mean “stuck” in a bad way. It’s actually reducing my photographic choices and making it easier for me to make decisions when I take photos.

I’m reduced to “zooming with my feet”, and I’m engaging with people in a more meaningful way. Not standing 12 feet away with a 70-200 zoom lens. Nor is the lens so wide that it sucks in everything in front of me like a distorted superwide. No, I have to back up, sometimes quite a bit, and thoughtfully compose my shots.

Moreover, it’s a comfortable focal length to work at, allowing me to shoot everything from landscapes to intimate portraits. It renders scenes in a pleasing way, not far from the same magnification of the human eye.

Now, I’m not here to sing the praises of the 35mm lens, or the Fuji camera. Focal length is a creative choice. I’m not telling you what lens to use; I’m just explaining what worked for me and why it worked. I deliberately selected this camera to ensure I wasn’t creating a paradox of plenty.

Full disclosure, I didn’t always use this camera and lens combo. Sometimes I shot with a Canon DSLR and used a host of lenses, ranging from fisheyes to macros, to telephotos. But largely, I managed to handle any situation with the Fuji. We’re there times when I wished I’d been able to get a wider or more telephoto perspective? Absolutely. Did I feel crippled creatively? Nope.

The point is, with endless options, come endless choices and the ability to make a decision you’re happy with, becomes increasingly difficult.

My wife and I face this quandary nightly as we browse the various streaming services we subscribe to, from Netflix, to Hulu, to Apple TV. There’s no shortage of choices and many programs look interesting, but actually committing to watch a show is almost impossible. So we end up watching a news program that neither of us are very interested in, and we zone out on our phones or leave the room to do something else.

Then there are times when a new season is released of a show we know we enjoy, and we immediately watch it. Like a new season of Stranger Things. We know it works for both of us, and we don’t have to look for other entertainment choices.

Keep in mind, I’m not suggesting that you should never carry options with you when you’re shooting. But make better choices. Let’s continue using lenses as an example. Maybe you have three different wide angles. Pick one and leave the other two behind. Maybe you have a really great portrait lens, but you also feel compelled to carry a 100mm macro. Perhaps the 100mm macro can serve a dual role and you can leave your portrait lens at home -- yes I know there are other considerations, such as “bokeh,” and max aperture and sharpness to be concerned about. It’s about optimizing your kit and streamlining choices.

I typically carry a three lens kit when I’m doing editorial work. A standard lens, like a 24-70, and then a 70-200. I know I can handle almost any situation with this combo. Then, I’ll pack a third lens that is kind of unique. Maybe a superwide, or really fast prime lens. It depends on my mood that day, or what I might be shooting. And even that may be too many, especially if I need to be highly mobile. A lot of times, I’ll grab the camera and one lens and leave the rest of the kit in the car.

The goal is to not only stop wasting time switching lenses, but to reduce the time it takes for you to make a decision.

There’s no right or wrong answer to any of this, but if you ever feel like you’re in a creative slump, I would encourage you to minimize your gear. Take all those extra lenses and camera bodies and accessories out of the equation. Grab a camera and lens combo that you enjoy using and leave the rest at home.

Don’t think of it as a leap of faith. You should feel confident your skills will allow you to produce great images with anything, even using just a single focal length. I think you’ll be surprised how liberating this approach is. You’ll be forced to make better creative decisions, rather than technical decisions.

And look, I have no issues with folks who enjoy the technical aspects of photography. I love testing cameras and lenses and employing highly technical methods from time to time. But at the end of the day, technical skills are only going to carry you so far.

When I was studying photography in school, I considered myself technically proficient in shooting, developing film and print making. I often helped other students in the darkroom and diagnosed their camera problems, helped them with lighting, and so on. When the dreaded project critique days rolled around, I generally garnered praise for the quality of my images and prints, but that was it. My photos didn’t lead to any interesting discussions in the group.

One day after a medium format class, my professor pulled me into her office and absolutely read me the riot act. She was not a fan of my work, not because it was technically bad, but because she didn’t see “me” in it. I slunk out of her office feeling devastated and spent the next 24 hours wondering what I was doing with my life.

That marked a turning point for me, in which I stopped worrying so much about gear and how photos are made, and I started asking myself the deeper question, of why I was making a particular image. It would be an entire semester and a half later before I could produce a set of images that met with my professor’s approval, using an old 4x6 view camera of all things -- talk about technical! But I only had one lens for this rig, and the nature of a field camera forced me to slow down and reach deeper into my psyche before making the exposure.

Last year, many of us found ourselves operating, not with limited gear, but in a limited environment. The Covid-19 pandemic forced many of us to shelter in-place for long periods of time. Our choices of WHERE and WHAT we could shoot, or where we could gather to create art, became incredibly selective.

The viewpoint itself became limited, and as I’ll discuss in the next episode, that’s not always a bad thing!