Get out of the way

The last few weeks have been pretty brutal but good. Lots of shooting, new clients!, but also a bit of fun to keep me from going totally insane. What always happens, it seems, is that the wave hits whereby I’m popular and busy as heck and all the normal life stuff gets thrown into a basket to wait upon my triumphant return. Now that the wave has subsided I can get to all the stuff in that there basket and play catch up for a few days until the next wave of work comes in of completely indeterminate size and duration.

Thus I was having a lovely cuppa joe this morning, playing catch-up on things and started reading the post that John Stanmeyer did whereby he talks about the inside story of the making of his photos for the National Geographic article about how Brazil has had a dramatic shift in their population growth largely due to the popularity of soap operas and how that altered the cultures view of women and the size of families. No, really. True story. But I digress …

As I was reading his account I was looking at the photos he posted and doing my EXIF reading thang and about halfway through I had two complimentary thoughts:

1)      She-zam Andy! (That’s a joke you old folks will get, the rest of you just chuckle a bit to play long)  … it seems that John not only basically used one lens and one bodies to shoot this project, a Canon 5DII with a Canon 16-35 f/2.8 and a 24-70mm f/2.8, but it seems that he used the same body as well. The serial number seems to be the same for all his posted shots. He may have used other glass but in the shots he posted in his blog it was just these two. Now this is not going to be another “How EXIF data got me inside his head” post, because the led me to the next thought,

2)      He basically only walks around with one camera and one lens, got it? If you go to his website he lists his gear with is two 5D Mark II bodies, the 16-35, the 24-70 and then three fixed fast lenses, the 24mm f1.4, 35mm f/1.4 and the 50mm f1.2. That’s it baby! He doesn’t work with glass longer than 70mm.

The conclusion of these repetitious points is that Stanmeyer, like many other magazine editorial photographers don’t use as much gear to get their photos and some would think. Studio photogs have loads of lighting gear, sports photogs have loads of long lenses and setups for remotes and all that but the guys who shoot for publications like National Geographic on stories that deal with people load up with more research and luck than gear.

Photographers are intensely gear centric; far more than just about any other artistic profession other than musicians. We tend to ogle shiny new toys far more than we go out and use the toys that we have. Guys like Stanmeyer, David Allan Harvey and Alex Webb know exactly what they want to shoot and how they need to shoot it: people in an intimate setting. No fuss, no muss. To do that they use one body and often a single focal length, something in the “normal” range of 35-70mm. In comparison your news photographer basically doesn’t have a clue as to what he will need for the day because it all changes constantly. Thus when I am to cover a news assignment I carry one body with my 28-70 f/2.8, another body with my 70-200 f/2.8, my 17-35mm f/2.8 in a pouch along with a 1.4 converter for the long zoom, a flash and more gear in the car just in case.

BUT!, and you know that there is always a but, I prefer to shoot with one body and if possible a fixed lens, 35mm f/2, 50m f/1.4 or my beloved 28mm f/1.4. Nothing more. I have come to feel that as lovely as gear is, and believe me I have plenty of it, it often slows you down physically and mentally. I believe that the all-in-one zooms that many amateurs gravitate to are anything but a benefit to someone learning to make quality images: if you have an 18-200mm lens what kind of subject matter are you going to shoot, everything? Come on, pick a subject, gear up for that and focus on it.

There is something very creatively freeing about only having one focal length or a relatively small range of focal lengths to work with. This is why I’ve gotten such a kick out of making photos with my phone over the years: no options other than trying to make something interesting happen within the frame. Simplify, simplify. In this manner you spend more time looking for and creating images than fiddling with your many options and the gear that brings the same.

If you have less to work with in terms of tools, you can focus on what you can do with the tool that you have. Sometimes less is more and sometimes almost nothing is a whole lot. Whenever I can I try to strip the gear down to as little as I can.

When I was given an assignment to cover a big fashion show I made an effort to go early so that I could cover the back stage activity which is always more interesting than the event as seen from the other side of the curtain. Although I had with me a lot of gear including long lenses to get the runway shots that I had to have, boring!, when I slipped behind the scenes where it was very crowed I only took a body with my 35mm f/2.0 and worked that for a while:

Stage 1

Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 4

I really don’t think that having more lens or body options would have enabled me to get “better” images here. If anything they would have slowed me down and distracted my vision.


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