One camera, one lens, and why constraints are good

This is a story about how applying self imposed constraints on my photography by only shooting with one camera and one lens improved my photography.

When I first started learning photography in high school my father was kind enough to gift me his Minolta SRT 303 and a few lenses. Because I didn’t know anything about photography I kept the ‘kit’ lens that came with the camera, an MC Rokkor 50 mm f/1.7 prime lens. In hindsight this was the best thing I could have done as a novice photographer because it kept things simple.

I enjoyed photography enough that I decided to pursue it further. But I found the more I learned the harder things got. When I found myself lacking inspiration I thought gear was the answer. I thought more gear would make me more creative. I lusted after lenses that I thought I needed and wanted. But when I did get a new lens or more gear it didn’t make me any more creative, all it did was lead to the development of gear acquisition syndrome.

The other mistake I made was taking all of my gear, that I wouldn’t use, with me on every photo shoot and photo walk. This only lead to me developing paralysis by analysis¬†which is a creativity killer. I was putting too much thought into what gear I was going to use and what gear I wanted to get. It was becoming a cognitive mind fuck as my brain was getting jammed up with thoughts about which gear to use. Should I use a zoom lens or not? Should I get another lens for this shot? Should I be using my tripod? Maybe a mono pod might be handy in this situation. All of these thoughts were having a detrimental affect on my photography.

I should have been concentrating on finding and making good photos instead of thinking about gear. All the gear and thinking in the world wasn’t going to help me make a good photo unless I just got out and took photos. I was starting to loose sight of what photography was about.

I had to do something about it. But what?

Then I had a stroke of serendipity, it came in the form of a seemingly simple tip; use your zoom lens as a series of prime lenses. I applied the tip using my 24-85 mm zoom lens as a series of prime lenses and discovered that I really liked the 50 mm (probably because that’s the focal length I first used when I was learning photography and I had gotten used to it) and 35 mm focal lengths.

Since practising this tip I have shot all of my street photography with a 35mm prime lens for over a year. I don’t have any plans to stop shooting with a 35 mm prime.

Why would I stick with one prime lens for so long? Isn’t it restrictive shooting a prime lens and not being able to zoom? Wouldn’t limiting my options limit my creativity? More = better, right? Hell no! I have found more creative freedom by restricting my choices.

I know it sounds counter intuitive but there is Proof That Constraints Can Actually Make You More Creative. So how exactly did limiting my creativity by only shooting with a 35mm prime lens help my photography?

Limiting myself to shooting a single focal length helped me by forcing me to use my feet to zoom, if I couldn’t zoom then it forced me to frame the shot differently.

Shooting a single focal length for a long period of time meant that I got to know the 35mm focal length intimately. In practice knowing the 35mm focal length intimately meant that I knew what the angle of view was going to be before I raised the camera to my eye. Knowing what the angle of view was going to be without having to look through the viewfinder meant that I could compose and make a shot faster. Being able to make a shot faster helps me stay unnoticed, or invisible if you subscribe to the Henri Cartier-Bresson’s school of thinking.

Only carrying and using a single camera and lens meant I could leave all of my gear at home. I was able to travel lighter and could stay out for longer because I wasn’t getting tired from hauling a big heavy bag full of camera gear around with me. Not having a big camera bag made me blend in more, it made me less noticeable as a photographer and helped me get shots that I might not have been able to get if I had a big camera bag strapped to my back advertising that I’m a photographer.

My paralysis by analysis has been greatly reduced if not eliminated by shooting a prime lens. My mind is a lot clearer now that I’m not thinking about which lens/focal length to use, to zoom or not to zoom, or worrying about if I should use a tripod or not, whether I should use some other gear to help me get a shot. Now that I have fewer decisions to make I can concentrate on finding photos.

Sticking to a single focal length also helped me reduce my GAS. New gear is still interesting, I’ll have a look at new gear and think it’s cool, but I don’t lust for gear like I used to because I know it’s not going to make me more creative. With one exception, I do still lust for a Leica M7 or MP and a Summilux-M 35mm F1.4 ASPH lens. But I digress. Shooting with one focal length has made it cheaper and easier to change camera systems from a full frame DSLR to a mirrorless camera, to a film SLR to a film range finder since I only need to buy the camera and a 35mm lens and nothing else.

Some of the best photographers have shot with primes. Henri Cartier-Bresson is famous for shooting a 50 mm prime. Garry Winogrand shot with a 28mm prime. David Alan Harvey shoots with a 35 mm prime.

Defining my own style is something that I, like many other photographers, struggle with. Shooting with a prime lens for a period of time has gone some way towards defining my own style.

All of these self imposed constraints are about getting back to the basics and keeping things simple, like when I started learning photography with my Minolta SRT 303 and the MC Rokkor 50 mm f/1.7 prime lens. Sometimes keeping things simple and getting back to basics is the best thing you can do for your creativity.

Who would have thought that constraints can do more than help make you more creative? Constricting my creativity by shooting with one camera and one lens has helped my photography by reducing if not eliminating my paralysis by analysis, it has diminished my GAS, and has made me more creative.

If you suffer from paralysis by analysis, GAS, or are in a creative hole I’d recommend, if you haven’t already, that you challenge yourself to try shooting with a prime lens or at a single focal length for a year. Give it a go you don’t have anything to loose. Your results might vary, it may or may not solve your particular problems but it’s worth a try because you never know it might just work for you like it worked for me.

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