Conversations Between Photographers. Vol. 1 – G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) by Tom Finke & Eric Hessler
Conversations Between Photographers will be a periodic installment from Tom Finke (Photographer, Author and Educator) and Eric Hessler (Photographer). These long time associates possess unique experiences through travel, authorship, and image making forged some unique viewpoints on picture taking and the lifestyle that comes with it. Their inaugural article is a hot topic we are all familiar with.
Volume One – G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)
I received this question from a former student and I think many may find this both useful and interesting: I had a fairly basic fundamental photography question. I’m currently going through a bit of a gear craze and I was wondering if you had any advice for how to actually overcome the constant urge to get better and better gear and just be content with what I currently have?
We call it GAS, or gear acquisition syndrome. I think when the gear you have no longer suits the purpose you bought it for, then maybe it’s time to move on, or that it doesn’t do all that you want/need it to do. I have been shooting with the same camera/lens combination for longer than I can imagine. About 5 years ago, I picked up a 35mm lens for the M6. Is it better than the 28, not really but the way I see has changed a bit. I felt this was better suited to the way I am seeing and composing now.
More importantly, I guess is that you need to ask the big question as to why? Why do you think you need better/different gear. Will it produce better images, will it translate your thought/vision into what you want? If so, then maybe you might need to change.
Do you need a different format? If so, why? Will what you have currently do the job? If not, why not? Have you explored all the possibilities that your current gear can provide? This I think is one of the major stumbling blocks that many photographers deal with. They really haven’t explored what the gear they currently use does. I guess the big question again is why?
I have different cameras for different reasons. The M6 and CL and Hexar are all for shooting on the street.
Why do I have three cameras?
I started with the CL and I do love it but about 25 years ago, I was offered a deal on an M6, that I couldn’t refuse. I have been shooting with that and the CL ever since. I load both cameras, so that I don’t miss a potential shot when I might have to change film. I recently acquired a Hexar. Because it’s a point and shoot with a really sharp lens, I carry it with me most of the time. Even when I am not shooting seriously, so that I can essentially “grab” a shot if it looks interesting. It’s quick and it “sees” like the M6 or the CL.
The Rollei I use is for a very specific project titled “The Wire” where I needed a square format to realize the vision that I had for the project initially and it was very successful. I have a Mamiya 7II for the “Silent Spaces” and “Spaces Between the Houses” projects (and occasionally on the street because I needed to make bigger prints).
The 4×5 and 8×10 are for VERY specific projects (although I am not using them as much anymore). I sold my 8×10 once and then needed it for another very specific project, so I ended up getting another. I still have a lot of my Nikon gear but I have a sentimental attachment to it and find it difficult to part with (but that’s another story all together).
Usually when I find that I no longer need a camera for a specific project, I usually sell it. I have acquired and sold numerous cameras and lenses over the years when they no longer served the purpose. I feel that they should go to someone who will use them, rather than have them sit on the shelf.
I am sure you are saying to yourself, man he has a lot of gear. True, but I use each piece of gear that I have and it all has a very specific purpose. There will probably come a point in time when some of what I have will be moved on, but since I am currently using all of it, I will keep it until it is no longer useful.
So, the question is still why? Why do you want different/better gear? Can you give me a reason? Will it make you a better photographer?
Maybe but still doubtful, if you haven’t explored all that your current gear has to offer. I really hope it’s not for status because that’s the worst reason.
When I was at Paris Photo a few years ago, I met someone who I assumed was a photographer because he had a Leica M10 and a Noctilux. When I asked him how he liked the camera and lens, he replied, “ Oh I have never taken a picture with it, it’s just for status.” Man, what a waste! (IMHO) but when he sells it, someone will get an amazing camera that has never been used or abused! So, if you can answer any or all of those questions, then maybe it will help you see why you might want/need new gear or possibly, not need it at all.
I’ll start here – So, the question is still why? Why do you want different/better gear? Can you give me a reason? Will it make you a better photographer?
Specific gear will absolutely, in no way, make you a better photographer.
There is no camera, no lens, no film, no app or otherwise that will make you better.
Over many years I have owned it all. All sizes, formats, shapes, colors (black paint and otherwise), rare, cheap, funky, hard to use, automatic.
Remember the first camera you got? Probably received a gift or hand-me-down or found in some junk shop. The camera likely didn’t work properly or you didn’t really understand how to use it. (I did this once with a collapsible 50mm on an M3 – didn’t realize it locked when extended. Or maybe it was worn out…)
So you took that camera and shot some rolls excitedly, processed and (probably) got back total trash. Incorrect exposures, blurred focus, what felt like wasted time and money. That was the beginning of the invisible gear struggle that few people acknowledge.
The image failures had to be the cameras fault! Piece of junk! Vintage trash! What do we do? GET ANOTHER CAMERA! Right? (I am right. You have done this. You’re smiling right now.) Then you started over again and fiddled the knobs and wound the shutter and exposed the rolls and did the processing and then what? Failure again! Oh no! What happened? Surely it could not be user error twice, for what cruel universe could make photography so difficult! This simply wouldn’t do. So what happened next?
GO GET ANOTHER CAMERA! And on, and on, and on.
What should have happened – and for many of you this did – was working backwards to find out what went wrong. Sure, there could’ve been bad metering, maybe a faulty shutter, some light leaks or something else. Whatever happened could have been diagnosed. Mechanically, photography is simple. Some basic math and a little double checking ensures proper pictures just about every time. But so many times the (wrong) answer to any problem is just get different gear.
I’m not talking about people looking for status symbols. Believe me, buying gear is exciting and fun and hunting the stuff down is even more thrilling. Tracking a piece of gear from some far exotic corner of the world is some real life Indiana Jones stuff. It’s treasure hunting. But even that can lose its appeal after a while.
There are enough red dots to go around for status though and frankly, that’s lame. The entire status concept falls flat when you’re in a room full of seasoned photographers and they want to see your ACTUAL WORK and don’t care what you shot it with. (One of the best learning experiences you can have.)
The point is this – we’re all free to experiment and try different things. Different tools yield different results. Want a 6×7 neg? Get a Pentax. Need it to be silent? Get a Mamiya. Want a 6×6 neg that’s razor sharp? Get a Rollei. Want a 6×6 neg to shoot at the beach? Get a Holga. There are sensible answers to these questions.
Here’s a perfect real word GAS example where I was totally guilty, made sub-par images and lost money. I shot my entire honeymoon on film – I used a Leica M6 with a 35 1.4 pre ASPH and a Mamiya 6 with a 75 3.5.
I convinced myself I needed the Mamiya 6 over my Mamiya 7 (which I sold) because the Mamiya 6 had a collapsible lens. Without much thinking, I assumed I would need this for situations like crawling through tunnels or abrupt exits that might damage a lens ring. When it reality, I was using it for causal brunches and road trip images and while constantly collapsing the damn thing, delightfully forcing myself to miss almost every shot I really wanted. This was poorly thought, and I wish I hadn’t sold the Mamiya 7 by the end of it. And most of my images sucked. Though as a body of work, there’s a mood.
I have owned just about every system and component available. In all configurations. Micro to large format. And every single one of them was different. Not even close to each other. Some systems really ticked me off and were hard to use – for example I never liked the buttons on Nikon rangefinders vs Leica and this has zero to do with price. I found the Nikons were sharp and less finished on the fingers. They weren’t fun to use. To me, Canon SLR’s felt cheap compared to Nikon F’s.
I felt like I had wasted a ton of film figuring out how to load a Widelux because that leader just looped like a roller coaster (Brent, thoughts?) but the processed rolls looked fine. That gave me anxiety. Film is expensive. But I figured it out.
In college I loaded 4×5 sheets backwards (on a few occasions) and had to suffer through the embarrassing red-hued Imacon scans during crit. (How could this happen?) I’ve opened camera backs and dropped lenses and sold gear that was just fine to buy more expensive gear I didn’t need that I ended up selling to buy gear I didn’t even really want.
And what changed?
Nothing. Some of the best work I’ve done, my favorite work – not the work that got me the most attention or best paying gigs, was made with gear that wasn’t special. Gear that I’d used so much and so often that I forgot about any challenges that might have been there. I got to a point artistically and professionally where I forgot about what would happen if I dropped the camera and it broke (replace it). Or it was stolen (replace it). Or it just quit working (always have a back-up). I got to work and I let the worries fade. I became solely concerned with capturing the story and the moments and the memories and unconcerned with the gear. Suddenly, the camera became invisible.
These issues made me struggle and I was forced to learn what I was doing. I tried everything I could get and when I found a camera and lens that worked, I forgot about it.
You’re going to have to fully embrace GAS head on. This will be expensive and painful and time consuming. But it has to happen. By using tons of gear you will ultimately find what’s right for you. And by right, I mean what physically fits in your hands, what you can actually pre-focus with or see through with your own real eyeballs, and what camera makes you happy to use. One that just disappears when you’re using it. You will forget about between shoots or where other cameras because you won’t need them. You’ll start thinking of your next project and next location. Or who you’ll be with. (Remember, camera always goes along)
There is no perfect camera (Disagree? Comment on that below). Although I’ve got a few for different projects that are pretty close. Like Tom says above – he’s been using one system for one thing for 25+ years. I’ve photographed streets with him and he’s invisible. Didn’t matter if it was noon or midnight, his M6 was dialed in, every time like it wasn’t even there. After we processed we’d shared candid shots we’d snagged of each other – neither of us knew we’d made the shots. Just walking and talking and doing the thing. Snap, snap, snap.
Now, a Hermes M6 or gold Hasselblad 503 will not disappear. And neither will make you a better photographer. They will get you lots of fleeting attention, which is a high akin to gambling that you cannot replicate, and attention that will leave you feeling empty. Because the guy next to you with his collection of pictures will get more attention than those fancy cameras. If you’re lucky to have all the toys, go make photograph with the that mean something to somebody. That will bring you attention for life. Trust me, work less on buying stuff and work harder on telling stories and collecting memories as you see them.
Future posts will include guest contributors – professionals both known and unknown. Please add your thoughts in the comments and they will continue the discussion with you! (Including ideas for the next posts)