A simple camera has few, if any, controls. This is every shooting control, every custom function, every remote-control and every menu option there is on a LEICA M6 TTL, which is the same as a Nikon FM or Nikon FM10.
Simplicity is the most important concept in photography.
This article discusses simplicity of equipment. Simplicity of ideas and presentation are even more important — and covered at Composition.
Simple ideas are stronger. Expressing them more simply makes them clearer. Simple composition delivers these ideas more strongly. This all leads to better, stronger images that sell better, get more ooohs and aahs at showings, and win more photo contests.
This article deals with a less well-known, and at least as important, concept that the simpler your camera equipment, and the less you take with you, the better your pictures will turn out.
When you get all the BS out of the way, for the lack of any other
Too Much Equipment top
I am like everyone else. I bought my first fancy SLR, a used Minolta SR-1 with 53mm f/2 lens and clip-on meter for $60 on 16 November 1973. For Christmas 1973, I got my first needless accessory, a Vivitar T-mount, preset 200mm f/3.5 telephoto lens, and it's been downhill ever since. I must have bought and sold over 100 different lenses over the years, and all I ever really needed was that first fast normal lens on my first Minolta.
If I put this effort into learning to see better instead of buying more cameras, my photos would be a lot better than they are today.
We keep buying more gear thinking it will allow us to make better pictures because we'll be able to shoot a wider range of things under a wider range of conditions.
We want ultrawides to get it all in, and ultra telephotos to let us shoot sports on the moon — while still sitting on Earth.
Trying to be prepared for everything makes you prepared for nothing.
You wind up carrying so much gear that you can't see straight to see a decent picture. You spend all your time thinking about your camera, and no time thinking about your pictures.
This is serious. Things are so bad today that most amateur photographers don't even realize that thinking about cameras and settings have nothing to do with thinking about the picture.
I almost never meet anyone who discusses photography. Instead, people discuss camera profiles, Photoshop plugins and HDR regression algorithms, but no hobbyists seem to realize that the only thing that matters is what you see and do before you click the shutter.
The more you're thinking about gear, the less you can think about the picture.
The less equipment I take, the better pictures I make.
The fewer lenses I bring, the better pictures I bring back.
The less crap I haul with me, the more good pictures I haul back at the end of the trip.
Why is this? top
Men can think about only one thing at once. We think far more deeply than women, which is why we can invent computers, automobiles, calculus, nuclear weapons and spaceships that fly us to the moon, but unlike women, we still can only think about one thing at a time. We may be able to flip between sipping a beer and watching the game, but it's still only one thing at any one instant.
When Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus, he concentrated on it for 24 hours straight to get to the bottom of it. That's deep thought.
While out shooting, if we bring more than one lens, more than one camera or more than one kind of film, we now are constantly distracting ourselves thinking "what if I tried the other lens?," "should I change ISO?" or "I think I need to go back to the car and get the big lens."
Worse, photography is leading amateurs down the path of eternally crummy pictures by giving them more completely irrelevant distractions, like "should I shoot raw?," "maybe I should try shooting in AdobeRGB," or worse, "Maybe I should spend 30 minutes shooting 500 shots from the same tripod holes so I can stitch and HDR and panfocus them together later."
Because our brains are distracted by this, we aren't thinking about the picture or the subject.
The dumbest thing people do is spend those 30 minutes making 500 exposures to stitch together, instead of spending 30 seconds looking for a better angle, better composition or better location that would actually result in a better image.
Shooting it is the easiest part; seeing it is the hard part.
If you make the shooting so difficult that it takes up all your effort, you have no time left to concentrate on seeing your picture in the first place.
If you spend little to no time looking for a good image, no matter how much effort you put into actually shooting it, it will still suck.
This is why good photographers can shoot with anything, like an iPhone, and get great shots. It's all in the seeing, never in the taking.
Because we all have limited attention and thought capacity, any attention we spend thinking about cameras, lenses, settings or post-processing is attention we didn't spend on what we wanted in our picture.
Our picture is the subject, composition, gesture, lighting, point-of-view, impact, perspective, balance, color, weight, timing, negative space, line, texture, and everything else that makes a picture.
When you're out shooting, are you thinking about your camera, gear and settings, or are you thinking about what's going to be in your picture?
I'm as bad as the rest of us. I spend way too much time thinking about my gear and settings, and rarely free up my head so I can concentrate on what's in the picture.
The only thing that matters is what's going to be in your picture. Any attention you waste on cameras or settings is attention that could have gone into making a better picture.
This is why simplicity is so crucial.
The more you bring, the more distractions there are away from the picture and back onto gear.
As I've deliberately brought less gear this past year, my images really have improved greatly. At the most, I'll bring a 21mm and a 90mm, and a fast normal (or Canon Powershot) for dim light. I'm having so much fun that I see and make much better pictures than when I used to haul an SLR or DSLR and a couple of zooms into the field.
I usually bring only one lens when I go shoot. I can concentrate on my picture, and not keep asking myself if I ought to change lenses. I bring a 50mm f/1.4 AFS on FX or film (or the 35/1.8 on DX, which is the same thing), and move in or out to frame my picture.
All I think about is my picture.
I spent three weeks in France in 1997 with a camera with only one fixed normal lens. I made these shots. I never felt that I needed any other lenses, even shooting inside cathedrals like Sainte Chapelle. Not that these are great shots, but they are a whole lot better than if I had brought more junk with me.
Because I had no other lens choices to distract my attention, I could instinctively frame the pictures with just my mind's eye. My perception was attuned to this one angle, and because of that, I saw more clearly, faster and intuitively. Because I saw better, I shot better.
Even bringing a zoom instead of a fixed lens dulls our perception. With a zoom, we now have the lazy option of standing in one place and letting the zoom do the walking, instead of looking with our eyes and walking around. Using a zoom dulls our perception since our mind's eye is no longer focused on one fixed angle of view.
If you must bring more than one lens, bring two very different lenses so that you never have to ask yourself if you want the 21mm or the 28mm. Bring only one of them.
Personally, if I must bring two lenses, I choose the 21mm and the 90mm and leave the 50mm at home. This way I never have any mental waffling over what lens to use. I use either one, and walk forward or back to get my picture. I don't even have to look through the finder: when you only shoot with one or two lenses, you already know exactly what will fit as you walk around.
Women love to shop, and men love to buy new toys. It's the same thing, and it's what keeps the economy humming. It's a wonderful thing to have three of every camera and lens ever made at home, so long as you never bring more than two, maybe three, lenses anywhere when out shooting.
If you bring extra lenses with you, you're going to want to go back to the car or hotel and get them. If you leave them all at home (or don't buy them in the first place), you're free to think about your pictures instead of which lens to use.
Ideally, bring only one lens. You'll see that you'll start to see more clearly, and learn how to make any sort of photo with any kind of lens.
I can shoot all day with only a 14mm lens, or only a 135mm lens. It doesn't matter what I take; the longer I use just one lens, the better my pictures become.
A common and crippling misconception among newcomers is that every millimeter needs to be covered from wide to tele.
No! The only people who will tell you that are people trying to sell you lenses, or other relative newcomers attempting to justify their mistaken overindulgence in unnecessary equipment.
More gear doen't make better pictures, it gets in the way.
My pal, the international humanitarian photojournalist Karl Grobl, takes only two zooms with him (the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II and 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS), and he leaves the country for many months at a time shooting for a living.
The worst thing you can do is burden yourself with three zooms, like 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm, so that every millimeter is covered.
All you need is one lens, like a 50mm. If you must carry more than one lens, add a 28mm or 85mm, and if you have to carry three lenses (no one does), try 21mm, 35mm and 85mm, or 28mm, 50mm and 105mm. You can walk two steps forward to back to get the framing you need, and the simplicity of your lens choices will let you think and see more clearly, as well as having to carry less.
In the beginning, you needed a lot of different items to take a picture in addition to a camera.
Light meters were separate items, and you set exposure manually by transferring the readings from the meter to the camera. You had to measure distance with a separate rangefinder (or guess) and set that distance on the focus scale by hand. Times were tough.
For the first 100 years, cameras got more complex as they incorporated many of these formerly separate features. Light meters were added inside cameras and you could focus using a built-in rangefinder or SLR viewer as of the 1960s.
Cameras got more complex, but the actual process of snapping a good picture became simpler as the formerly external functions became integrated into your camera.
In the 1970s, cameras became smart enough to set the exposure automatically based on the light meter's reading. This was a huge time saver, and led to even better and more spontaneous pictures.
In the 1980s, cameras got smart enough to focus themselves. Yes! Complete freedom: think, compose, and shoot.
As of the 1990s, cameras could do everything we used to have to do by hand, and they did it faster and better than we could do by hand. We made the best pictures.
The 1980s and 1990s were the high point of camera development. Cameras like the Canon AE-1 Program, EOS 620 and Nikon F4 did everything they needed to do, and we could finally concentrate on our picture, not the camera.
Camera makers ran out of meaningful features in the mid-1990s to add to cameras to coerce us into buying new models. The Japanese instead had to invent Custom Functions as a new feature, and it's been downhill ever since.
For the past 20 years, almost every new camera has simply added more junk features to increase sales, not to make better pictures. Sadly, these junk features get in the way. They distract us from our pictures.
I remember in the late 1990s when I'd be out shooting and friends would call out "Who knows how to set the self timer on an A2E?" Clearly, they couldn't be looking for their next picture when they couldn't fire their camera for the shot at hand.
With digital today, no one, not even I, can figure out how to take a picture anymore. If I spend half an hour with a camera offline I can set it up to do a good job in the field, but if conditions change, it takes another half hour to go through 10 menu trees to catch everything that needs to be reset.
If you forget one option, the camera doesn't fire. Today, I often hear people cursing under their breath when their cameras won't shoot because some option wasn't set properly. It happens to me, too. People have become servants to their cameras, instead of the other way around. This crap has got to stop.
In the old days, you had a whopping three controls to set manually: shutter, aperture and focus. By the 1970s, cameras had meters and would tell you exactly in which direction to turn each of these three controls, and by the 1980s, the cameras were automated so that they could set each of these three controls for you. Yay! We could concentrate on taking pictures instead of on setting our camera.
So why is it today that today's supposedly automated cameras have 1,645 manually-set menu and custom function options, when there are only three settings in photography?
How did our three manual controls become automatic, and then downgrade themselves to 1,645 manual menu settings?
It's because the Japanese concocted these garbage features to sell us more cameras.
In the old days, even if your camera was set wrong, it still took the picture. Half the time today, the camera won't even fire if you don't set its menus as the camera demands.
The best way to ensure you can focus on your pictures, and thus make better pictures, is to take as little as possible with you, and bring cameras that are as straightforward as possible. You must learn them completely so that you can operate every feature instinctively, without conscious thought.
Leica's instruction book suggested that you read over the book, practice, and then be sure that you could operate the camera with your eyes closed. This was in 1952 for the LEICA IIIf, and cameras got better and simpler in the next 40 years.
If we spend our time serving our cameras, like wasting time upgrading firmware for goodness' sake, how can we ever hope to concentrate on our pictures?
This is among the many reasons, besides higher technical quality, better colors and lower cost, that I went back to film.
Many rich guys shoot LEICA because it's well made mechanically and has great lenses. However, the reason that so many serious photographers shoot LEICA is because it's simple. Everything is where you need it, it always shoots, and you can concentrate on your picture for a change. The LEICA is the only serious camera made new today that anyone can still figure out.
Every one of the pros I know who shoot LEICA shoot it because the LEICA is simple, durable, small and light. The point of the LEICA for the experienced photographer is its simplicity, not because it's any sharper than an Olympus XA.
Yes! For serious photography, any old Nikon FM is just as good as a LEICA. It's all about the simplicity to allow you to concentrate on the picture and not the camera.
Since there are no lenses to change, and even better, nothing to set even if you wanted to, you don't even bother thinking about settings, and are forced to think about nothing but your picture.
Your camera must be so simple that you don't have to think about it as you shoot. You should only be thinking about your subject, and snapping the photo at the peak of the action.
Talk to any top athlete, dancer, musician or any other kind of performer. While they may spend all week training at high altitudes, practicing scales or going over new steps, when it comes time to perform, they don't think about anything technical. It just comes. It just comes out. They don't think about anything at all. Their own self melts away and it just comes out.
The things for which the whole world idolize and analyze any of these people just happens. When performing, these virtuosi give not a moment's thought to technique. It just flows. They are thinking about nothing except getting caught up in whatever feelings move them to do what they do. It is fluid, and that's why they are the virtuoso.
When I'm out snapping, I don't think about technique. I go on about it all day on this website for your advantage, in the hope that you can get it down so well that when it comes time to shoot, that you can just shoot and not have to think about settings. If I see a yellow wall, my finger holds the shutter halfway to lock exposure and moves the aperture ring 2/3 of a stop more open on my Nikon FE or LEICA, without any conscious thought. I'm too busy watching the edges of my frame.
There is a time for practice and study, and then it's time to perform. These are very, very different things.
A musician doesn't need to look at his instrument to see the fingerings. Cover his eyes, and the music comes out even better. Brother Ray Charles was blind, and enough music came off his keyboards to win him twelve Grammy awards. Someone else might know a lot more than brother Ray did about the inner workings of keyboards, but those people don't bag any Grammy awards.
It needs to be the same way in photography. Feel free to practice and study all week, but when it comes time to shoot, you shouldn't have to think about anything except getting completely caught up in your subject. Try different angles, look at things different ways, and think about your pictures, but never let yourself get distracted by your gear.
I come across hundreds, actually thousands of photo hobbyists and serious photographers. Here's a secret: out of all these people, I have only spoken to two people in my entire life who both know the technology behind pixels and profiles, and who can make good pictures. I'm dead serious: the men who can go off for hours about bit redithering never create any good pictures, and the people who crank out awesome work usually know very little about what goes on inside their cameras.
Real photographers don't care — they care about the picture, not the camera. I know of only two guys who know about both. This isn't an insult; they guys who make great pictures could care less about lens coatings — or even if their lens is clean!
I'm not counting Ansel Adams among these people, since I never got to work with him. He would be a third. He always clarified that he was an artist who just happened to use a little bit of science in creating his art, and most emphatically that his art was about his vision, not at all about the tools he used to create it.
I don't know about you, but given the choice, I'd rather know how to take good pictures than be able to tell you how a camera works.
The best way to keep away the gear distractions is to shoot with just one camera and just one lens. The camera must become nothing more than an extension of your imagination; just an extension of your own body and vision, not a separate instrument.
If you have to think about your camera, you're not thinking about your picture.
If you're not thinking about your picture, it will suck.
A simple camera will let you think about your picture instead of your camera.
The camera must serve you. Never be a servant to your cameras.
The camera must melt away from your perception as you're envisioning your shots. Your mental images should flow straight from your imagination to the subject. If a camera intercedes, it must be eliminated.
The best way to keep cameras out of your way when shooting is to shoot simple cameras.
I make my best photos when I only carry one camera and one lens. This way I'm thinking about my pictures, and not about my camera.
Don't bother with unusual equipment. When you do, you're thinking about playing with your new piece of gear instead of thinking about what you are going to photograph.
Start with a simple camera and one fixed lens. One lens, not two.
Hint: if a salesman or advertisement tries to impress you with something that you can't understand, it was a junk feature. Ignore it.
Learn to see and how to make great pictures with your simple camera.
Only after you can take great pictures with a simple camera should you consider buying anything else.
Once you do learn to make great pictures with your simple camera, you'll probably not want to bother buying anything else to have to carry around with you.
I wish I had someone give me that advice back when I started.
Today, I teach workshops, and no one (including myself) has any idea how to find more than 1% of the features in their cameras, because the other 99% of features are crap that leads to distractions and bad pictures. Even I can't find bracketing on a D300 any more. Cameras have gotten ridiculous today.
Keep it simple.
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