A good friend of mine is really into taking pictures with his iPhone. Like many people, he uses it for casual snaps, but he also tackles more ambitious photographic projects with it, including elaborate stitched panoramas and mosaics. I, on the other hand, do most all my picture taking with old film cameras. On the surface, you might not imagine we have much in common photographically, and yet, we’re really two sides of the same coin. Both of us have learned to exploit the power of limitations.
While I enjoy the versatility my 35mm SLRs and their various lenses, there’s a part of me that gravitates strongly towards a one-camera/one-lens setup. On my recent trip to Australia I packed my current favourite 35mm SLR (the underrated Olympus OM PC) along with 24mm, 50mm, and 135mm, Zuiko lenses. With this rig I’m pretty much ready for anything. I also brought along my Yashica-Mat medium-format, twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera. It features a fixed 75mm f/3.5 lens, and is strictly a manual-control camera — it doesn’t even have a built in light meter. And yet, in spite of its basic feature set, I got most of my favourite Australia shots with it. Why is that?
Creating art is largely an exercise in decision making — so much so that the greater the range of options, the more difficult it can often be to actually produce the work. Sometimes the burden of choice can be overwhelming. I find that the fixed lens of my TLR takes a lot of options off the table and streamlines the decision-making process. In other words, for me at least, the basic camera offers a more direct path to creative expression.
Let me illustrate this idea with a concrete example. While visiting the Sydney Opera House, I was daunted by the challenge of making a picture that wasn’t just like millions I had already seen. With the Olympus SLR and its three lenses, I had a wide range of options. I tried all kinds of different framings, situated myself at various vantage points, and experimented with all three lenses. I returned to the buildings several times, but just couldn’t crack it. In the end, I took a few photos (you really have to, after all), but none with any excitement. On my final night in Sydney, I grabbed the Yashica-Mat and wandered back to the Opera House. In spite of having only a single lens and frame orientation to work with, I suddenly found all kinds of appealing pictures in front of me. It was as if I was seeing the shape and structure of the buildings for the first time. Having the square frame and the 75mm lens pushed me past a lot of the options that stymied me when I had the SLR in my hands. With the Yashica-Mat, I only had to worry about where I positioned myself and whether or not what I saw in the viewfinder excited me. It was almost as if I’d found a direct path through a maze.
I’m not saying that any of the pictures I got that evening are great art, but at least it’s art that I enjoyed making. The lesson in all this is that when you’re feeling like you’re spinning your wheels artistically, maybe the answer isn’t a new camera or lens. Maybe the solution is to put away all the gear, save for the simplest camera you own, and go out to see what you can see. You might discover, as I did, the power of limitations.
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