Limit yourself—and become a better photographer

I suspected things might end badly when Garin’s pickup ran over a Gila Monster.   Then again, I always figured that my week-long trip photographing a ‘tough-love’ camp for teens was going to contain some ups and downs.   We were reporting on one of those organizations that parents bundle their troubled teens off to, figuring that six weeks spent sleeping and hiking in the middle of a southwest desert can reach them in ways they haven’t been able to.  They aren’t usually wrong.

I pitched the story and a writer,  Garin, was assigned.   We would be backpacking and living with the kids for almost a week, at least 50 miles from the nearest town in the middle of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.    We had to pack in water, and weight was an issue.  Due to the lack of ability to recharge my digital cameras, I shot with a reduced kit:   two Nikon film bodies, three lenses and a flash.   A couple of hours into our hike towards the first night’s camp, I forded a river, slipped on a rock and went down hard.  I emerged from the waters with my primary camera body soaked, the electronics fried.  My 80-200 mm lens dripped water, the front element smashed on the same slippery rock.

There I was, miles from anything, down to one film body (a Nikon FM2) and two lenses—a 24 mm f2 and a 35-70 f2.8.     I had approximately 5.5 days of our six-day trek left.    And I was sweating.

That trip was when I learned a fundamental truth:  that limitations can be a great thing.    Freed of the need to switch camera bodies, and forced to use a wide-angle and a medium telephoto lens, I adapted.  I spent time with each lens and worked them.  I got in close when before I might have stayed at a distance.  I didn’t worry about the shots I couldn’t get and focused on the types of shots I could.    In the end, I left at the end of the week with a set of images I was very happy with, and the sense that I had learned something important.

Why is this pertinent?   Because today it’s all about choice.    As a photographer, I’m always tempted to buy the newest gear or learn the latest technique, but I know that sometimes imposing limitations on myself makes me a stronger shooter.   Instead of taking all of my lenses to an assignment, I might force myself to shoot with just my 50mm lens.   I might forego the larger studio lights I typically use and instead shoot with speedlights or just a large window and a silver reflector.   It’s very, very easy to get distracted from the actual story that you’re trying to tell.   Too many gear choices, and too many possible locations tend to muddy the waters, sapping your energy and leaving you with weak images.   Better to commit to a couple of visual situations, and to a limited selection of gear, and then spend your time actually thinking while you photograph.


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