It took me just over two years of shooting a different camera every week to realize I was ruining myself on cameras. Partly to blame was the simple fact that I run a camera shop and a website concerned with classic cameras, and these entities necessitate the handling of many different machines. But also to blame, and many of you who don’t run camera shops or blogs can speak to this just as well, was the collection urge that occurs when one is deeply invested in a hobby.
A camera would come into the shop, and rather than adding it to inventory or quickly writing a feature, I’d fall in love. It would be in particularly fine condition, or it would offer some minor feature that differentiated it from the other cameras I owned, and that would be that. Another camera added to my shelf of keepers. Eventually, though, that shelf became too crowded, and a new shelf was employed. And a third. And a sixth.
But eventually, enough is too much. When I looked at my shelf and saw, among many other things, eight different SLRs from the 1970s, all essentially the same beyond the minutia of a unique exposure compensation methodology, or the trivia that this one was designed by an Italian while this one was designed by Maitani, I knew things had gotten out of hand. More telling, I hadn’t used any of these SLRs in over a year.
The chief problem with being both a collector and an active shooter, as I see it, is that the one inevitably draws off the other. Our mental and physical energy is a finite resource, and when one activity is difficult and the other easy it’s almost guaranteed that the easier one takes precedence. In this case, collecting is the easy fun. The result is that we end up spending more or most of our energies on what could rightly be argued is the wrong concern.
Instead of poring over the work of those photographers who’ve come before us, or taking time to meet and connect with other shooters whose influence might stand to shape us and help us grow, we’re researching whether or not the lens mount of the original Olympus M1 would’ve been fastened with slotted or JIS Phillips drive screws, and how to tell modern screw heads apart from non-originals in order to better spot a fake.
I should mention that these screws should be slotted.
Worse than this obsession with pointless detail, for me, was the fact that when I did manage to get out and shoot, I was doing so without any thought for the art of photography. I was always using an unfamiliar camera. I was looking at dials and knobs, and figuring out whether or not the machine had exposure lock. I was squinting through a viewfinder and firing without stopping to wonder if the shot I was taking was worth making. Instead of honing my craft, I was experiencing a new machine every single time I went shooting. I was shooting the same subjects in the same locations I’d been shooting for years. And not even thinking about it.
That’s an interesting exposure dial. Click! Oh, I didn’t expect the frame lines to be so bright. Click! I really hate this aperture control. Man, that mirror slap is loud. This camera is too heavy. Click!
These and other similarly prosaic thoughts solely occupied my mind when out taking photographs. That’s crazy. And, yes, it’s true that this is part of my job, that I have to write about cameras and sell cameras for a living, which naturally means I’ll never have the kind of experience with photography that others, whose jobs don’t require shooting out of obligation, get to experience. But even accepting this fact of life, I realized one day that I wasn’t making things any easier on myself by owning fifty cameras.
It was at the moment when all the experimentation and joy and fun had been essentially drained from photography, that I decided to get rid of my collection. Furthermore, I decided to make it a point to shoot once a week solely for my own pleasure and for the refinement of my admittedly meager abilities.
But things are never so black and white. Sure, I wanted to eliminate my collection and focus on shooting, but I also take a nuanced approach in all things. To simply sell all but one of my cameras didn’t seem like the answer. That’s like a hungry man throwing away a bushel of apples and keeping just one seed for himself. There are situations in which I want to use a rangefinder over an SLR, and sometimes I want to shoot medium format, and I could never sell my SX-70 but my SX-70 could never be my one-and-only camera. I needed a plan, and pretty quickly I’d formed one. And quite happily, this plan left ample latitude to maintain a comparatively tiny batch of usable cameras that most people would still consider to be a collection.
It was a pretty simple strategy – I’d separate my cameras into type and then keep my favorite model. One rangefinder, one TLR, one SLR, one professional medium format camera, one instant camera, one point-and-shoot, and that’s it. A camera type for literally every possible situation, and my collection would be reduced to a few frequently used cameras. Plus, I’d still have a gorgeous collection of amazing machines. Perfect.
The hard part, of course, was determining which camera was my “perfect” camera. And it took a long time. But I made it happen. And though I’m still not a very good photographer, I’m happier. When I go out to shoot, I’m out to shoot. I’m not worrying about gear, or afraid of damaging something, or unsure of how the machine will work in this or that lighting condition. I know the camera. I know how to use it and what it’s capable of, and I’m able to focus on getting to an interesting location, finding a decent subject, framing, composition, light. More than anything I’m enjoying being out taking pictures.
I’ve written in the past about why I shoot film, why I love cameras, and why I think photography is the best hobby. And plenty of other voices have chimed in about the phenomenon that is colloquially (and somewhat fondly) referred to as Gear Acquisition Syndrome (more cleverly, GAS). These voices nearly always sing a chorus of aversion, that GAS is something to be expelled so that we can more easily focus on the craft and enjoy real growth as photographers. There’s certainly some truth to this and I’ve learned it the hard way. But at the same time, I understand the passion that drives collectors, and there’s nothing wrong with being a collector as long as we’re not pillaging our kids’ college funds to score that rare Barnack Leica, or skipping the electric bill to buy more glass.
For me, the trick was finding balance. How many cameras is too many? How involved in photography (with a capital P) do I want to be? What’s my one-and-only camera? For every shooter these answers will be different. But I think it’s useful to think about these questions and try to find the answers so that we can avoid burnout, spend our time wisely, and enjoy photography (and life) just a little bit more.
Any thoughts on GAS? Have you pared down your collection or is your collection overwhelming? Let us hear about it in the comments.