I Couldn’t Photograph a Watch If You Paid Me – By Ailbíona McLochlainn

As someone with a fairly modest stockpile of photographic equipment, I often find myself praised for not succumbing to the so-called Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Which is funny. Because while indeed, photography for me has always been more process than equipment driven, this is the exception rather than the rule. I am generally quite prone to hoarding – I mean collecting – Things. Particularly vintage, mechanical things. 

At various times in my life, I have been intensely into fountain pens, bicycles, and mechanical watches. And believe me, I cannot be accused of restraint in any of these realms.

Like any obsessive collector worth their salt, I am in fact unable to answer the seemingly straightforward question ‘How many fountain pens/ bicycles/ watches do you have?’ It depends on how you count. It depends on how you define ‘bicycle/ fountain pen/ watch…’ (I mean, are we including disassembled frames here? Do fountain pens with bent nibs and petrified inner sacks count? Crusty watches with non-functional movements? How can one even begin to answer!)

But I digress. What I really want to talk about, is the relationship between collecting and photography. 

I find it interesting how many people get into photography via collecting. It’s a phenomenon no doubt specific to the internet era: The collector wants to share their passion. They go online, participate in forums. They see spectacular photos of others’ collections and feel inspired. They buy a camera, view tutorials, perhaps even take classes. And in due course, they too are able to produce magnificent photos of the objects they collect. For some, this spreads into a more general interest in photography; for others it stays specific to photographing their collections. Either way, there is no doubt that new photographers are created regularly in this manner.

For me, it was the other way around. I was already a budding photographer when I began to collect fountain pens in the early 2000s. Yet, my pictures of pens were decidedly lackluster. The two interests simply did not overlap. I was interested in tableaux photography and portraiture, and I worked exclusively with film. The idea of purchasing digital equipment, macro lenses, white boxes, and god knows what else, for the purpose of  ‘pen photography’ seemed absurd.

When the bicycle obsession gripped me, it was different. It was stealthy, insidious. So gradual and organic it was, I can hardly pinpoint when I transitioned from ‘photographer’ to ‘bicycle photographer.’ It was 2009 and I had just succumbed to buying a DSLR, so I already had the equipment. At first the bicycles began to creep, quite innocently, into my imagery. A portrait might include a suggestive glimpse of handlebars. A street scene would perhaps feature a commuter pedalling to work, briefcase in basket. But it wasn’t long before my subject matter began to morph toward an exclusively velocipedian oeuvre. It wasn’t long before I started a full fledged bicycle blog. And soon became a photographer of not just bicycles, but bicycle-related equipment, cycling events, trade shows, bicycle shops, bicycle manufacturers. This genre came to completely dominate my photos for nearly a decade of my life. And there is nothing wrong with that in itself. Except that for me, it was not intentional. It gripped me and carried me away, in a manner that – in retrospect – I do not think was beneficial for my creative development …or mental health, for that matter!

And then I woke up from it one day, as if from a trance, and realised it was a sort of crutch that had outlived its purpose. Escapism gone rogue. I returned to my core photographic interests, and vowed to be cautious going forward when it came to photographing Things.

Fast forward to several months ago…

I have never considered myself a watch ‘collector’ as such. But ever since childhood, I have worn mechanical watches and have accumulated quite a few over the years. Every so often, a watch will make an appearance in my photos. After one such occasion, an acquaintance reached out. He wanted to hire me to photograph his watch collection (yes, this is a Thing!). My first impulse was to politely decline. But it was something different, and curiosity got the better of me. I explained that I hadn’t the right equipment for macro photography. But tell you what: Let me practice on my own watches with the equipment I have, and see how that goes.

What followed was in equal measure frustrating and enlightening. Unsurprisingly  (I suppose it should have been obvious in retrospect!) I was not in fact able to properly photograph watches without a macro lens and controlled lighting. The diminutive size was only part of the problem; far more tricky was dealing with the reflective surfaces. Those who specialise in this type of photography have my sincere admiration! 

But what truly gave me pause was the state of mind this endeavour put me in. I approached the project with due diligence. I did not merely try to take photos; I researched how watches tended to be presented in the type of photos the client expected. I delved into ‘watch culture’ as it were – in the process, picking up all manner of fascinating information that sent me off on tangents. I discovered the world of watch podcasts. I joined a watch forum.  I began to relate to my watches differently, to organise them thematically, to think about them more.  I even erm… purchased a few more watches.

It was all quite engaging. Nevertheless, when it grew clear I could not accept the job of Watch Photographer, it came as a relief. I suppose it could have been the perfect excuse to acquire more camera gear. But I decided against that. Something about this project – or rather, the immersive effect it had on me –  made me uneasy.

Perhaps it was the intense focus on detail, but I found watch photography claustrophobic. It was as if in the process of taking the pictures I could feel myself shrinking, Alice in Wonderland-like, and entering a microcosm from which I might not be able to escape. Perhaps watch photography – or macro of any kind – simply isn’t for me. Or perhaps this sensation was an echo from my bicycle-photographing days.  A warning to be mindful of the power of objects – particularly beautiful, storied objects.

It is easy to lose ourselves in the act of photographing Things. So easy, that it’s sometimes worthwhile to pause, and ask: Is that really what we want?

At this point I can honestly say, that I couldn’t photograph a watch if you paid me. And for me, that is probably a good thing.


header image: 1952 Jaeger LeCoultre ultra-thin;  photographed with a Leica CL and a Summarit 75mm f2.4 lens

second image: Gráinne modelling a sweater in 2018 with glimpse of bicycle; photographed with a Canon 5D and a Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm lens

last image: my well loved all-terrain bicycle which I built (with some help!) in 2012, with a 1950s Soviet Zvezda  wrapped around the handlebars; photographed with a Leica M10 and a Summarit 75mm f2.4 lens

Ailbíona McLochlainn is a photographer, knitwear designer, and recovering academic, based in Ireland. For additional information and lots of pictures to look at, visit www.ailbiona.com

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25 thoughts on “I Couldn’t Photograph a Watch If You Paid Me – By Ailbíona McLochlainn”

  1. Great article and photographs! I actually make my living photographing products (it used to be food), many small and highly reflective—and I’ve spent decades conquering associated reflections and depth of field issues. And I’m still learning. I currently photograph art supplies and artwork for a large retailer, and many of those have tricky combinations of shiny metal or black gloss or glass and plastic surfaces. But they buy me whatever I need and even funded my recent 25’x40′ studio expansion—so I’m paid to experiment and learn.

    I also recently became a hoarder as well. I fell into vintage camera collecting about three years ago with the goal of starting an online store, but I have yet to part with a single one. Instead I take pictures of them and with them, and get them restored, and am learning to repair them myself. I love learning their history, how they all work, and never really knowing how the images will turn out. And a large part of the fun is indeed the online community.

    1. I am so glad that you acknowledge the challenges of product photography! Most of my friends who do it for a living laugh at my exasperations and pretend it’s super easy. ‘I mean you just get some lights and angle them, what’s the big deal??’ Yeah.

  2. Really enjoyed this article. I didn’t know what to expect from the intriguing title, but delving in, found it to be funny, insightful and an interesting read, and loved the accompanying photos.
    PS: I did not know before this that collecting bicycles is a thing !

    1. I suspect most bicycle owners wouldn’t refer to their ‘stables’ of bicycles as collections, no matter how large. But technically, I think that’s exactly what they are when the number exceeds say 2. Even if we do justify needing them all for purely practical reasons!

  3. Boy, I can relate. Fountain pens. Watches. Cameras.

    During the pandemic I began collecting vintage cameras. I was up to over 20. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to use them to photograph, I just loved the look and feel. I sold some, and I’m down to a respectable number (?).

    Much of it has to do with my insatiable curiosity about everything. And when I latch on to an interest, I’m hooked, going ever deeper to find out all there is to know.

    But, there are worse things I could be spending my time and money.

    1. Weirdly, I actually bought next to nothing during the pandemic, but since its end have found myself slipping into my old collector’s tendencies. Curiosity is a big part of it for sure. With both fountain pens and bicycles, once I felt like I got ‘to the bottom’ of what it was all about for me, I downsized big time.

  4. Cameras, bikes, fountain pens, watches, and vinyl records…. I have met so many people who are drawn to all or most of these that I wonder if there’s a genetic basis for it. My dad and grandad were the same, nature or nurture? Electro and/or mechanical mechanisms, clever designs, making things, touching things. How many of us do woodworking, gardening, or baking with sourdough? Fly fishing? I guess my point is we’re a personality type and it’s hard for me to understand how people can not be fascinated with these things. And yet most of the people I love only kindly tolerate with bemused interest me when I point how the Rolleiflex viewfinder adjusts for parallax or how the messy welding on my 1970s Raleigh Gran Sport is evidence of the height of the bike boom in the Carlton bike workshop. I guess that’s why we invented the internet (Tim Berners-Lee is one of us).

  5. Ailbiona,

    After reading your story and then the replies I thought this would add some insight. Many years ago my wife and I were asked to participate with a group taking the Clifton Strengths Assessment. The results were quite interesting and revealing. My own personal list described me pretty accurately. My number one was Learner followed closely by Input. The short description of input says: Those talented in the Input theme have a need to collect and archive. They may accumulate information, ideas, or artifacts. I have bins full of each of those three things and I have been working on getting my film archive in order for several years now. Post-it notes are one of my best friends. The listing of categories and a short description of the CliftonStrengths can be seen here: https://www.gallup.com/workplace/245090/cliftonstrengths-themes-quick-reference-card.aspx

    I feel like I should end this reply with: Hi, my name is Bill Brown and I have an addiction. The first step to recovery!?

    Thanks for the story.

    1. Heh. As a former research psychologist, I have a thing or two to say about these types of assessments. But you know what, they do have their uses. (My own ‘list’ basically says I am bad news for most workplace environments… which in fairness is not inaccurate! )

      The addiction thing… Even though I used the word ‘hoarding’ in the article, I think it’s both important and interesting to differentiate between the two (hoarding/ addiction vs actual collecting). I think the former involves elements of chaotic and impulsive acquisition, and disregards whether the financial (and social?) implications of a purchase might be detrimental. The latter is a more organised, intentional activity, that follows some sort of philosophy/ system and relies on patience and analysis more than impulse. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive!…

  6. Thanks for a well written post with lovely images. Over the years I’ve accumulated 35mm film cameras and associated gear. I’ve put most of the collection in storage elsewhere at some expense because it would clutter up my restricted living space. As an ex-design student I’ve also acquired carefully selected examples of 1970s/1980s pioneering industrial design such as small kitchen appliances and telephones – they’re in storage too. Sounds a little eccentric I know, but it’s surprising how many people appreciate this stuff when you show them. I’m sort of hoping that one day I can display them as part of a stylishly arranged home office in a new and bigger home, as you do, but that might not happen. Watches seem more sensible if only because you could keep a massive collection in a drawer. Bicycles not so much, but I can certainly see the attraction. Thanks again.

  7. Thanks for a well written post with lovely images. Over the years I’ve accumulated 35mm film cameras and associated gear. I’ve put most of the collection in storage elsewhere at some expense because it would clutter up my restricted living space. As an ex-design student I’ve also acquired carefully selected good examples of 1970s/1980s industrial design such as small kitchen appliances and telephones – they’re in storage too. I’m sort of hoping I might one day be able to display them as part of an artfully and stylishly arranged home office in a new home, as you do, but that might not happen. Watches seem more sensible if only because you could keep a massive collection in a drawer. Bicycles not so much.

  8. I enjoyed this musing. In the 1970’s I ran with a wild crowd: zone system aficionados. Just joking. They collectively lacked a sense of humor, some social skills, etc. but, I had a 4×5 I got from my Dad and it seemed I should follow the gospel of Ansel. I discovered that I could not make a zone system quality landscape. I tried. Oh, how I tried. It just didn’t click (no pun intended.) it was like trying to understand electricity. I could not visualize the concept. I admire good landscape work; hats off to them.
    Not was all lost. I got a beater Leica M2 & a 35mm lens, taking it to the street was as natural as a duck to water. This world I understood. BTW, I collect photography books. The shelves are sagging & I promised myself I’d stop, but from Christmas I’m asking for a vintage H C-B monograph…????

    1. I appreciate the Gospel of Ansel a lot more now in adulthood than when I was first starting out (‘that’ type of photography was considered uncool among the crowd I ran with 15 years ago!).

      My husband loves street photography, and I often tag along. Not my thing, but I enjoy watching him in action and observing the ‘hunting’ behaviour.

      In general, I’ve realised that I actually find it quite useful to try various types of photography that I am either not good at, or not interested in. It helps me gain a deeper understanding of what it is that I do want to photograph, and why.

  9. Great post! I can relate to a lot of it. I used to be quite into macro but from a gear perspective. I wanted to see how close I could get with the gear I had but once I produced my first decent focus stack at roughly 9:1 I never took another macro shot again. And as for collecting, luckily managed to limit myself to camera gear. And while for a long time I insisted I’m a user and not a collector, nowadays I can’t really claim I use all my almost 30 lenses regularly, even though most collectors would scoff at this number.

    1. That makes sense to me. You had an academic interest in macro, which was satisfied as soon as you figured it out. I think I experienced something similar when I developed a fascination with hyper-real still-lifes (as soon as I figure out how to take those types of shots, I got bored.)

      It’s funny, because with lenses, I seem to have a weird aversion to owning too many. It really bothers me that at the moment I have a ‘redundant’ 35mm!

      1. I no longer have such issues, most common focal lenghts I have doubles/triples/etc of. I tell myself they have different purposes and produce different images. Lenses are definitely my thing and luckily at least for now I have all that I wanted. Now just to review them all!

  10. Ha! I’ve got a lot of books, quite a few records, many cameras… on the macro thing I bought a reasonably-priced 4″x5″ field camera because it was cheaper than a tilt-shift lens for 35mm/digital but I discovered it’s also great for photos of small things if you use the triple extension. Now here’s the thing: I was just given a typewriter as a present- my father found it in a charity shop after a conversation we’d had about a project idea of mine involving analogue photography alongside analogue generation of text- and it’s that thrill again. I think you have a number of us bang to rights, Ailbíona…

    1. Can’t believe I forgot about typewriters. I do own and use one (too long to explain, but it comes in handy for work sometimes). Thankfully, the operative word is ONE.

      I owned a 4×5″ field camera in my late 20s, and wanted desperately for large format to be My Thing. But alas it wasn’t to be. Interesting to know that it has macro applications; I would love to see what those shots look like. The DoF effects must be amazing.

  11. You have a gift for writing, this article was a pleasure to read! And lovely photos.
    I like photographing (and riding) bicycles too. For a while now I’ve been contemplating writing an article about “bicycle-assisted photography”. If I ever get round to it, I must remember to link back to your article.
    I don’t know much about watches, but your header image put me in mind of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Compass Camera – perhaps you’ve heard of it?

    1. Oh my. Thanks for that link! I was aware of this camera’s existence, but somehow missed the Hodinkee article, and much of it was news to me. I did not realise it had not only a rangefinder, but other focusing options as well. Super cool. I was also under the impression that very few of them were in circulation, mostly as museum pieces. But I can see now they are readily available on a popular auction site, should one wish to procure such a wondrous machine.

      What? Oh no, no. Like I said, I don’t need more camera gear. I definitely do not need a delicious 1930s miniature rangefinder in my life that’s a collab with my favourite watch manufacturer. But I mean, it almost feels like the right thing to do for Someone to buy one of these, for a 35mmc review? Hmmmm?

  12. As another poster wrote (and I quote) – “Cameras, bikes, fountain pens, watches, and vinyl records…. ” Yes! That could be me. In fact, that IS me, to a T.

    As for hoarding well, that is entirely a not different matter. At my age (70s), I’m nw starting to downsize, and giving serious thought not only to what will happen to my hoards of all those lovely things after I fly off to cloud-land, but how to deal with the here and now of my situation. When I retired in 2012, I had 50+ cameras – at last count I’m now down to 20, mostly in lots of fours – Nikons (film and digital), Nikkormats, Contax G1s, Rolleis, assorted older cameras (again, both ‘d’ and ‘f’), and now and then a surprise find when I can be fussed to poke around in my (too many) storage boxes and containers I keep in our guest bedroom and stacked against one wall of our (thankfully, carless) garage.

    My solution to this oft-shared conundrum is now, whenever I buy a camera (not so often, I’ve learned to resist) or an accessory item (my latest, this month, was a Nikon MBD12 battery pack for my D800, which came with TWO Nikon batteries and for the low price I paid for it, was a massive bargain) , is to sell at least one or even two cameras on Ebay or privately thru our camera club. Which brings in a small profit as I’ve tended to buy at low times when the gear I craved was being offloaded at bargain prices. So it’s a win-win situation for me at home, SO is happy, I’m slowly but steadily clearing room space for us to alas, fill up again when the post-New Year bargain sales start, and best of all, I have some spare money to splurge on 35mm and 120 films so I can go on using all my beaut old (I dislike the term “retro” as it tends to define my passion as a mere fad, phooey to that!).

    I will spare you my comments on the other collections at home – the watches, pens and mechanical pencils, and ah yes, the vinyl .

    So yes, Ailbiona, your excellent article and fine images not only touched a nerve, but gave me courage to go on collecting and hoarding. The knowledge that I’m not alone in this, and in fact most likely part of a growing majority, is a big plus for me and, I’m sure, many others who have read this. Unlike you (lucky you!), I have yet to acquire a vintage Jaeger LeCoultre or a Leica CL, even if both have been on my want-want-want list for many years. One day I may be lucky…

    Please write more. I will be following your posts with interest.

    Dann in Melbourne, Australia

    Apologies to anyone annoyed by my (too) many side comments in ‘brackets’ – it’s now my brain (and my photographic passions) seem to work, at least until I’ve had my morning coffee and 15 minutes’ play with one of my beloved Rolleis.

    1. Thank you Dann for taking the time to share this with a fellow brackets-enthusiast.

      I am not good at selling cameras, but luckily have a small network of camera-friends, and the unwanted equipment sort of circulates between us until a purchase happens organically. My nerves cannot handle online sales to strangers, and my hat’s off to those who do it!

      The Leica CL is (was) borrowed. After sampling it, as well as an M9, it was clear my choice was the rangefinder. Consequently, I now own an M10. It is now my only digital camera.

      With watches, I am fortunate in being small-wristed. The Jaeger LeCoultre in the photo has a 31mm case diameter, so would not be considered a men’s watch by today’s standards – which makes it not especially desirable to today’s collectors. It is also a good thing that I got my vintage fix back when the watch prices weren’t as nuts as they are now. I nearly spit my coffee out when I first read on the watch forums that ‘affordable watches’ refer to the sub-3K price bracket. Makes the prices of many Leica lenses seem downright reasonable (or so I tell myself)…

      Anyhow! Thanks for your interest in my writing. I have a few other articles on here; I think they come up if you click on my name.

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