Before we jump in, I have a quote to share:
Limiting options forces creativity. Fishing for a year with only the Pheasant Tail & Partridge has given me deep knowledge about what to do with that simple brown fly, and a deeper understanding of fish. It has taught me that choosing a more simple life doesn’t mean choosing an impoverished life. Rather, simplicity can lead to a more satisfying way of fishing and a more responsible way of living. — Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia.
I cannot think of a finer way to begin this piece. Yvon, the man responsible for one of the greatest outdoor companies of all time, speaks a simple truth about the truth in simplicity. Fishing, like photography or woodworking or any craft, takes time, understanding, a feeling to truly master. And yet, as we move forward, we seem to move back.
The first cameras were simple affairs, with few options for the discerning professional to choose from. And so you became innately familiar with your tool, knowing every nook and cranny, strength and weakness, every possible result you may get and how you will get it. Photographers with their cameras were like fishermen with their rods; when there is only a simple stick and worm to work with, there is nowhere to hide your shortcomings. Technique becomes the name of the game, and the little bit of equipment at your disposal must become an extension of you, no less a part of you than the hand that holds it.
Today, in this age of boundless consumerism, this is not the case. Sure, you can shoot your camera on manual, but you don’t have to. Sure, you can move closer, but why not just pop on any number of zoom lenses? There is a lens, an attachment, or a mode for literally any issue that could arise, and every company, advertisement, and publication will waste no time in telling you how much you need them. It is so easy now to fall into the trap of identifying ourselves by the things we own rather than by the person we are or by what we are capable of, and I am no less guilty of succumbing to this trap than any of you. Ironically, this need for more is how I ended up with the lens in question.
When I got my Fujifilm X-T1, I had the option to buy it with just one lens or two. Thankfully, I opted for one, the 35mm f2 R WR. Now, this lens is not the fastest 35mm offered, overshadowed by Fujifilm’s own f1.4 and Mitakon’s f0.95, yet after owning it, I don’t care. I feel no need to upgrade, not in the slightest. This is my favorite lens I’ve ever owned, not because it is the sharpest or the fastest or the newest, but because it is the one I know best.
Though I did not make it quite as long as Yvon’s year, this little 35mm was my only lens for 6 months. In that time, I came to a deep understanding of the truth in his words, and grew more as an artist than all the time leading up to that combined. By not giving myself any alternatives, I pushed myself more than ever before. Without the option of reaching for a wide angle in the face of a landscape or snapping off portraits with a telephoto, I was forced to find my frame with what I had. To move around and see scenes differently, to work within limitations, and eventually, to transcend them. In a wonderful little paradox, those limitations were, in this case, completely freeing. I was no longer turning my eyes down and taking my hands off the shutter button to switch lenses or find little bits of “necessary” equipment. Instead, my eyes were always up and my finger always on the shutter, fully present.
Eventually, what I can only describe as a shift happened. The camera, and more importantly, the lens, became so natural, so fluid that I knew my framing before it was even up to my eye. I knew how it would behave from back-lighting to lens flares, architecture to portraits, and everything in between. In those 6 months, I took some of the best photos I have ever taken, a diverse bunch in theme, subject, and style, but every single one with the same setup. By the time I even thought about adding a second lens to my collection, I felt vaguely guilty. I knew how I would use it, the reasons I would buy it, what it would let me capture that my 35mm would not. And yet, it wasn’t my lens. I did finally go through with it, and now own its brother, the 23mm f2, a fantastic lens in its own right, but my unwavering love for the 35 remains.
Even as I aspire to own only a handful of clothing pieces, to purge my shelves of cluttered decor, to have little and want less, I cannot seem to do the same with my camera gear. I’ve finally begun to get rid of some here and there, and yet more keep finding their way into my hands. It can be hard for us not to do this with our passions; it is human nature to dive in and acquire all we can, both in material possessions and in knowledge. But there is something to be said for less of the former and more of the latter, and my 35mm has taught me that.
So I’d urge anyone to try this. Not to say that you have to sell your gear, maybe just put it down for a while. Pick one lens and use it for everything they tell you not to do with it. Shoot portraits with a 16mm, take landscapes with a 135. Hell, throw on a fish-eye and don’t take it off until you have nothing left to point it at. Get to know your gear on a deeper level; you’ll be surprised how much confidence you’ll gain, both in your equipment and, more importantly, in yourself.
If you appreciate the sentiment shared here, give this piece by Hamish a read. He shares some wonderful insight on the joys and value in simplicity.