My photographic story’s a classic one, a cliché you might say. It all started when I was just 8 years old on the day my grandmother gave me my first camera, passed down to me from her mother.
It was a Kodak Instamatic — about as simple and fuss-free as you can get, and I remember feeling so excited by the new world opening up in front of me via that humble item. In those moments, I knew I wanted to be a photographer, so that’s what I became.
As I loaded each 126 film cassette — remember those? — I’d steadily get to grips with composing the scene through the parallax-riddled viewfinder before deciding whether or not the light levels warranted sunny, kinda sunny, white cloud or black cloud.
I had bucket loads to learn, of course, and a similar amount of pocket money to burn through (plus ça change) but I had spirit and ambition on my side, valuable traits that have never left me.
There was one crucial thing that I was learning without knowing it, though: how to make a photograph with limited means. Whether a landscape, close-up or portrait, I didn’t have a huge kitbag full of options. I just had my Instamatic and that was that.
Heading into my teenage years, I became lured by the glitz of gear. 35mm camera bodies and big lenses were particularly dazzling — anything that would make me look and feel like my perception of a pro.
I had worked my way through a flurry of hand-me-down Praktica bodies and lenses before spying a secondhand Nikon F3 HP in the window of my local London Camera Exchange — it even had the hallowed MD-4 motordrive bolted to the bottom!
My Dad snapped it up as a very generous 16th birthday present but he knew what it would mean to me. After all, I’d already been a photographer for 8 years and I’d done well in my GCSEs.
In my eyes, that camera was heavenly. The stuff of dreams. It served me well, too, and still sits on a bookshelf in my studio as a prized item, a memento of those early heady days of discovery.
Looking back at the period when I hankered after new pieces of equipment to bolster my arsenal, I had an awareness that I didn’t actually use much of it. More often than not, I found myself sticking to a 50mm prime lens or 35-70mm zoom.
The telephoto zooms would invariably stay in the bag and I’d feel strangely guilty about it. With a young head on my shoulders, I don’t think I’d worked out the simple reason behind it. However, fast forward (nearly) 30 years, I now feel very clear about the reasons.
You see, I wasn’t actually interested in the gear at all. I was interested in the story. In truth, I wanted to be as nimble as possible and reduce the equipment choices to a minimum so that I could simply get on with telling the story.
Like my spirit and ambition, and with an older head on my shoulders, I now realise that’s a facet of my working methods that has never left me either.
One camera, one lens — that’s all I’ve used to make some two thousand 12×10 inch glass plates on The Lifeboat Station Project over the last 5 years. Furthermore, it’s worth considering that the equipment is around 115 years old.
Have a scroll through the glass plates. Whether it’s a landscape or portrait, I’ve made everything work with the same camera and lens.
It’s a wonderfully simple discipline, one that frees the mind enabling me to see without being blinded by the kitbag. Moreover, in working with a streamlined inventory, you will see better too. You will become a better photographer.
I’d challenge anyone to try this, in fact I often suggest it during my talks to photographic clubs and societies: For a month at least, select one camera body and one lens — a prime not a zoom, of course! — and only use that kit. With the kit choices removed, I bet my bottom pound note that you’ll think more, look more, see better and, in turn, become an infinitely better photographer.
If the mood takes you, perhaps take it a step further: Travel several hundred miles to a special location with no more than the one camera body, one lens and a tripod. When you arrive, set up the equipment and make just one exposure. When you’ve done that, pack up and travel home.
If that sounds ridiculous, consider for a moment that it’s essentially how I’ve worked my way around the coast of the UK and Ireland for over five years. Nothing like a bit of jeopardy to focus the mind!
One camera, one lens, one month. It’s the perfect time to give it a go. Who knows, by the end of the month, you might never go back to your old ways. And if I’m wrong about you being a better photographer, feel free to keep that pound note!
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See you there!
Thank you for reading,