Jack Lowe with his camera at Sheringham RNLI lifeboat station while working on The Lifeboat Station Project
Gear Theory

One Camera, One Lens – A Methodology that Stuck – by Jack Lowe

July 31, 2020

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!

Jack Lowe's Nikon F3 HP with MD-4 motordrive

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.

Jack Lowe working on The Lifeboat Station Project in Donaghadee, Northern Ireland

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.

The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe: Dave Milford, Plymouth RNLI Coxswain, 12x10 inch Clear Glass Ambrotype, March 2020

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.

The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe: The Ilfracombe RNLI crew, 12x10 inch Ambrotype, June 2015

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!

If you’d like to learn more about The Lifeboat Station Project, head to the website where you can see all the photographs made so far, as well as listen to some of the audio recordings.

You can also sign up to receive the newsletter and learn about the many ways to become a supporter, including joining as a patron (as Hamish has done) from just £1 per month.

If you’d like to follow on social media, you can find me on Twitter.

See you there!

Thank you for reading,

Jack

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17 Comments

  • Reply
    Sciolist
    July 31, 2020 at 4:40 pm

    As I commented to the lads at the Classic Lenses Podcast, having listened to your great interview with them, it’s just great to know there’s people like you out there. All the very best with the continuance of the Lifeboat Station Project, and I hope the lockdown didn’t have you totally demented. The Lifeboat at Berwick Upon Tweed, where I grew up, seemed to be a part of every kids life. And I ended up sitting next to one of the Lifeboatmen at my first job. He’d leap up and bolt out the door, grabbing his coat without even looking for it, and we’d matter-of-factly cover for him with barely a comment. Everyone, including the boss, knew what his real job was, and, to be honest, often thankful it wasn’t us heading out in that weather. It’s great to see you honouring them this way.

    • Reply
      Jack Lowe
      July 31, 2020 at 4:45 pm

      Thank you very much for your kind words. It’s great to hear that you’ve experienced a bit of lifeboat life — on my local coastline too!

      The lockdown’s been a learning curve in itself — as it has for all of us, of course — but I feel confident that I’ve used the time wisely and even come up with a whole new dimension to the project, which I’ll be announcing on my Patreon page shortly.

      Thanks again,

      Jack

  • Reply
    Graham Spinks
    July 31, 2020 at 8:14 pm

    This is the best project ever! A extraordinarily powerful way of capturing fantastic places and wonderful people. And two mugs of tea from my Neena mug is the best possible start to the day.

    • Reply
      Jack Lowe
      August 1, 2020 at 8:09 am

      “The best project ever”, eh? I’ll take that! Thank you, Graham, and glad you’re still enjoying your Neena mug!

      — Jack

  • Reply
    Kevin Ortner
    July 31, 2020 at 11:44 pm

    Thanks for sharing your amazing work. I couldn’t agree more about the one-camera, one-lens photography to give one a new perspective.

    • Reply
      Jack Lowe
      August 1, 2020 at 8:10 am

      Thank you, Kevin, and glad you approve.

      — Jack

  • Reply
    Markus Larjomaa
    August 1, 2020 at 7:54 pm

    Isn’t Instamatic 126, not 110 format?

    • Reply
      Jack Lowe
      August 2, 2020 at 8:19 am

      You’re quite right, Markus — a slip of the keys. The 110 cassettes came later with their ‘pocket’ version. Duly amended and thank you for pointing it out.

      — Jack

  • Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    August 4, 2020 at 3:45 am

    Hello Mr. Lowe,
    I’m finally glad to “met” the photographer behind the lens (and film holder!) of the remarkable series of photos depicting the Life Boat Service. I read about your work and images in Black+White Photography magazine. It’s a great publication, the production values are second to none. It’s the only photo mag I still get here in the US.
    Your photos are remarkable, but they’re more than what meets the eye. You’ve created photo artifacts; you’ve slowed down time and honor the subjects of your project by your working methods.
    A few years ago, I shot an entire year with a 50mm lens mounted on my M2. My full kit included a Gossen (analog) Luna Pro, HP-5 film and anicillary bits and pieces. I can’t say I fully enjoyed the self-imposed limitations, but I emerged understanding one thing; I ‘see’ with 35mm eyes, and since then I’ve pretty much stuck with the moderate wide-angle lens. That should be the point of such an exercise. It actually is liberating; you never second guess your lens selection. And, at my age (69) one could say the die is cast, and there isn’t much time left to make major changes.
    Finally, I’m awe struck by these remarkable volunteers who risk death on a regular basis Like the members of the international medical profession who have worked to create miracles during COVID-19, they truly deserve to be called heroes. Thank you for showing them to the world.
    Keep healthy.
    -Dan
    flickr.com/photos/dcastelli9574/

    • Reply
      Jack Lowe
      August 5, 2020 at 8:31 am

      Thank you for all your kind words and observations, Dan. I really enjoyed the way that the Black+White Photography magazine team approached the piece, and I really liked their images choices too. I left it all in their hands and they certainly came up with the goods.

      “Liberating” is a good way to describe the process of reducing your kit choices. The natural assumption of having more kit is that it’s liberating but it can often be stifling.

      And it’s my pleasure to show these incredible people to the world — an honour, in fact. I’m very glad that you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen so far.

      Thanks again,

      — Jack

  • Reply
    Chris Rusbridge
    August 4, 2020 at 5:56 pm

    Jack, that’s a great story and a wonderful project. I was inspired to try an OCOLOF project for 6 months or so by Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer (eg see https://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2009/05/a-leica-year.html). I used a Leitz Minolta CL and a M-Rokkor 40/2 lens, plus Tri-X film. It really helped me to get back to “seeing” in black and white again after 40 years of colour. I sold the gear because the other lenses were too expensive, but (of course) now regret it. One of my favourite photos ever was taken with this combination. Now I use a Pentax MX and LX, and usually venture out with just the one lens for a whole roll of film; currently the Helios 44K. Thank you again, Chris

    • Reply
      Jack Lowe
      August 4, 2020 at 8:19 pm

      Thank you, Chris. It’s great to see others advocating this approach too. The benefits are enormous!

      — Jack

  • Reply
    Bernd Runde
    August 5, 2020 at 12:07 pm

    Hi Jack, I’m glad to see your still on your project! I really like your work. Are you still traveling with your mobile darkroom – the ambulance van? I had the pleasure meeting you in that thing in Lacock Abbey some years ago.

    -Bernhard (aka Cliff)

    • Reply
      Jack Lowe
      August 7, 2020 at 8:59 am

      Great to hear from you, Bernhard. I remember meeting you and making your portrait in 2014 very well! Yes, still travelling in the ambulance — check out the links towards the end of the article to see what I’ve been up to.

      Best wishes,

      Jack

  • Reply
    Soloman khan
    August 10, 2020 at 2:12 pm

    That image was amazing, certainely a cogent argument for simplicity. I used a nikkormat FT3 with two different films, ilford SFX for B+W images, and kodak ektachrome with mostly a standard 50mm nikkor lens, and occasionly 135mm prime lens.it gives you the sternest learning curve to seek newer pastures, to visualise and capture stunning vogue pictures without a clichèd twist.i would also advise new wannabee photographers to never get hung up on “gear collection” but rather learn every aspect of the more dominant issue’s; light, shade, form, texture, the limits of film in use, camera and lens controls without ever having to think or look away from the prevailing image to be created.

    • Reply
      Jack Lowe
      August 11, 2020 at 10:12 am

      Thank you, Solomon. And, yes, always good to work out whether you are into equipment or photography — it helps you to pursue your interest(s) more faithfully, although both are mutually compatible, of course.

      — Jack

  • Reply
    Jack Lowe | Featured Photographer | On Landscape
    September 20, 2020 at 12:08 pm

    […] I chose wisely: the 1905 Thornton Pickard 12×10 inch field camera with a 12 inch Emil Busch lens. 12 inches is slightly wider than ‘standard’ on a camera this size and I’ve now used this combination to make every single plate on the project, suiting my methodology of one camera, one lens to a tee. [I’ve written more about that here]. […]

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