When I first started getting excited about photography I did as many people do, and went out and bought the most expensive camera I could afford, and a whole bunch of lenses. More lenses, the thinking goes, mean more versatility, and more versatility means always getting the best photo.
The collection kept growing and I got to the point with my digital setup that I had two fixed primes (28mm and 50mm) and two zooms covering every length from 14mm to 200mm. The issue was that even when all of these lenses did leave the house with me (which was very rare), actually switching a lens for a specific shot was something that basically never occurred. I’d put on one of the primes (usually the 28mm) and it would stay there all day.
When I moved over to film, it was very easy to repeat the same mistake – lenses were much cheaper and I could nearly afford the same sort of coverage with primes alone. Again though, 90% of the lenses sat collecting dust whilst just a couple came out every day.
I don’t think it was just about having the versatility though. There is some gearhead psychology going on that says the more you have the better you are, the more professional you look, or something like that, even when all that equipment is sitting at home out of sight. Worse than this, it is very easy to imagine that a ‘better’ camera will magically give you better images, or that a more expensive lens will compensate for learning that has not taken place – there is always something newer, shinier, ‘better’.
Then there is the alternative. It is very easy to say that the best camera is the one you have in your hand, but putting it into practice involved accepting that all of those purchases were not really improving my photography, and certainly no one was thinking I was more professional than I am (which isn’t very professional at all). I broke the cycle by moving to a new system (I went from Pentax to Canon), and flatly refusing to buy anything more than a single lens.
The restriction is liberating. I don’t leave the house with ‘a camera’ and a bag full of lenses, I leave the house with ‘my’ camera – the only camera that I could leave the house with on that day. I have been using the same focal length for nearly two years now and am now able to gauge exactly where I need to stand to get the shot I want, before I have even looked through the viewfinder. But most significantly, my results are consistent. I am not re-learning everything for a new camera or lens, and the ratio of good shots to bad has changed significantly.
More than this though, everything feels purer. I did the work, not the camera, and the photograph is mine, not the lens manufacturers. it is basic photography, but that’s where the magic happens. One need only look at Cartier-Bressons choice: 50mm. One focal length for basically every shot he took. More stuff doesn’t make better pictures (or photographers). This is not to argue that everyone should give away all their equipment and buy a 50mm lens, but that there is value in finding something that works for you, sticking with it until it you have perfected it, and remembering that anyone who judges the camera, rather than the photograph, has an opinion that doesn’t really matter that much anyway.