How You Can Get More With Less in Photography

Struggling to get the most out of your photography? The answer may be to do less.

I’m a big fan of podcasts. Perhaps to too high a degree. In fact, one of the sad realities of math is that there simply aren’t enough hours in a day to listen to all there is to offer. Not that I just listen to pass the time. On the contrary, I am one of those people who like to learn things. Everything really. And I find the long-form podcast format to be a great way to really get into the details of a topic and provide adequate context to make it applicable to the real world.

Other times, podcasts are less informative and more engaging. Whether that’s the intention of the podcast or not is another story. But, often, I’ll listen and something the moderator says will kick my brain in a different direction and inspire me to look at things from a different angle. It happened twice this weekend. Once, listening to a thematic discussion on the film Everything everywhere all at once on the Cinema of meaning podcast. Then again, a few days later, listening to Shankar Vedantam’s social science podcast hidden brain.

I won’t bore you with all the details. I encourage you to consult them for a good listening. But both episodes touched on the more universal idea of ​​consumerism and the human tendency to always want more. Do you feel dissatisfied? More money must be the answer. Not getting the photo you want? More equipment must be the answer. Either way, the answer we design always seems to be some form of addition.

I’ll give you an example from the Hidden Brain podcast. Fair warning, I’m going to slaughter the details. I’m neither a neurologist nor someone with a photographic memory, but here’s the gist. An architect was doing an experiment. He was trying to build houses more efficiently and cost-effectively, while providing greater stability and cooling. To solve the problem, he hired a team of ace designers to come up with solutions to the problem. His intention being to select the best. But, depending on the needs of the project, all of the designers he hired struggled to come back with a design that would improve on the original without significantly increasing the cost. They added a little here and a little there. They tried to use different materials. They tried to enlarge this room and that one. But nothing worked.

Then one day someone found the answer. At first, the change in the winning idea was not so obvious. In fact, the design looked a lot like the original. But it still cut costs, increased insulation, and took less time to build. So what gives? Simply put, the designer had decided to use hollow blocks for the foundation of the house rather than solid blocks. As simple as that. Since the mass of the support on the blocks occurred around the edges, the use of hollow blocks did not lead to a loss of stability. The hollow chamber in the center of the blocks somehow trapped the airflow (I won’t even begin to explain it) which resulted in better insulation. And, by not infilling the blocks, the architect was able to significantly reduce building materials and assembly time. Less was literally more.

Admittedly, it will be a long time before I am qualified to build a house. But it got me thinking about how we often approach problem solving in photography. Much like the architects who build the house, our natural inclination as human beings is to constantly throw more at a problem to solve it. If a plan isn’t working, we wonder where we can add light. Having trouble getting to the heart of the matter? What lens can I buy to improve my perspective? Whatever the problem, it could certainly be easily solved if we had more resources.

But, like the example of the house, so many times we overlook the obvious. Of course, addition may be the answer to our current dilemma. But rarely do we consider doing less. And sometimes deciding to do less can be the key to unlocking even the biggest of our obstacles.

It may not have been obvious, but so many positive events in my own career have been the result of taking away rather than adding to it. For example, the first major set of awards I won was for a dance project I did years ago in and around LA. Even though it was early in my career, I already had enough tools in my arsenal to play with in terms of gear. I did not yet know how to use all these tools correctly. But that’s a story for another day.

This particular project would see me photographing dancers all over town in various situations. I wanted to keep things super simple and super smooth. Creatively, I wanted to remove all distractions. Logistically, I had to make do with less for pure convenience. I didn’t have the budget to rent or do elaborate sets. I didn’t have the resources to install lights all over town. So I opted for a natural light approach and dedicated myself to a single objective. One lens. A fantastic inexpensive 50mm plastic. Armed with nothing but a Nikon D700, a 50mm f/1.4, and a group of willing subjects, I went out and created an entire series over several weeks and multiple locations. The series ended up getting national exposure, winning numerous awards, and launching me into a whole new phase of my career.

This series goes back a while, and I’ve been through several career transformations like this over the years since, but the lesson has stuck. You can do a lot with a little. And just because you don’t have the money to block off a part of town or shoot with the most expensive equipment doesn’t mean you can’t create art. In fact, limiting myself to one focal length and limiting my lighting options was not an obstacle, but a major advantage for the production. Instead of focusing on the technology, I could really focus on connecting with my subjects and considering what was in the frame rather than the tools I was using to create the frame. The end result may not have been as polished as I could have gotten with an entire grip truck at my disposal, but the simplicity of the setup resulted in something much more honest than I probably would have gotten it otherwise.

Of course, this is just one example from my own experience. But the idea of ​​adding by subtraction has much wider applications. Take, for example, the case of film noir. For non-movie fans, film noir was a subgenre of crime films made primarily in the years following World War II, characterized by a very distinct (often) black-and-white visual style of the main characters morally ambiguous, femme fatales and excellent dialogue. . I could write a whole series of articles on what film noir is. And what it isn’t (just being black and white is not considered film noir). I encourage you to do some research. But, for now, for the purposes of this essay, let’s just say that the film noir look was very, very cool.

The look of film noir was so distinctive and beautiful that the genre’s aesthetic still influences films today, some 80 years after its development. What’s amazing about this, as it relates to our discussion today, is that the majority of blacks were made on extremely low budgets. They were more or less fast potboilers who couldn’t afford the larger budgets of studio prestige footage. So the filmmakers had to work within strict confines to get what they needed.

But rather than the tighter budgets being a downside, they actually added to many of the characteristics we associate with the genre. John Alton, the master cinematographer behind everything from T Men at The big combo, was famous for casting these dramatic rays of light across his scenes, which created high-contrast pools of light and deep shadows. It’s a very genre-defining look. But it was mostly practical. Without a huge budget, they couldn’t afford to build elaborate sets. With fairly understated sets, you have to use light and shadow to hide some budget shortcomings and draw the audience’s attention to what you really want them to see. Likewise, the more rambling, down-to-earth vibe of film noir compared to other films of the time often resulted from the need to produce the films without substantial resources. All of these could be considered limits. In the most objective sense, they were. But working within those limits ended up generating a pot of gold.

We live in a world where it is entirely possible to have everything, everywhere, all at once. So, it’s even easier than ever to think that the solution to all our problems is simply to add more guns to our arsenal. It is tempting to walk our way out of every problem. And, it’s easy to think that if we can’t afford to get out of trouble, all hope is lost.

But, if we really step back and think about it, we can realize that our limitations can be blessings. Being forced, or better yet choosing to work within a set of limits, can often make it easier for us to access the truth and focus on what matters. Focus less on things just beyond your reach. Spend more time focusing on maximizing what is already in your possession. Less can be more. It’s all about how you look at it.

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