Musings on Photography

The Power of Less

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on January 7, 2009


Sometimes I end up subscribed to the RSS feeds for blogs without understanding why I’ve done it. One blog I’ve been reading for a while is unclutterer, where just recently I read this post reviewing the book The Power of Less. That review contained the follow excerpt from the book:

Principle 1: By setting limitations, we must choose the essential. So in everything you do, learn to set limitations.

Principle 2: By choosing the essential, we create great impact with minimal resources. Always choose the essential to maximize your time and energy.

I confess that I am not completely sold on the absolute correctness of either of these principles. But that’s not what interested me. What actually caught my attention was that I think they very much describe something important about my photographic process. The blog post goes on to discuss how the limits of the haiku form – spare, stripped down to essentials – can actually be an advantage in creating powerful poetry.

This isn’t an uncommon line of thought in the photographic world. If I had another dollar for every time I’d read someone urging the practice of ‘one camera, one lens’ as a way to improve, I’d so many dollars that I could afford to go out and buy another camera and lens.

And, in fact, SoFoBoMo is just this sort of practice. By limiting the scope to photographs and text all created in a single month, we can make things easier instead of harder. That seems paradoxical, but it seems to be true – 60 people who participated in SoFoBoMo got books done, and that surely can’t be because doing it in a month made it harder.

The trick seems to be that restrictions are sort of like pre-made decisions. If you’re writing haiku, the decisions are: three lines, seventeen syllables. If you’re doing SoFoBoMo 2009, the decisions are: 31 days, more than 35 photos, PDF. If you’re doing the ‘one camera, one lens’ thing, you no longer choose camera and lens. And by giving up those degrees of freedom, we narrow the domain of what we’re doing enough that it becomes more achievable.

I’m not a strict practitioner, but for the past year, the vast majority of the exposures I’ve made have been with a single camera and lens. it’s not even a particularly general purpose combination, because the lens is my creaky but sturdy and venerable EF 100mm f/2.8 macro. Doing the bulk of my photography with a lens that is about twice normal focal length, focuses slowly (when it focuses at all), and is big and heavy might seem madness. Even more madness, I’ve been making my photographs with a single aperture – wide open, at f/2.8. This probably runs contrary to every bit of photographic advice you might find anywhere.

But it’s forced me to learn to look for different kinds of photographs from what I’ve been doing for the previous years. There are infinitely many photographs out there to be made, and even very small subset of the universe of available photos turns out to be an infinite set of photos. By making this quirky lens and aperture choice, I’ve (in advance) walked away from vast swaths of photos. I’ve reduced the choices I have to make

It turns out there’s a different sort of seeing that happens when I’m out with the 100mm lens. It’s a narrower view. I’ve started to learn what works, and what doesn’t, and I no longer spend much time seeing photographs that I can’t make with the 100mm lens. It’s forced me to look for a way to make photos that, contrary to my previous inclination of ‘everything must be in focus’, have very little in focus, and the photo can be more about out of focus forms than about anything being in focus. I’ve learned about how focus draws attention, and out of focus areas sometimes ‘read’ as objects and sometimes read as blobs of color.

The decision to photograph mostly in my gardens, mostly with the EOS-5d and the 100mm f/2.8 macro lens at f/2.8 – that was made consciously. It was a sort of experiment. What would happen if I did that? Like Jim Brandenberg’s one exposure a day period, it was a sort of intentional break from my existing practice.

I can’t claim that my photography has improved – that the photos are better or more abundant. But I have felt a sort of strange freedom that was created by limiting my options. Interestingly, by ruling out almost all of the sort of photos I’d been making for years, and allowing only these new, unfamiliar sort, I made myself a beginner again. It feels good.

So, at least for me, limiting the options has been a rewarding experience. This is a somewhat counterintuitive notion, especially given that all the advertising done by the photo industry seeks to imply that if you don’t have the latest, greatest, super-automated high resolution super-wonder-camera and the matching ultra-lens, you can’t make decent photos. That advertising is, of course, designed to sell cameras and lenses. Small wonder, then, that it doesn’t necessarily correspond with what you might find most rewarding photographically.

(apologies in advance to Martin, for the out of focus foreground branch. That, too, is a sort of experiment.)

6 Responses

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  1. Anita Jesse said, on January 7, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    When I first saw the SoFoBoMo challenge, I was utterly terrified by the demands. On the other hand, I was reminded of the words from Rollo May that have long guided me: “Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations.” I knew that I had to accept the challenge, because without those limitations I would never complete such a demanding project. Thank you again for this, and I will definitely embrace the insane limitations once again this year.

  2. gordonmcgregor said, on January 7, 2009 at 6:50 pm


    I’ve also paired down my bag of lenses, but mostly for portrait work, so that I spend less time fiddling with the camera and more time worrying about the person I’m actually trying to take a picture of.

    Make as many decisions up front, so that I have more time to make the important decisions, seems to work well for me. Otherwise I’ll still be trying to work out which lens to use or what focal length to zoom to and the person will already be bored and have physically or mentally moved on.

  3. julie said, on January 8, 2009 at 3:32 am

    I do find it slightly amusing when my friends worry about which lenses to bring with them on trips in case they leave behind the one that would allow them to capture whatever particular amazing photographic opportunity presents itself. The thing is, I would rarely see a picture that was that great, that I wouldn’t shoot with either of my two (three if you count the good old nifty fifty) lenses – because I pretty much see depending on what I’m using at the time. As you say, you get used to the focal length especially when using a prime and your eyes automatically fix themselves to seek out what ‘fits’ that view.

    I also had a wee laugh when a friend pointed out that when I have the holga lens on, I walk around looking up, and when I have my 100mm macro on, I walk around looking down šŸ™‚

  4. Erik said, on January 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    I guess I’ve been swapping lenses too much. I’ll regularly come upon something and need to switch. The big culprit for not having the right lens for an amazing opportunity is usually either wildlife or macro. “zoom with your feet” just doesn’t work if you lens can’t focus or your subject runs away.

    Lately I’ve always been carrying the 100mm macro, but never a long telephoto, so I just enjoy the critters without photographing them (100mm usually just isn’t long enough for good pictures of a lizard or deer).

  5. Rakesh Malik said, on January 9, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    I find myself using one lens for most of my photography anyway. It’s fun, and in many ways liberating; you just worry about shooting, and don’t worry about changing lenses and that sort of thing.

  6. mark a. said, on January 18, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    Quite the conundrum, isn’t it? Focus on using one particular lens and you start to look at your world in a way that is limited to that lens. Or use more than one and find life less simple; more complicated.

    This must mean that it is time to have two dSLRs, each mounted with its own particular lens!

    Now to convince my wife of the need for more stuff……

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