It was 1991 and most of my assignments were being done on medium format film with one or another camera from Sweden. There's a myth that floats around the web like a party guest who's drunk and won't leave, that all the pros back in the film days used 35mm cameras. Well, I know the four or five hundred sports shooters did but the other 200,000 professionals mostly used medium format...except for the ones that used 4x5 inch film. With the exception of documentary photographers and event photographers very few pros used much 35mm for real work until the late 1990's and, even then, would quickly scurry back to medium format, given a choice.
Anyway, the dollar was strong and Belinda and I decided to take a real vacation, not just a quick jaunt to the coast or a long weekend in San Francisco or New York. A real vacation. Two weeks or so and out of the country. We headed to Italy. I packed light. I brought a Hasselblad 500 C/M with two lenses: a 50mm f4.5 and a 100mm Planar f3.5. I also brought along about 100 rolls of Kodak Tri-X (magic film). The camera was rudimentary. Just a waist level finder and a couple of 120mm film backs. No meter. No autofocus. No motors. Just my eyes, my brain and as much cool industrial art as Hasselblad could cram into a body. My back-up plan? Buy another camera on site if this one failed. But I was using Hasselblads in the studio, shooting 20 or 30 rolls a day for years and I hadn't had one fail on me yet...
So, what did I learn hauling that around? Well, to start with I like medium focal length lenses and I could have just left the 50mm at home. The 100 was about the equivilant of a 60-65 mm lens on a full frame, 35mm style camera and it always seemed just right. I learned to judge exposure by using the little slip of paper that came packed from Kodak with each roll of film. They had printed pictograms of the most common exposure situations and the accuracy was better that anything we get using a meter.
I learned, with 12 exposures on a roll to be discerning about what I shot. I also learned to be patient. If I shot too much too quickly I'd be out of film just about the time something really cool was happening. I learned that old, waist level cameras were invisible and anonymous. And I learned for the 10,000th time that the square beats the crap out of all other photographic formats.
When I got back home I learned that a big negative trumps all the technology in the world for image quality. I learned that 120 mm film made contact sheets where each individual image was big enough to judge with the naked eye.
Belinda in Siena.
Belinda in Verona
And I've learned over the years that the pursuit of perfection in photography is great if you are trying to exactly replicate a box of laundry detergent or a stereo receiver for an advertising project but that perfection tends to suck the life out of images that are meant to be savored and enjoyed.
I'm happy if something is in focus. I'm happy if the image reminds me of an experience and I'm happiest when I can see the grain. When I can see the grain I know it's art.
Finally, if you are shooting art for yourself you really only need one lens. Not an all purpose lens but a lens you can believe in. A lens that, when you look through it, makes everything look more exciting and more real. A lens that matches the vision in your heart. All the other lenses are bullshit. They make them so professional photographers can do stuff the way clients want it. Really. If you don't get paid to do this stuff just narrow down and narrow down until you find a lens that makes your vision sing and then sell the rest. You'll argue and you won't believe me but if you do it you'll be so much happier with your work five years from now. Honestly. It's the one thing I've learned chasing business and clients. You compromise your vision. One lens is all you need. In fact more lenses just cloud everything up.
The best fashion shooter I ever met just had one lens. It was a Hasselblad 150. The front element looked as though someone had put a cigarette out on it. She didn't own any other lens so she never had to think about which lens she would use or how she would work. She just did her work and it was stellar. No choices, just the right choice. No confusion just vision. Amazing. But now we're all so fearful we feel like we need to have "all of our bases covered" even when we're just doing this for fun. That's why it's not as much fun.
Zooms are for sissies. I have a collection. I'm just a sissy. Show me the guy with one 50mm lens and no bag and I'll show you an artist. Or at least a guy without a back problem.....
You won't listen anyway. Go ahead and buy whatever you like.