Shooting with Minimal Photography Gear
If you're still new to photography it's easy to become a gear addict. Embracing the idea of shooting with minimal photography gear is the farthest from your mind. You wonder if you should you use a cropped or full-sensor camera. What about those L-series lens (if you're a Canon-user)? Should you use a zoom, telephoto, or prime lens? There’s so many categories and subcategories. One could go bankrupt chasing the greatest gear. While I do love experimenting with new gadgets and gear for my camera and even try out new editing software, I tend to lean towards shooting minimally.
Benefits of shooting with minimal photography gear
When I’m traveling around and my focus is street and signage photography, I prefer to bring as little gear as possible. My camera body (the Canon 5D Mark III), the 50mm f/1.4 prime lens, and my beloved iPhone. Occasionally I’ll bring another specialty lens like a Lensbaby but 9 times out of 10 I usually stick with my core three pieces of gear, here are a few reasons why.
Ease of use
For one, when you’re out on location ease of use is of the utmost importance. When I see something I want to shoot, I don’t have time to switch lenses so I have to make what I have in my hands work for the moment. I also like the creative constraints and the challenge it brings. It’s easy to get a perfect shot when you have the top of the line equipment but doing so with less is much more challenging and satisfying when done right.
Another big issue is safety. When you’re on the streets of any major city it’s important to not stand out. You don’t want to be the one with a huge camera, a long telephoto lens, plus a tripod. Everyone stares and suddenly it’s that much harder to capture scenes natively. I like to blend in with the environment and capture events as they happen. When someone knows there’s a camera on them they act differently. It’s like being on your best behavior while your parents are watching. It’s not you 100% of the time. It’s a part you play.
The more attention you call out, the more “expensive” your equipment looks, the more prone you are to theft. If you’re shooting solo like I do most of the time, it’s a good idea not to bring your best equipment with you on the streets. So leave that L-series lens at home when the version below will do just fine.
Master your gear: Do more with less
Shooting with minimal photo gear also forces you to do better with what you have. If you’re constantly trying out new gear you’ll never have time to master it. It's a skill and one that can be learned. Have one lens as your constant, the one you’ll use if you have only one choice. Over time you’ll learn everything about it. How to push it to the limits, when to step back, and most importantly shooting manually will become second nature.
When you’re familiar with your camera, your lens, and your settings, somehow your fingers instinctively know what to do in any given situation. It’s a bright sunny day? Ok make sure the ISO is at 100 or 200. You’re trying to freeze a moving subject? You adjust for a faster shutter speed. Need the camera to bring in as much light as possible while the sun is setting? Open up the aperture.
It sounds like a lot to think about all the different scenarios that go into play with every situation but I promise it comes easier with practice and choosing to shoot minimally. One day someone will ask you how do you know what settings to use and you’ll look back in awe because the process has become one with you, like breathing or blinking.
Why prime and not zoom?
So you might be wondering if I choose one lens to shoot with why do I go with the 50mm lens and not a standard zoom lens? It all comes down to preference and experience. In time you’ll develop your own style and your go-to lens may differ from mine but it’s a good one to go with if you’re at a loss for where to start
.I prefer to get in close to a scene, 50mm is the perfect focal length for the images I see in my mind. Of course there are times where I wish I could zoom in closer or farther away but in those cases I use my feet. I walk up closer to the scene to frame it as I see best or I back up when possible to allow for a few more key details.
Aside from zoom and cropping, the most important feature at any given time is the aperture. I absolutely love shooting with wider apertures and I often push the lens to the extreme and shoot in f/1.4 if the conditions can handle it. I’m more of a sunset and night shooter so shooting with a lower aperture is key unless you’re standing around with a tripod which isn’t how I like to travel most of the time.
Choose minimal photography gear based on your style
My style is dark and not necessarily everything needs to be in full focus. I prefer the natural vignette and bokeh effects that result when using a lower aperture. Yes, you can achieve similar effects and manipulate in post-processing but it’s important to get your vision done right in camera. It also saves you a huge headache later when you realize you didn’t get what you needed on location.
These stylistic cues may not be what you’re looking for in photography and that’s ok. It’s only through time and experimentation you’ll figure out what lens serves you the best 90% of the time. For many years I started out with a Canon Rebel XSI and two standard zoom lenses, 18-50mm and 50-200mm. This gear taught me a great deal about photography but I didn’t really discover my style until I purchased my first prime lens, that nifty 50. My world changed. Suddenly all the images I saw in my head I could now bring to life. That gap from what I saw and what I created grew smaller with each photo because I found the gear that works best for me.
Shooting minimally, one camera, one lens. It's my photography toolkit, it works for me. Now, what works for you?
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