Having trouble getting more out of your photography? Perhaps the answer is to do less.
I am a big fan of podcasts. Perhaps to too high a degree. In fact, one of the sad facts of mathematics is that there simply aren’t enough hours in a day to listen to all there is to offer. Not that I’m listening just to pass the time. Rather, I am one of those people who loves to learn about things. Everything really. And I find the long form podcast format to be a great way to really get into the nuts and bolts of a topic and provide adequate context to make it applicable to the real world.
Other times, podcasts are less informative and more thought-provoking. Whether that was the intention of the podcast or not is another story. But, often, I’ll be listening and something the moderator says will spark my brain in a different direction and inspire me to look at things from a different angle. This happened twice this weekend. Once, while listening to a thematic discussion about the film Everything Everywhere All At Once on the Cinema of Meaning podcast. Then again, a few days later, when listening to Shankar Vedantam’s social science podcast Hidden Brain.
I won’t bore you with all the details. I encourage you to check them out for a good listen. But both episodes touched on the more universal idea of consumption and the human tendency to always want more. Feeling unfulfilled? More money must be the answer. Not getting that shot you want? More gear must be the answer. Whatever might ail us, the answer we devise seems to always be some form of addition.
I’ll give you an example from the Hidden Brain podcast. Fair warning, I’m going to butcher the details. I am 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 in a more efficient and cost-effective manner, while providing greater stability and cooling. To solve the problem, he hired an ace crew of designers to come up with solutions to the problem. His intention being to select the best one. But, based on the needs of the project, all the designers he hired were having trouble coming back with a design that would improve on the original without adding significantly to the costs. They added a bit here and a little there. They tried using different materials. They tried expanding this room and that one. But nothing worked.
Then, one day, someone came up with the answer. At first, the change in the winning idea wasn’t so obvious. In fact, the design looked very similar to the original. But still it cut down on costs, increased insulation, and took less time to build. So what gives? Simply put, the designer had come up to use hollow blocks for the house’s foundation rather than solid ones. Simple as that. Because the mass of the weight-bearing on the blocks occurred around the edges, using hollow blocks didn’t result in a loss of stability. The hollow chamber in the center of the blocks somehow trapped airflow (I will not even begin to explain this) which resulted in better insulation. And, by not filling in the blocks, the architect could cut down significantly on both building materials and assembly time. Less was quite literally more.
To be sure, it will be a long time before I am in any way qualified to build a house. But it got me to consider how we often approach problem-solving in photography. Much like the architects building the house, our natural inclination as human beings is to constantly throw more at a problem to fix it. If a shot isn’t working, we ask ourselves where we can add light. Having trouble getting to the heart of a subject? Which lens can I buy to improve my perspective? Whatever the problem is, surely it could be easily solved were we to just have more resources at our disposal.
But, like the house example, so many times we overlook the obvious. Sure, addition may be the answer to our current quandary. But rarely do we consider doing less. And sometimes deciding to do less can be the key to unlocking even the largest of our obstacles.
It might not have been obvious but so many of the positive events of my own career have resulted from taking away rather than adding on. For example, the first major set of awards that I won was for a dance project I did years ago in and around Los Angeles. Even though it was early in my career, I already had more than enough tools in my arsenal to play with in terms of equipment. I didn’t know how to use all those tools correctly yet. But that’s a story for another day.
This particular project would see me photographing dancers all over the city in various situations. I wanted to keep things super simple and super fluid. Creatively, I wanted to remove all distractions. Logistically, I had to do with less out of sheer practicality. I didn’t have the budget to rent or make elaborate sets. I didn’t have the resources to rig lights all over town. So I settled on a natural light approach, and dedicated myself to a single lens. Just one lens. An inexpensive 50mm plastic fantastic. 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 exhibition, winning multiple awards, and launching me into an entirely new phase of my career.
That series was quite some time ago and I’ve gone through several such career transformations in the years since, but the lesson remained. You can do a lot with a little. And just because you don’t have the money to block off a section of the city or shoot with the most expensive gear, doesn’t mean you can’t create art. In fact, by limiting myself to one focal length and limiting my lighting options ended up not being a hindrance, but a major benefit to the production. Instead of focusing on technology, I could really focus on connecting with my subjects and consider what was in the frame rather than what tools I was using to make the frame. The final result may not have been as polished as I might have achieved with an entire grip truck at my disposal, but the simplicity of the setup resulted in something far more honest than I would have likely achieved otherwise.
Of course, this is just one example from my own experience. But the idea of adding through subtraction has far broader applications. Take, for instance, the case of film noir. For non-film lovers out there, film noir was a subgenre of crime films made mostly in the post World War II years characterized by a very distinct (often) black and white visual style, morally ambiguous lead characters, femme fatales, and great dialogue. I could write an entire series of articles about what film noir is. And what it isn’t (just being black and white does not qualify as film noir). I encourage you to do some research. But, for now, for purposes of this essay, let’s just say that the look of film noir was very, very cool.
The look of film noir was so distinctive and beautiful that the aesthetic of the genre still influences movies today, roughly 80 years after it was developed. What’s amazing about that, as it pertains to our discussion today, is that the majority of noirs were made on extremely low budgets. These were more or less quickie potboilers not afforded the larger budgets of the studio’s prestige pictures. So the filmmakers had to work within tight limitations in order to get what they needed.
But rather than the tighter budgets being a detriment, they actually added to many of the characteristics that we associate with the genre. John Alton, the master cinematographer behind everything from T-Men to The Big Combo, was famous for throwing these dramatic shafts of light across his scenes, which created high contrast pools of light and deep shadows. This is a look that very much defines the genre. But it was largely practical. Without a massive budget, they couldn’t afford to build elaborate sets. With fairly plain sets, you have to use light and shadow to hide certain budgetary shortcomings and focus the audience’s attention on what you actually want them to see. Likewise, the more scrappy and earthbound vibe of film noir in comparison to other films of the time was also often a result of having to produce the movies without substantial resources. These could all be seen as limitations. In the most objective sense, they were. But working within these limitations ended up generating a pot of gold.
We live in a world now where it is entirely possible to have everything, everywhere, all at once. So, it is even easier now than ever before to think that the solution to all of our problems is to simply add more weapons to our arsenal. It’s tempting to spend our way out of every problem. And, it’s easy to think that if we can’t afford to spend our way out of problems, that all hope is lost.
But, if we really take a step back to think about it, we can realize that our limitations can be blessings. Being forced to, or even better choosing to, work within a set of limitations can often allow us to more easily access the truth and focus on what counts. Focus less on the things just beyond your reach. Spend more time focusing on maximizing what is already in your possession. Less can be more. It’s all a matter of how you look at it.