Why I Got Rid of My Camera Collection and Why You Should Too – Maybe

It took me just over two years of shooting a different camera every week to realize I was ruining myself on cameras. Partly to blame was the simple fact that I run a camera shop and a website concerned with classic cameras, and these entities necessitate the handling of many different machines. But also to blame, and many of you who don’t run camera shops or blogs can speak to this just as well, was the collection urge that occurs when one is deeply invested in a hobby.

A camera would come into the shop, and rather than adding it to inventory or quickly writing a feature, I’d fall in love. It would be in particularly fine condition, or it would offer some minor feature that differentiated it from the other cameras I owned, and that would be that. Another camera added to my shelf of keepers. Eventually, though, that shelf became too crowded, and a new shelf was employed. And a third. And a sixth.

But eventually, enough is too much. When I looked at my shelf and saw, among many other things, eight different SLRs from the 1970s, all essentially the same beyond the minutia of a unique exposure compensation methodology, or the trivia that this one was designed by an Italian while this one was designed by Maitani, I knew things had gotten out of hand. More telling, I hadn’t used any of these SLRs in over a year.

The chief problem with being both a collector and an active shooter, as I see it, is that the one inevitably draws off the other. Our mental and physical energy is a finite resource, and when one activity is difficult and the other easy it’s almost guaranteed that the easier one takes precedence. In this case, collecting is the easy fun. The result is that we end up spending more or most of our energies on what could rightly be argued is the wrong concern.

Instead of poring over the work of those photographers who’ve come before us, or taking time to meet and connect with other shooters whose influence might stand to shape us and help us grow, we’re researching whether or not the lens mount of the original Olympus M1 would’ve been fastened with slotted or JIS Phillips drive screws, and how to tell modern screw heads apart from non-originals in order to better spot a fake.

I should mention that these screws should be slotted.

Worse than this obsession with pointless detail, for me, was the fact that when I did manage to get out and shoot, I was doing so without any thought for the art of photography. I was always using an unfamiliar camera. I was looking at dials and knobs, and figuring out whether or not the machine had exposure lock. I was squinting through a viewfinder and firing without stopping to wonder if the shot I was taking was worth making. Instead of honing my craft, I was experiencing a new machine every single time I went shooting. I was shooting the same subjects in the same locations I’d been shooting for years. And not even thinking about it.

That’s an interesting exposure dial. Click! Oh, I didn’t expect the frame lines to be so bright. Click! I really hate this aperture control. Man, that mirror slap is loud. This camera is too heavy. Click!

These and other similarly prosaic thoughts solely occupied my mind when out taking photographs. That’s crazy. And, yes, it’s true that this is part of my job, that I have to write about cameras and sell cameras for a living, which naturally means I’ll never have the kind of experience with photography that others, whose jobs don’t require shooting out of obligation, get to experience. But even accepting this fact of life, I realized one day that I wasn’t making things any easier on myself by owning fifty cameras.

It was at the moment when all the experimentation and joy and fun had been essentially drained from photography, that I decided to get rid of my collection. Furthermore, I decided to make it a point to shoot once a week solely for my own pleasure and for the refinement of my admittedly meager abilities.

But things are never so black and white. Sure, I wanted to eliminate my collection and focus on shooting, but I also take a nuanced approach in all things. To simply sell all but one of my cameras didn’t seem like the answer. That’s like a hungry man throwing away a bushel of apples and keeping just one seed for himself. There are situations in which I want to use a rangefinder over an SLR, and sometimes I want to shoot medium format, and I could never sell my SX-70 but my SX-70 could never be my one-and-only camera. I needed a plan, and pretty quickly I’d formed one. And quite happily, this plan left ample latitude to maintain a comparatively tiny batch of usable cameras that most people would still consider to be a collection.

It was a pretty simple strategy – I’d separate my cameras into type and then keep my favorite model. One rangefinder, one TLR, one SLR, one professional medium format camera, one instant camera, one point-and-shoot, and that’s it. A camera type for literally every possible situation, and my collection would be reduced to a few frequently used cameras. Plus, I’d still have a gorgeous collection of amazing machines. Perfect.

The hard part, of course, was determining which camera was my “perfect” camera. And it took a long time. But I made it happen. And though I’m still not a very good photographer, I’m happier. When I go out to shoot, I’m out to shoot. I’m not worrying about gear, or afraid of damaging something, or unsure of how the machine will work in this or that lighting condition. I know the camera. I know how to use it and what it’s capable of, and I’m able to focus on getting to an interesting location, finding a decent subject, framing, composition, light. More than anything I’m enjoying being out taking pictures.

I’ve written in the past about why I shoot film, why I love cameras, and why I think photography is the best hobby. And plenty of other voices have chimed in about the phenomenon that is colloquially (and somewhat fondly) referred to as Gear Acquisition Syndrome (more cleverly, GAS). These voices nearly always sing a chorus of aversion, that GAS is something to be expelled so that we can more easily focus on the craft and enjoy real growth as photographers. There’s certainly some truth to this and I’ve learned it the hard way. But at the same time, I understand the passion that drives collectors, and there’s nothing wrong with being a collector as long as we’re not pillaging our kids’ college funds to score that rare Barnack Leica, or skipping the electric bill to buy more glass.

For me, the trick was finding balance. How many cameras is too many? How involved in photography (with a capital P) do I want to be? What’s my one-and-only camera? For every shooter these answers will be different. But I think it’s useful to think about these questions and try to find the answers so that we can avoid burnout, spend our time wisely, and enjoy photography (and life) just a little bit more.


Any thoughts on GAS? Have you pared down your collection or is your collection overwhelming? Let us hear about it in the comments.

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41 Comments

  • Reply
    Frank Lehnen
    July 17, 2017 at 7:53 am

    My humble ‘collection’ has pared itself down nearly of it’s own each time I needed some money. Not that those were were expensive cameras, but eacht ime I had a nice collection of Olympus’ or Canons, bam! Gone.

    I had to accept that I’m not a collector. Now I have to force myself th be a photographer and to …. ahem focus on taking pictures with the remaining ones.

    In fact they serve VERY well. Nothing great, just cameras and a handful of lenses (mostly fifties…)…. at least until the next GAS infection!

  • Reply
    Adam
    July 17, 2017 at 8:01 am

    Part of my own GAS stems from my interest in history, and the desire to really get the full breadth of this hobby as it has existed throughout the roughly 90 years of the use of rollfilm in the main stream. The other part stems from an excess of idle time and access to cheap outlets to pick up new acquisitions that I convince myself are wise “investments” to sell off later as “tested working” examples of the craft.

    Pragmatically though, I could more or less cull my collection down to under a dozen and have more than what I really need, and some day I might. For now though, it’s nice to know that I can load up anything ranging from a 1930’s Univex “00” format folder to a 2001 Maxxum 5. and enjoy the experience, which is what counts the most.

  • Reply
    Merlin Marquardt
    July 17, 2017 at 8:15 am

    Great revelation. Can you help me reduce my collection?

    • Reply
      Frank Lehnen
      July 17, 2017 at 8:16 am

      I can help! Send all that crap over to me 😉

  • Reply
    dan james
    July 17, 2017 at 8:56 am

    A very balanced article. I’ve gone through a similar process myself in the last six months or so. Ironically, the two cameras I’ve used most and got to know best in recent months have been “old” (c2006) Pentax DSLRs, combined with much older glass, mostly M42 Takumars. With film cameras I was rarely shooting the same camera twice, with all the associated frustrations and lack of focus and consistency that come with this unfamiliarity, as you’ve mentioned.

    I must say I know you have three (?) writers on this site, but most of the camera reviews I’ve read have been very passionate and enthusiastic and as if the camera/lens being reviewed is utterly essential and the only one worth buying. Until the next one comes along a week later. This makes good reading and encourages others to explore the cameras (discovering the wonderful Contax 139 Quartz was mostly due to your review of it here a while back), but must make it difficult to settle on one camera for yourself, and convince yourself it’s the only one you need!

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      July 17, 2017 at 9:02 am

      Hey Dan. We’ve got five writers now, but your point remains accurate. We love cameras. There’s no getting around it. And we tend to focus on special, unique, or historically significant machines. So that may be why many of our reviews sound glowing, even though we do make sure to mention all the negative aspects of the camera in question. We often fall back on the “there’s no such thing as a perfect camera” line.

      There have also been some stinkers, like the time I really hated the Rollei B35 and the time when the “legendary” Fuji GW690 completely failed to light the spark.

      I think the problem I’m pinpointing here is that there are just so many amazing classic cameras, and when they’re passing through the shop as often as they are it can be really difficult to remember that you don’t need to own every single camera, and in fact this can be counterproductive.

      • Reply
        dan james
        July 17, 2017 at 3:09 pm

        James, it’s so difficult to choose even with some experience!

        I’ve tried SLRs from maybe six or seven brands, and any one of them with an accompanying decent 50/55mm lens I could go out and take great pictures with.

        I think for me the final image has become a secondary measure, because so many are so capable.

        I’ve been able to hone down by finding the cameras and lenses that FEEL most right for me, that handle the best and I feel most at home with. In my head, and in my hands. Which is a Pentax body with a Takumar lens 90% of the time.

        But if I’d stuck with my first 35mm from about five years ago, a Praktica BMS Electronic with Pentacon 50/1.8 lens, and never tried anything else, I know I’d have got plenty of pleasing pictures.

        I think like you say in your post, that point comes where you make a decision between being a collector or a photographer. We can of course be both, but I think one has to be the dominant hobby, if we’re to get the most from it.

        I’ve decided I’d rather try to become a better photograph with the kit I have than keep expanding my collection, sounds like you have too.

  • Reply
    Joshua
    July 17, 2017 at 9:41 am

    Great insight. Like other commenters I’ve pared down my “collection” naturally. The arc of my collection story went from buying interesting, unique pieces to buying up everything I could afford, toselling most of it and only buying pieces that complement my style and fit my kit. One SLR (Nikon F2), one TLR (C330), one rangefinder (QL17 GIII), and an old 4×5 view camera. I’m so happy with this set. Good to hear that others are having similar situations. Enjoy.

  • Reply
    Jim Grey
    July 17, 2017 at 10:18 am

    You’ve written yet another article that I wish I had thought of first. Except in this case I haven’t pulled the trigger on this level of ruthlessness in culling my herd.

    I can see me having one TLR, one rangefinder, one P&S. Well, maybe two rangefinders: my Canonet QL17 and one of my Retinas. But I will not be able to get below seven or eight SLRs. Gosh, I love SLRs. I can’t imagine selling off my Nikons F2 and F3; my Nikon N90s; my Canon A2e; or my Pentaxes KM, ME, and Spotmatic F. I am likely to keep a Canon FD-mount body and a Minolta MC/MD-mount body because you never know when you’ll stumble upon an interesting lens for them cheap.

    But even then, this will cause me to part with some cameras that I simply adore. My Konica Autoreflex T3. My Miranda Sensorex II. Oh, I could list a dozen more, but you get the point.

    Given that camera reviews remain very popular on my blog, and given that I really enjoy the experience of trying a new-to-me old camera, I can’t see myself not buying more. If I don’t become 100% the photographer I could be because I didn’t pare down to one SLR, one TLR, etc., then so be it. The journey will have been worth it.

    But I have at least implemented one rule: for every camera I buy, one camera has to go. Period.

  • Reply
    yashicachris
    July 17, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    Very well written and you bring up some interesting points. For myself, I have what I’ll describe as a “dynamic collection”… a nice mix of historical (to me) cameras and a mix of pristine purely collector cameras. These may be cameras that I’ve always wanted but could never afford or cameras that didn’t catch my interest until I saw them in their later stages of life. I have cameras that I buy and recondition, use for a bit, write about them and then off to my online stores. The money earned allows me to acquire the next upgrade to the collection and the next “gotta have” camera. So far it’s worked out well – I do have more cameras than I should and some will fall out of favor and off to the store they’ll go. Since I mostly collect and use vintage Yashicas, the price points I deal with are within my budget. While I can appreciate the history of Leica and marvel at the money they bring, I’m a happy shooter with my Niccas, which in my humble opinion, are just as good if not better.

    Soon the entire collection will have to go – father time waits for no man. I will keep two TLRs, my Fujica GW-690 and my original Canon F-1 and Yashica TL-Electro-X. My everyday shooters will be the best of my 35mm P&S plastic fantastics from the 1990s, and of course I’ll keep my mom’s Kodak 636 and my dad’s Polaroid Pathfinder 110. I’m in negotiations with father time right now but he’s given me no clue when the culling should begin. So in the meantime the GAS pipeline is open and flowing!

  • Reply
    bodegabayf2
    July 17, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    I’ve gotten serious this year about selling off some of my cameras that I don’t shoot enough. I was hovering around 25 at one point. I think I am down to 15 or so now. I’ve also taken to getting a CLA for the ones I love shooting. It’s the least I can do for them. The problem with selling is that, as the PayPal balance increases, so does the temptation to do a little late night browsing (f/stop cameras, eBay, KEH).

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      July 17, 2017 at 4:20 pm

      Investing in lenses is a way of satisfying the urge while still maintaining focus, right? That’s what I tell myself anyway.

  • Reply
    Cork Van Den Handel
    July 17, 2017 at 3:22 pm

    I haven’t the money to really “collect” at this time and I’m more interested in becoming a better photographer, so I’m paring down to one 35mm MF lens system with bodies and one AF lens system that is shared by a film body and a dSLR. I love Jim Grey’s “rule” of eliminating one camera for each that I acquire, but all bets are off when it comes to lenses. (sigh)

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      July 17, 2017 at 4:18 pm

      Lenses are a different matter entirely. I say lenses are priceless and worth collecting!

      • Reply
        Cork Van Den Handel
        July 17, 2017 at 4:26 pm

        We really spend far too much time fixating on/talking about/searching for the “camera”, when it’s the lens system that’s the heart and soul of photography!

      • Reply
        Adam
        July 18, 2017 at 10:52 am

        The thing is – all too often the best finds involve lenses being sold as part of a set that includes a body. There’s no escaping the GAS when that happens.

        • Reply
          Cork Van Den Handel
          July 20, 2017 at 9:41 am

          That’s true, but then you can bundle the unwanted stuff that came with the one lens you wanted and sell that off… or give it away.

  • Reply
    Raymond van Mil
    July 17, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    Keeping one favorite camera from every type has always been my strategy! I even use the same lenses for my digital and analog camera (6d versus eos3, both ef), a few polaroids for every type and a Mamiya Universal. I have the urge to buy camera’s but simply don’t, better invest in an extra lens or darkroom stuff..

  • Reply
    Matthew Borowka
    July 17, 2017 at 7:29 pm

    I definitely had GAS. I was spending money trying out the various luxury point and shoots, the CLE, the m6, twin lens reflexes, slr’s (both 6×6 and 35mm), olympus xa, and so on.

    Nothing seemed to fit the bill, and I was shooting so much and trying out so many cameras that I ended up going in debt with film development and GAS.

    Then I actually found my (near) perfect camera in the fujifilm xt20. I never thought I’d end up taking on a digital camera as my primary weapon of choice. But, here we are.

    Moving forward, I think I’m going to stick to the fuji lineup (x100 series is beautiful – i just want them to update the lens; xt3 will be a new investment in a couple years), as well as my lovely f90x.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      July 17, 2017 at 7:42 pm

      That’s a great choice, really. The Fuji XE1 was my personal digital camera of choice for a long time. It was everything I wanted, and Fuji’s lenses were unbeatable in both image quality and price. When I needed to switch to a full frame sensor for the purposes of lens reviews for this site I swapped for the Sony a7. It’s also a nice camera, but if I had my choice I’d shoot Fuji.

      • Reply
        yashicachris
        July 17, 2017 at 7:55 pm

        I agree James… the Fujifilm X Series (and their lenses) are under appreciated but getting their just due now. I love the fact that being a film manufacturer gives Fuji an edge on its film simulation modes – I especially like the ACROS, Velvia and PROVIA modes.

  • Reply
    Randle P. McMurphy
    July 18, 2017 at 4:12 am

    Yes GAS is definitly a PROBLEM for ME

    I dont own a lot of luxury gear but I am a sucker for old Nikon cameras and lenses
    which are easy and cheap to find on Ebay nower days
    So I own some pieces more than one time (even in different versions) but still
    cant hold myself back when there is a new bargain offer

    I just love USING that stuff and was never going to be a collector

    Couldn´t it be worse ? Gambling maybe ? Drugs ? Alcohol ?
    Other expensive lifestyle ?

    ……..and you always can change gear back to MONEY right ?

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      July 18, 2017 at 7:47 am

      Hey Randle! Good to hear from you again. And you’re right. There are certainly worse vices.

  • Reply
    yann gibert
    July 18, 2017 at 7:16 am

    So, what was your final selection?

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      July 18, 2017 at 7:48 am

      Good question. Someone else asked this too. We might do a “what’s in our bags” post with all the writers. Stay tuned.

  • Reply
    Huss
    July 18, 2017 at 11:29 am

    Great article, as always. And a huge problem for me as I cannot pick my favourite camera in any of the line-ups – RFs, SLRs, TLRs…
    But for me, I come up with a concept, then pick the best camera for the job.

  • Reply
    Martin
    July 19, 2017 at 1:21 am

    She who must be obeyed collects handbags & shoes, so why can’t I collect old cameras… that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      July 19, 2017 at 7:16 am

      Keep fighting the good fight, pal!

    • Reply
      Frank Lehnen
      July 20, 2017 at 2:25 am

      I hope you don’t compare lowly, useless cameras to gorgeous and indispensable handbags….. 😉

  • Reply
    aprilius20
    July 20, 2017 at 5:17 am

    So, I guess it’s time to check out your store for new stock? 😉

  • Reply
    alderbrook2014
    July 24, 2017 at 1:02 am

    Flat out cruelty to do that whole article and not tell us all what you chose!

  • Reply
    jeffwalin
    July 25, 2017 at 11:46 am

    I have decided to do exactly the same thing. My approach is to keep my Agfa Record 6×9 and Isolette 6×6 because thats the only medium format I have, and keeping one body for each lens mount I have. That means a Canon FD, Canon EF, Pentax K, Pentax Kaf, Nikon F, Minolta SR, Olympus OM, Konica AR, and M42.

    Now I just have to figure out which bodies to keep! And where to sell them without being raped with fees….

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      July 25, 2017 at 11:48 am

      Keeping one for each system isn’t a bad idea. I like that. Fstopcameras.com buys unwanted cameras, FYI. But good luck wherever you sell!

  • Reply
    Matt Melcher
    July 25, 2017 at 8:14 pm

    I hear it said that cameras are tools, but your method is almost like deciding to get rid of all your tools and keeping 1 hammer, 1 saw, 1 screwdriver and 1 wrench. I suggest paring down to one type (SLR, RF, etc), or brand (Minolta, Lieca, Hassy – whatever). And yet,I understand what you are saying. I find myself coming back to the same cameras over and over – why not sell the ones I don’t use and buy more film, lenses, etc.

  • Reply
    N8thecowboy
    August 16, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    You can have my camera collection… “When you you pry it from my cold dead hands!” – Charlton Heston. Ol’ Chuck was talking about cameras wasn’t he? I have found myself in a similar situation, with a different solution. Fifty-two cameras is the magic number. One for each week of the year. And that’s it. And maybe one extra for leap years…

  • Reply
    Wolfgang
    August 31, 2017 at 4:25 pm

    If sb would give me the money that the cameras are worth, I’d be willing to sell them – or at least 10 or so … Would keep three: My OM-1, my Leica M3 and either my Pentax ME, Asahi Pentax Spotmatic or Contax SLR with the Zeiss lens. Only when I go to dealers, show them my A- pieces and hear them offer me 30 to 50 EUR, I am offended and leave the shop again. Maybe I should I should try one of those Fotoboersen, as they are called in this country, some kind of flee market for cameras. But your insight sure made me think again … Thanks for that and keep on shooting!

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