Josh’s Thoughts on GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) and Film Photography

Josh’s Thoughts on GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) and Film Photography

2200 1237 Josh Solomon

“Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted… He lived happily ever after.”

I always hated that line. Not only does it spoil Gene Wilder’s wonderfully witty, sardonic interpretation of Willy Wonka, but the idea itself rings hollow. Even as a kid I just couldn’t believe that anybody could get everything they ever wanted, and live life problem-free. Not even the winner of a golden ticket.

But let’s play hypotheticals for a second – what if you actually won a golden ticket? What would that golden ticket lead to? For many film photo geeks, including myself, that golden ticket would likely come in the form of a cure for GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. If there’s a happily ever after in film photography, it probably comes in the form of an endless supply of cameras, lenses, and film. But does getting all the gear you want really make you happy?

Acquiring massive amounts of gear seems beside the point when it comes to capital-P photography (cue that infamous Ansel Adams platitude about the 12 inches behind the camera), but in a medium which is dependent on the gear you use, the want of that gear is simply unavoidable. It takes a camera with a lens and some film to make a film photo, and each component has a huge impact on what your image looks like. Add that to the temptations caused by the constant stream of gear porn pushed by film photography related websites and social media accounts, and it’s only natural that we’d want all the gear we can get our hands on.

The solution seems obvious; buy everything you want. Simple enough, unless you’re a young, broke photo geek. I was once such a geek. When I began my obsession with film, I had to gather up spare change just to have a shutter to fire, a lens to focus, and film to develop. The coveted Leicas, Rolleis, and Alpas that populated internet forums and photography websites were out of the question; I instead had to settle for ratty thrift store SLRs and the occasional online deal.

After shuffling around a couple of half-working cameras, I ended up with a beat-up but functional Nikon F3 and a single 50mm f/1.4 lens. Minimal though the setup was, it saw me through my teething phase as a photographer, and soon my love for cameras and photography grew with every roll. But even though I loved it, I couldn’t shake the GAS. All the photography websites I’d read would dangle camera after camera, lens after lens in front of me, each with their own special reason for me to buy them. But because I couldn’t afford anything else, I resigned myself to the fact that I’d always be stuck with one camera and one lens.

Until one day, I won the golden ticket. I got hired to write for the site you read today.

Getting hired here meant I suddenly had access to all the different cameras, lenses, and film I wanted to try. In one fell swoop, my GAS looked like it was cured. I felt like Charlie, without a penny to his name, suddenly with a key to Wonka’s own chocolate factory.

Since I signed on with CP, I’ve done things I could only dream of. I’ve had the chance to run roll after roll through a beautiful Rolleiflex 2.8D, I’ve experienced the sheer joy and ease of shooting with a Nikon F6, and I even got to do my best Henri impression with a Leica M2. Every week, I run around one of the greatest cities in the world with a different camera, lens, or film, shooting what I want to shoot as well as coming up with new challenges for myself, just for fun. And best of all, I don’t have to worry about wanting more, or wanting too much. By all rights, it should be a happily ever after.

But just as I had suspected as a child, a golden ticket isn’t a one way ticket to happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to write for CP. But writing about and reviewing cameras every week has shown me firsthand the pitfalls of becoming too gear-centric. While reviewing, I tend to scrutinize cameras on a level that strips them of the beauty that attracted me to them in the first place. If I’m honest, after operating so many of them, they all start to look the same. What was once incredible and beautiful now looks commonplace and bland. I feel the GAS setting in, and I find myself wanting something ever smoother, ever sleeker, ever fancier when I really don’t need it.

And when I fall into that gear-centric state of mind, I find that I prioritize the cameras I shoot over the photos I make. I’ve noticed that I now tend to think about image quality over artistic intent, build quality over what my photos mean, flare resistance over good composition. That shift in focus often leads to some incredibly uninspired, meaningless technical images, just one step away from the dreaded 100%-corner-crop-of-a-brick-wall shot. Combine that with the jaded mentality we carry into these reviews and it’s easy to see how shooting even the most coveted machines on earth can feel like an empty, hollow experience.

Yes, the world of film photography gear is a vast world with thousands of beautiful machines. But after focusing so much on the gear, I feel like I’ve lost that initial spark that made me want to use that gear to begin with. I feel like I’ve lost that original urge to keep learning the craft of photography and to make photos that really mean something to me. I’m missing that feeling of boundless discovery and beauty that first attracted me to film, and I just can’t find it while shuffling through camera after camera.

But in picking up a very particular camera, I find that I get a little closer to what I’m missing. It’s my old F3, the only functioning camera I had before I won that golden ticket, and the camera whose review helped me win it.

To this day, my F3 remains my favorite. It’s one of Nikon’s finest; a sleek, beautiful, easy-to-use camera made to withstand nearly anything thrown at it. But today, that isn’t why it’s special.

It’s special because it’s the camera that reminds me of how beautiful photography can be when you take everything back to basics. Even though I only had this one camera and only one lens, it was enough, somehow. Sure, there were obvious limitations, but it also meant that I needed to push myself creatively to get a good image. I needed to get imaginative with my compositions, arrange subjects using different angles, and mess around with shutter speed and aperture values to get the effects I needed. When looked at from a creative standpoint, the seemingly limited SLR-plus-fifty setup is actually an incredibly deep, potent combination.

And when I go back to these basics, I begin to focus on what really matters – the image. I compose more deliberately, I choose my settings with more care, and I consider the message I’m trying to convey. The world around me even takes on a brighter sheen and becomes a little more beautiful, as images start to appear even in the most mundane, everyday places and situations. It’s when that happens that I’m really and truly happy with my photography, and especially happy if a decent image comes out at the end of it all.

Though in my case it’s the Nikon F3 that fills this need, it really doesn’t matter what camera you use. Almost any manually operated camera with a lens can accomplish all of this, so long as you stick with it long enough. A twenty dollar Zenit E with a ratty, slow Industar lens can get you there just as well as a gajillion dollar Leica MP-6 armed with a bazillion dollar Noctilux. Sure, the Leica’s nice and the Noctilux might get you a good shot in lower light, but with some ingenuity, the Zenit is just as capable of making a good image.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for having won that golden ticket. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to shoot Leicas and Rolleiflexes whenever I want. But is it a happily ever after? Do I feel more fulfilled as a photographer? Is the GAS gone? In a word, no. I’m no more fulfilled as a photographer for shooting everything I wanted. Worst of all, the GAS is still there. I find myself wanting more, then wanting less, then wanting more again, ever dissatisfied. And through it all I always find myself missing that feeling that I had at the start, when I was broke, and it was just me, my one camera, and my wits.

And as I’m writing this, I can see my old F3 sitting among the rest of my cameras. It’s still as beat up as the day I got it, and bears even more scars from our own adventures. But now there’s a thin layer of dust covering the top plate. Maybe I should blow the dust off and take it out today. Who knows, I might find what I really wanted, after all.

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Josh Solomon

Student, photo geek, contributing writer. When not jamming with my band in L.A., I'm shooting uniquely mechanical cameras.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
23 comments
  • Nice post!

    Having everything does not make me happy, photographically speaking. Since I sold all the stuff except my XA2, the Leica IIIa and the Spotmatic, both with fifties only I find that I have all I need.

    No more pondering about lenses, cameras…

    But I have to beware of GAS every day.

  • …….but there will come the day that you find a new favourite to replace your F3 and then the guilt will set in. I acquired an M7 last year with a Motor-M and I am afraid it has replaced the M4 as my favourite, after 50 years (the M4 was my 21st present). My M4 sits sadly gathering dust on a shelf. Every time I see it, the guilt sets in……until I pick up the M7. I also acquired a unused ex-Japanese collector, 50mm Summilux III (the 1999 year LTM Special Edition), which has quickly become my favourite 50mm Leica lens and I have lots of different ones. I much prefer it to the over sharp/harsh and very stiff to focus 50mm ASPH Summilux I used to have. It is also very small for an f1.4 50mm.

    Wilson

    • May it take fifty more years for my F3 to be dethroned! An M7 + Summilux is about as good as it gets, glad you’re enjoying yours.

  • “…in a medium which is dependent on the gear you use, it’s simply unavoidable. It takes a camera with a lens and some film to make a film photo, and each component has a huge impact on what your image looks like.” Thank you so much for this point, I’m glad you said it because most other posts I’ve read on GAS try to suggest gear isn’t important at all. Quite the opposite, I’d say that even before you concentrate on the photography itself you should make some decisions along the lines of ‘I want to shoot a 35mm lens on 35mm b&w ISO 400 film’ etc. and then stick to it. I spend a lot of time taking pictures with both 35mm and 50mm lenses and then looking over the results to decide which I prefer and thinking about which I prefer actually using, because it is important. Gear becomes a pointless endeavour when you start thinking too practically about it in my opinion, e.g. ‘I want a 0-999mm zoom so I’m ready for every shot’ is not as conducive to producing thoughtful photos as sticking a small prime on your camera and seeing in that focal length all the time.

    • Very true! Gear is absolutely important, and having gear that helps you accomplish what you want is essential. That said, I think a healthier way to think of acquiring gear is to view it as a search for something that works with your own vision instead of a materialistic, status-driven, wild goose chase. I think a wholesale shift in focus would lead to more thoughtful, meaningful work, as well as a more nuanced understanding of the idea of GAS and how gear relates to photography.

  • Well written article Josh, and it gets nicely to the point. One camera should be enough.
    I’m old and gave up film long ago, so this is my second life with film. When I got the bug again, it was about the “shiny thing” and why not? It was a very clean, serviced, Zorki-1, not so much money, and great, sharp pictures. Then the trouble started, a first Leica, another, different model, then another later model. I sold the Zorki, I wasn’t using it.
    I say I’m not a collector, but it is harder to be a one-camera-guy then to have a group, and I missed the Zorki-1. So I sold a Leica and got a nicer Zorki-1. The Ukrainian laughed at the “American who sells a Leica to buy a Zorki.”
    I think that having a sober realization that getting the next shiny thing will not bring you satisfaction, but you can enjoy them for what they are, is a big step toward the moderation of GAS.

    • Hah! Love it. The Zorki-1 is a fascinating camera, hopefully we can get our grubby hands on one soon. I’m glad you’ve found that satisfaction, and in such an unlikely camera too! Enjoy it, and thanks for the kind words!

  • Randle P. McMurphy January 1, 2018 at 2:37 pm

    GAS makes the difference between a full time photograper and a amateur “collector”
    This was my first thought becaue I know a lot of photograpers who really dont care about cameras
    They just use them as a tool to make pictures and didnt find something “mystical” about it
    Same clients even give a shit when I enter the room and say Bob Lebbeck died

    So for myself I can be both I think. Do photography for a living and go on collecting gear
    Lost myself in pictures from photograpers who made me pick this profession
    And dont care about thought of others….

  • Shooting different formats helps keep my gear acquisitiveness in-check. Like I constantly fret that the old summitar that came on my M2 may be pretty tired in a world of crons and luxes -and then I shoot my battered Rolleiflex that I got from an old wedding photographer and suddenly a sharp tiny 35 negative seems like less of a big deal…but then i start thinking but what about a hasselblads, Plaubels, Mamiyas …etc? Well I’ll just shoot a few shots off with my crown-graphic which even with its “potato” graphex lens blows away any negs I’ve ever seen in medium format; but at about that point, I put a roll of HP5 in the Leica and marvel at the convenience and handling of the format more-so than the Leica-ness of the Leica and I’m back in love again…until I’m back in love with the rollei; then the crown and the cycle repeats. Great article Josh, I’ve really enjoyed your contributions and this article was kind of a fun memory lane of those articles.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words Zachary! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the articles, and i’m glad you picked up the retrospective nature of this one! Your point about different formats is a good one; I think that gets overlooked in the discussion of 35mm optics in particular.

      P.S. M2, Rolleiflex, and a Crown Graphic? You’ve got good taste! Show us some shots from that large format monster sometime!

  • Don’t be a user of gear, be a creator of images.

  • Having played guitar for over 40 years, I see a lot of similarities between the world of guitars and the world of cameras. Lots of toys to drool over, lots of “if I only had a xxx I could do like that famous guy”. But the important thing is finding the tools that work for the art you want to create. A great guitarist can make great music on a cheap guitar – the same way a great photographer can make great photos on a cheap camera. But finding a tool that inspires you to go out and do things, that’s the important thing. It might be an old Argus or a new Leica – doesn’t matter as long as it inspires you.

    • As a bassist myself, I wrote lots of this with the music world in mind. I completely agree; finding a tool that works with you and inspires you is the most important thing when it comes to searching for gear! And for what it’s worth, i’m a die-hard P-bass guy. It’s not flashy (or even progressive), but nothing beats it for what I do.

      • My first electric, and still my favorite, is an old Les Paul Junior – one pickup on a slab of wood, but what a tone!

  • GAS is something I’ve learned to live with, not conquer. I suppose I have a very sagnuine take on GAS — I don’t see it as an inherently bad thing. I think of it as a facet of the desire to experience something new, something that if missing from someone would make me very suspect of said person’s character. Of course,GAS can be bad if taken to extremes, but what good things in life aren’t the same way?

    At least GAS is a relatively cheap form of collecting. I’m also afflicted by car ADD, which is several degrees more expensive. Lessons I’ve learned from my constant buying-and-selling of modern sports and classic cars led me to adopt a couple of rules that have also worked with my GAS. First, limit space. I have a four car garage (lucky me!), and so can only have four cars that need garaging. I have a single bookshelf that has to hold all of my digital and analog photo equipment. No rental storage units, no extra bookshelves, I define a box where I can play and that’s it. Second, use my stuff. Third, get rid of the things I didn’t use because of cost or because I didn’t enjoy using them, and replace them with new things to play with, understanding that I have a boundary box for how many cars I can park or how much gear I can store thanks to step one.

    This iterative approach eventually nets me a base of cameras that I like using on a regular basis, and a rotating cast of cameras that come and go. I discover the cameras that I really like and they stay put, and I give myself permission to keep browsing Craigslist and eBay and going to swap meets and garage sales and the like.

    What I’ve also learned over the years is that things that I would have never guessed would become my favorite things would have remained unknown to me had I not given myself permission to try them out. My ’66 Mustang, the quintessential Fisher Price My First Classic Car and originally slated to stick around only until I had this classic car ownership thing figured out, has outlasted several other classic cars and even several modern, faster sports cars in the fleet. I’ve taken it on several long road trips and many adventures, and it’s pretty much secured its spot in the garage. Similarly, my Mamiya C220, initially just thought of as a stepping stone to better medium format cameras, has outlasted several waves of camera swapping, and has somehow become the originator of a good three quarters of my favorite film images.

    It’s no surprise then that for my road trip to Alaska that the vehicle I’ll be driving is the Mustang, and the camera I’ll be bringing with me is the Mamiya C220. Well, it’s no surprise now, but if you asked me five years ago what my choices would be for such a trip, they probably wouldn’t be these.

    So I embrace the GAS and set boundaries for myself to keep things from getting too wild. Life’s too short to drive the same car, shoot the same camera, shoot the same film, eat at the same restaurant, and travel to the same place forever and ever. Embrace the novelty of the new, for that eventually becomes our established and reliable.

    • Very well said! Really love your point of defining a box in which you can play. You’re right, gear acquisition isn’t inherently bad by any means, and can certainly be positive when it comes to introducing yourself to new things. I think I just felt the need to address the pitfalls of its extreme, which is incredibly easy to fall into if you haven’t set boundaries for yourself!

  • I think your Nikon F3 needs a bit of tender loving care! I am finished with my bout of GAS. I bought the cameras and lenses I lusted over. Said goodbye
    to a popular auction site and now looking for subjects to capture on film. Thank you in addressing this syndrome!

  • Interesting post Josh, with a different angle on the whole GAS subject.

    I think trying different cameras is fine, and can help us broaden our experience and skills. The main problems I’ve found with buying more cameras and lenses than I will ever have time to use are –

    1. Trying to decide which to take out on any one photowalk. Then when I did pick one, I’d be wondering if I made the right choice, which impacted how much I enjoyed using it.
    2. Feeling I was always a camera tester, rather than a photographer.
    3. The time I was spending on the buying and selling of the cameras – hours a week I could have been spending on being out taking pictures, writing more blog posts and other more fruitful pursuits.

    I do feel a bit sad about how this has evolved and those innocent early days of shooting film about seven years ago when it was all about discovery and excitement and largely gone, because I overindulged.

    But at least by trying as many cameras as I did, and constantly thinking about what I really wanted (sometimes you don’t know what you like unless you’ve tried a few options), I’ve reached a point now where I’ve been happy with just a couple of cameras the last few months. Ironically, after years with 35mm film SLRs, these two cameras are both Ricoh digital compacts!

  • I enjoyed reading this and all of the comments. I had it figured out for years after various aquisitions by keeping a pair of F3 Nikon bodies, then a pair of D70, then a pair of D300. But not all at the same time except the pair. I do have a pair of Nikon f100 film bodies but now only a D7000 to go with the F100 bodies. Mostly because of a friend I also have a bunch of Minolta cameras and lenses and a Yashicamat 124g a camera I used to have many years ago. The best cameras I ever owned; Nikon f6 and Hasselblad 500cm. We are doomed with this sport.

  • Another factor I realize with the fun with film is that encourages scanning to post to social media. Scanning is another can of worms. There is gear to acquire and “fun” figuring out the process. I was talking over the poor results from photo labs that make 4×6 prints from color negs. Another problem to remember. Then the nagging question is do I just use my digital body today and avoid these hassels and avoid a lot of this fun?

  • Hi, my name is John and I am an addict.

    Almost 35 years ago, I fell in love with photography. I had no idea what I was doing, I just knew that it felt good doing it. But as the ‘Auto’ settings on my entry-level camera gave way to a desire for more creative control, I acquired my first Nikon – an FM – and learned my craft with a 28, a 50, and truckloads of film. In 1990, I dropped my entire tax refund on a 1st gen 80-200/2.8 AF. I explored every nook and cranny of the world around me with that equipment. I developed and refined my style using that gear which would later be my signature. Back in those days, I became totally absorbed in my subject matter, exploring it from all aspects, riding the flow of inspiration as it carried me through endless permutations of new and exciting arrangements. These moments can only be described as ethereal I think… where you lose yourself in the creative process and transcend to another level of awareness.

    But then something happened… I naively believed that the best gear would lead to the best images and became enamored with lens reviews, gobbling up studies of resolution, aspherics, and modulation transfer functions. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was embarking on a nearly three-decade long quest to acquire practically every Nikkor produced. The more obsessed I became over adding lenses and bodies to my collection, the more distant my artistic identity became. The purity of my photographic vision gave way to the acquisition of glass, and my addled brain marinated in Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins as I anticipated the arrival of each new piece. Since then, I have amassed a stockpile of over 30 camera bodies and nearly 70 lenses. I was no longer a photographer, I was no longer an artist; I was a collector. I loved owning my equipment more than I loved using it. In fact, while reading this site’s review of the Nikkor-O 35mm/f2 a little while back, I actually got out my copy and had it sitting on my desk next to me while I read, stealing glances at it in between paragraphs.

    Naturally, throughout all of this, my work suffered. Not immediately, but insidiously over time and it ended up as boring, uninspired mediocrity. It seemed Newton’s Third Law was at work here – the more glass I added to my life, the closer to unimportance my work became. Indeed, my images from the past few years can be neatly tidied up with one little four-letter word: lazy.

    It occurred to me then, that in order to rediscover my vision, a cathartic cleansing – both spiritual and material – was essential. First, I decided to implement a one year ban on purchasing gear. I asked my wife to enforce this, to which she cheerfully agreed. Next, to demonstrate my commitment to myself, I decided to eliminate a drastic 20% of my gear right out of the gate, exercising a blatant disregard for any emotional attachment. It was tough, but I did it. Finally, I am using my remaining gear throughout this year in an effort to decide which pieces bring me the greatest satisfaction in my work. A “wash, rinse, repeat” method may be required to ultimately make this work, but I am five months in and happy. I am beginning to feel my way around a composition again and I’m recapturing the primal pleasure of simply making an image.

    LBA/GAS may always be there with me, but no longer will I allow it to plunder the life from my art form.

    Thanks for listening.

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Josh Solomon

Student, photo geek, contributing writer. When not jamming with my band in L.A., I'm shooting uniquely mechanical cameras.

All stories by:Josh Solomon