“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.