Yesterday, while waiting for Monika outside a store, I had an epiphany.
Rewind. About a week earlier, we had spent three days holding an analog photography workshop and, still being in the spirit of this old and slow medium, just minutes earlier we had talked about the analog photography time we had planned for this weekend.
And then while I was waiting for her outside the store, it hit me right in the face. All the talk about reducing and simplifying, all the thought about limitation and constraint, all the ideas of slowing down and removing choice from the equation, it all of a sudden clicked into place with a massive *THUMP*.
At this point I'll have to rewind even more. It all started with Harvard professor of psychology Dan Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness. About a year ago I watched his TED talk about how external influences don't determine your happiness and how making a choice and sticking to it will make you more happy than having too many choices all the time. And about how we human beings so easily fall into the trap of making the wrong choice to set ourselves up for misery.
Here is the link to the video, if you haven't seen it, I highly (!) recommend you watch it and think about the implications of what Gilbert talks about. In the long run those might as well be the best spent twenty minutes of your life.
» Video: Dan Gilbert, Why Are We Happy?
Finished? What I write in this article will make a lot more sense after watching it. While writing this article, I have watched it again, probably my seventh time, and every time the implications of his research become more clear to me. And I can't help thinking "...now *that* explains..." over and over.
The essence of his talk is very simple, but the implications are huge: up to a certain point choice is good and desirable. But having too much choice makes us unhappy. Yes, this is pretty much at odds with the freedom that we all hold up so high. Which is why if you haven't by now, you need to watch the video
. Really really.
An example: if you take into account all the different types of coffee, milk, flavorings and ways to combine them, you could come up with over 16,000 different drinks at Starbucks. And when asked "which would you prefer, sixteen thousand choices or ten?", it's almost a no-brainer to go for the larger number. More is better, right? But if you watch what Gilbert has to say, you will end up at a very different conclusion.
I'm no psychologist, but it seems our level of happiness is inversely related to the amount of choice we have. The more choice, the less happy. Yes, this sounds wrong to our western minds, after all our entire life is all about choice. A gazillion different cereals, toothpastes, detergents, cough medicines, .. something in it for everyone. We are taught all our lives that more is better. But to me, somewhere in a deeply buried part of my mind, all that choice has always felt a bit wrong.
But what does all that have to do with photography?
Whenever I talk about photography and how to get to the next level, sooner or later you will hear me bring up how limitation and constraint can help you discover new creative ways to approach photography and give your creative process a frame. I find myself more and more shooting with one single prime lens. No zoom. Or I restrict myself in some other way, working along an assignment, collecting things, trying to squeeze out the last bit of composition that a single location has to offer before I move on. And whenever I do this, I return home with a deep feeling of satisfaction. A lot more satisfaction than when I haul around seven lenses, a reflector, three filters, two strobes and two camera bodies.
Restriction leads to different results than no restriction. Some might argue that the more possibilities you have in approaching the shot, the better you will be able to capture it. In turn I argue that through limitation you will have to force yourself to approach the shot in different ways, often in ways that you would have never done any other way. Instead of doing things the way you always do, here all of a sudden you can watch creativity in the making.
But it gets better! Adding Gilbert's talk into the mix, it turns out that not only is limitation good to help you focus on the task at hand and find new approaches to old challenges, restricting your choices will also leave you more happy in general. Hey! You've just found happiness!
Digital photography is about choice. Sheer endless choice. When I'm in the mind-set of digital photography, many of my decisions come down to choice. I try to avoid strong contrast to allow for more choice in post processing. I sometimes frame a bit wider, just to be able to make the choice about the final crop later. I shoot black-and-white pictures in color, which gives me the maximum choice in how the individual color channels factor into the final result. I sometimes even shoot several different exposures of the same scene, just to bake them into an HDR and decide on the proper exposure later. When I finally sit in front of my computer and work on the pictures, I'm presented with more choices: contrast, white balance, crop, rotation, filters, black-and-white conversion .. it doesn't stop.
"But wait" I hear you say, "isn't choice what makes digital photography so wonderful?"
Sure. On the one hand you can quickly try out many different things, do several "developments" of the same picture and compare the different versions, maybe one to print, one to put online and two different black-and-white versions, one with higher contrast and one with a slight sepia tone. And then there's Dan Gilbert. Still haven't watched his talk? Here is the link again: link
. It hits right where it hurts, and it'll leave you with a ton of food for thought.
I love digital photography for its speed, its surgical precision, its endless ways to get to a specific result, its low-light magic, its super cleanliness and its way of being a wonderful learning tool. I owe a lot to the advent of digital SLRs. But incorporating film photography back into my work, I more and more realize that there was this huge gaping hole that is now slowly being filled.
In the past I have talked about the different motivations that make people shoot analog. I have just added another one and I think it's the biggest one so far.
Whenever I spend time in the analog realm of photography, be it at a workshop or spending a weekend with just one camera and two rolls of film, I am making a choice. A choice for a more conscious approach, a choice to be less casual about what I shoot and how I shoot it, a choice for a type of development as the film has its very own characteristics built-in, a choice that just by the givens of the medium I will have to stick to. Analog photography won't give me as much wiggle room as its binary cousin will.
There is now a new generation of photographers who have never shot a single roll of analog film. I might sound like an old fart, but I think they could massively benefit from spending an entire weekend with one single camera, one fixed focal length and two rolls of film in their pocket.
Got something to say about what I wrote? I'd love to hear your thoughts!