The Quest for Simplicity

SIMPLICITY Noun: “The quality or condition of being easy to understand or do.  The quality or condition of being plain or natural.  A thing that is plain, natural, or easy to understand.”  

Synonyms: “straightforwardness, ease, easiness, simpleness, effortlessness”

I have a passion for breaking the most complex problems and challenges down to their simplest forms.  When I look at very complex, variable processes almost daily at work it helps when I can break them down in very definite and simple terms.  It’s my six sigma on the fly.   It can be difficult to do, somewhat like writing that communicates effectively with minimal wording.  (You can check me on that here).

It’s interesting that we’ve come to think that we need the most complex technology to satisfy our most basic needs.  For example, we recently bought a new Honda Odyssey.  I love this van and even though we’re well past our child raising years, it has a functionality that surprises us every day.  We honestly don’t know how we got around without it especially when family comes to visit.  The technology in our Odyssey is nothing short of amazing, I think it has six computers to manage various functions.  It also has electric motors to close the sliding side doors on both sides and the rear door.  In spite of the convenience, I can’t help wondering when one of these motors will break or when a chip will fail.  Technology for convenience is all around us today.

I’ve had technologically advanced cameras that offered all sorts of settings options and variables to capture an image.  The complexity was primarily behind the scenes in the technology of the camera itself.  My early digital camera’s menus were full of options to adjust the basic and extended functions deemed necessary to take a photograph.  Variable ISO, color sensitivity, monochrome, raw and/or jpeg, spot meter or matrix, autofocus variables, and on and on.  All of this capability continually dependent on power delivered by batteries.

Consider after all that the most basic functions of a camera are to capture light through the variables of the camera, the lens, aperture, shutter speed and the sensor (or for analog shooters, film’s sensitivity to light).  Beyond these variables, what else is really required other than the capabilities of the photographer?  I believe that the simpler the tool the easier it is to be completely comfortable with a camera to the point where taking a photograph becomes second nature, not a lot of thought is required.  A simple process is easily repeatable.  Complicating the process of taking a photograph by introducing more variables in the camera makes it more difficult to photograph consistently well.

This is why I prefer simple photography and why I shoot with a simple camera.  Simple photography for me is a completely manual process with full control of the few variables to take an image.  Set ISO, choose an aperture based on the depth of field preferred, set the shutter speed for the best exposure, focus and shoot.  Pretty simple. No other in-camera settings required or needed.

The quest for simplicity has also led me to strip my gear down to the essentials of what I think I really need.  I own a 28mm, 50mm and a 90mm lens.  That’s it.  I used to have a 35mm and another 50mm but I sold them both.  The 35mm just wasn’t my thing, I never really resonated with a 35mm.  Given some time, perhaps I could.  I do use the 28mm.  It’s a wonderful focal length for those times when I really want a wide perspective and usually when I’m going wide I appreciate the extra width of the 28mm.  The 28mm lens really made the 35mm unnecessary so I sold it.  The second 50mm was really just a luxury that made life confusing.  It was a bit faster at f/1.5 but the truth is it confused me so I sold that too.  It was all part of an effort to simplify my kit.

When I go out to shoot I normally carry only one camera and one lens, keeping it simple and light.  With one camera and one lens I can focus on taking photographs.  I’m not thinking about what’s in my bag because I normally don’t carry a bag.  I also don’t dwell on shots that might be possible with another lens.  I focus on getting the shot with the lens I have on the camera.  If I have to, I’ll move closer or move back.  Obviously there are possibilities I’ll see but never get with a particular lens but I don’t let those few lost opportunities bother me.  I move on and look at what’s around me considering the possibilities that are always there.

Simplifying the processes involved with taking a photograph can minimize effort as a by product.  I normally have a set ISO that doesn’t change for me because I shoot film.  My primary variable is usually limited to focusing with some minor manual shutter speed adjustments or depth of field changes via the aperture setting if that’s what I’m after.  In even light I can even limit my variables to just manual focus.

Keeping the process of photography simple makes it easier to repeat consistently.  You’ll have a harder time finding the results you want consistently when you have to worry about the many disparate elements in a complex system.  Consider all the variables in today’s processor biased cameras and the many settings that can affect the results in your photographs.  Granted, some settings can be grouped and controlled as presets (a preset is actually an attempt to simplify something more complex) but even then you have to remember what preset is active and often your assumptions about how the camera is behaving with that preset aren’t actually true.  The presets may or may not remain active as you power the camera on and off and they may override or be overridden by other adjustments you’ve made.

Simplicity in my camera allows me to focus on the most important elements in a photograph.  To compose a good image it helps if you don’t have to consciously focus on the technicalities of an image.  The soul of an image is in the composition.  What’s in the frame?  What elements of the image are important and how do those elements work together to harmonize the message you want to convey?  Getting beyond the technical details required to take a photograph frees us to explore the frame.  Simplicity expands the time available for good composition.

The quest for simplicity breaks down the process of taking a photograph to its most essential elements.  Today’s cameras can make the process of taking a photograph unnecessarily complex.  Manufacturers market to the concept that more electronics around the basics of capturing light make it possible to take better pictures.  Ironically, that’s the antithesis of what most photographers believe.  Most of us believe that a compelling photograph is the product of the knowledge and skill of the photographer;  that the camera doesn’t make a good photograph, the photographer does.  Simplicity in photography emphasizes the fundamentals of taking a photograph rather than minimizing the fundamentals.  Allowing too much technology to encroach on the practice of photography desensitizes us to what the fundamentals of photography are…to capture and control light on the subject.  We want to be able to look on that image and recall our feelings around that moment.  It doesn’t matter if the meaning of that moment is lost on someone else looking at your image.  The photograph is your moment, your emotion, your feelings at that point in time. This is the essence of photography after all.  Don’t get caught up in an endless quest for the latest piece of technology, it’s all so fragile and fleeting.  Instead, stick to the fundamentals of photography and own a tool that wraps itself tightly around these simple  fundamentals without all the fluff and needless add-ons.

After all it can all be rather basic, simple and straightforward if you allow it to be.

1 comments On The Quest for Simplicity

  • Really great post Bill. I think I mentioned it to you earlier that I see myself going your path. I brought my X-T1 to Iceland, had it in my car every day but didn’t take it out – didn’t shoot a single shot with it. Only mobile phone and Hasselblad. I loved it! Thanks again for sharing and be of inspiration.

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