I’m a comic book nerd. Always have been. One of my favorite characters was Green Arrow. He was a superhero archer. Dressed up like Robin Hood. Totally dumb, right? But his arrow arsenal consisted of all these awesome gimicky arrows; a boxing glove arrow. A boomerang arrow. A net arrow. Fire-extinguisher arrow. Handcuff arrow. Whatever he needed for that particular story he’d reach into his arsenal and, bam, he’d pull it out and go nuts.
In the mid 1980s, writer Mike Grell got rid of all the gimmicks and went for more realism. Plain arrows. Simple. No longer did he have a whole bag of tricks. He refined himself down to the basic element. Archer. Bow. Arrow. Skill.
Sometimes in my little fantasy mind, I like to think I’m like Green Arrow. I used to love having a bag of gimmicks that I could reach into during situations. “Oh, this calls for my Gary Fong Dong!” or “Aha! One simple shot with my Lensbaby and I’ll save the day!” I’d buy into marketing and my bag would fill up with all these gimmick arrows. The more gimmicks I had in my bag, the harder it was for me to reach for the plain arrows.
I always get sick of the gimmicks. I looked at all the other superheroes around me and saw they were all using the same bag of gimmicks to fight crime. It could be a certain kind of action set, or a specific lens, or a particular kind of light. (“One blast of my IceLight and I’ll save the day!”) I knew, like Green Arrow knew, that it was time to toss the bag of gimmicks in the trash and start searching deep within myself. The true archer, the true photographer has been here all along — deep within. I had been burying him with all the stuff the Internet League of Photographers told me I needed to help save the world; specific lights, specific things, specific stuff. But that stuff never really helped how I saw the world — it came with promises to help change things for the better; save more people, illuminate more faces, make more money, but it was really Kryptonite for me — it pushed me further away from understanding how I shoot and why I shoot the way I do.
Buying new stuff all the time just puts more stuff in your bag. It clutters your mind and takes your attention away from looking deep inside yourself and finding your core photographer. The photographer. A camera body. A lens. A light (sometimes). A bow. An arrow. The Archer. The skill. You.
As I go through the years doing this photography thing it turns out that it’s the ability to know what I do and which tools I’ll need for the image at hand. It’s technically knowing your stuff. It isn’t “either/or”. It’s both. It’s the archer and the arrow. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t keep buying new cameras and lenses all the time. I’ve lived with my gear for a long long time — I know this camera body and this lens like Green Arrow knows his bow and his pack full of arrows. When I reach for that arrow, I’ve got an established history with it. I know how it will fly. I know the tension I need to pull back, to stretch taught. It’s part of my arm. It’s a part of my eye. My fingers dial the camera dial almost blindfolded, because I’ve lived with it for so long. So, in theory, it should only take one shot to hit the target.
Instead of buying more stuff, more gear this year, give yourself a challenge. Pretend you are Oliver Queen (Green Arrow). You are stranded on an island with tons of people that need to have their portrait taken. But you only have one camera. A backpack holding two lenses. Could you do it? Take your time. Take aim. Feel the tension in the bow. Clear your mind. Find your composition. Be one with the arrow. Guide it to it’s destination. Do the calculations. Breathe out. Release. Nail the shot. And know why you nailed the shot.
The bow. The camera. The arrow. The lens. The archer. You.
Gear alone can’t make the image. It needs you. You need it. The less clutter, the more it becomes an extension of you. So that when someday, as you stand there thinking about the job before you, you won’t have to worry about if you need the boxing glove arrow, or the net arrow, or the boomerang arrow.
Instinctively you’ll grab your bow and your arrow and know that you got this.
Go get ‘em, hero.