Limiting yourself is often something people are scared of. People don’t like not having options or control over everything. This is especially true in the photographic world.
In the summer of 2018, I was in full-throttle in my studies of fine art photography, and specifically contemporary photography books. Every project or book that I viewed always had something about them that I could never put my finger on.
Some of these projects were shot strictly on film. Some of them were shot from the hip and on busy city streets. Some could only have been shot on a tripod.
What I realized slowly but surely is that each one of these photographers limited themselves in one way or another. I always thought it was something to do with color palette, or subject choice, composition, which all of those things reign true no matter what your media, but more specifically that they limited themselves.
Each finished body of work I have viewed over the past year has exhibited some amount of this thought of self-limitation. By the time I was planning my project Moth, and pitched the idea to my photography professor, Bill O’Donnell, I mentioned that I wanted to shoot at strictly one focal length for every image.
Bill said here’s something “liberating about limiting yourself like that.” But how? How in the world does giving yourself limitations make you more free? Doesn’t that sound backward?
That’s the thing, it is backward. But yet, it’s absolutely true. As a photographic artist, giving myself these limitations in a contemporary world of limitless possibilities is liberating. My new camera does so many things that I really don’t need or find necessary. I had two zoom lenses that covered a huge range of view.
There’s ironically unlimited ways you can limit yourself. You can put multiple limitations, like I did for Moth, or how I’ve been shooting my personal projects recently. You can limit yourself in one thing and just that one thing. There really isn’t a “proper” way to place limitations on yourself.
When making the images for Moth, instead of setting up my tripod and zooming in or out to the view I wanted, I set my camera to 22mm. On my crop-sensor 80D, that’s the same field-of-view as a 35mm lens on a full-frame camera. I was already using the limitation of my cropped sensor to think in full-frame, liberating myself from the constraints of the cropped format. I then purchased a prime lens, a Tamron 45mm f/1.8, because I enjoyed working at one set focal length (I liked the field-of-view better on the 45 over the 35).
Many people can’t get behind the limitation of prime/fixed lenses. I can understand that, because there are countless photography jobs that essentially require you to have a huge range of view, and you don’t want to be carrying around ten lenses or three camera bodies. Many photographers would much rather have two lenses (like the classic 24-70 and 70-200 combination).
However, aside from lenses, I do think that there is an unnecessary “status symbol” of having the newest gear that does the most. While the newest gear is always better than the last model, and if you can afford to upgrade to a new model, it’s okay. But at the same time, having all these options to work in can bring about photographer’s anxiety.
Limiting yourself is something that I firmly believe every photographer needs to do. Learn to work within constraints of your gear and your mentality, and push yourself within those constraints to give yourself freedom beyond those limitations.
It doesn’t necessarily mean you should sell all those lenses and only use two or three lenses, but if that’s what you think you should do, then go for it.
There truly is something liberating about limiting yourself in photography. It also doesn’t break your bank, but that’s only a latent function of it all.