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Introduction to A Lesser Photographer


This is a chapter from the book A Lesser Photographer.

Since the age of twelve, I’ve been obsessed with photography. I built a little darkroom and took class after class to learn as much as I could. I studied the zone system for years until it became so ingrained that I saw the entire world in zones of light. My library of photo books and magazines could rival a university.

By any measure, this is a passion.

Much like a car mechanic would remember the years by the cars he owned, I remember 1994 as the year of my Minolta X-700 or 1996 as the year I stepped up to a Fuji GS645. With every issue of Shutterbug, I scanned the ads in the back pages, lusting after the latest gear I couldn’t afford.

The digital age only reinforced my desire to own ever more capable equipment as brands consolidated. Are you a Canon or a Nikon? If so, how high do you rank in that world?

I put that question to rest for myself when I was hiking through Starved Rock State Park in Illinois with my friend Tom Polous.

Tom and I have been best friends since we were nine years old and been enablers of each other’s photographic obsessions since the 1990s. On this hike through Starved Rock, Tom had the latest, greatest Canon DSLR around his neck, and I had a lesser model.

After a few minutes on the trail, we encountered two locals, both with Canon DSLRs. For ten minutes, we discussed our love for the lenses in our bags, and that’s when it hit me. This was ridiculous. Four photographers, in the most beautiful of settings, had chosen to discuss gear instead of taking a single photo. Our love of gear had superseded our love of the image.

I slowly backed away from the conversation and began shooting what turned out to be some of my favorite images of that decade.

The questions had been building for years. Just how much did equipment matter, and why? What if I threw it all away and restarted with the minimum amount of equipment? Would my creativity be enough to capture the images I wanted?

I sold my 4x5 view camera, my medium format cameras and my DSLR. I bought an inexpensive compact camera and became determined to put my theories to the test.

Over the next several years, I blogged about my experiences and collected the wisdom of like-minded photographers. I titled the blog A Lesser Photographer, partly to refer to the looks other photographers gave me when I showed up to a shoot with my compact camera.

This book collects my favorite essays from the blog in one place. All the essays have been re-edited, remixed, and condensed, and in some cases, new essays were written to better express an idea.

You’ll notice there are no photos inside this book, for the same reason there were very few photos on the blog. I want you to consider your photographs while reading, not mine.

Some of the chapters are about the kind of photography the public will see, and some are about the everyday photos that no one outside our friends and family will see. These two sides of amateur photography have principles that can be directly in conflict. I’ll leave it to you to consider your own goals with your photographs in these chapters.

I hope these little essays to myself help you in your path as a photographer. Feel free to drop by and let me know about your own lessons learned.