Essay: The tools you have

Since getting my “new” Pentax 645, I’ve been thinking about all the wonderful things that would allow me to get more good out of it. A flash. A zoom lens. One or two long, fixed focal length lenses. A teleconverter. Maybe that 120mm with macro focus. To be sure, all of these things would indeed bring more utility to the camera. And then, I started thinking about my Kodak Duaflex II — and about my music production journey, process, habits, and thoughts. Then, I started to see parallels that deeply concerned me.

Producing music of any kind in a home studio requires a certain set of tools: a suitable computer, an audio interface, software referred to as a DAW (digital audio workstation), a microphone, instruments. And producing music as a solo artist, working completely alone, requires even more. I don’t play drums, so if I want drums in my music, I have to use loops or sample libraries or a drum synth, and construct them. I don’t own a studio-full of synthesizers, so if I want a specific synth sound, I probably have to turn to a “soft-synth” plugin (a software synthesizer). When the track is done, I have to mix it, EQ it, and master it, and certain tools are needed to do that well.

Perhaps closer to home for some, a carpenter will need a saw, sandpaper, glue, a tape measure; maybe a jointer, hammer, clamps. Each craftsperson needs their tools.

My reaction to this situation with music production has been somewhat predictable. My songs would sound more professional if I had better drum libraries. I could produce richer, more complex songs if I had more instruments, so more sound libraries or plugins would help. The end result would sound better if I had better mastering tools. The list goes on and on.

This would be like the carpenter thinking that they’d make better furniture with a radial arm saw, more stable sawhorses, a higher grade of router — and a broader selection of router bits. And a drill press. And…

I’ve often pondered whether I simply need to focus on using the tools I already have to their fullest, rather than acquiring more and more tools. In practice, I’ve done some of both. But having the “right” tools or the “perfect” tools or the “optimal” tools or “more” tools are not the things that keep me (or anyone else) from making music.

You can’t hammer a nail with a screwdriver, and you can’t cut wood with a clamp. Clearly, certain things are necessary to get the job done. But when it comes to making music, I have those things, so more of them isn’t helping my music make itself.

And so it is with photography.

The Kodak Duaflex II has a fixed-focus lens. It has a fixed aperture. It has a fixed shutter speed. It has a fixed ISO/ASA setting. You point the camera at something, you press the shutter button, and you have to trust that as a photographer, you know what makes a good image. It forces you to think about the art: the lighting, the composition, the framing. It forces you to think about the tools and the technology: the film choice, the exposure latitude it has. You can’t use this camera to create the bokeh effect. You have no zoom; if you want something larger in the frame, you walk closer to it. You have no high-ISO film for indoor, flash-free shots.* You have nothing but the camera, your own eye, the available light, your creativity, and your own mobility. End.

As I think about it, if I can’t take objectively good photographs with a Duaflex, I have to ask: How great a photographer am I?

Can I do everything I want with a Duaflex? Of course not. But using a very limited tool to create your art means you strip away all the support and assistance and convenience and creative crutches; it distills the craft to its very essence, and either one is up to the task — or not.

It’s easy to get caught-up in wanting and owning more tools, better tools, special tools. But it’s also very much a trap to think things like, “I can finally create art once I have _________.” And we must recognize that it’s a trap; nothing but an excuse to avoid creating something with the tools that are already in your possession. Once you have the basics — the fundamental, required tools — it’s about creating something. It’s about flexing your creative muscle, synthesizing ideas, getting out there, doing it, making it happen.

To be sure, if your objective is to create a photo with bokeh, you’re not going to get very far with a Duaflex. If your objective is to shoot a detailed photo of a bird in nature, you’re not going to get very far with a Duaflex. If you want to shoot a close-up of a beautiful flower with a bee digging around in the pollen, you’re not going to get very far with a Duaflex. And of course, all of those are worthy ideas.

But if your objective is to demonstrate that you are a photographer, that you are skilled at your craft, that you understand the basics, that you have command of those basics, shooting with basic tools seems an appropriate way to show that.

And back to what I said: If I can’t take an objectively good photograph with a Duaflex, I don’t think I’m a great photographer. If I have to have a certain lens, or a certain aperture, or a certain anything else in order to create a decent photograph, I think my skills are lacking, and I’d say the same of others, frankly.

Don’t get me wrong; I have a new lens and a teleconverter on order for my Pentax 645, because I want more flexibility and utility. I bought a flash because I want more flexibility and utility. But these things don’t magically turn me into a great photographer, and indeed, I’m not one. I’m still learning, I’m still taking photographs, I’m still trying things, and I’m still making mistakes by the truckload.

But it’s insightful to go shooting with my Duaflex. It reveals where I lack vision, creativity, and mastery. It reveals where I desire to control the elements to my liking instead of allowing them to inform my creativity. It shines a light on my knowledge and creative gaps. And it makes my brain hurt because trying to figure out how to compose an image that might be interesting given the limits of the tool requires every creative cell of my body working in concert — which doesn’t happen so easily, I find.

In short, I find using my Duaflex to be an educational exercise like no other. I enjoy it, in many ways. But it makes me anxious and uneasy, and it makes me long for the Pentax, or my DSLR, with all my lenses from wide angle to normal to super long focal length. It makes me pine for the ability to configure the camera to achieve exactly what I want.

There’s nothing wrong with lenses, or flash units, or filters, or digital technology like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. But none of these things make-up for the fundamental skills required to be a truly great (or even just good) photographer, and taking all that fancy stuff away is a fast path to learning at thing or two about one’s underlying skills.


* I recently saw some examples of work taken on a Duaflex with ISO 800 film, which I mentioned in a previous post. The film, in truth, allows you to experiment with lower-light shots indoors with the camera, and I intend to re-roll some of it (Lomo 800, 120 format) onto 620 spools and give it a try. Yet another way to using a very limited tool in creative ways to get creative results.