There Is No Magic Bullet

Of course, I hear that I must have a marvelous lens or extraordinary camera – instead of a lens with shutter for all of 20 pesos, and a camera quite gone to ruin!  Not many realize that good photographs – like anything else – are made with one’s brains.  Edward Weston – 1924.

It’s natural for us to emulate those that we admire.  Photographically for me, that’s Keith Carter, Michael Kenna, Nick Brandt, Michael Levin, and more.  It’s also natural to want to unlock their “secrets” so that you can shoot like they do and have their success.  That’s what we all want, right?  To be successful photographers in whatever market we aspire to be in.

So I research.  I’m a total research-aholic.  When I’m passionate about something, I’ll dive in completely until I feel I know that subject to a depth I’m satisfied with.

I looked at Keith Carter, who has an amazing and unique look.  Well, Keith shoots with an old mechanical Hasselblad, plus a couple of lenses (one focal length though – 80mm  He has one that has some tilt-shift movements to it as well as one “straight” lens).  Hmmm, so I start looking at Hasselblads.  Everyone says they’re the pro’s pro of medium format cameras, so they must be exactly what I’m looking for.  If I just had his outfit, I could take photos just like his.  Michael Kenna shoots Hasselblad too.  Double bonus.

Except it doesn’t work that way.  I rented a Hasselblad a couple of times and man, they just weren’t for me.  To me, they’re like thoroughbreds – very high performance but very finicky.  I just couldn’t warm up the left-handed operation, the complex loading procedure, etc.  Damn, what do I do now?  Now I’ll never take photos like Carter or Kenna.

Well, Nick Brandt shoots with a Pentax 67 and 3 lenses.  His work is incredible – stunning even.  So I bought a Pentax 67.  Wow, that sucker’s heavy.  And loud.  And my photos didn’t look anything like Mr. Brandt’s.

Slowly, very slowly, it dawned on me that without knowing myself and what my style was, along with a plan of what and how I wanted to shoot I was just going to continue in that endless cycle of purchasing new gear and inevitably being disappointed.

It’s an insidious addiction. You’re driven by a desire to improve, so it seems as if the effort and expense is justified. You get distracted, thinking that you need to BUY something to fix your pictures, when you probably need to LEARN something. When the latest toy doesn’t work out, you move on to the next.

Here’s an analogy: Countless weekend golfers ante up for the latest titanium graphite club, when they really ought to be fixing their swing (these are great guys to know, by the way. You can often get their cast-off clubs for pennies on the dollar). Their enthusiasm to improve is sincere but misdirected. They will drop an obscene amount of money on a set of clubs that could (in theory), deliver a golf ball to the hole with pinpoint accuracy. Yet the ball still turns a right angle and disappears into the pond. Nice try, but Tiger Woods could beat you with a hockey stick. Blindfolded.

Even David duChemin, who has turned Vision into a “brand” is a self-confessed gear-aholic.  He shoots with multiple Canon systems, expensive tilt/shifts, ultra-high end primes, a Hasselblad,  and announced on Friday that he’s adding a Nikon system to the mix too (not replacing Canon, he stresses, but adding).  Even if you went broke trying to keep up with all of his gear buying and bought identical gear, you still wouldn’t be able to shoot like him.

So what should a recovering magic bullet chaser do?  Get to know yourself.  Become your own photographer.  I talked about it in my post about Photography and Intimacy, but it’s even more than that.

I recently made my first significant gear purchase in a very long time.  It took me many months of thought, reflection and discussions with photographers I trust in order to help clarify my vision and needs. The reason for doing it was to add another, separate, vision to my Holga work.

The first thing I did was to outline what I wanted to shoot for the next 3-5 years.  Visualize the situations and subjects that I wanted to capture and, equally importantly, what I wanted them to look like.  I tried to get very specific – I actually made a long shot list and even made sketches of some of them.

From there, I laid out the requirements of the gear that I’d need to implement that vision.  It was a specific set of requirements (and will end up taking more than one camera) but the process helped me identify that.

In addition to the gear, I also identified gaps in my knowledge and am lining up workshops, classes or books that will get me what I need.  Of course the main thing is to get out and shoot, so I’ve started to outline the locations that I’ll need to go to in order to get them (many are close to home, as it turns out).

Now I have a plan – a plan that’s unique to me and will, hopefully, give me photographs that are true to my own unique vision.

If you’re a recovering magic bullet chaser like me, you might consider doing the same thing.  This isn’t the only way, but it has helped me get to know myself better.

Maybe your current gear really is all you need.  Do you know everything about it – inside and out?  Have you really mastered your processing?  What makes you unique? These are all questions to ask yourself.

You can’t be unique if you’re copying someone else you admire.

By the way, I’m all for experimentation.  If you don’t have the answer to all that, by all means try all sorts of things.  I’d suggest renting from places like though rather than dropping big bucks on new gear all the time (they rent all kids of cameras and gear, not just lenses, and are great people to work with).

Oh, what did I end up buying, you ask?  You’ll have to come to Seattle and buy me a burger and I’ll tell you.  No, I’m not abandoning my beloved Holga’s.  I’m just adding a new vision to the mix.  I will tell you that it’s still medium format film though.





  1. Mark, this is something I really need to do more. Slow down and really consider what I want to do or say with my photography. Thanks or a great post and a great prompt/reminder.

  2. This is a great post. I’m a “magic bullet chaser” myself, and it’s incredibly helpful to be reminded that this ongoing chase isn’t really the answer to my aspirations.

    Thanks, Mark!

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