The Revolving Door of Camera Gear and the Search for Happiness

Gear comes and gear goes. It’s inevitable. Digital users are confronted with a constant barrage of the latest and greatest, each promising to take the best pictures ever, along with keeping your teeth white, your breath fresh, and your bank account empty. For a film photographer these days, it’s not about technological advancement or having a limited ability to resist advertising pressure, so barring actual equipment failure, it must be down to indecisiveness or chasing some capability that one seems to think they need.

I’m as guilty of this as the next guy, though the tendency has been tapering off in recent years. Once one finds a format, a camera, or a system they like, the desire to replace it goes down considerably. For my general use, settling on the Leica screwmount system, and the Barnack bodies in particular, really reduced my interest in other 35mm cameras. Not that I’ve sworn off everything else, but when I grab for a camera, I instinctively gravitate to the Leicas. My other 35mm cameras see less use today than ever before, as I find I have to make a conscious decision to take them out.

The same is true of medium format, where I first settled on photos in the square 6×6 format, then on TLRs as my preferred sort of camera for shooting them. I’ve got a small pile of TLRs, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, but all fundamentally similar in use. The pile of folders next to it gets comparatively little attention these days, and the pile of toy cameras next to that even less. The TLRs just suit me better.

Which brings us to lenses. Where I’ve reached a point of general satisfaction with cameras, using an interchangeable lens system opens the door to a myriad of further options, and this is nothing short of a bottomless rabbit hole. With seemingly countless options and a wide array of available focal lengths (even for the obsolescent rangefinders I use), the search for some unique look, some extra bit of character, some new capability, is frankly endless. Even when you’ve found lenses you’re happy with in the focal lengths you prefer, the promise of something new is often hard to resist.

I’ve fallen prey to this phenomenon a few times recently. After acquiring a Canon 28/3.5 LTM and having no complaints about it, I succumbed to the lure of additional speed and sold it off in order to fund a later Canon 28/2.8. Has 2/3rds of a stop and a marginal improvement in overall sharpness transformed my photography? Of course not. I could have continued with the 3.5 and taken essentially the same photos I did with the 2.8, and I knew it. I simply got the itch for something different.

Similarly, I determined that my Canon 35/2.8, while an excellent lens, was seeing little use after receiving the W.Acall 35/3.5. The latter was purchased simply to satisfy my curiosity, and the results proved so appealing that it immediately became my go-to 35mm lens, relegating the poor little Canon to the shelf. I had thoughts of selling of the Canon, but no real motivation to do so until a considerably faster 35 – a Canon 35/1.8 – popped up for sale. Off went the 2.8 to a new home, and in came the 1.8. Having only just bought it, I haven’t used it yet, but my expectations are that it will provide a nice little boost in my low-light capabilities, but not much else. The 2.8 was a very competent lens (and more solidly constructed than the later 1.8), and 1 1/3rd stops isn’t anything more than a convenience in certain conditions.

But it’s my experience with the W.Acall 35 and a few other lenses that keeps this cycle going. While I had some vague idea of what to expect, the results exceeded my expectations to such a degree that I’m still a bit shocked by how well-suited the W.Acall is to my preferences. The same could be said of my Summitar 50/2, or my recently arrived Elmar 50/3.5, or the Canon 100/3.5. Trying out so many different lenses may seem like nothing more than restlessness or a really specific manifestation of OCD, but the process has led to some discoveries that, while most assuredly not transformative, have certainly made me happier with the results of my work. The revolving door of camera gear is not the source of happiness, but sometimes it can lead you a little closer to it.

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