Leica M9 Titanium
Can a $30,000 camera bring you true happiness?

We are all gear-heads at heart. We love hearing about the newest and greatest camera out there, and we love seeing comparisons with different lenses, at different apertures, and the sharpness and “characteristics” of each lens. I think it is fine to think and discuss about gear in photography, but when discussed about in excess– it starts getting unhealthy and like a disease.

I am weak, and I get tempted by gear all the time, but I try to constantly remind myself not to fall victim to gear acquisition syndrome (also commonly known as “gas”). Based on sociology, psychology, cognitive science, philosophy, and my personal experiences I will suggest some tips how you can cure yourself of gas (no not your farting, you might need to lay off the beans or get some stomach medicine for that).

1. Realize that you are weak

If you ever watch an introduction to alcoholics anonymous, each person in the group goes around in the group and says, “Hi, my name is “X” and I am an alcoholic”. Similarly, it is important to realize that we are human, and we are weak– and we fall quite easily to temptation. We love to think that we have strong willpower, but studies show that we actually have extremely weak willpower. Admit to yourself that you get tempted to gear as much as the next person, which will help you better resist the “poisoning” of gear around you. I shoot with a Leica camera, and I meet a lot of Leica users and shooters– and many gearheads and collectors. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a gearheads or collector, but it is a vicious cycle that I feel never brings one true satisfaction and happiness (as we always want more).

Take for example yesterday in Kuala Lumpur. I just finished my street photography workshop and had a cocktail and VIP party at the Leica store, and stumbled upon a Leica MP with a .58 magnification viewfinder. It was so goddamn gorgeous, and I felt my own gear whoring come out of myself. I then started feeling that my Leica M6 was inadequate, and that the .72 magnification viewfinder was useless with a 35mm lens. Also I marveled at the Leica script that was embossed on the top plate of the MP, and told myself I needed one. I had a drink and played with the MP some more, and it felt so right in my hands, with the heavy brass and the “mechanical perfection” of the film advance lever. The guys around me were laughing and “poisoning” me in all good fun, and I knew I had to resist myself. I reminded myself how weak I was to peer pressure and gear — and took a step back and gave back the MP.

2. Create physical constraints

As humans, we have very weak self-control and constraint. Take smoking for example. Many people try to quit “cold turkey” using just their will– but few people actually succeed. Statistics prove that majority of smokers quit when having some physical aid (using a e-cigarette or nicotine patches) to overcome their addiction to smoking. I feel that the same goes with gas. You need to create some physical constraints on yourself. For example, I am awful with money. If kept to my own will, I would spend all of my money on Leica lenses, crocodile leather shoes, and ice cream cones (I love ice cream almost as much as Allamby). I know this, and therefore consult my girlfriend Cindy before making any serious monetary investments.

About a month ago, I asked Cindy what she felt about myself buying a Leica MP (yeah I have been thinking about it for a while). She essentially smacked me upside the head and told me I would be a complete moron if I did, and talked some sense into me. She gave me a ton of clarity, and by having her as a “gatekeeper” to my wallet–she helps me a ton from making stupid decisions. If you don’t have a beautiful and bossy girlfriend to help you keep your money in check, perhaps hire a financial consultant and tell them to prevent you from making stupid financial decisions (including gas). Even by putting all of your savings into a fund (that you can’t touch) and keeping a certain limit on your credit card, you will prevent yourself from buying crap you don’t need.

3. Don’t hang out with gear-heads

One thing I learned in sociology is that “you are the average of the three closest person to yourself”. Therefore if you hang out with a lot of gear-heads, you will be a gearheads yourself and succumb to gas. Rather than hanging out with gearheads and stroking your Leica and lenses with baby oil, hang out with photographers who talk less about gear, and more about photography. Finding a community more focused about shooting (and less about gear) will in-turn make you more focused on photography and less on gear. Inevitability we all love talking about gear at one point or another (the latest Leica rumors, the new Fuji camera, or the new Olympus micro 4/3rds) but try to find a group that keeps it to a minimal.

4. Stick to one camera and one lens

Currently the only cameras I own are my Leica M9 and my Leica M6, along with my 35mm summicron f/2 asph (yeah the latest version baby!) I gave my old Canon 5D to a close family friend’s younger brother (who is an aspiring photo journalist) along with my 35mm f/2 and my 24mm f/2.8. I told him it was all he needed to take incredible photographs. He asked me if he should buy a 70-200 lens and I threatened him that if he bought it, I would take my Canon back. I also recently had a 21mm Voightlander for my Leica, and returned that. I also gave my 21mm to my good friend Todd at the Hatakayana Gallery to use on his sweet new 21mm Leica lens (yeah the same guy who gave me his M6! Even trade.) The last three months or so (since I inherited my M6 from Todd in Tokyo) I have been working on all of my personal projects on film (tri-x and portra 400).

Nowadays my M9 is my backup camera (and really expensive point and shoot camera). Therefore all I am really using for my street photography is my Leica M6 and 35mm summicron f/2. It is one camera and one lens. Nothing more and nothing less. What I love most about having one camera and one lens is that it is just less stressful, and plain bliss. I never concern myself with having a different focal length for a situation (having a 28mm if someone is really close or a 50mm if someone is further away) but rather I learn to adapt to my situation, and become more creative. I have used a 35mm focal length more or less exclusively for around 4 years now, starting with my Canon.

I now know the focal length inside and out, and know how my frame looks in any situation. I don’t really even have the desire to have any other lens, as the 35mm framelines on my Leica are difficult enough to see with my glasses. Less is more. Having more choices simply gives us more stress. Remember the last time you wanted to order something at a restaurant, and there were like five million options on the menu? You then order something, wishing for the best, and it comes out and you feel disappointed? (damn, this chicken Alfredo sucks– I should have gone with the beef stew). Less options is less stress on us, and doesn’t cause “paralysis by analysis”. But damn, if I got a Leica MP with a .58 viewfinder and 28mm lens, it would be pretty sweet. Ahhhh nooo! Eric, stop this self-poisoning of yourself.

5. Calculate the lost opportunity cost

New cameras and lenses are expensive, and often that money can be used towards better things related to photography (buying photo books, going on trips, buying film, or paying off your maxed out credit card). I currently have the M6 which is worth around $1300 usd. The Leica MP is around $3300 usd. The cost of upgrading will be $2000.

Let’s do some math:

What else can I better do with $2000?

  • I can have enough money to buy two round-trip tickets to anywhere in the world. ($1000 a ticket times two)
  • I can have enough money to buy and process 200 rolls of film ($5 a roll and $5 to process a roll).
  • I can have enough money to buy 40 photography books ($50 usd for a decent photo book).

All of these things will do me so much more for my photography and happiness than a new shiny Leica. Do your own calculations for what gear or lenses you may be pondering, and see how ridiculous your ideas may be.

6. Buy a film camera

The best thing I have heard digital cameras likened to were computers. Think about how long you can use a computer before it gets outdated. 4 years, at best? Digital cameras as essentially computers. They get outdated fast as hell. There are always new digital cameras coming out with moar and moar megapixels, iso, dynamic range, faster autofocus, and crappy features like hdr and panorama, etc). I doubt you can use a digital camera longer than 4 years, without it being considered a dinosaur.

Ever since I got my film Leica, I no longer am very impressed or concerned with these new cameras coming out (besides the MP). A film Leica will last you a lifetime, and you never need to upgrade. It is simple and straightforward, and remember- all film cameras are “full frame”. Regardless of my MP envy, I would say that having my Leica M6 and 35mm summicron — I feel truly “content” with my gear. If you want to make a purchase, remember to get a good lens, as they will last a lifetime (more or less). They will outlast your camera, as there is only so sharp you can make a piece of glass. I doubt they will ever quit selling film- and don’t worry about Kodak going bankrupt. Their film business is stilly profitable.

Remember, when photography first came out people said nobody would ever paint anymore. People still paint. People said cd’s would kill vinyl records. Vinyl records are now thriving more than ever (thanks to all the hipsters who shop at Urban Outfitters). Classic things never truly “die”.

7. Don’t spend time on gear forums

If you spend an unhealthy amount of time on gear forums, stop. It is quite possibly the worst thing you can do in your spare time. I actually suggest downloading an add-on for chrome or Firefox that prevent you from visiting these sites altogether.

Rather, spend time visiting sites about photography. Spend time on invisible photographer Asia, la pure vida, burn magazine, in-public, the magnum website, little brown mushroom blog, Blake Andrews blog, and so on. Looking at great photographs will inspire you to take great photographs. Looking at reviews of gear and lenses will make you want to spend your money. Remember, you are what you eat.

8. Realize that sharpness and bokeh is overrated

In street photography, sharpness and the “bokeh quality” of a lens is the most overrated thing ever. Sure if you give me a Noctilux and have me shoot that bad boy at .95 I will squeal like a little schoolgirl about how creamy and “bokehlicious” the photo turn out, but it is quite useless in street photography. When is the last time you saw a great street photograph from any of the masters and said, “Wow, that photograph is really sharp” or “Wow, that photograph has really nice bokeh”.

Another thing that I used to do a lot (which I am trying my best not to do anymore) is look at someone’s photographs (who are very good) and ask what camera or lens they use. It is like asking your chef what pots and pans he or she uses to cook your meals (if the food is really good). If you don’t want to get slapped in the face (or your food spit in) realize that it is the artist that creates the art, not the tools.

Frankly speaking, all prime lenses out there are pretty damn sharp (and you will always sharpen the photos a bit in post-processing anyways) and I feel that street photography is best captured using a large depth of field using zone focusing. Therefore don’t worry about having a large maximum wide aperture– unless you want to take nice bokeh shots of your water bottles at home, that is.

9. Realize that you will never be satisfied

Material things never bring true happiness. Yeah, yeah we have all heard it before but it is true. We all tell ourselves, oh–if I only had full-frame I’d truly be happy. If I had that Leica I’d be truly happy. If I had that one 1.4 lens I would be truly happy. Realize that with gear, it is a slippery slope. As humans, we are biologically greedy. We want stuff, and like having lots of it. It was our genetic way of making sure that we wouldn’t die. After all when we were cavemen, if we hoarded tons of food for ourselves, we would have a higher likelihood of making it through tough winters and droughts.

Nowdays modern day life is much different. Most people in the modern world don’t suffer from famine and most of our basic needs are met (food, shelter, clothing). However the instincts we have make us never satisfied with what we have. And of course, advertising and consumerism has a large part to blame as well. There is no “end goal” of gas.

Let’s say you start off with a dslr, you will want a full-frame. You get a full-frame, you want that nice canon L lens. You realize the canon L-lens zoom isn’t enough, so you get some nice prime lenses. You then realize the whole damn thing is too bulky, and go for a Leica. You then get a Leica M9, and need more lenses. You end up collecting all the lenses, and then realize you want the M9 titanium. M9 soon becomes passé, and you get a S2. The madness never ends. Be content with what you have and of course feel free to purchase gear, but realize once you find a system you are reasonably happy with (80% satisfied) stick with it.

10. Realize a lot of gas is just bragging rights

Many of us try to rationalize what we do in terms of our purchasing decisions. We tell ourselves that the cameras and lenses we buy are “investments” and thus make rational decisions. Let’s cut away a lot of the bs. A lot of us (including myself) want to just show off with our gear and have bragging rights.

One of the reasons that I kept my old 35mm 1.4 summilux for so long was so I could state that I had a summilux for the sake of having one. The summilux wasn’t the optimal lens for street photography (far too big and heavy) and I never used the 1.4 (only when taking snapshots of my friends at bars to show them the creaminess of the bokeh!)

The reason a lot of us buy expensive cameras or gear is to try to fit in (if our friends all have a certain camera or lens, we will want to get one). Another reason is that we might want to differentiate ourselves from other people (like Leica users vs Dslr users). We want to feel superior with superior gear to be seen by others as having a higher status. With more status comes more prestige, comes more opportunities for us to connect with other people with high status, and have a feeling of “smugness”.

Conclusion

NEED MOAR CAMERAS (Don't become like this guy)
NEED MOAR CAMERAS (Don’t become like this guy)

We all love our toys and cameras and lenses. I don’t see any problem “geeking out” with gear with the friends or playing with our friends new camera or lens. It is perfectly healthy and all fun. However what becomes an issue is when we concern ourselves with gear excessively. Photography is a damn expensive hobby, and not being able to have the best and greatest sucks. We don’t want to be the loser with the “crop sensor” or only having the f/2 lens instead of the f/1.4 lens. We just want to fit in and feel “important” with other people with nice cameras and things.

If you currently suffer from gas, admit to yourself that you are a gear whore and decide for yourself if you want to cure yourself or not. If you have the cash and enjoy continually acquiring lenses and cameras, no problem. If you don’t have the cash and you are taking out credit card debt to feed your addiction, you should probably reconsider things. Life isn’t about getting nice things and being happy.

Spending time with others and being social is what makes us truly happy. Therefore quit spending so much damn time on gear forums and thinking about that stuff, and get out of the house and call some buddies and go shooting. The more time I find myself going out and actually taking photographs and spending time with my fellow streettogs, I am truly happy. I geek out and at times have wet dreams about the next Leica purchase myself, but I realize that I am weak and easily susceptible to peer pressure or advertising. Take a moment to consider how addicted you may be to gas, and I hope this has helped you.

Further Reading

  1. Disregard Differences, Notice Similarities
  2. How to Be Grateful For What You Have
  3. F$%K GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)
  4. Buy Books, Not Gear
  5. How Much is Enough?