Photography is an art meant to invigorate our creative side and facilitate our ability to see our world in new and interesting ways. Many books, articles, tutorials, and blogs focus on various aspects of the artistic and technical merits of photography. Rarely discussed, however, are some of the strange maladies that afflict photographers. There are the occasional whispers and, “Did you hear about Joe?” types of exchanges, but all too often, such problems are rarely acknowledged and dealt with openly.
In an effort to bring such diseases to light, Dr. E.X. Posur, a leading psychiatrist that specializes in treating photographers, highlights a number of common illnesses he has encountered, and their associated symptoms and treatment. Although described individually, they are all part of a common illness labeled “photographus excessivitis”. Rarely will a photographer exhibit symptoms a single disease. Close examination almost always reveals multiple afflictions.
It is important to point out that professional photographers rarely deal with these illnesses, but those that wear the label, “serious amateur” bear the brunt of these diseases. Because professionals have been inoculated by the need to earn a living, they seem to have built up a strong immunity to the diseases outlined in this article. Though they appreciate the merits of their equipment, professional photographers see their equipment as tools to achieve an end, not an end unto itself. This subtle, but critical, difference between the professional and the serious amateur prevents the former from acquiring many of illnesses outlined below. Professionals are not totally immune, however, and can succumb as quickly as any serious amateur if they are not careful.
Technology has played a major role in the increase in the number of these illnesses as well as their intensity. Until the digital age, cameras remained relatively constant – a box that controlled the exposure of film to light. While there were mechanical changes along the way, the pace and amount of change were relatively minimal compared to today’s environment. This all changed once manufacturers moved to digital sensors, and the camera became a specialized computer. Now cameras, lenses, and a host of other accessories are driven by sophisticated computer chips, and software programs that have dramatically improved their capabilities. Photography equipment is now subject to the same rapid product introduction, obsolescence, and compatibility issues as PCs and peripherals have experienced for the last thirty years.
Bear in mind that while Dr. Posur provides some basic guidelines for identifying a number of maladies, an accurate diagnosis can only be determined by a certified mental health professional with an extensive background in photography.
1) GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome
Those suffering from GAS become infatuated with new photography equipment, often to the point of temporary neurosis. Cameras, lenses, flashes, bags, hot shoe levelers, camera straps, tripods, ball heads, white balance cards, rain covers, etc. – if camera equipment companies make it, you can be sure that a photographer with a bad case of GAS will find it. This results in an obsessive-compulsive effort to keep up with the latest product cycles, reviews, and opinions. If “new is better”, the notion that “more is better” must be equally true. While this obsession is often directed toward new gear, it can also be focused on older equipment as well. It is not unusual to find those with GAS roaming eBay, estate or yard sales, and photo forums for those vintage bargains of yesteryear. GAS victims often feed their addiction by subscribing to every photo magazine on the Barnes & Noble rack, and check major gear-oriented photography blogs multiple times per day to ensure that no gear-related press announcement – however minor – escapes their scrutiny.
They are fountains of knowledge, and in some cases, sought out for their opinions. This of course, is like applause for an actor/actress – it only fuels the fire. Maxed out credit cards, storage bins worth of equipment that never seems to get used more than once or twice, and countless hours mulling over the product comparisons are the trademark symptoms of someone afflicted by GAS. Most have stellar records on eBay due to their continual buying and selling. Sadly, this too only serves to encourage their bad habits. If you happen to come across someone with a bad case of GAS on eBay, you can almost always be comfortable buying from them. They are usually very conscientious regarding their gear, and of course, they rarely use for very long. Buying their equipment is as close as you will come to buying new gear at a significant discount!
Behind every GAS sufferer lies a bit of insecurity that constantly whispers in his/her ear, “Buy it, and you will become a better photographer”. No one afflicted with GAS can bear to hear a fellow photographer utter something such as, “Are you still using that old tripod? I hear that Manflitzo is shipping their MB-2835C with twice the carbon fiber, half the weight, GPS, Bluetooth, and a battery-powered astronomy motor drive. Don’t tell me you don’t have one on order!” Such a conversation would result in nothing less than a full-fledged panic attack.
There are numerous cases on record of authorities finding those with GAS long after they have expired. Most of the victims have been single males. The scenes always look the same – the deceased appears to have locked himself (yes – GAS victims are overwhelmingly male) in their apartments for days, forgotten to eat, and surrounded themselves with hundreds of photo magazines strewn on the floor with review pages torn out. In other cases, they were found slumped over their computers with a few dozen browser windows open to popular photography sites. In an obsessive quest for equipment perfection, they died from simple exhaustion. A simple review of their flickr or other photo sites always reveals the telltale signs – a gradual reduction in the number of interesting photos of landscapes, nature, portraits, etc., and an increase in the number of pictures of their equipment, with tags such as “My new Opticon 11-500mm 2.8 zoom lens”.
GAS is not limited to photographers. Many other hobby and sports enthusiasts also suffer from very similar symptoms. Just ask any golfer’s wife…
Group therapy seems to work best. A qualified psychoanalyst requires members of the group to bring a few pieces of photography equipment to the session, but it must represent the oldest gear they own. They are required to stand up and affirm the positive aspects of their gear, share some photos that were taken with it, and explain why it is still capable of helping them take great photos. This can be a real struggle for some. Other members of the group are encouraged to support the speaker’s affirmations share related stories. During this time, reading gear reviews in any form is strictly prohibited. The success rate is actually pretty good, but it is a long process, often littered with a series of setbacks such as internet binge buying and sneaking into photography forums in the middle of the night.
2) LBA – Lens Buying Addiction
LBA is a specialized form of GAS. The severity of LBA, however, can be much more intense. Whereas those afflicted by GAS can satisfy their habit with a myriad of small, relatively inexpensive items, those with LBA are usually in for some major outlays of cash. They can often be found pouring over an extensive array of MTF charts, test shots, reviews, and other technical data that would make most people’s heads’ spin. No amount of differences between lenses is too trivial to be overlooked. LBA sufferers often lead the pack on internet forums in discussions regarding such weighty topic as, “Corner sharpness of the Canikon 50-500mm f/3.5-5.6 DX lens at ISO 12,800 at 400X magnification”.
Mild cases of LBA result in a photographer assembling a reasonable stock of lenses, with some overlap between ranges, and perhaps a few exotic pieces of glass that represent good value for the money. The more severe cases, however, have resulted in weekends dedicated to comparing lens reviews, lens hoarding, bankruptcy, and divorce. A dead giveaway in spotting a hard core LBA case is when you ask a him/her, “So what is your experience using this lens?”, and you get a quizzical look, followed by a rather measured response of, “Define ‘use’… ”.
Counseling is strongly recommended. Similar to the treatment for GAS, those with LBA are prohibited from their routine of visiting lens review sites and buying new lenses. They are given a specific project such as finding photography contest winners that used sub-$200 lenses, or assembling a portfolio of the notable photographs of the last century that were taken with relatively inexpensive film cameras and manual focus lenses. They are required to watch Chase Jarvis videos describing amazing photographs taken with the first generation iPhones. ASMP certified counselors will sometimes conduct sessions by traveling with the photographer and restricting his/her to three lenses, then two, and eventually… one! LBA sufferers gradually learn that they can indeed take some amazing photos without having the latest and most expensive gear, or a dozen lenses that have cover the same focal range. Make no mistake, however – LBA is an extremely powerful addiction. Research shows that unless it is diagnosed and treated within the first three years, it can be nearly impossible to cure. And under no circumstances, should you ever say something such as this to someone with LBA, “Gee, Ken, why do you have four of the best macro lenses ever made but no macro pictures?”.
3) PFA – Photo Forum Addiction
With internet access and popularity growing by the day, PFA is a relatively new malady. It is pretty much what it sounds like – people spending obscene amounts of time perusing photography forums and sharing their opinions with others around the globe, from everything from lens caps to digital sensor design. Of course, you are asking, “What’s the harm in some mild-mannered banter on www.mycameraisbetterthanyours.com? Fair enough. A post here, a lens review there, searching for some opinions regarding the latest camera bag, etc. is perfectly fine. There is certainly nothing wrong with seeking out the opinions of peers, who in some cases, are willing to provide valuable insights or time saving advice.
But for many with PFA, it doesn’t stop there. The forum’s search fields are like drugs to them, enabling them to sift through years of data, and millions of posts on everything from the common to the obscure. After a while, they are hooked. Soon they find themselves spending more and more time the forums, and often become quite proud of their “contributions”. Like others maladies, PFA is usually associated with a sharp drop in actually photography.
And the discussions… sigh… Many start out relatively harmless enough, but all too often degenerate into a series of biting commentary, entrenched opinions, and personal insults. I chalk this up to what I call, “Snarkism”. Snarkism is that modern day phenomenon, whereby average mild mannered people, perhaps even reserved and quite shy, turn into “keyboard warriors” on the internet. From the comfort of their bedroom or home office, they can send zingers flying with a righteous zeal toward others hundreds or thousands of miles away. Others that disagree with them are quickly labeled, “fanboys” and “trolls” – and those are probably the kinder terms they use. I suspect if we look into most of their backgrounds, we would find that the snarkiest PFA sufferer still harbor grudges for being picked last by the team captains during grade school gym class…
Counselors suggest going cold turkey for people with PFA. Many have discovered that within a few short weeks of being away from the dynamics of the forums, they notice things – such as their families, pets, a room that needs to be painted, etc. Most importantly, they discover that they can actually still take pictures (of something other than lens test charts), instead of simply exchanging immature, snarky commentary with those other poor souls on the internet afflicted by the same disease.
4) TUB – The Upgrade Beast
This is probably the most common of the photography maladies. One day, Joe Photographer is admiring his Canikon 1FX8000, thinking it is the epitome of fine engineering, the standard for DSLR styling, and more than capable of capturing the world in all its wonder and splendor under the best and worst of conditions. He writes reviews extolling its virtues to everyone on the internet, and even sends a letter to the President of Canikon singing its praises. He is that elusive creature in this modern world – a totally satisfied customer.
And then the unthinkable happens… the Canikon 1FX800D is introduced. He knew this day would eventually come, but despite such knowledge, he is caught unprepared mentally and emotionally. Joe vacillates between wanting to strangle the local Canikon representative for introducing something that eclipses his pride and joy, and frantically attempting to reach B&H to determine when he can order one. Eventually, his gaze turns toward his current camera. The camera he loved so much the other day? It now looks a bit worn in the grip. He spies a few dings in the body he hadn’t noticed before. “When did I wear the paint off the edge of the pop-up flash?”, he wonders. He takes a picture of his dog scampering through the hall. Hmmm… “Why is that picture not in focus?”.
He then goes online and compares test photos taken with the 1FX700D at ISO 204,800 with those of the new 1FX800D at ISO 204,800. Horrors… the new camera’s photos may be a tad better in the deep recesses of the corners than those from his current camera!!! Joe conveniently forgets that 95% his photos are taken below ISO 800. But facts matter little now. Joe has been bitten by… “the upgrade beast”. And similar to those bitten by a werewolf, Joe’s veins now possess an unstoppable force that will transform him into a new camera acquisition machine. Going forward, he will seek out every review, article, opinion, test photo – anything to feed the beast within that can only be satisfied by feeling his new Canikon 1FX800D in his anxiously-awaiting hands. Time will slow to a maddening crawl until the camera is delivered to his doorstep.
As long as the upgrade beast doesn’t inflict the photographer more often than once every two-to-three years, this disease is relatively harmless. The side effects of any treatment, much like the warnings on prescription drugs advertised on television, are likely to be much worse than the disease itself.
In rare cases, however, some photographers have experienced the upgrade beast on a much more frequent basis. Not only do they feel compelled to upgrade their DSLRs, but they wantonly switch brands in the process. This leads to the dreaded domino effect – having to sell every brand specific piece of gear they own, and replace it with that from a competing manufacturer. These tortured souls simply cannot be helped. Similar to the werewolf, only the grave can save them from their agony.
Photography can bring much joy to our lives and those whose lives we touch. But we must always be mindful of these debilitating illnesses, ensure that we do our part to bring awareness to them, and provide the help and assistance those within the photography community need and deserve. Be on the lookout for the telltale signs of photographers spending more time reading gear reviews, participating in photography forums, and acquiring gear than taking pictures. It can seem innocent enough, but it can also be… the beginning of much more serious issues.
If you have a story that you believe may help others dealing with these afflictions, please feel free with the group. ;)