The past few months I have fallen victim to a creative slump, a rut, a lack of enthusiasm around my photography. Call it what you want, I felt uninspired. Although I love nature and bird photography, I found myself struggling to make time to get out and shoot. We live on the gulf coast of southern Mississippi. There is an abundance of wonderful birdlife, beautiful sunsets and unique cypress swamps full of wildlife begging to be photographed. When I did get out, I found I was not very motivated to download my images, let alone take the time to process them. I needed a change. What I really needed was a challenge. I decided to try something I had heard of, but have never tried before, in the hopes that it would relight my photographic passion.
We had a two week trip to France booked for the beginning of June. We were spending ten days in Provence and four days in Paris. Normally I would have lugged two DSLR’s and a camera bag stuffed full of lenses with me. But this trip was not a photography trip. This one was a vacation. We would be travelling with non-photographer friends and we were seeing the country for the first time.
The challenge I gave to myself was to create images that depicted the French Provencal countryside, life in Paris, and of course take some images of iconic French landmarks. The catch was I had to do this with one focal length for the entire trip, no cheating! In addition, I wanted to experiment with street photography. I have always admired photographers who could capture images of street life, but I have always been too nervous to give it a try.
I chose to take my small, lightweight, mirrorless Fujifilm X100T with its fixed 23mm f/2 lens (35mm full frame equivalent). Now I have to be honest, several weeks before we left I took possession of a brand new shiny Nikon D500, and I didn’t want it to feel left out. I always travel with a backup camera, so I gave myself permission to place my new toy in the bottom of my backpack, just in case something happened to my X100T!
Now some of you might think I was crazy, and I admit I was more than a bit nervous about my choice. I knew that I probably wouldn’t get to visit France again, and with a 23 mm lens, I knew that many shots would be impossible. But I wanted to force myself to see things differently. Without the choice of several focal lengths, I would have to be creative with my framing. I would have to look for unusual angles to tell my story. Details of the gargoyles at the top of Notre Dame Cathedral were not going to happen. Would I regret not being able to get those shots? Well, I was ready to accept the challenge and take that risk!
I must say that I felt very liberated in the airport. We had packed lightly since we would be travelling by plane, train and car and would probably have some walking to do with our suitcases. My husband and I had each packed one carry-on size bag with our clothes, which we checked. We also limited ourselves to one small backpack each to take on the plane. This was so different to how I normally travel, with a heavy camera bag and a second large purse with all the gear I couldn’t fit in my camera bag! I can’t tell you how nice it felt not to be carting 30 pounds of kit on my back!
I ended up using my X100T exclusively. Before we left for each day’s outings I would throw two extra charged batteries, a small wallet with extra SD cards and a GorillaPod into my pack. I carried my camera using a lightweight wrist strap. That was it! All my gear weighed in at a measly 1.5 pounds. That is less than my 24-70 mm lens alone! It took me a while to get used to the fact that I wasn’t missing some critical piece of kit! I didn’t even end up carrying the D500 with me! It stayed in the hotel safe everyday except one. When we visited Versailles, I decided to throw it in my pack. However, by this time I had grown accustomed to just carrying the tiny X100T on my wrist. It was way too much work to dig around the bottom of my backpack to pull out the “backup”. The D500 also more than doubled the weight of my pack! It went back into the safe the next day! I did not take one shot with it the entire trip.
The first few days I struggled. Had I bitten off too big a challenge? I tend to shoot with longer focal lengths, so 23mm was very wide for me. Although this focal length worked well for landscapes, I was having trouble ignoring shots that required a longer focal length. In my minds eye I knew how I could capture these subjects with 50mm or 200mm, but I struggled with the 23mm focal length. I was too worried about what a great shot I “could have made” with a longer lens. This attitude was killing any creativity I had left. However, I soon realized that I didn’t need to take a photograph of everything. I learned to enjoy the scenery, and started to relax. After I realized this, I started to see differently. I found angles that I hadn’t thought about before. I was starting to have fun with my photography again. I was excited to try new things and was not feeling intimidated by my camera choice any more.
Soon I was seeing in 23mm. I began to visualize more opportunities. Since I couldn’t frame as closely as I could with a longer zoom, I paid more attention to backgrounds and took more environmental type shots. I also became much more aware of my framing and perspective. I began to use my feet to zoom and tried angles I would not normally have tried with a larger camera or a longer focal length.
Normally I capture my shots in raw. However, this time I decided to shoot both a raw file along with a jpg. I chose to shoot the jpg in black and white. This meant that the file displayed on the back of the camera was in black and white. I found this helped me concentrate on the tones in the image, without colour complicating things. It was amusing when I passed off my camera to someone else to take a shot of my husband and myself together. They would say something like “I don’t think your camera is working, the picture is in black and white!”
All in all I think my self-imposed challenge was a success. Although I did miss some shots, I feel that overall my photography skills improved. And, I definitely feel re-charged creatively! Was it the fixed 23mm focal length, or the small mirrorless camera? I think it was a combination of both. The wide focal length made me see things differently and made me shoot outside my comfort zone. The small, quiet, inconspicuous camera allowed me to capture perspectives and subjects I wouldn’t have tried to capture otherwise. I also ended up with a collection of photos that are much more cohesive than if I had shot with several different focal lengths. I encourage any of you to try a similar challenge to elevate your photography to the next level. You will be amazed at how limitations can bring out your creativity. I would love to hear how you make out.
Just a couple of final notes: all of the images in this article were processed very lightly in Lightroom, with minor tweaks to contrast, highlights, shadows, blacks and whites. Most are full frame images; others have only minor cropping, mostly for levelling. And don’t worry; I’m not ready to sell all my DSLR gear quite yet! My D500 does have a place in my camera bag and is being used regularly now!