Freedom in Creativity Through Limiting Choice

by Lindsey Welch

You should try photography with just a single prime lens, but not for the reasons you've probably already heard. Decision fatigue is a very real problem that many are unaware of as a danger to their creativity and creation of new work. This is something that has plagued me at various points in my photograph creation history. It’s something I have worked towards solving through intentionally limiting choice. This may sound like a step backward, but it bears a hidden freedom.

 Image: Google, Source Unknown

Image: Google, Source Unknown

Like many new photographers, I began in photography thinking I needed all the gear, all the lens options, all the filters, everything one needs to make a perfect picture. In time, I learned many skills in visualization, composition and even concept development. As I began to turn to making images of the world out there, the landscape and environment, I took with me these many lenses, several cameras and myriad other selections. I had a lot of options to make pictures with, and a lot of choices to make before I made an image. “That pretty much sums it up: time spent figuring out your equipment is time that could have been better spent figuring out how to get the best photo.” Says Mark David in an article titled ‘How much camera gear do you need?’ [1].

Beyond the physical fatigue of hauling all this equipment to various shooting locations; and the maintenance, expense and awareness of its protection, is another kind of exhaustion. I am one who always tries to think through a choice for the best possible solution towards the best outcome, I also can tend to be paralyzed by choices when all options seem equal. Having these options before making an image would often time mean that I would waste valuable creation time choosing equipment before making the shot. Making all of these choices before even making the picture means I was exhausting my decision-making muscles.

 Image: Mark David [1]

Image: Mark David [1]

I hadn’t realized at the time, but decision fatigue is a real thing, and it can be a real danger to creativity and productivity. In a 2010 study, University students found that decision making ability decreased with each act of deciding [2]. In result, one’s ability to make good choices can decrease as choices are made. It makes our willpower dwindle, it makes us more irritable, it makes us act rashly. It’s a simple matter of physical limits, there is a ceiling for choices made in a single choice making (read: creation of artwork) session. As translated into the creation of photography, having a plethora of decisions to make concerning gear options, and following likely options with subject matter and location (and before even making the images) can lead to poor images. Most optimistically, it can also lead to a lack of enthusiasm to make them, which can lead to missing details and opportunities, and even making it seem more like work [3]. This can cause the creation of new work to go from being rewarding and enlightening to being draining and exhausting, which in the long term can affect one’s whole portfolio.

 Andreas Gursky.  99 Cent , 1999.San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), San Francisco

Andreas Gursky. 99 Cent, 1999.San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), San Francisco

In my case, it meant that I wasn’t going far enough, trying hard enough, doing as much as I could. I would spend more time making technical choices than I was making creative choices; never mind the physical strain of carrying these items, and thus missing images because I didn’t want to haul all that gear. One of the ways to combat this fatigue is to eliminate choice, to simplify and minimize. “Do I miss some shots due to my limited gear? Sure, but what I missed is easily made up by all of the other shots I get.” Writes blogger Dave Powell about choosing to minimize gear choices [4].

This is a tactic that many successful stories in the business world use every day. For example, Apple and Trader Joe’s limit customer choice. For the premium price tag, you have choice made for you in a curated fashion, thus buying into the quality of experience over the option of choice which confound you following all the other decisions of the day [5]. Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, Steven Jobs and even Albert Einstein all wear the same basic clothing or outfit every day. This is an efficient tactic to simplify in areas that bleed away decision-making energy, as well we precious time [6].

 Image: Reuters. [6]

Image: Reuters. [6]

For me, one of the first place to minimize was in my equipment. I have since gotten rid of all extraneous equipment and now work predominately with only one prime lens and one camera. My lens of choice is a 55mm f/1.8. I have one other 35mm f/2.8 lens that acts as a kind of safety net in emergencies, but it mostly lives in the car. I picked this focal length by examining my favorite images over several years. The choice to have this second lens was that it was so close to my main one. In effect, its only job is to save me if I cannot back up enough with my feet. This goes for zoom lenses too, as the infinite choice of potential perspectives means valuable time is wasted choosing them. Over the last few years, I have become convinced I needed to try working with additional lenses again. I buy them, and then become paralyzed by which to take with me when I can only take one, or which to use when the situation suites several. Every time I find myself back at a single lens, its relieving. There is no choice to make, I can just shoot.

 My portfolio and metadata in Lightroom

My portfolio and metadata in Lightroom

It isn’t just in equipment options where decision fatigue can become a risk factor to success. Perhaps you have too many available plug-ins in Photoshop, too many kinds of film to choose from, or maybe too many options in lighting, filters, and even processes. The important point is to take a good look at your work flow and highlight where you make choices. Ask: how much time to you spend being hung up on that choice, and what option do you intuitively gravitate towards? Just try creating without thinking about those choices, consider them a given, and work within those parameters. You might find the lack of options to be freeing to your creativity as you spend less time thinking about technical and physical decisions and more time on the meat of the work: the ideas.

For more inspiration, check out “27 Frames” [7], which opened on January 12 this year. “It became more about what I chose to take a picture of, rather than how I took it,” explains Will Adler about using nothing but a disposable camera for the series [8].

 Prints on prints on print. Credit: Matt Titone [8]

Prints on prints on print. Credit: Matt Titone [8]

[1] David, Mark. How much camera gear do you need? <http://www.mdavid.com.au/photography/howmuchgear.shtml>

[2] Danzigera , Shai, Levavb, Jonathan Levavb, and Avnaim-Pessoa , Liora. Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. 2010-2011 < http://www.pnas.org/content/108/17/6889.full.pdf>

[3] Tierney, John. August 17, 2011. Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html>

[4] Powell, Dave. 10 Things I learned from daily shooting. <https://shoottokyo.com/daily-shooting/>

[5] Baer, Drake. May 14, 2013. Quick: End Decision Fatigue Before It Drains Your Productivity Reservoir. < https://www.fastcompany.com/3009641/leadership-now/quick-end-decision-fatigue-before-it-drains-your-productivity-reservoir>

[6] Haltwanger, John. November 14, 2014. The Science Of Simplicity: Why Successful People Wear The Same Thing Every Day. < http://elitedaily.com/money/science-simplicity-successful-people-wear-thing-every-day/849141/>

[7] MATT. January 8, 2017. 27 Frames Show Preview. < http://www.indoek.com/archives/22611 >

[8] Aschim, Hans. January 12, 2017. Here's What Happens When Pro Photographers Shoot on Disposable Cameras < https://creators.vice.com/en_us/article/27-frames-pro-photographers-disposable-cameras >