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Confessions of an Ex-Gear Addict

How buying cameras and lenses made me miserable and lose thousands, and how you too can overcome Gear Acquisition Syndrome

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Thank God, I am now a gear minimalist focused on photography and a big fan of “limitation creativity” (i.e. you are more creative with less)… But here’s the truth, I used to be a huge gear junkie, basically having Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) as soon as I got a new camera. I had this problem since the very beginning, but now I am cured. In one sense I am trying to help those who know they have G.A.S. to stop having it and trying to prevent others from having it.

I might sound preachy and maybe harsh but please know that I am preaching and being hard on myself first because I wasted a lot of money and time because of my gear addiction. I hope this helps you in some way and I wish someone was there to tell me these things.

When reading this article please understand that I LOVE gear but I am aiming at G.A.S., the syndrome that makes you hoard gear that you don’t really need and get stuff for the sake of getting it.

I always knew I had a problem

My first foray into photography was because of G.A.S.. I had a friend that had a cool looking professional camera and one day realized that I could afford it. And did. I got my Nikon D80. It’s OK to enter photography by loving the toys first, but the problem was, I didn’t stick with the camera I got. It went downhill from there.

My painful list of cameras

I can’t really remember how many cameras I owned. All that I know is that I didn’t need them at all, but just the basics. I had a Nikon D80; then it was too big. I got a Samsung NX; then I wanted a retro camera. Got the Olympus PEN; then missed viewfinder. Got a Pentax K20D. Tried a Pentax Limited lens, loved it so much I bought another one.

Then I had some fantasies in my head about being a film photographer. I got an Olympus XA, Pentax 110 and Pentax Optio i10 then I was like, “I want the best image quality.” Got a Fuji 6×9 with loads of film.

Then I had another fantasy of being like Ansel Adams, I had a custom made large format 4×5 camera with Graflex Back, Fuji Readyload loader and Polaroid loader, plus loads of film. Then I felt everything was too big and got one GXR, then another, then another, then another.

I had a Alienbee Ringlash and 2 Sunpak 120js, a bunch of flashes, reflectors, Vagabond battery pack, etc. That’s the abridged version, by the way — I had other cameras like the Sigma DP1 and others. I just don’t remember the rationalization behind them.

G.A.S is universal

But it wasn’t cameras only mind you, I had PDAs and phones. Nokia N900, Nokia N800, Nokia E90, Sony Experia, a random HTC smartphone, Nokia Comunicator 3200, NTT Docomo Sigmarion III, Hp Jornada 720, Nec Mobilepro, Sony Clie z, bunch of Palm PDAs, Fujitsu UMPC, Fossil PDA watch, etc. Thank God I didn’t get too deep into camera bags!

A sure way to know you have G.A.S is that you start buying not just cameras, but also everything else like bags, gadgets and other gizmos.

I wasn’t rich

Woah, you must think I was LOADED right? No, it was just a matter of selling what I had to buy some new stuff. I always lost money in selling in addition to the eBay and Paypal fees. In total — and I don’t want to even know if you want to know the truth — I lost thousands of dollars. That could have gone to savings, down payment on a house or a college fund.

I’m a royal idiot. Don’t follow that route. I remember when my wife’s family members asked if i was rich because I had all of these cameras. I felt very uneasy, but as an addict I rationalized it and said that they couldn’t possibly understand what a photographer really needs. Truth is, you don’t need much gear to create great work.

I never made anything serious

It’s good to have all that gear, IF you do something serious with it. That was not the case in my story. I shot two rolls of film with the Fuji 6×9 and sold it with 19 rolls of Ilford HP5. The large format? About 7 shots. All that lighting gear? I even had a 90-inch umbrella! I barely made a few shots with them.

I barely have anything substantial with all my other cameras. All the personal devices? I was still not as productive as I fantasized. You see, throughout my entire professional camera owning career, I stagnated when it came to photography. I was never focused on what I could do right now but always what I could do later, when I got yet another camera or lens.

Understanding the addiction

Here’s how to understand G.A.S. (it’s what helped me): it’s a sort of idolatry. Normally idolatry is anything you put in front of God (yourself, money, etc), but G.A.S is a form of idolatry in the sense that you put gear in front of photography. The main goal is not photography but the acquisition of shiny new toys.

The lie

We lie best to ourselves, because we believe ourselves. I didn’t need all these cameras but bought them anyway. I had reasons, I told myself, to buy them. I had GOOD reasons too, I told myself, to sell them.

The line that always got me was “It’s an investment” — all my cameras were investments in my mind. But investments are worth nothing without commitment. Buying that 4×5 was “an investment” in my landscape photography.

Nevermind that I never really actually took landscape seriously. The only “landscape” I got out of that camera was a scene of an empty school yard at nautical twilight. That shot is still in the Readyload sheet. So is my two rolls of 120 film, a bunch of 35mm cans and all of my 110 film canisters.

I somehow believed the recurring lie that somehow my photography would be unleashed with a new camera or lens, how much better how I would be. I would think that while being oblivious to the fact that I never advanced in my photography because I was too busy to get cameras to learn anything or too shoot anything. What an idiot. I could have been 3 times the photographer I am today if I didn’t have G.A.S. So much time wasted.

Beware of making excuses to buy another camera, you will always find one. Heck, speaking of excuses some dude sued his own parents because of how bad he turned out!

The truth

The truth is we don’t need much gear, but only the minimum for what we do. Street photographers need less than wedding photographers, for example.

The truth is, there is no perfect camera — only compromise. What I think is the best camera might be annoying to you and vice versa. It’s all about dealing with idiosyncrasies. Every camera will have issues but it’s not the end of the world. Just deal with it.

Throughout all the years of buying and selling cameras and losing time and money, I could have been such a better photographer. I wouldn’t understate it if I said all I needed (except for maybe the paid work) for my photography was one camera. My Ricoh GRD IV would have been perfect, but seriously, any camera would have done great, even an obsolete one.

The infernal cycle

Those who bought the Fujifilm X100 quickly felt limited because of the lack of interchangeable lenses. Those who bought the Fujifilm X-Pro felt limited because they do not have one more lens. When they get them all and then it will feel limited because of how small APS-C sensors are. They also feel limited by the dynamic range of digital.

They buy a Fuji 6×9 (superb camera) and then they feel limited because it’s too big, and too limited because of the lack of feedback from film — then they go back to digital.

It’s a infernal cycle that will never stop if we don’t put a break to it. The story above would have been my rationalization if I went with a X100. It’s a cycle, you always find a criticism for a camera and somehow end up with a camera similar to you original one.

What photographers who have everything don’t have

I had many cameras, but I could have them all and still not have one thing: enough. When is the amount of stuff we have enough? When is one more lens enough?

When gear becomes validation

Olivier the Photographer. It rhymes so it must be true. I am photographer! What did I have to show for it? Cameras. There’s only two ways you can validate yourself as a photographer, either by pursuing your intent or hide behind cameras. I chose the later option. The better the camera, the better pillar it became for me to hide behind.

Buying more and more as insecurity

I then realized what was happening, I was insecure in my photography so I was finding it in cameras. When you get a new camera you feel like you can take on Eugene Smith or something. But after the high, I needed my next fix to hide my insecurities.

That’s why I could never have enough cameras, I needed more and more stuff to hide behind, to validate myself. I needed to look at a camera and say “Don’t worry man, you’re a photographer, you have a camera, you’re a photographer.” It was of course rooted in my insecurities.

Now I am secure in my own photography because I know my intent and work towards it. I’m getting better every day. I don’t need a camera to feel secure, because I now trust myself to actually deliver.

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How I Started Breaking Free from G.A.S.

I knew it had to stop. I mean, I had so much stuff that I had to have a conversation with my wife every time I got some new gear coming in. “It’s a better camera”, “It’s sharper than the one I had,” “It’s more compact”, “It’s 5 fps.”

You know the feeling when you’ve cried wolf too many times? She was oblivious to my rationalization but never really put my back on the wall. I would have gotten defensive anyways. After all I’m a photographer, and only a photographer knows what they need… right?

I’m now free from G.A.S., I did certain things to kick the habit that only later I would learn is a process that Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction recovery places use.

I took two decisive steps to break free from the addiction: (1) replacing the old beliefs with new ones, and then (2) moving beyond the camera. But first let’s see how habits work in order to kick the G.A.S. habit.

Prime directive

Ever watched Robocop? The android man always had some things in his mind that were programmed: the prime directives. Even if he wanted to he couldn’t go pass these prime directives. For example, one is “Protect the innocent” — he couldn’t harm them even if he wanted to.

Habits are like prime directives, you fall prey to them even if you didn’t want to. A gambler doesn’t want to lose their money, but they do anyways because they can’t help it. The very interesting thing is that, just like Robocop, your brain can be rewired to change habits.

The thing is, your brain craves to be on autopilot — otherwise it would be overwhelmed — so it creates habits, in order to do things on automatic mode. The habits you have basically short circuit your rationality. If G.A.S. is a habit, you will buy the camera or lens without even really thinking about it.

The popular book “The Power of Habit” outlines an example of a man that had terrible short term memory. He couldn’t draw a map of the house, but he could go the bathroom or go to the kitchen without any issues, all because they were habits engrained in his brain.

The G.A.S. habit

G.A.S is an addiction because it’s a habit. We condition our brains to respond a certain way to certain triggers and gives us what we wanted: A brain that reacts automatically under certain conditions. First, the bad news: habits cannot be erased. The good news: they can be overwritten. Turns out there’s 3 components of habits: Trigger, Routine and Reward. G.A.S addiction has these 3 components too.

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G.A.S. Trigger

A trigger is of course something that triggers the pattern. In case of G.A.S my triggers were forums and gear websites. But it can be anything like friends talking about cameras to simply seeing the gear in the wild.

I would be on my merry way looking at gear blogs (the blog that claim to be about photography but they’re mainly about gear) or forums when it would hit me. A lens porn thread, or a camera porn thread. Forget it if these cameras had some dressing up involved, like with leather cases! Never mind if no great pictures taken with the camera were posted, I had a kick from looking at the camera alone.

G.A.S. Routine

This will vary from person to person, but as soon as the trigger was pulled, I would feel uneasy. I have to get that camera, that lens. I can’t shoot anymore. My photography is worthless without that piece of gear. I have to get it.

What can I sell? 2-3 cameras I can now live without? Throw in some extra stuff like a bag? Can I swing it after the rent? I need to get it! I usually tell myself I would get the new camera AFTER I sell the others but if I could swing it I would buy it before putting anything on eBay.

G.A.S. Rewards

I think I speak for everyone when I say that the reward of G.A.S. is instant gratification. You feel like FINALLY you can be a photographer. FINALLY it’s going to happen — you’re going to take d*mn great pictures.

It’s the most awesomest camera ever and Eugene Smith can eat his heart out. But the euphoria does not last, wait a couple of months. Rise and repeat and you have an infernal cycle that costs time and money.

An example

In my list, I forgot to mention one big, stupid buy: the Nikon N90, so I’m going to use it as an example of the G.A.S habit loop. Here I was, browsing the Internet and somehow ended up in Wikipedia when BAM!, I saw this picture:

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That picture had such an effect on me. It’s a PDA, there are data cards, there are cameras! It was like a foot fetishist who also had a strawberry fetish (Does that even exist?) who was looking at a picture of someone crushing strawberries with their feet. Weird. But you get the idea. I was my first exposure to the Nikon Data Link System. That was the trigger.

The routine: Search like crazy for all that I can about it. Is it even obtainable? Can I afford it? How much do I need? Do I need to sell anything? Does eBay have it? Amazon? Will I have some $$$ left after the rent? I bought a stupid PDA for $80, some rare card for $40 and got the cable down to $40 (instead of $60. Hey, better than nothing!).

The reward: Heaven. Put that thing on a tripod, took selfies of my wife and me at the beach. I don’t know how much of an idiot I looked like with a dumb PDA and pressing a button to make that thing focus and pressing another to make the shutter release go off. Woah. The card can hold so much information about the film rolls, like ISO, f/stop and all!

I had a PDA and something useful for my photography. Sweet! It was gone in less than a month.

All this for the experience of a glorified remote release and data back? It was not a rational decision but I bought it out of habit: I want, I lust, I buy.

Reprogramming the G.A.S. Habit

Apparently the way to rewire the brain to break a habit is to change the routine, keeping the trigger and rewards. If you are craving a cookie, there was a trigger (Maybe reading the word?) and you want that Reward (Feeling good). To kick that habit you simply need to learn to replace the Routine (Eat the cookie) with another one (Eat Apple).

That’s what I did, I replaced the G.A.S pattern with another pattern. Actually there’s 2 aspects to the G.A.S routine: The intellectual talk and the action, both are necessary to rewire in my opinion. Every time the G.A.S trigger was pressed, a slew of self talk kicked in, from “I NEED this”, to “I will BE a BETTER photographer” and the like.

Below are my retorts to counter my G.A.S self talk. Self talk is the rationalization to the action of buying new gear, I had to deal with it first, fore the action. Again, if I sound preachy, please excuse that. I’m preaching to myself first, and sometimes I need some butt whoopin’

Self talk: New is good

I don’t know about you, I like new things. Doesn’t have to be a new product but a new thing for me. I was addicted to it. Part of the G.A.S self talk was “Hey Olivier, you’re going to get some NEW stuff, imagine how it’s going to be like holding that new camera, it’s going to change the game, but you need to get it first”.

The turning point came when I asked myself WHEN will there be nothing new. The answer: Never. There will ALWAYS be something new to buy, some new camera, some new gizmo. If I didn’t stop it it would suck my life dry. “There will always be a better camera than yours, deal with it”, I told myself.

So what if another camera is better than mine? Does it mean that mine cease taking great pictures? No. So why even get a new one? I had to stop fantasizing on what I could have and start appreciating what I had. The whole premise behind my free GRD IV ebook is to help folks enjoy their camera more. And, after a few email exchanges, I believe it hit the spot.

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Self talk: I’m going to be happier

“Olivier, that camera would make you SO much more happy! I mean look at all you will be able to accomplish with it!” Sure I would be happy. For less than a week, that is.

Would that be TRUE happiness? Nope, it was the contrary. After the sudden high, I would be depressed because I don’t have another camera. Every time that self talk of “It will make me happier” comes to my mind, I tell myself TRUE happiness comes from enjoying what you have.

I don’t know about you, but I’m the richest 1% of the population when it comes to comparing what I own to the world. 99% poor in the US, but 1% rich in the world, it’s all about perspective.

Actually, let me make you enjoy your next shower. When growing up, I didn’t have running water and I din’t have hot water. I used to shower with a bucket and a cup, with boiling water thrown in. Quite the perspective shift from something that is so basic right?

That’s the easiest G.A.S. self talk to defeat when it comes to my mind. When a thought of a new camera comes, I shift the focus to my current gear, how much I love my trusty Ricoh GRD IV and my NEX 7, and not what a next camera can do for me. I probably can do whatever I fantasize with my current gear.

I think about how lucky I am to even have those cameras and have enough time to take pictures while some are struggling to pay their rent. It never fails to drive the lie that a new piece of gear would make me happy. Counting your blessings is the way to go, I’m better off than 99% of the world’s population, and I need a new camera to be happy? Thank you for opinion, Mr Self Talk, but I have more than enough to rejoice.

Self talk: You will become a better photographer

Oh I love this one. “Olivier, 9fps, it’s going to make you an awesome photographer!”, “Dude, you NEED that 1.4 it’s going to bokeh that background to the moon, you’ll take better portraits”. G.A.S. talk tells you you will become a better photographer, that is not so.

It might expand your creative liberties but hardly make you a better photographer. G.A.S has a tendency to blow a feature out of proportion, like the holy grail, even if you never relied on it in the past. I have a 10 fps camera, but have never used it, even in event situations. I had a f/1.4, barely used it at that aperture because the focus was too easy to miss.

None of my cameras made me a better photographer, for sure, they had a psychological effect on me, but they mainly made me miserable because I had too much gear that I changed too fast and didn’t take the time to create meaningful work.

Pressing on with your current gear when everybody else is upgrading will make you a better photographer. My mother used to be a pottery artist, I used to watch her hands molding that pot, forming it into what she wanted. Her hands where her tools. She knew how every little movement could have a drastic change on the pot when it was turning. Her focus was never on her hands, what she needed to do to accomplish the shape, her focus was the image of the pot on her mind’s eye.

My tool and your tool is the camera, and the more you know it, the less camera there will be between what you have in your Vision. I think one of the keys to better photography is not to upgrade the camera but to upgrade your relationship with it, know it like the back of your hands. Plus by then, you won’t want to separate yourself from it. After all the best camera is the one you love.

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Also the very bad consequence of that self talk is that you start associating the camera with being a good photographer. Getting more camera didn’t make me one, it simply provided me some more stuff to hide behind. I’m a photographer: look at my camera. Mediocrity hidden behind superb gear didn’t make me better, only mediocre behind great gear.

I won’t fool myself, my gear hoarding was because I didn’t want to face the fact that I just wasn’t a good shooter, so I bought more and more to hide that fact. Compensating for a weakness is the nail on the head. I’m not saying it’s the case for everyone but it was my personal case. There are many reasons for buying more and more gear (Maybe sense of lack?), my personal one was to hide my weaknesses.

My PDA collection was to hide the fact that I was never really productive, no matter what system I used. Every piece of gear I bought was an excuse, it provided me a way to rationalize my mediocrity: I’m a mediocre photographer because I have a new camera I have to learn, you can’t expect me to create great pictures with something new right?

Self talk: You are going to look cool

That used to get me a lot when I was fresh in the game. Big DSLR = Instant street cred.

“Dude, you’re going to look SO cool with that camera in your hands,” I told myself when I had my hard earned $500+ in the pocket to buy my Nikon D80. The bigger the camera, the more it screamed photographer, the better it is. The respect of the photographer is in the gear he owns, never failing to flaunt your camera’s curves… or so I believed.

If I wanted to be a respected photographer, I needed to stop wasting my money on gear, and actually start producing work. When the hint of something along the lines of “This camera LOOKS cool” I immediately tell myself “I can create COOL IMAGES with my current gear”. I shift the attention from the looks of the camera to what really matters: The Images.

It’s hard to resist because nowadays, we are in a sort of digital plateau where every camera is pretty much good enough, so the differentiation point is no more megapixel power as it was years ago but the looks. I’m personally a sucker for the rangefinder looks. The X-Pro temps me from time to time, but I am quick to point to myself that good looks don’t do nothing for images and the photographer’s eye.

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Self talk: Everybody uses that new camera!

“Do what you want Olivier, but everyone is getting that new camera, you should too, or else! It’s like having an iPhone 1G or something.” That’s the old “Let’s jump into the bandwagon and use what every one else uses” self talk.

What I have found out is that there is a guilty pleasure in using what other people consider outdated. If you shoot with a sub par camera and produce great results, that’s more respect than if you shot a great frame with a full-frame camera. Look at these pics from a 5 megapixel point and shoot, my NEX7 will never impress me like that. I boosts self confidence less than new equipment because it focuses the attention on the photographer and less the equipment.

Most of what I write on my blog, all my articles over at Inspired Eye, and my free guides were written on a 20 year old HP100lx computer. Most of my photography is done on small sensor cameras. How can I not feel a confidence boost when somebody blogs on a shiny new $2000 computer, or when someone takes pictures with a $3000 full-frame camera?

There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you, but if I got that kind of gear, I would not get the kick of self confidence I would get by using outdated gear. I mean, who’s more impressive? The Egyptians who built the pyramids with wood, stone and manpower or the contractors who builds modern buildings with computers and mountain moving machinery?

Self talk: I think I should get back to film

OOOoooh boy, this is the big one! That nasty self talk made me lose so much money. I bought a custom made 4×5 camera and all that film and backs — about $1500 for the camera, three different backs and loads of film. Didn’t shoot 10 frames, sold it for an abysmal $500 without even pulling out eBay fees and PayPal fees.

“Maybe I should get into film” is the G.A.S. self talk the digital photographers are weak to listen to, I believe. Every time that self talk comes, it’s usually about how better the dynamic range is or the how the colors are. That talk can’t fool me anymore! Here’s what’s going on in my head:

So Olivier, let me get this straight, you want to go to film because you want better dynamic range and colors you can’t get in digital right?
Yes……why?
Well Mr film photographer, tell me what you will do when you finish taking pictures?
I get them developed!
Yes and what else?
I get them scanned!
OOOoooh so you’re going to get them scanned right?
Yea? So?
So basically you are making a digital image out of an analog image, meaning all this talk about dynamic range and color is ludicrous because it’s thrown out when you digitize it with a scanner. Whatever extra stuff you had is gone and you are now back to a digital image. Wouldn’t it be better to have a digital camera that is hum……DESIGNED to take advantage of sRGB Color Spaces?

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That usually ends it right then and there. Why would I want to put in extra steps and extra money only to have a digital image left? I’m looking at the Contax G2 body, a mere $250 because I have some lenses for my NEX-7. Would be a killer digital-film combo right? It would make sense if I kept some work analog and some digital but if I’m going to end up with digital images, why spend that money in the first place? The above retort easily keeps that buy at bay without even dealing with developing matters.

Self Talk: I will make money off my eBay sale

Cameras are like cars, they depreciate as soon as they go off the parking lot. Sometimes the incentive to sell a camera is that it would bring me a new camera AND some pocket money. That rarely happened. I lost an average of 100-200 on each camera, not talking eBay fees and PayPal fees. My Ricoh GXRs? Oh boy… lost a lot from those because they were unpopular cameras.

You see, not everyone has G.A.S, so when I was buying from eBay, I was impatient and wanted to Buy It Now, sometimes loosing money I could have saved by being patient on a bid that would end in days. Also, did I say I had a thing for portable storage devices like the Epson P5000? Let’s move on less I digress.

So not everybody acted like me, I was usually was impatient to sell a camera because I was impatient to get another one. So I either left it on 1 or 3 day sale and made an attractive offer on buy it now options, usually around $50. Very rarely did I sell more than I bought a camera for. I lost money, never really made any selling.

Self talk: You NEED that camera or lens!

“Olivier, you can’t make it without that lens, without that camera!”. I believed that when I was fresh into G.A.S. Take my rationale behind buying the 4×5 camera, I told myself I NEEDED this camera to do some landscape work. Oh man, I would go to National Parks, I would trek the mountains, create killer work! I would be the next Ansel Adams I tell ya!

The truth was, I never shot a traditional landscape in my life up to this point. I never woke up for magic hour, I never set foot in the landscape opportunities that Long Island offered, etc. Fact is, I didn’t need much to be a photographer. I wasn’t a pro, all I needed was one camera, the Ricoh GRD IV would have been perfect. Now as a commercial photographer, the NEX-7 and a few basic lenses (12mm-24mm-90mm) is more than enough for me.

G.A.S has a tendency to promise you you will be a transformed photographer when you get your new purchase. I bought ring flashes, Sunpak 120js, reflectors, umbrellas cuz my G.A.S told me I would be a fashion photographer (Triggered by a friend who had the gear). Nevermind that it was not what my heart was telling me, I bought everything. Please note that I never used my flash that I had, EVER, not even for a lit portrait. When my G.A.S self talk tells me I can be a whatever photographer if I get some piece of equipment I check my past and my future intent, if it has no place, I reject it as b.s. Reminds me….about that 4×5, I sold it because film was too much hassle (Can anyone say irrational? After I bought ALL the gear?) I was still fantasizing about landscapes so I went ahead and bought a Gigapan. Used about 3-4 times.

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More gear doesn’t make you more creative

Human history is proof that more can be achieved because of limitations. Humans that could fly would not invent the airplane. Humans that could run 120mph would not invent the automobile. Creativity thrives on limitation because the brain is problem solving oriented. Take a look at this selection of photographs, all made with a 28mm. It’s the biggest coup de grace when I have a G.A.S. attack, I know by experience that the less gear and the less stuff you have, the better it is.

There is one episode of Batman (the old one) were they were so low on dough (budget cuts…) that they had a GENIUS idea for a fight scene that would cost too much to produce: Robin says something like “Gee Batman, this is going to turn violent, better turn off the lights!” The scene goes black with sounds and graphics of KAPOWS! and WAM!, etc. Cheapest fight scene ever and limitation creativity in action. Instead of zooming in or changing the lens because you have many options, one lens will force you to make it work. Check out this article on the freedom of the 28mm. Creativity springs when you restrict your options, not when you have more. I know this first hand as a graphic designer, the best designs are only a handful of colors and elements.

Let me save you hundreds (thousands?) and lots of pain

My pain, your gain. I’ve lost time and money in G.A.S., and let me tell you what I have learned:

  • Gear doesn’t make you better
  • Too much gear makes you miserable
  • The more gear you have, the less time you spend shooting with each piece (Streetshooter calls this the Inverse Square Law)
  • Gear can become something to hide insecurities
  • The less gear the more creative
  • Much happier with less gear

A more balanced view

I don’t want to sound like I’m never going to buy another camera again. I am. I’m just more sober to make the difference between what I WANT and what I NEED. One thing not to do as a gear head is to head to forums and blogs where it’s all about gear. There’s a healthy balance, I talk about gear on my blog because it’s a necessity, a requirement but it’s not vitality. Vitality is photography, not gear.

If a blog claims to be a photography blog yet only talks about gear, stay away if you are an addict, it’s like trying to resist smoking at a smoking bar. The lessons I learned throughout my G.A.S. phases is simple: Gear is good, but there is more to photography than cameras.

Gear can either be an hindrance or a stepping stone. It can either block your way to become the great photographer I believe is in each of us, or it can be the stepping stone to that goal. It hindered me for way too long, and I believe those who are fresh to photography are more prone to it, I hope I scared you enough not to go the G.A.S route. My venture into photography started with G.A.S, but unfortunately I fed the fire, and it stayed until I deprived it of wood.

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The action steps I took to break free from gear addiction

After the self talk, there’s usually an action I do so that a man in brown magically appears in front of my door with a new camera. I’m going to outline the steps I took to move away from G.A.S and let go of the camera.

Relapse

On the road to recovery from gear, I almost relapsed if I didn’t catch a greater trigger than just looking at gear online. Right after pretty much severing myself from Gear, something happened. I started buying more and more photography books and software. Heck I found myself searching for what software I needed to buy but didn’t need. I was shifting the addiction from gear to books and software, and if I didn’t cut it there I would have been in trouble again.

That’s when I realized there was also a money pattern on top of the pattern of looking at cameras: I conditioned my brain to buy buy buy if I had the money. That 4×5 camera I was talking about? The G.A.S attack came right after I did some branding work and poster work for a hedge fund. It was a pattern inside another pattern. Careful to be conscious of your triggers!

Replacing G.A.S. actions with photography actions

When G.A.S. hits it’s usually self talk, and then taking action. How cool the camera is, how happy I would be, then I would immediately take action like search for the camera online, and then bring my finances in alignment and then hit buy. Your brain does not discriminate habits, it can’t make the difference between good and bad habits. Only I could take the bad habits and transform them into good habits, the key is I HAVE to replace the habit because habits can only be overwritten, not deleted.

I made my self talk retorts such a habit that they come as automatically as I see something pleasing to the eye (Read: Sexy camera in half leather case). But I also had to counter the action steps to counter the G.A.S actions steps I took.

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The fork in the road

Imagine a road, and there is a split in the road. One path goes right, the other goes left. Every step you take in the left road will make your further and further away from the right road. I am sure that that isn’t the case for everybody but that was gear addiction for me, the more I went on the gear road, the further away I was from photography. When I realized this, I was sure the opposite was also bound to be true.

I had to search out for my intent, what the heck did I really want? Did I really want to become the best darn photographer I could be or did I just want to own cameras? There’s nothing wrong with both — some people just want to collect cameras, but I wasn’t one of those. I wanted to be a photographer and be the best I could be (That will also be the case until I die). After that soul searching, I started walking back, towards the other road. I also broke free creatively while doing so.

Replacing the routine

Like I stated earlier, the key to reforming habits is to keep the triggers and the rewards, but change the routine. Alcoholic Anonymous folks have a buddy system, when the trigger is pulled, simply call your buddy or mentor ASAP, changing the routine from alcohol to people.

In my case, I knew my triggers, simply seeing a hot camera. My rewards was the feelings of fulfillment: I own a camera, therefore I am a photographer. Owning that large format camera made me feel in the same lineage as Ansel Adams. Owning that 35mm camera made me feel like I was just like Bresson or Kertez or something. Fulfillment was the key, I wanted to be a fulfilled photographer. I simply had to do something that gave me that fulfilment that did not involve buying more and more.

Finding fulfillment

I said earlier that G.A.S is like idolatry. The cure to my G.A.S was simply to shift my focus from the idol to the source. My idol was gear, the source was Photography. The more I immersed myself in photography, the more I was oblivious to gear. I started viewing gear as good, but G.A.S as a hindrance to my photographic intentions.

If I wanted to be the best photographer I could be I needed to stop investing into gear and invest more into Photography. That’s the simple secret. It gave birth to my motto: There is more to photography than gear.

Gear is good, but it’s like being in a secluded house when there is a whole earth to explore. Before I could not see beyond the camera, but now I see photography — a much more interesting subject than I would have imagined possible.

Every thousand mile journey starts with a first step. I saw the long term goal: To be a photographer, and just took the first step. Each step that I took took me closer and closer to my goals and further and further from gear. Here’s the specific steps I took to liberate myself from gear addiction.

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Believe you can do it

If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody will do so for you. Before doing anything I believed two things: I believed I would become better and I believed I would let go of the camera. It’s mind over matter. If you think you will fail or if you think you will succeed, you are probably right.

Action Step: Appreciating your own gear

I made it a point that upon seeing my cameras, I make a conscious effort to appreciate them. I can safely say that I didn’t appreciate most, if not all of my past purchases, so it had to change. When I look at my Ricoh GRD IV, I always remind myself of how it takes great pictures, how great it handles, how much I love having it. It makes me attached to my cameras, making me focus on what I have instead of what I do not have.

When someone says online how awesome some other camera is, I immediately shift my thoughts to my current gear and how awesome they are. So when someone says “XXX is amazing”, instead on dwelling on that camera and it’s looks, I dwell on my own and how amazing they are. If find it a necessity to actively be grateful for my gear because I don’t even want to entertain the idea that another camera would serve me better — i’s the classic G.A.S excuse.

Action Step: Go out and shoot

A reader emailed me to say that he was researching a certain camera when he stumbled upon my website, he said I made him want to take what he already owned and go shoot. That pretty much sums it up. When I am tempted to dwell on another purchase, I just go out and shoot. If I can’t, I just make a mental check to see when I can actually go out and shoot. Even if I don’t follow through for any reason, it doesn’t matter because the action step is simply to replace “get something else” with “Go out and shoot”. The more you take great shots with your camera the more you will appreciate it too.

Action Step: Work on your photography

Sometimes it happens, you just can’t go out to shoot. It’s ok, there are other ways to work on your own photography. You can always go in your catalog and get a fresh vision for your old stuff. Or you can simply do some readings on photography, how to get better, the past photographers, or maybe watch a documentary (you can find a listing of streaming ones here) or work on your own blog. G.A.S mainly works on impulse, letting it slide off your mind by immersing yourself in photography will allow you to sober up.

Action Step: Accountability

Well, be accountable. To yourself, but hopefully with a partner. Tell your partner that you won’t buy a new piece of gear and hopefully your sense of pride won’t let you because if you do, you would fail in front of someone else. I didn’t have a formal partner, but the unease to always give some explanations to my wife for every piece of gear was a sort of accountability.

Action step: Finding fulfillment

You find photographic fulfilment by working towards your photographic intent. My intent is to express myself through my photography, ergo, every step I take towards that intent made me feel fulfilled. If you want to be a pro, working each day by reading some professional books or techniques will make you feel fulfilled. Simply stated, aligning yourself with your intent will make you feel fulfilled. When I have a G.A.S trigger, what I do automatically (because I rewired my brain) is to simply do something that aligns myself with my intent. I either go shoot, or read photographic stuff or simply think about my own photography. I then feel fulfilled, and, like having eaten all your veggies, you won’t have space for cookies. It’s the same trigger, same reward, but different response. Instead of wanting more gear, I want more photography

Final Blow: Marrying photography

The final blow to G.A.S is to get married to photography. It’s like telling that nasty boyfriend or girlfriend that they had their chance but you’re moving on by getting married. How do you get married you say? You simply create something tangible photographically. What do I mean by this? Well you can print, create a blog, do a project, share at a photo club, etc. Creating something tangible with your photography will make you have a vested interest in photography, thereby “marrying it”.

I really recommend setting up a blog, it doesn’t have to be amazing — even a modest blog will do (a Tumblr is perfect). Every image you put onto it will strengthen your willpower against G.A.S. because you are investing in your own photography. Even if you don’t get comments it’s OK because you are working on your own photography for your own pleasure.

Speaking of comments… I just had a thought: what if a part of why people have G.A.S was simply because it’s what gets attention online? You post about your camera, you get comments, you post about your photography, you probably don’t — it’s something to think about further.

Here’s how I invested in photography: I sought to make a portfolio, forcing me to actually get the images. I feel like a million bucks being the one who shot my images, a much superior and ever lasting feeling than actually buying a piece of gear for a short euphoria. Way afterwards I made this blog, and with my super partner Don “Streetshooter” we made Street Presets and Inspired Eye. Many of my magazine readers tell me that they just want to go out and shoot and be better. To me that confirms my theory that investing in one’s photography will remove the G.A.S. Amen!

Food for thought

The big gleaning from my past addiction, I think, is that photography and gear operate on the basis of the inverse square law. The more you invest in gear the less interest in photography. The more you invest in photography the less interest in gear. That’s what my experience and my research (lurking around forums and all) taught me, if your experience differs I’m all ears.

The whole point of this massive article is not to make you stop being an addict, but only to channel that addiction to photography. I was a gear addict, now I am a photography addict. That’s a huge difference.


About the author: Olivier Duong is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese documentary photographer living in Fort Lauderdale, FL. From ex-gear addict to gear minimalist he is senior editor-in-chief of Inspired Eye magazine and co-creator of Street Presets with Don Springer. Check out his blog and please follow him on Twitter and Google+). This article originally appeared as a three part series here, here, and here.