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 that didn't deter me. 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 (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) now, I did certain things to kick the habit that only years later I would lean is a process that Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction recovery places use. I took two decisive steps to break free from the addiction: Replacing the old beliefs with new ones, and then moving beyond the camera. But first let's see how habits work in order to kick the GAS habit.
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” so 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 loose their money, but they do anyways because they can't help it.
An interesting fact is that, just like Robocop your brain can be rewired to change habits. The thing is, your brain crazes to be on auto pilot, or else 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 GAS 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 ingrained in his brain.
The GAS 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.
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 blogs where it says photography but it's mainly gear) or forums when it would hit me. I would want a new camera as soon as I saw a lens porn thread, or a camera porn thread.
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.
I think I speak for everyone when I say that the reward of GAS is instant gratification. Dangggit you feel like FINALLY you can be a photographer, FINALLY it's going to come down, you're going to take damn great pictures. It's the most awesomest camera ever and Eugene Smith can eat his heart out. Simply stated, G.A.S makes you feel real good, about yourself and what you are doing. 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.
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 Wikiepedia when BAM I saw this picture:
That picture had such an effect on me. It's a PDA, there's data cards, there's 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. It was my first exposure to the Nikon Data Link System. That was the trigger.
The routine: Search the hell 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? Make my accounts, will I have some $$$ left after the rent? I went ahead and got the stupid PDA for $80, some rare card for $40 and got the cable down to $40 (instead of $60).
The reward: Heaven. I put the Nikon N90 a tripod, took selfies of my wife and I at the beach. I mean never mind that I could do this same thing with any camera putting it on 2 or 3 second delay, I had a camera that could actually be trigger by a PDA, how cool is that? The whole kit 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 GAS 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 seeing one?) and you want that Reward (Feeling good, it's a lot of sugar after all), to kick that habit you simply need to learn to replace the Routine (Eat the cookie) with another one (Like 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 some of 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, before the action. Again, if I sound preachy, excuses, I'm preaching to myself first, and sometimes I need some self inflicted 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. It's not about having yet another camera, it's being content with what you already have.
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? No. And the funny thing is, after the sudden high of getting a new camera, I would be depressed because I didn't have another one.
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. It's all about perspective, in the U.S.A I might be part of the poorest 99% but compared to the world, I am part of the richest 1%. Perspective, my friend, perspective. 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. You who are going to take a shower with running water and hot water on demand….makes you more grateful, no?
That's the easiest GAS self talk to defeat when it comes to my mind. When a thought of getting a new camera comes, I shift the focus to my current gear. Chances are I probably can do whatever I fantasize with my current gear. I also 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 out the lie that a new piece of gear would make me happy. Counting your blessings is the way to go, makes new purchases feel superfluous
Lies of gear 1: You will become a better photographer
Oh I love this one “Olivier, 15fps, 4 gazillion pixels it's going to make you an awesome photographer!”, “Dude, you NEED that 1.2 lens it's going to Bokeh that background to the moon, you'll take better portraits”. GAS talk will always tell you that you will become a better photographer, but that is sadly not the case. 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, it makes you focus on one little aspect of a camera and make it seem the best thing ever since slice bread. None of my cameras made me a better photographer, it probably had the opposite eddect, 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 in 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.
Also the very bad consequence of that type of self talk is that you start associating the camera with being a good photographer. Getting more cameras didn't make me one, it simply provided me some more stuff to hide behind. I have a camera therefore I am a photographer. Mediocrity hidden behind superb gear didn't make me better, I was only a mediocre photographer 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 gear to hide that fact. I was simply compensating for a weakness. 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 shortcomings. 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?
Lies of gear 2: 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 was for me.
The respect of the photographer is in the gear he owns, never fail to flaunt your camera's curves. Or so I believed. If I wanted to be a respected photographer, I needed to stop waisting 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, because many camera have the Rangefinder looks, which I like very much. When something 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.
Lies of gear 3: 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,I think that's cooler than using more recent gear.
Most of this blog, is written on an old HP200lx (20 year old computer), a Nokia 9500 (10 year old phone) and illustrated with images from a Ricoh GRD IV (about $300). 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 fullframe 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?
Lies of gear 4: Maybe I should try film
OOOoooh boy, this is the big one! That nasty self talk made me loose so much money. I bought a custom made 4×5 camera and all that film and backs……paid about $1500 for the camera, three different backs and loads of film. Didn't shoot 10 frames, sold it for an abysmal $500 without even counting ebay fees and paypal fees. “Maybe I should get into film” is the GAS self talk the Digital photographers are very prone to, I believe. Every time that self talk comes, it's usually about how better the dynamic range is or the how the colors are. Har Har! that talk can't fool me anymore! Here's what's going on in my head:
-So Olivier, let me get this straight, you want to go to film because you want better dynamic range and colors you can't get in digital right?
-Well Mr film photographer tell me what you will do when you finish taking pictures?
-I get them developed!
-Yes and what else?
-I get them scanned!
-OOOoooh so you're going to get them scanned right?
-So basically you are making a digital image out of an analog image, meaning all this talk about dynamic range and color is foolish because it's thrown out when you digitize it with a scanner. Whatever extra stuff you had is gone and you are now back to a digital image. Wouldn't it be better to have a digital camera that is hum……DESIGNED to take advantage of sRGB Color Spaces?”
That usually ends it right then and there. If I'm going to end up with digital images, why spend that money in the first place? The above retort easily keeps that buy at bay without even dealing with developing matters.
Lie of gear 5: I can always sell an get my money back
Cameras are like cars, they depreciate as soon as they go off the parking lot. Sometimes the incentive to sell a camera is that it would bring me a new camera AND some pocket money. That rarely happened. I lost an average of 100-200$ 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 losing 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.
Lies of gear 6: 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 GAS. 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. If wasn't a pro, all I would need is one camera, the Ricoh GRD IV comes to mine. Now as a commercial photographer, I need a bit more than a small sensor camera.
G.A.S has a tendency to promise you that 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 I never had any remote interest in fashion.
Please note that I never used the 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. self talk
Lies of gear 7: Just in case I might need that
On of the last lies of gear is, “I should probably get that because I might need that”. Sounds pretty genuine at first, and indeed sometimes you might need some specific piece of gear but it's been my experience that this is usually G.A.S talk. The way you can know it is a G.A.S lie is if you check in your past, there is NO indication that you even remotely even needed the said piece of gear. Say you are totally happy with your 35mm and you've never even remotely expressed any interest in landscapers. All of a sudden, you feel like you need a 18mm, just in case you need that if you encounter a landscape.
There's always that idea that if you don't have all the gear for all the situation you will miss something. It's been my experience that the more gear, the more it bogs you down! And to be perfectly honest, all the gear I rationalized by getting “just in case I need that”, I never used!
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. When I have a G.A.S. attack I simply remind myself that I am more creative with less, here's an example:
There is one episode of Batman (the old, cheesy one) were they were so low on money (because of 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 simply using 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.
A more balanced view of gear
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 this blog because it's a necessity, a requirement but it's not vitality. What is vital 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 GAS 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.
My pain, your gain. I've lost time and money in GAS, 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
-Gear can become something to hide your insecurities
-The less gear the more creative
-Much happier with less gear
Every one of us have something to teach, sometimes by example, sometimes by example of what not to do. I share this experience of mine in hopes for you to learn from it. But it's not over yet, stay tuned for more practical steps on breaking free from the addiction!
Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.
Originally posted on July 10, 2013
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