I wrote previously on the benefits of shooting with one camera (Ricoh GR II) with a fixed lens and how that has helped me learn a lot about photography over the past year or so.
One of the main things I’ve learned is that what at first can seem like a limitation can be turned into something useful. I’m talking about the apparent disadvantage of working solely with a 28mm focal length, especially in situations where it might be better to have a longer focal length.
I’m typically a fan of close-up street shots and getting right into the mix with things I photograph. That sort of photography suits the GR, since the wide angle really requires that I get up close to things to translate the energy of the moment into a good photo. The shots I’m most proud of are usually quite busy. They’re filled with subjects and convey a sense of movement. However, I also like a more contemplative approach to photography. One that involves capturing single subjects interacting with their environment in ways that gives an impression of people finding moments of stillness.
Shooting at 28mm makes it pretty tough to get those kind of shots right. The major issue is that often it just feels like I’m shooting from too far away. Sometimes when I spot one of these moments of stillness — a person balancing in a tai chi pose in a busy city’s park, or a family knee-deep in the ocean, watching a storm come in — and line up the shot I find myself thinking, ‘I really need a longer lens.’ But what I’ve begun to notice with these types of shots is that I actually like the way people in them are rendered small in comparison to their surroundings. The way the wide angle lens pulls in so much of the world around the subjects, and makes them look a bit tiny in the vastness of it all, reminds me of how we’re all making our way through this big world and despite all the constant motion can find points of stillness wherever we are. The presence of the surrounding environment — trees, beach, open sky — also reminds me of how what’s happening around us affects us, whether we notice it or not. These photos let the world in.
The more I shoot with the one camera/one lens set-up the more I realize how it’s possible to take what might initially seem like a limitation and turn it into something positive. I’m slowly starting to collect more of these ‘moments of stillness’ shots and hope to have a strong collection within a few years time. I feel like they’re slowly starting to become part of my style and that feels like a good thing.
I recently made a website for my photography. In my first blog post, I share some of the lessons I’ve learned shooting with a compact fixed lens camera, the Ricoh GR II, over the last year.
When I started getting more into photography in 2016 I read a good bit of advice: pick a camera and lens setup and stick with it for at least a year. I have found that bit of wisdom to be challenging and rewarding in the year I have owned and shot pretty much exclusively with the Ricoh GR II.
If you’re not familiar with the GR line of cameras, the GR II is a compact camera with a fixed 28mm equivalent lens. It comes in all-black, has a crop sensor (APS-C), shoots RAW, and produces high quality images.
Learning with a fixed lens
Shooting with a fixed lens has taught me a lot about photography. I’m glad I started my photographic journey with a fixed, wide lens. When I started out with the GR I found shooting with the 28mm tough to deal with. Most of my shots were taken from too far away –- subjects looked tiny, drowning in far too roomy frames. Shooting on the street was the most difficult. I had the fear of getting close enough to strangers to make good street shots (you really do need to get close with this camera). I was mostly frustrated.
But slowly I started getting accustomed to the wide angle, and making sure I was closer to the people and things I wanted to shoot. Having the GR II has pushed me to interact with the scenes and characters I find interesting to photograph. It’s also helped me get more comfortable taking really close up portraits of people (although, admittedly, I still find this a bit nerve-wracking). Approaching a stranger in the street for a portrait is one thing. Standing right up close to them to shoot it is another since most people aren’t so used to having a camera a few inches away from their nose, unless it’s for selfies.
I have also realized that with a wide lens I really need to pay attention to what goes on at the corners of the frame. With a wide lens it’s easy to get more than you bargained for in your pictures. I still blow lots of shots with unwanted poles, body parts, heads, and general background distractions. I still find myself saying ‘should have got closer’ when editing my photos. But this challenging aspect of shooting with a 28mm is helping me frame my shots better.
Joys of a small camera
There is a line that seems mandatory in any review of the Ricoh GR II: ‘this camera fits in your pocket.’ I never carry my camera in my pocket because I am paranoid about afflicting it with the dreaded sensor dust (read Matt Martin’s post on this issue over at endlessproof.com). But the Ricoh GR is so small and compact that it takes up hardly any space in my little backpack, which means I end up taking it along on walks around my neighbourhood, my travels, or to be used for a quick 30 minutes after a meeting, or sometimes just when strolling around new cities. There is no doubt that the more time spent with camera in hand translates to better shots and a more intuitive understanding of the camera itself.
Shooting with just one camera with a fixed focal length means that eventually the camera, and its strengths and weaknesses, becomes something you understand without thinking too much about it. After firing off thousands of frames with the GR II it feels like I have a better understanding of where to aim, how close to be, and what settings to use to get the shots I want than when I bought it a year ago. I know what the camera is and isn’t capable of (it’s not a good low light performer, for one). That said, I also know how easy it is to make bad photos. I know when I’m not working the camera properly and using it the way it needs to be used. If I go a week or so without shooting, it’s guaranteed the first day or so shooting will not result in any good pictures. On the other hand, if I’ve been shooting every day for a week I’ll usually be feeling a lot more confident and dialed in, not thinking too much about the camera, framing shots quicker. This, typically, is when I’ll make a good picture or two. From what I’ve learned so far, using the camera regularly and having it in hand as often as possible means that I can make shots more intuitively. Being totally in sync with the camera and process of making good pictures still doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. I’m still learning. But I’ve felt moments of being in a zone where shooting feels intuitive and I know that more time with the GR in hand will lead to more of this in future.
I no longer treat the GR like a baby
I spent a long time finding my camera, searching online for a good deal. I got a good deal on a used GR that the previous owner had kept in fine condition. I promptly bought a case for it and made sure to keep it in there whenever not in use. But life happens. A few months into my ownership my partner accidentally knocked the camera (sans case) off the bedside table. It dropped onto the floor with a less than appetizing thud. When I picked it up (cradling it like a wounded bird just dropped from the nest) I noticed that the front lens cover plate had popped out from where it joins the lens barrel. I wasn’t sure how bad this was but figured it wasn’t healthy. First I freaked out — way more than was necessary. Then, I got over myself and pushed the dislocated piece back in. A couple of test shots showed no difference in image quality. I carried on living.
That first drop was good for me. After that I stopped treating the GR like it was made of glass. It’s just a camera after all. And it’s capable of taking some knocks.
A few months later, I met a sand sculptor at the beach who was sculpting a sea snail in the sand. I spent an hour or so shooting him, making sure to keep sand off my lens. It was great. Then, just before I was ready to head home, but still trying to squeeze off a few more shots, he flicked a globule of wet sand straight onto the lens (by mistake. He was working with sand, after all). It landed on the glass and went into the lens cavity. Not great. For some reason, I thought the sand might make some kind of artistic blur effect and actually took a few more shots with it on the lens before realizing what a bad idea that was. I then ran home to get a vacuum cleaner. I locked the pipe’s end onto the lens and sucked out all the sand I could. Got most but not all of it. I then spent ages with a blower, lens brush, and piece of paper getting the last grains of sand off the glass and out of the lens cavity. However, a smear of saltwater remained on the glass, providing a proper blur effect. But not the kind that’s of use to anyone.
Also, the blades that close when you switch the camera off to protect the lens were jammed. This filled me with the fear of scratched glass in future. I headed to my local camera shop. They couldn’t fix the blades and told me it wouldn’t be worth the cost to do it. The guy behind the desk took my camera into the backroom and wiped the lens down with window cleaning fluid. (I later read that using a vacuum cleaner to suck dirt out of your camera is not a good idea. But it seemed to best option at the time).
Since then, I have kept my camera in its bag without the lens blades closing properly and haven’t picked up any scratches from what I can tell. I also read this article that says lens dirt and scratches on the front element aren’t actually the worst thing in the world, anyway.
I have found my journey with the Ricoh GR II difficult at times. There are loads of bad photos on my hard drive — shots taken from too far away, shots filled with superfluous background objects, shots with missed focus, the usual. And I know I’m still working toward making my best shots so far. But I imagine this is pretty much typical of anyone starting out with photography. Ultimately, using one camera has been very rewarding, even if I do sometimes find myself wishing I had a 50mm lens. If I look back through my archives, I see a gradual transition to better photos as I’ve become more competent with the GR. It’s good to be able to look back over thousands of frames and see some improvement. I know a lot of this is just due to shooting as much as possible with a camera that I know well. These days, the GR feels right at home in my hand and that’s all I need from a camera.