Embracing Limitations: My New Point And Shoot Project

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” That’s a quote attributed to Orsen Welles speaking in the context of filmmaking. A rewording in the affirmative sense would be, “The ally of art is the presence of limitations.”

The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.Orson Welles

For filmmaking that’s essentially budget. For photographers, that budget has essentially been the camera and print, and nowadays the camera and digital edit. One of the reasons I think finding the Nikon Coolpix (turns out it was originally my mom’s, forgotten about in a box that found its way to a corner in my apartment closet) was initially so appealing is that it so clearly and simply presented the opportunity of “low-budget filmmaking.” Stringent limitations that I hoped adhering to might illicit new creativity.

It’s perhaps the most cliche trap for new (and old) photographers, thinking that better gear will gain better photos. “If I just had a bigger sensor, more megapixels, a better lens …” As humans, we want the easiest solution, the shortcut. And what sounds easier? Pressing the purchase button on Amazon with free two-day shipping; or spending months studying great photographers while pounding the pavement daily with your existing setup? You may miss less shots with faster auto-focus, but it’s still the same mediocre moment, now in focus.

What if the go-to approach for growing was to impose more limitations, not less.@cpplunkett

Think about it: every great photographer from the past was most likely using inferior equipment to what you currently have in your hands. And their work hangs in museums. So surely the difference between being included in MoMA’s collection and the Flickr group you were just accepted to isn’t your camera or Lightroom skills.

What if the thinking that bigger budget equals better output was reversed? What if the go-to approach for growing was to impose more limitations, not less? That is what I hope to discover for myself in this photographic experiment—my Coolpix practice.

Nikon Coolpix L11 Specs

  • Effective pixels: 6 million (6 megapixels)
  • Sensor Size: 1 / 2.5 inches
  • Image size: 2816 x 2112 (6M) / 2048 x 1536 (3M)
  • ISO: Auto (auto gain ISO 64-800)
  • Exposure: ± 2 EV in steps of 1/3
  • Focus: Single-point AF in AF-S (centered)
4 ounces, but plenty to love.

One of the advantages of limits is that it can improve focus. Or more accurately, that it guides attention and decision making. A low budget inherently removes options; by definition, a limitation must limit, after all. So not only will I use my newly discovered, decade-old Nikon Coolpix L11, I’ll only use the 3 – 6 megapixel jpeg files it creates in the device. No cropping, no editing.

I anticipate that eliminating post processing and forcing the ‘edit’ to be accomplished in camera—no futzing around with VSCO layers or carefully dialing Snapseed adjustments for hours on end for selected images—will be liberating. It seems obvious, but worth stating: no amount of processing can make a bad photo good. Certainly, I’d concede that a good digital photo can be made better with certain post-processing techniques.

No amount of processing can make a bad photo good.@cpplunkett

But what if the time devoted to the marginal improvement of good photos in the bag was instead spent on more shooting? Maybe the trade-off of the time spent making good photos “gooder” is at the expense of more shooting, the true and only arena a street photographer can shift from good to great.

So for this project, I’ve decided to focus completely on shooting, not processing. No more making an image in some protracted process on multiple screens and devices, but instantaneously capturing it for once and all time. And then devoting time past that point to only the selection of the editing process, not the preparation. After all, shouldn’t being a photographer be about shooting, not editing? That’s the fun part for me, at least!

Perhaps choosing a smaller budget, and welcoming the constraints therein, will lead to better box office. Ultimately, we all have the limited “budget” of our short time alive with a very limited line of sight. Reaching beyond those necessary limitations with the aid of technology has come to define us in contemporary culture in general, and is acutely manifest in photography. Living in those limitations paradoxically might be the key to superseding them.

I’ve created a new, separate Instagram account devoted solely to my point-and-shoot Coolpix project. I’ll be using it not only to share the work, but also as a sort of ongoing diary of the experience. And, of course, I’ll also be writing about it here at the blog.


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