A Lens CollectionA portion of Johan Biilmann's lenses I suspect that more than a few people reading this blog have a severe case of gear accumulation syndrome or GAS for short. I have to confess to a fairly acute case myself - my Excel spreadsheet of my lens “collection” has 32 rows. It got me thinking as to how I should go about "cull the herd" - a favourite phrase in our community. So first I reasoned with myself why I should even bother doing it. Then I wondered what criteria should I use. Here are my musing. Leave a comment if you have an approach that worked for you. I'd love to hear it.
Why bother reducing your lens collection
1. What happens when/if you die?
If you head over to the Large Format Photography Forum you’ll find a post on the ages of the forum’s members. Let’s just say that average age of large format enthusiasts isn't getting any younger. I'd count as a youngun at almost 50 years of age. So if you don't have a LF loving family member to inherit your lenses, chances are they they will be got rid of at ridiculously low prices or even, heaven forbid, thrown away. This seems such a waste for lenses that are not made any more and will probably hold their value or even increase in price in the years to come.
2. Are you lenses getting the work-out they need?
Now I'm no expert in LF shutters but my guess is that the older shutter (Ilex, Alphax, Betax, Studio etc) probably don't take well to enforced idleness. Also if you live in a damp climate you may be growing mold that you are unaware about. So maybe you lenses are wasting away without your knowledge.
3. Is lens choice stifling your creativity?
It seems counterintuitive but having more lenses may act as a block to unleashing your creativity. Many aficionados believe that it is the limitations of LF that lends itself to producing great, or at least good, art. You are forced to pare down to the basics, to work within the confines of slow speed film, slow set-up, low numbers of exposures, specific focal lengths etc etc. The very narrowing of the range of possibilities helps you find your sweet spot and steers you away from gadgets and artifice. I'm sure you have heard people advise "start with only one lens". Perhaps we should also say to old timers "stick with only four lenses"?
4. Who else could be using those lenses?
Now its not as if all lenses are unusual or rare. You can buy a very good modern, multi-coated 4x5 lens for a few hundred dollars or less. But the rarer lenses, that are older soft focus, or super-wide, or super long, or have ULF coverage could be being used instead of gathering dust on your shelf. By owning and not sharing or selling a rare "heritage lens" you are depriving someone else the opportunity. This seems a shame, and sort of goes against the ethos of many in the community.
5. What could you do with the money?
Have I sold you yet? How about unlocking some cash? I would hate to tell my wife how much money is tied up in my lenses. That cash could be put to use going to a remote location you always wanted to photograph, buying some expensive film you always wanted to try, or setting up your own darkroom. The possibilities are endless.
So how should I go about "culling the herd"?
1. Think formats
I shoot 6x17 MF on a view camera, 4x5, 8x10, 11x14 and 14x17. I'm the first to admit that this is a bit crazy and a few of these cameras have been gathering dust lately while I'm away on an extended sabbatical. So perhaps you have a format that you haven’t been using for a while. Do you really need the lenses for that format? Are the too long / too heavy / too low in coverage to be useful in other formats? How many 8x10 lenses work practically on a 4x5 anyway?
2. Think focal lengths
Within a given format I bet that you have one or two favorite lenses simply because they hit that sweet focal length spot. For me that is 110mm and 180mm in 4x5, and 210mm and 360mm in 8x10. Then there are plenty of others that never get in the bag, or are brought along "just in case" but never or very rarely get used. For me that is anything shorter than 110mm or anything longer than 300mm in 4x5. So in reality I could very easily make do with a three lens set for 4x5 that includes 110mm/5.6, 180mm/9, and 300mm/9. But instead I have 12!
3. Think speed and character
Now I can hear some people saying, I need fast lenses for portrait work, or I work in dark forests, or I need soft focus lenses with particular characteristics. That may well be true but perhaps that's one or two lenses not a cohort! For me I don't do portraits in 4x5 so I really have no excuses. Could you get rid of some of your stranger, little used lenses? I know you keep them because you are convinced that when you retire with the body of a 20 year old Arnold Schwarzenegger you will carry those four 6lb lenses up a mountain range to get the perfect shot.... but really?
4. Think filter ring size
I'm a great believer in narrowing down to a few filter ring sizes to reduce the number of filters you need, or even to help me to remember not to forget that damn 58mm adapter for the Lee filter system (that I do every time). Also I hate, step-up rings - because that means I have to buy another lens cap, and the ring invariably gets attached to my filters and not my lens when I unscrew everything, and it just looks ugly. Call me pedantic. So perhaps while you are "culling the herd" you can get away from the 40.5mm, 58mm, and so on non-standard filters ring sizes in favor of 52mm, 67mm, or 77mm?
5. Letting go
Some lenses truly are special. For example, I reckon I'll be buried with my Fujinon 360/10 or one of my Port-Land lenses. But the truth is there are few lenses that would be really hard to replace down the road, especially at the same price you sold them for. I would be very suspicious of using the "special lens card" multiple times. Perhaps I'd allow myself one or two lens in this category. Learn to let go!
Finally, if you can't cull the herd at least take the first step to recover. Recognize you have a problem and don't make it any worse. For me that means for every lens I buy I have to sell at least one!
Photo credit: Johan Biilmann