Roger Coulam: Travelling Light

For many years I carried around a huge backpack loaded with lots of things that I “might need.”

The problem with this is that even the smallest bag or pack has the ability to act like Grannie’s magic handbag and can hold an incredible amount of “stuff.” The sides can be stretched, dividers cut, bent, or removed, and pockets do not need to be completely fastened. Over filling your bag is essential, as you just can’t tell when you might need that expensive lens or special effects filter, and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t used it for 2 years, as “you never know.” Carrying half the stock of your local photo-retailer around is necessary to avoid those distressing “I told you I’d need it” conversations with yourself.

Three years ago I made a conscious effort to carry only one camera on any trip, nothing else, and would generally select my Leica MP, or Ricoh GR1V, as I can get them into my coat pockets. However over the last year I have noticed “gear creep”, as the one camera quickly became BOTH cameras, and then two became three, as I added a digital to the bag, “just in case”, and to “shoot stock at the same time,” as I have heard myself saying in an effort to try and justify my insanity. Before I knew it I was staggering around with three cameras, two lenses, a dozen films, and wondering how I could fit a tripod into a shoulder bag. I am sure I now have one leg shorter than the other, which is only good for walking around in circles.

And the really idiotic part is that 90% of the times that I take several cameras, I come back (much slower than I went out) having only used ONE. Madness.

So I need to make an effort to re-discover the liberation of carrying only ONE camera, as I know it allows me to be more creative. I am also more likely to spend longer exploring the world around me, and will simply walk further, (although like most photographers I can already make a ten minute walk last half a day.) There’s no excuse for me not taking a camera with me wherever I go, and I respond quicker to whatever happens around me; after all when you’ve seen something, the moment has often passed.

Carrying a minimum of equipment also makes me look less professional and obtrusive, important for working in public areas. On top of this I have always disliked wearing a camera around my neck like a giant necklace. It can be a bad look, and people spot the camera/ornament before they see you. It also can make you look like a tourist, a definite no-no, unless you are wearing sandals with socks and then you probably are a tourist. So a small camera on my wrist or in my pocket is perfect for me.

I also believe I have become a better photographer with a deeper understanding of light, as I have to think faster, adapt more, and make my camera work harder for me. I try things I would never have done before, such as long handheld exposures, or strange angles. And if I need to zoom in, I just walk closer to my subject; let’s call it the manual zoom technique.

My subject matter has changed as my picture making is now less methodical, and more in tune with the rhythms of my daily journeys. Freed from a tripod my framing is less structured and more about the moment, and often I don’t bother using the viewfinder in case that moment passes. Sometimes it works and I make impulsive pictures I would never have considered before; after all they do not have to be pin sharp or perfectly framed to be effective. With a heavy pack to carry I was more likely to pick a subject or a place before I left the house and just go there, always conscious of the need to carry. But with one camera I can just go, and wander wherever my legs take me.

I try to express my emotions with my camera, and my release from the burden of a back pack, combined with a loosening of my previous desire for each picture to stand alone and to be “technically perfect”, helps me with my goal. My world is not neat and tidy and does not match the rule of thirds, it is difficult and moving, often dark and full of obstacle to overcome. In many ways this is what I make pictures about, and I have largely abandoned looking for something pristine that doesn’t exist except in nostalgia.

Ansel Adams said “there are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs”. If there are rules they are often self imposed ones, and there as a result of our own habits. To develop one must keep trying something new, making changes until you find a way to make the type of pictures that YOU are happy with, images that speak with your own voice. Image making should be an exploration of the world and our place in it, so keep it simple and enjoyable. Oh, and ditch that third spare camera.

- Roger Coulam

To see more of Roger’s work, visit his website and Dark Matters Blog.