The Evolving Rationale Of A ‘Professional’ Adventurer

It’s less than a month until I leave these shores for the first of the two ‘big trips’ I’m going to undertake this year. And of all the questions in my head right now, this one sounds the simplest:

“Which camera should I take?”

Mirrored self portrait

But this post will not deal with the ins and outs of camera equipment selection. (That’s for another post, which non-geeks will be able to happily skip over.) No. As I sat down to write, I realised that this question in fact drills to the core of my motivation for continuing to journey, explore, adventure, or whatever verb you may wish to attach to what I do.

I’d boiled it down to two options:

Option 1: The minimalist, purist, ascetic, introspective, self-development approach

I will sell all my existing camera gear and purchase an old but reliable film camera like the Nikon F-301. It will be fully manual, and require the burden of carrying 35mm film canisters around.

Because of this, I won’t be able to see my pictures until days or weeks after shooting them. Every click of the shutter will echo with the jingle of small change; real money being spent on processing and development.

All the crutches of modern technology will be swiped away, forcing me to relearn the art from the ground up, with the hope that I may improve my craft in ways I cannot yet foresee.

Option 2: The cutting-edge, productive, experimental, professional, creative approach

I will sell all my existing camera gear and purchase a brand-new top-of-the-range digital camera like the Sony NEX-7. It will produce game-changing video footage and stills, and require nothing more than carrying SDHC memory cards around.

Because of this, I will be able to capture limitless amounts of content with unprecedented ease. Every click of the shutter will reflect the time and energy I’ve expended on developing my skills until now.

All the latest in modern technology will be at my fingertips, allowing me to take the art to the next level, with the hope that I may be able to use my craft to make a living in ways I cannot yet foresee.

 

I think you can see where I’m going with this. There are two opposing motivations at work here. I don’t consider one option to be better or more virtuous than the other – it’s a real fork in the road; neither way more likely-looking than the other.

The fact is that I’ve made adventure and creativity a core part of how I spend my brief allowance of time on Earth. It’s critical to my sense of purpose and my enjoyment of life. I constantly need to feel as though I’m learning and developing; there has to be a sense of progression.

Get the clunky old film camera.

At the same time, there is pressure to provide for the needs of others, primarily my wife Tenny. And there is the emerging fact that Janapar, my all-consuming film and book project, still has a very long way to go before it will see the light of day, let alone provide any semblance of an income as a by-product.

One answer is to be more productive with my passions. I wrote recently about how I’m making a living as an adventurer. Another film; another book? Several of the above? Less ambitious, yet still well-formed and worthwhile. These are things I love creating, but I tend to experiment far more than I publish. Perhaps, if I could actually bring some of these ideas to completion, and package and distribute them well, then a living might emerge quite naturally.

Get the swanky new digital camera.

As I’ve written previously, I’m shortly to depart for my next trip. It’ll be a jolly two-month jaunt down one of the developed world’s classic rides: the U.S. West Coast, from Canada to Mexico, with my brother, who I’ve barely seen for half a decade.

The question, therefore, isn’t actually “which camera should I take”. The real question – as someone pressing forward with a self-made ‘career’ as an adventurer – is:

“Can I justify using this journey purely to satisfy my personal interests, when I increasingly need to consider how it all might be sustained?”

What do you think the answer is?

36 Responses to “The Evolving Rationale Of A ‘Professional’ Adventurer”

  1. Tiago

    How is option 1 minimalistic? The camera, lenses, and film will be much heavier. Having switched from an SLR to a micro four thirds system, I much prefer the second option (even though I wouldn’t go for Sony — micro four thirds has a much better selection of lenses).

    In any case, wait until you arrive in the US to buy your gear and save yourself a lot of money.

    Reply
    • Tom

      I wouldn’t say that minimalistic is the same thing as ultralight. I see it more as a way of thinking. I have no issue with a little extra weight in order to ‘minimalise’ my approach to creating images.

      The only problem with buying video-related gear in the U.S. is that it’ll be configured to match – NTSC, 29.97/30fps – no use for most of the rest of the world, unfortunately.

      Reply
      • Sean

        Hi Tom,
        LUMIX GH2 is modifiable to NTSC/PAL through Vitaliy Kiselev’s hack It can do 1080-60i, 1080-50i, 1080-30p, 1080-25p, 1080-24p and even 1080-2p (MJPEG) for timelapse. It can be had for some $600 (body) these days. And you may be able to use the lenses you already have.
        But as it’s been mentioned, all the hacks won’t make good movies / pictures.
        sean

        Reply
  2. Blanche

    How about a combination?
    – A minimalistic less expensive smaller camera using SDHC cards.
    As you know I do a bit of cycling and filming myself. Everytime when I publicate a new video, people ask me which editing program or camera I use. As if my camera or editing program made te film (!)
    I think a good film shouldn’t be about expensive gear. It’s all within the person who’se traveling.
    It’s theirs passion, creativity and way of observing that makes a film good or not.

    Have a nice trip Tom!

    Reply
    • Tom

      Precisely, Blanche, and that is why my article wasn’t really about cameras. Maybe I should have made that clearer 🙂

      Reply
      • Blanche

        I believe we just did it together Tom :>

        Reply
        • Andy

          “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.” – Heidegger.
          Its what you do with it that counts and whether you are writing the output, or it is writing you.
          There is no way to go back or to unknow what you know about technology so I would suggest that Tom, you should take both, and actually the article is about cameras 😉

          Reply
  3. Andy Welch

    I think you have already made the decision. I wouldn’t bother with the film camera for a long trip. There is loads of potential with the NEX 7 or similar. With the old film camera you would have to be very… Actually I don’t know why you even asked this question? Considering your recent video creations….!

    Reply
    • Tom

      A film camera is a real option because it would force me to make each and every image as good as it could possibly be, and to learn the technical theory of photography inside out. I feel that my photographical skill has reached a plateau and this is one obvious way to give it a big kick.

      Not to mention the fact that film still looks better than digital!

      Reply
      • Andy Welch

        Fair point. I did the same last year with an old Zenit film camera. I found it was really interesting and the results did have a certain beauty, not to mention constraint in terms of number of photos, cost of development as you mentioned. However, overall I felt that they were limiting. I think that you would need to really be a good film photographer already and know your equipment and film.

        Reply
  4. Alastair Humphreys

    I heartily recommend a digital camera plus 3G wifi so that you can tweet a photo every hour of your trip.

    Not really.

    Or maybe you should…

    Sell your soul to earn a living. Or remain so ‘pure’ that you can’t afford a camera at all…

    Let me know when you have the answer!

    Reply
    • Tom

      I certainly will. I’ll send you a telegram.

      Reply
    • Andy Welch

      I detect cynacism Al. Well done on the rowing trip btw. I don’t think anyone here is in danger of selling their soul actually… possibly disappearing inside their own heads, maybe.

      Reply
      • Fearghal

        That’s the catch. Isn’t it? When you turn your passion into your livelihood it becomes a production.

        I think the central q is why are you bringing a camera in the first place? Answer that and the type of camera self selects. Do you want to document your experience for yourself, or to create arresting content for your online persona. If you’re a pro then you should probably be bringing the all signing all dancing auto tweeting one ; )

        Reply
        • Tom

          Well, my personal motivations always came (and still come) first. At least, that’s why I started blogging, writing a book, and taking photos. It’s increasingly fulfilling, though, to share the fruits of those labours.

          So the answer, really, is that I should probably take both!

          Reply
        • Old Tom On Tour

          Yes! Yes! Yes!! My sentiments are with Fearghal. Why must one always record one’s life for prosperity? The essence of your chosen life path is ‘to live life on your own terms’. However, if we link this blog with your ‘Make A Living As An Adventurer’ page then perhaps, but only perhaps, digital is the way particularly if you are riding without a support vehicle with space and weight top premium.
          Regards OldTomOnTour

          Reply
  5. Jonny

    What about the Canon G11 as recommended by wildlife photographer Charlie Hamilton James?

    Seems like a good compromise between quality and weight.

    Don’t forget you are going on a bike tour – why would you want to haul around huge SLRs and lenses? (unless you are planning on filming another travel doc). At least with a compact you can whip it out quickly without even having to get off the bike. Keep it simple and lightweight!

    I agree that it’s tempting to be snap-happy with a digital. It annoys me that people just click away at a view or scene without really thinking about their shot – but I admit I have been guilty of this. I now try to limit myself to just the one shot, but try and make it the best shot.

    Also – maybe you should do a future trip where you try and be as lightweight and minimal as possible. Just take a smartphone and do everything from there – blogs, tweets, photos etc. There’s something about a phone camera pic that harks back to the quality of 35mm and poloroids…

    Reply
    • Tom

      I think that approach would work for many people. Creative photography and filmmaking is a dear passion of mine, however, and I have reservations about the ability of compact digital cameras to get me the results I want.

      Might as well mention that I have usually carried 5-6kg of camera equipment on my bike trips, and never begrudged a gram of it…

      Reply
  6. Tom

    It’s been really interesting to read so many comments that have missed my intended point. It’s probably more to do with my lack of writing ability than anything else!

    I might write a follow-up next week. But, for now, allow me to try and better explain why this article is not about cameras:

    I am tempted to approach this trip in a purely self-indulgent manner. I want to spend two months cycling down the West Coast of the U.S. with my brother. By this approach, I wouldn’t take a phone, write any blogs, tweet, nor attempt to produce any videos or coherent set of photos for publication. I’d serve my own whims to the exclusion of all else. One of those whims, incidentally, would be to take a 35mm camera and bring my photography hobby back to basics. Just because I want to. I don’t think that requires me to pretend to unlearn or ‘un-know’ what I know about technology, which (short of a lobotomy) would be impossible.

    On the other hand, I feel somewhat obliged (for reasons stated above) to approach this trip with at least some kind of creative output in mind. Undoubtedly this would not affect my central reason for doing it, which is simply that I want to cycle down the West Coast of the U.S. with my brother, which I would still be doing. But it would mean considering how that creative output might be produced. One of those considerations, incidentally, would lead to me taking a fancy digital camera in order to get the source material to work on later. Just because it makes sense.

    So the question is not really one of camera choice – even though that decision will be tangentially affected.

    It is more like this:

    Can I afford to spend two months being purely self-indulgent, or are there other callings that deserve attention as well?

    I think that ultimately there’s only one person who can answer that…

    But hasn’t it been a fun discussion?

    Reply
    • andy welch

      I think that self-indulgence is overrated and why not take my Wilderness Guiding Book liked we discussed and film through the lens of that?

      Reply
  7. Jeremy

    Why do you need a long trip in order to experiment with the film camera? If you really think it would change your photography, why haven’t you started a period of digital fasting at home already?

    It makes sense that you could devote more of your mindspace to the nuances of film when there aren’t the thousand other en route details of a trip also to think about. Splitting it between the wow factor of the coastal trip and the more workaday study of learning film intensely gives both half treatment. If you’re serious about looking for new nuances in your photography, starting in familiar surroundings and training your eye to look for new ways is as important than the novelty crutch of new vistas. No half measures.

    Reply
    • Tom

      Thanks, Jeremy, for your comment.

      Being on a long trip is as familiar a set of surroundings and circumstances as I can think of. I feel more at home on a bicycle and with a tent than I do in a house in London, and the amount of small details to think about will be massively reduced. I think it’s the perfect opportunity to have the time and mindspace to dedicate to the nuances of film.

      If, on the other hand, I saw this bike trip as a break from the norm, something new and novel and with lots of wow-factor – well, then you’re probably right!

      Reply
      • Andy Welch

        Why do you feel more at home on a bicycle?

        Reply
      • Jeremy

        I guess I was looking at it wrong and can see your point about being more comfortable on the road than in a static house. It still doesn’t resolve the question about how much the itch for film is more of a romantic notion than a viable concrete solution to busting your plateau. If you really want to stir things up with film, why not try your hand with a 4×5 film camera instead of 35 mm? The costs and skill are even greater. Are you going to be developing the film yourself on the road?

        However, improving at something also requires feedback and room to experiment, which is something that digital does well. I’m not sure why a photographer can’t place constraints on digital photos in the same way that authors write novels without the letter “e” or the constraints that film has. Maybe you could turn off the LCD and only look at them later? Or it could just be an itch that persists until it’s scratched. I know that I get ideas like that take over my thoughts at times as well.

        Reply
  8. Andrew Gronow

    I’ve shot film for 20 years and I can see where you dilemma lays.
    However, since dabbling with a DSLR I found my creativity took a noticeable step forward, finding myself using film less and less today purely because of the costs involved.

    My assumption is you’d use transparency and not negative. Finding someone you can trust to process and digitise these to a high standard is becoming increasingly difficult to find.

    Looking at your on-line portfolio, you use a Nikon DSLR exclusively. I fear you’d be very disappointed if they’d been shot on slides.
    As a Canon user I don’t have this luxury, but I believe Nikon lenses are backward compatible with a number of 35mm bodies. Just a thought.

    I still romanticise about film and look down my nose at “photographers” that couldn’t tell an f-stop from a door stop. Any muppet with a few grand can buy a pro-spec DSLR, but sadly they never come off full auto. Sorry, off topic.
    At the end of the day it’s about the image and not the medium. Take what you most comfortable using. Happy travels.

    Reply
    • Tom

      That’s a really constructive set of thoughts – thank you.

      I started out with film and shot with a Nikon F75 for several years before life on the road gave me the time to experiment and develop (pun not exactly intended), and digital became the more practical choice.

      I’d take a 35mm setup less for the medium and more for the constraints and forced attention – the same reasons photography students are told to ditch the DSLRs to begin with.

      And, after all this, I still haven’t decided…!

      Reply
  9. Stephen Chapman

    In my experience I’ve found it virtually impossible to make a living doing something you love. Once you try to monetize a passion, and rely on it to sustain you, the love quickly drains away because your approach and motivations change.

    I wonder how many people have actually been successful in turning a love into work? My guess is that most people who love what they do have learnt to love it.

    Reply
    • Tom

      A very realistic perspective, I think. You’re not going to stop this idealist from trying, though! 🙂

      Reply
  10. James B

    You could not take a camera at all and just look at things, that’s a skill in itself and very lightweight.

    Reply
    • Tom

      Completely agreed. I’ve barely touched a camera for a year, and staring at stuff has really become a lot of fun.

      Reply
  11. Peter Jordan

    You could look at the Fuji X100 which is a digital compact but acts like a film camera. With front lens aperture control and by turning off the display off, you would think you had a film camera in your hands. It’s a fixed 35mm lens equivalent so you’re made to think about what you take. All you would have to do is not take a sneaky look until you get back. Then take out the card, plug into the laptop for that excited feeling of getting your pix back from Snappy Snaps.

    Reply
    • Tom

      That does look like an interesting option. I’m just not sure how far away it really is from taking my existing DSLR with a 35mm lens on the front.

      Reply
  12. Tom

    A little update, as I haven’t blogged again for a while: I’m a week away from departure and still don’t have a camera at all! The jury is still very much out…

    Reply
  13. Paul

    With all due respect to you and the other contributors to this discussion, your choice of camera is less important than your state of mind, i.e. your attitude to everything during your trip and the act of channeling your creative impulses into something, be it video, still photography or just hanging out with your brother and enjoying yourself. As for film cameras, they are great fun but IMHO they are more useful when you have ready access to processing and printing facilities. Waiting weeks or months to see what you’ve done well and also not so well may not be the best way to improve your craft. Apart from the need for batteries digital cameras have many positives. They free up your creativity, allowing you to focus more on the image and less on the camera. The NEX-7 seems a good choice but first read (if you haven’t already) Steve Huff’s review: http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2011/10/23/the-sony-nex-7-digital-camera-review-by-steve-huff/
    I’ve been considering that camera myself. With an after market adapter ring you can use lenses from older film SLRs, with aperture and focus being fully manual of course. That way you could merge the advantages of digital image capture with your longing for a bit of old school manual photography. Or you could get a SONY NEX-VG20, which uses the same lenses and the same 16mp sensor as the NEX-5, and apparently takes very decent quality still images. I would assume you have considered all these options and more. I suspect there is something deeper happening that is not apparent in a discussion of equipment. I’m sure you are best placed to figure that one out. It’s all part of the adventure that is your life. Enjoy!

    Reply

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