cj chilvers

Book Review: ‘A Lesser Photographer’

Think about all you’ve learned about photography. Think about the photo blogs, the podcasts, the seminars, the preset packs.

It’s not really “photography.” It’s the business of photography. That’s mostly what we hear about on the web. The gear, the reviews, the tips and tricks. It’s photography as commercialism.

CJ Chilvers woke up from all that one day, hiking in woods in Illinois (I’ve been there – it’s lovely). He woke up from the “gear talk” that pervades most of what is photography culture, sold all his DSLR equipment, and started over.

Then he started the A Lesser Photographer blog, and shared a different philosophy: What if we cared more about the photos and ideas than the camera and lenses? What if we quit obsessing about technique and kept things simple?

Now Chilvers took the best of the A Lesser Photographer blog and put it into book form – short “chapters” with simple ideas and great accompanying art. The chapters are little nuggets to think about. There’s one on The Best Photos of the Year (hint: they’re yours, and they’re wonderfully imperfect), and one on not shooting the clichéd and obvious. Live your life instead of shooting all the time. And (my favorite) embracing the “amateur” in amateur photographer.

That last one really resonated with me. Yes, I do make a little side money from photography. And yes, it’s a part of my jobby-job. But mostly, it’s a hobby. I’m not looking to make a lot (or even a fraction) of my income from photography – either paid gigs or selling prints. So what do I need a portfolio for? My work will (most likely) never hang in a museum. And I have plenty of outlets for my work (Flickr, Instagram, this blog).

Chilvers’ message is today’s photography counterculture. Photography as a hobby is all about gear and technique – about special effects (HDR, light painting, etc.) rather than emotion. Chilvers says, “Enough.”

The perfect camera for you? “Check to make sure you don’t already have a camera.”

It’s an easy trap to fall into, all that gear lust. Starting out, I remember caring about fast primes and ISO sensitivity and all that. I wanted to try cameras and buy the latest and greatest. That urge still grabs me every time I visit canonpricewatch.com.

Technique wasn’t so interesting to me, luckily. I mostly cared about taking good, interesting photos and capturing my friends and relatives. But the gear, man.

Maybe it’s a guy thing, to care about the specs. The latest and greatest. I do care about the tools in the same way I care about my car. There needs to be a certain amount of comfort and flexibility that allows me to get the job done (photos, driving, whatever). And the sports model is always something to drool over.

But Chilvers’ advice is to spend money on the images instead of the gear. Buy a plane ticket and shoot the hell out of your destination. With your old, clunky, dented camera. That still takes good-enough images.

Not all of us can be pro photographers who get to fly to India and test out the latest Fuji. But we can fly to India. I bet our old cameras still work there.

A Lesser Photographer is a good, pointed, fast read, and it does make you question how you approach this hobby. If you’re a pro, says Chilvers, you already know this stuff.

It’s the rest of us “advanced amateurs” that need reminding.

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Pick up A Lesser Photographer: Escaping the Gear Trap to Focus on What Matters at Craft & Vision for $5 (cheap), and follow the blog.