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South Africa

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The Perils of the Photographically-Obsessed

When I was 10 years old someone close to me should have noticed it. Walking through the camps of the Kruger National Park with a Novoflex lens longer than I was, was not natural, and although I was very conscious of the stares and comments directed at me by men with beer bellies around camp fires, I didn’t realise I was that different. I thought most kids had a bazooka-like lens somewhere in their parents’ cupboards that they were too shy to walk around with. So I shrugged off comments like ‘Do you have a license for that thing?’ and pretended that the whole of the rest camp wasn’t laughing at me.

All I saw was the little grey bird sitting on an aloe. Nothing else mattered: this obsession with freezing this boring LBJ on the emulsion of my film was much greater than any humiliation caused by people. Yet even then, I probably knew deep inside: it was already too late.

Like all addictions it started innocently – taking pictures on our family holidays.

Back then it wasn’t that important to get the best image. It was just a way of doing something with a sighting – a proof of what we had seen. But gradually it all started to change. Our family blossomed into very serious amateur photographers, and we found ourselves chasing around in game reserves, our quite small car bulging with parents, kids, cameras and lenses. We were hooked. Obsessed. We had gone over the edge. And I think I was even further than the others.

I found myself trying to figure out what lenses were sticking out of the car windows of other similar addicts.

And when I saw something that looked bigger or whiter than ours, I would obsess about it, waking up in the middle of the night with a cold sweat dreaming about it. And the next morning first thing I would phone my dealer (these days it is Hedrus from Outdoorphoto) and order the lens.

The lenses I have owned (or that I have forced my parents to buy) include:

  • Novoflex: 600mm f/8, 400mm f/5.6, 240mm f/6.7
  • Hasselblad: 85mm f/4
  • Olympus: 28mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8, 80mm macro f/4, 80-200mm f/4, 300mm f/4.5
  • Canon FD: 28mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8, 135mm f/2, 100-300mm f/5.6, 300mm f/4, 400mm f/4.5, 500mm f/4.5
  • Canon EF: 15mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/2.8, 17-35mm f/2.8, 24mm f/1.4, 24mm f/2.8 Tilt Shift, 24-105mm f/4, 50mm f/1.2, 100mm macro f/2.8, 180mm macro f/3.5, 100-400mm f/5.6, 70-200mm f/2.8, 100-300mm f/5.6, 300mm f/4, 300mm f/2.8, 600mm f/4.

So all in all we have owned about 30 lenses, worth much more than a million Rand. The only way we could afford them was to sell the old ones as we bought new ones. We lost a lot of money. All addictions are expensive.

Over the years I have come to terms with my disease, but didn’t want to admit that I had a problem. I surrounded myself with people like me. We lived for photography and it was all we spoke about. As Oscar Wilde said: ‘The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it’.

But I was not compatible with the world around me. I could not go on holiday without a camera and a bag full of lenses, because seeing something photogenic when you don’t have a camera with you is like going on hunger strike in a chocolate shop. It’s truly terrible.

Those images you couldn’t photograph get stuck in your mind and haunt you till you die.

In the end I managed to sell most of my lenses, and kept just the essential ones, which I use extensively.

I have looked at my image library and tried to figure out which lenses are the most suitable for my job.

To do this, I have looked at which lenses I used to take my decent photographs, and looked at percentages. The result is as follows:

  • 16-35mm f/2.8 – 36%
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 – 17%
  • 300mm f/2.8 – 13%
  • 600mm f/4 – 9%
  • 180mm f/3.5 macro – 9%
  • 50mm f/1.2 – 8%
  • 24mm f/1.4 – 7%
  • 15mm f/2.8 fisheye – 1%

So according to these stats I use the wide angle successfully twice as often as any other lens. The 70-200mm is the second most successful lens, and so on, down to the fisheye at a mere 1%. But the problem when deciding on what lens to buy, is that you cannot only look at the success rate of the lens. You must also take its cost into consideration.

So, taking the cost of the lens into consideration, I looked at what the cost would be per successful image, if I had to take 1000 of my top images and divide them according to the lenses used. The results are as follows:

  • 16-35mm f/2.8 – R44
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 – R123
  • 180mm f/3.5 macro – R189
  • 50mm f/1.2 – R225
  • 24mm f/1.4 – R283
  • 300mm f/2.8 – R384
  • 15mm f/2.8 fisheye – R800
  • 600mm f/4 – R977

So this means that of my 1000 top images, 36% (360 images) would have been taken with the 16-35mm and so each image would cost R44. This means the 16-35mm is still my most valuable lens, followed by the 70-200, but the 600mm now drops all the way to the bottom of the list. This lens is very expensive, so although I get a reasonable number of good images with it, each one still costs me a lot of money.

If I had had these stats 15 years ago, we probably would not have bought the 600mm lens, because it is not cost effective. But looking back, if I hadn’t bought it 15 years ago, I would not have been where I am today in my photography. Although very expensive, it was the one piece of equipment that enabled me to become a professional photographer.

This costing exercise was for me like psychological therapy, for it meant that I can justify the lenses I have bought, as well as my addiction. The only problem now is that I am starting to wonder what other lenses that I don’t yet own would have meant to me!

This article was written by Heinrich van den Berg

Photo of Heinrich van den Berg

Heinrich van den Berg is a working professional who has won the Getaway Fuji Wildlife Photographer of the Year. If you are a keen photographer and wish to see more of his work and read about his latest book, visit Heinrich’s website.


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