Decision Fatigue (And How I’m Escaping)

A journalist interviewing a famous world leader asked “Why do you wear virtually the same suit every day?” Their response, to paraphrase, was “When you have as many important decisions to make as I do in a day, you do all you can to eliminate all the trivial ones.”

When I was shooting a dozen rolls of film a month with a dozen different cameras, I eventually arrived at very similar feelings.

Choosing what to shoot, how to frame it, where to focus and when to release the shutter are some of the fundamental, irreversible and thus most important decisions we have to make as photographers seeking to create our best work.

Deciding whether to take with us a Super Takumar 55/1.8, Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 55/1.8 or SMC Takumar 55/1.8 is not a decision likely to have an impact on the images you make that day.

Even if I got down to one brand, let’s say Contax, I was at a point where I had seven Contax bodies (well, two were Yashicas that were 95% as good). And around 15 M42 lenses I could shoot on them (via an adapter).

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That gave me 105 different combos to choose from. Add say three types of film, let’s go with my three favourites – Fuji Superia 100, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 and Ferrania Solaris 200 – and I then had 315 options.

How rich was I!

Well, in fact, I didn’t feel rich at all.

I felt like a spoilt five year old given free reign at a bakery tasting day, and having licked, chomped and gorged on dozens of different cakes and pastries, was now rueful, with a busting stomach ache on the verge of vomiting.

The expression “Decision Fatigue” fits extremely well here.

I would define it simply as being so exhausted from having so many options, that even if you do manage to pick one, you’ve lost all enthusiasm and energy to follow it through anyway.

Eventually I honed down my Contax collection to just one, then evolved into shooting digital almost exclusively anyway.

With three DSLRs and those same 15 lenses I was at least down to 45 permutations rather than 315!

But 45 options was still far too much.

So the last four months ago I’ve only used four cameras.

Two are so similar in use you don’t miss a beat switching between them. I use the Ricoh GRD III when I want a 28mm lens. And lately I’ve used its older sibling, the GX100 (which has a 24-72mm zoom) fixed at 35mm.

My decision which to use mostly comes down to whether I want to shoot as wide as 28mm or not. Yes? Grab the GRD. No? Up steps the GX100.

I also have the Pentax Q, and whilst it’s an interchangeable lens camera, I mostly use the 47mm f/1.9 lens it came with. I also have for it the decidedly quirky and individual “07 Mount Shield” lens which makes images like nothing else I have.

Then I have my Xperia camera phone which I mostly use when I don’t have another camera with, or I want to just travel super light and simple.

So my decision process now looks something like this – 

Do I want to take a “proper” camera or just use my phone?

If just the phone, off I go.

If a proper camera, do I want the unique Q 07 lens look? If not, do I want 28mm, 35mm or 47mm?

I confess another factor is how close I want to focus.

The Ricohs go ridiculously close, the Q and Xperia still close but maybe 0.25m rather than 0.01m.

So, close focus and wide? Take the GRD, 28mm.

Close focus and “normal” (35mm seems normal to me on a compact camera, film or digital)? The GX100 is the one to use.

Not bothered about close focus and more of a traditional normal of 50mm? Step up the Q and 01 Prime 47mm.

Want that lo-fi pinhole characterful look? Q plus 07 lens.

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This handful of decisions is obviously far easier to mentally mull over than 300 or even 45. 

In practice I don’t really make the decision in such a step by step analytical flowcharty (is this a word?) kind of way anyway. I just sort of know which camera I want to use and grab it. Plus my recent run with the GX100 means I’ve not picked up the GRD or Q in weeks now either.

Obviously the impact of reducing 300+ options to just a handful, has been radical.

(And the 315 choices only included Contax cameras and M42 lenses remember – at its peak my collection had 50+ cameras, 25+ lenses and maybe 15 different types of film. I don’t even want to do the calculation!)

I feel more free in my photography than in years, and once I’m out with the camera I’ve chosen don’t give that decision making a second thought. 

And this is an important additional point.

Another problem with a vast choice in anything, is the more you have, then even if you do manage to pick just one, you endlessly second guess yourself and worry about if you’ve picked the right one.

For me, this whole experience is a thing of the past, thankfully.

Decision Fatigue is a horrible, draining, exhausting and demoralising affliction. One I’ve known all too well, for all too long, and am delighted to be almost entirely free from it. 

Of course I could go a step further and just use my phone camera the whole time. But I bet even our famous world leader had different coloured underwear or socks in a drawer to pull out now and then.

Have you experienced Decision Fatigue with your photography? How has it impacted how you make photographs? 

Please share your thoughts below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography life looks like right now.

26 thoughts on “Decision Fatigue (And How I’m Escaping)”

  1. Dan, for a long time now….until yesterday I had been suffering from the reverse…absolute boredom of what was around me in my life for taking photos. I was creative in lots of other ways but my photography had become stale and virtually down to zero decisions as nothing caught my eye to photograph. I googled to find some inspiration and found a site highlighting 10 photographers and their inspiration. Now a whole new world of ideas for photos has opened up and now the decision making begins in earnest!!! I’m so glad to be out of the zero decision zone xoxo susanJOY

    1. Susan, I think we all need to feel we have fresh ideas to explore, whatever the creative outlet.

      With photography, when I had too many choices to make before I even went out to take pictures, it was preventing me from getting to the kind of decisions I do like to make, ie finding things interesting enough to photograph, then finding the angle, composition etc to do them justice.

      I do wonder if many people continue to buy new cameras and kit (or any art materials/equipment) because they see it as a way of constantly having a fresh challenge. If that works, then great, but if it begins to limit your photography (and your enjoyment of it) then it’s probably time to ask some questions.

      When you’re down to just a few tools, there’s no hiding, you have to get out and use them, and there’s no excuse like “this photograph isn’t any good because I didn’t know how to use the camera”. It can be quite scary in that way, but ultimately liberating.

  2. I agree that the technical specification of equipment are less important than we think when it comes to taking a photo. It just comes down to wether or not the photo is good. I tend to use my Canon for nearly all of my photos and it means that I don’t waste time fumbling with the controls because I’m used it.

    1. This is a really important point, about “fumbling with controls”. Very frustrating when you aren’t able to capture the photo you want (even more so if it was a static subject where you had plenty of time) because you couldn’t get the camera to work the way you wish.

      I think by simplifying the equipment it gives the emphasis back to the important and enjoyable decisions – where to stand and when to release the shutter button – which have been fundamental to photography since it began.

  3. Dan, you had me laughing with this post for sure. Age and circumstance finally solved my (similar) problem. I recently turned 71 and trek the world full-time (365 days a year) as a photographer & writer with just my rucksack and Pelican camera case. I can’t physically carry that much gear anymore and it has simplified everything … my Pelican case now houses 2-camera bodies and 5-lenses (4-zooms and 1-prime). When shooting recreationally I usually limit myself to one camera and one lens, if I’m on commercial assignment I carry the whole kit & caboodle. Ugh. Thanks for the chuckle. Steve Dennstedt @ http://www.IndochinePhotography.me.

    1. Steve, I’m pleased to hear you’ve found your own solutions. I don’t travel much, most of my camera adventures are within a 30 mile radius of home, but even then, lugging a DSLR and a couple of lenses has become too much of a chore. I have an upcoming post about ditching my DLSR(s) because I haven’t touched them in months.

  4. I’ve enjoyed the process of experiencing so many cameras. But in the last couple years, when I needed to photograph something seriously or when I wanted to shoot for fun but without the risk that an untested old camera brings, I kept reaching for the same gear: Pentax ME or Nikon F2/F3. Slowly I realized that all the choice was a minor tyranny in my life.

  5. Dan, you constantly amaze me with the number of cameras that you have owned which are almost identicle; 7 Contax bodies? Wow! 😀
    For the most part, day to day my decision making is fairly straightforward for me as I usually carry my digital and one of my film cameras (Currently Miranda Sensorex) with me in my car. Then my decision is film or digital from that point.
    That is unless I am taking a trip and then I struggle with the limitation that will come from not taking all of my favorites. Weight and bulk are always and issue so I know all can’t go. This has been unnecessary as ultimately it boiled down to my digital and my 35mm rangefinder film (the most portable). Anything else is just unnecessary. However, I now have the Miranda which I have been using a lot and really like so that makes a potential contest between the rangefinder and the SLR for the space in my luggage for a film camera.
    But then again I have a big trip coming up which will involve snorkelling and I am gifting a camera so that means 3 underwater cameras, the gift and then my decision on which film camera(s) to take along with my digital 😀

      1. ha ha, yes I already own them; one for me, one for my wife to be and one for my daughter (two Nikonos IVa and a Panasonic digital which is not actually mine). My fiance liked my Nikonos so much she wanted one for herself to replace the Panasonic digital so I got that earlier this year.

          1. Yes it does, it makes for a great rugged camera. I put a roll through the first one when I got it just to make sure it functioned correctly and they came out great.

          2. Good, it makes them viable as an all round camera, not just a special tool you might only shoot a couple of rolls with every year or something.

  6. Steve, if I get the chance of another lifetime I would love to travel the world with just a rucksack and to be a travelling chef and flautist and of course one camera. Have just been to your website and blown away with your photos. thanks for sharing your work. Nice to meet you here with Dan and others xoxo susanJOY

  7. I haven’t been doing this long enough or have enough stuff to suffer from this sort of choice fatigue and hopefully I won’t. Is it possible that part of the problem you had wasn’t so much having to choose which camera, but which camera from a selection which are fundamentally the same?

    If cameras are tools and you have several different ones that are each suited to different work then it’s about knowing which is best suited for the job at hand, but if you have a whole selection of them that are essentially the same (most film SLRs for example), then it’s no longer about which is best suited to the job, but about a whole bunch of other, possibly frivolous choices that have nothing to do with making pictures?

    1. Yes absolutely Tony. Ultimately there is/was very little difference between using a Pentax or a Minolta or a Canon or any other SLR with a 50mm f/1.4, f/1.7, f/1.8 or f/2 lenses.

      If the choice was, say, compact camera for light weight and small size over a DSLR with more bulk and weight but more control, depth of field etc, yes the options are far more clear.

      Which is pretty much what I’m down to now, although I am seriously considering (I have a post in draft) whether to sell all my DSLR stuff and just keep my three compacts.

      1. You could probably do with less than three compacts even. If the choices you have are genuine ones to do with different capabilities and purposes it makes some sense to have that choice, but if ultimately it makes no real difference between two choices then it’s a choice you can eliminate. Some cameras are just lovely things though and nice to have and hold, but that’s more about collecting them rather than using them.

        I now have more choice than I did, as I just bought a mirrorless digital and can choose between a film SLR and digital. I felt there were times I would have liked to shoot but couldn’t easily with the SLR … low light shots and shooting things which moved a bit too fast for manual focus. There’s actually nothing the SLR can do that the digital can’t to be honest, except look quite like film … and I like how film looks, so I won’t eliminate that choice just yet. The near immediate feedback as to how shots work out is a godsend though.

        1. Tony, yes I’d say the last appeal of shooting film for me was the unmatchable (just!) look of film, and the feel of classic, high quality old cameras, like a Spotmatic with a Takumar lens.

          But these became of increasingly less value stacked up against the benefits of the digital cameras I’ve come to love.

  8. I bought my everyday camera, a Leica IIIf, at a mom and pop camera store on 14th Street in Manhattan in 1966 or 1967. I still have the same camera along with a small assortment of lenses and accessories and a few spare bodies.

    But right from the beginning I have always had a “second” camera that does something the Leicas can’t do or don’t do as well. I’ve had an assortment of film cameras of various formats and, more recently, digital cameras. My current “second” camera is an iPhone.

    I still occasionally stray from my “first” and “second” camera scheme, as in a one-roll fling with my father’s old Rolleiflex earlier this week, but in general I find it works well for me.

    1. I love that loyalty Doug, having the same main camera for so long. I’m not old enough to have been loyal to anything that long, and the longest I’ve had a camera is about seven years – my Nikon Coolpix I bought in 2012. Though I do have an old Sony phonecam somewhere that still works, from maybe the same year or a year older.

  9. You know my take about this though I call it ‘Paralysis of Choice’
    https://whyfilmcameras.com/2017/11/11/paralysis-of-choice-or-why-i-love-analog-2/

    Now that I’m diwn to three cameras and perhaps less, who knows, I just grab one and go out. Easy!

    No more philosophysing about the merits of one or another camera. No more headscratching… just photos waiting out there.

    Unless you collect them you only need one or two cameras.

    When I was young I had ONE! And never longed for more. We live in strange days

    1. It is for sure a sign of our times. Partly the culture and advertising to buy buy buy and never feel satisfied, and partly the fact that we have literally decades’ worth and tens of thousands (including digital even tens of millions?) of used cameras all just a click or two away.

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