Friday, June 26, 2009

The Cult of the Photo Vest

When it comes to fashion apparel, photographers fall into two, broad, categories: Those who wear photographer vests and those who don't.

I fall into the latter category. I not only refrain from wearing "the vest," I don't own one-- Never have and, most likely, never will.

Whenever I see shooters wearing those spiffy photographer vests, I perceive them as photo-snappers belonging to a special group, a tightly-knit club, a secret fraternal order. One I've never been invited to join.

In my mind, vest-wearing shooters are to photography as those guys with shaved heads and orange robes are to Buddhism, "colors" wearing Hells Angels are to motorcycle enthusiasts, or kilt-sporting highlanders are to the Scots.

I sometimes wonder if these guys have secret handshakes, use mysterious symbolism, and attend nocturnal meetings in round, lens-shaped, temples. More than any other group of photographers, those who wear "the vest" are members of a cult: Cult of the Photo Vest.

They're like the Freemasons of photography.

The Cult of the Photo Vest reveres things like film, rangefinder cameras, German optics, and landscape and nature shooting. They are all, universally, well-versed in the art, craft, and technical scientific aspects of photography. And their knowledge is not limited to old school photography. They assimilate knowledge and information as quickly as technology changes.

When you go to sites like and ask a difficult technical question, a question whose answer seems to defy Googling, it's more than likely a vest-wearing photographer who will provide you the answer. These are guys, after all, who not only quote the Sunny 16 Rule and the Inverse Square Law, they can explain these things in infinite detail. When it comes to all things photographic, they are bi-pedal Photo-Wikipedians: Photo-Wikis for short.

While many vest-wearers seem to belong to older generations, I do occasionally see younger initiates at various events where photographers gather. I'm not accusing the cult of refusing admittance to women but, thus far, I've yet to see a female photographer wearing a photo-vest. Maybe I simply haven't looked hard enough?

The cult doesn't appear to actively seek new members. I'm not sure how someone joins or becomes a member. Invitation? Borg-like assimilation? Simply purchasing and proudly wearing a photo vest? I have no clue.

We need these guys. They are the keepers of photographic truth. If slinging the latest dSLR on one's shoulder says "photographer," wearing "the vest" says, "photo zealot." And I mean that in the nicest way with the utmost of respect.

My next update will return to regularly scheduled programming. Programming that focuses on examining the forces that results in pictures of scantily-clad, or unclad, pretty girls-- Pretty girls like Monica, below, shot in my (former) studio, 3 or 4 years ago. (Once again, I hopped in the way-back machine to dredge up a an older PG photo for this update.)


Ed Araquel said...

I see alot of those dudes here in Vancouver but maybe that's because of my proximity to the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University which, I'm sure, houses quite a few.

Oh, and they like wearing Tilley hats and Birkenstock sandals with dark socks in summer. Just so ya know. :)


Bill Giles said...

I wore a vest once, in 1995. It was kind of handy for film canisters and filters and such. Strictly speaking, it wasn't a photographer's vest, just a vest. It should still be around somewhere, but I doubt that it still fits. I guess that it just didn't feel right, kind of the way that I feel about dressing in black. I'll probably stick with tee shirts and jeans.

John said...

I never wore a vest - when I was shooting actively (in the 70's), I wore a jacket with lots of pockets. As you said, handy for film, filters, a second lens (a 28 or 35 on the body, with a 135 or 200 for when you needed it - zooms were unacceptable), maybe lens tissue and a brush.
But I take exception to the idea that having a DSLR slung over your shoulder says "photographer." At least, not any more than having a top-end Nikon, Canon, or Olympus SLR did. And it never did to me, not until I saw the images produced by said camera-carrier.

If you ask nicely, and let them watch some of your sessions, they'll probably let you wear a vest.

jimmyd said...

@John, You're right. A camera slung over one's shoulder does not a photographer make.

jimmyd said...

@Ed Araquel, Interestingly, if not surprisingly, Tilley sells a vest that could be construed a photographer vest.

Ernie Rice said...

I admit it, I have a vest and wear it sometimes... mainly when I have to carry a bunch of bits and pieces and don't want t leave a bag laying around. Like to shoot a football game.

But then I also have a newswear Chestvest, it has a bunch of pockets that are in front of you. Most people call it the mad bomber vest. :)

Marty said...

While my standard outfit for model shoots is a black t-shirt and camo, cargo shorts ... I do own a black photographer's vest that I wear to dressy, evening events ... and a beige fisherman's vest that I wear for outdoor events in the Texas heat.

I tried carrying my photography backpack with me, but it got heavy and I always worried it would get stolen. I tried loadingup my pockets with spare batteries, CF cards and another lens ... but they kept pulling down my pants ... and I lost a lot of stuff by laying it on the ground and forgetting it. So ... while it may not make me the most fashionable photographer ... it is very functional.

Ariston Collander said...

Hehe, nice association with Freemasons (being a Mason myself). I tried doing the belt thing once, but never a vest...I'm a sling it around my neck kinda guy I guess. But I'm also the kinda guy who wants to dress as attractively as possible no matter what the gear I'm carrying.

Anonymous said...

Lots of folks wear photographers vests and fly fishing vests, to conceal handguns on their belts in warm weather. A big hint is the lack of a camera or fishing pole. We often call these "IDPA" vests - google IDPA if you've never heard of it.

jimmyd said...


Ya mean, as in the International Defensive Pistol Association?

Try getting a concealed weapon permit in California.

Lin said...

I have a vest just like that which I use for gardening. Does that count me as a member of the secret cult?

Incidentally I have met several masons. They wear aprons, not vests. Photographers-in-vests look way cooler, trust me on this...

The Boatwriter said...

I have worn vests for more than 20 years, not always when carrying a camera. Vest and no camera = poseur, maybe???? Or tourist. When shooting, a vest is very handy if you can remember which pocket you put things in. I lose stuff in my Billingham vest all the time and have to pat myself down to find film, or recorder, or note pad, or whatever.
And yes, I do own a German rangefinder. And a German TLR. And an old German medium-format folder, too. Need I say more
I enjoy Pretty Girl Shooter even when there are no pretty girls there. Maybe you could shoot one in only a vest.

jimmyd said...

@The Boatwriter,

Good idea! Shooting a pretty girl wearing a CotPV vest, and nothing else, might be cool! I'm sure I know a photographer or two who owns one I could borrow.

Tim said...


I can't offer any advice about the Vest, but maybe some insight about the other sacred objects which go with it. Three possible explanations:

1) It's a matter of age. As we approach the final phase of our lives, many elderly photographers among us start to worship lasting values. Not the DSLR of the day which will become obsolete a month down the road, but rather German glass, rangefinders, wooden view cameras, all the precious eternal relics which existed a century before now and will still be around in a century, long after we have passed.

By the way, didn't you yourself have a brief encounter with the spirit of the Cult when you bought that old Canon film camera off eBay a few months ago? ;-)

2) It's a Ken Rockwell thing. This theory states that the cult consists of former photographers who have read too many of Ken's recent ramblings on the return of film, the obsolence of digital, and Leicas. Maybe this even confirms theory #1?

3) It's a Japanese fashion trend. Proof in case: . Go figure...

Anyway, here's one personal wish for this blog: a Pretty Girl dressed in nothing but..... I'm sure you guessed it! :-)

jimmyd said...


Of the three, all of them relevant, I think your first observation is the most accurate.

And yeah, recently, I did experience a brief, nostalgic, film episode. (Purchased a Canon rangefinder off of Ebay.) Shot one roll and then lost interest.

If I again decide to play with film as a way to satisfy the joys of photo-yesterdays, I'll probly go with a medium or larger format... or possibly join the reinvigorated Polaroid craze. Of course, either will mean I'll feel compelled to put my hands on a decent scanner.

Vince said...

Here's something that, in my experience, one doesn't often hear from a true member of that cult:

Jimmy - that's a beautiful photo of a beautiful subject. The way you used the light to show the subtleties of her body. The timing of the shutter press. The softness of the light. The juxtaposition of light and dark. My friend, you created a beautiful photo. A photo with feeling. Feeling that no amount of mere technical jargon or a simple uniform can create.

Anybody can buy a vest, a membership to a club, a DSLR, a Leica. None of those things can create beauty in a photograph. Only passion and talent can.

That's why I read your writings. They inspire passion in my own work, whether my subject is Pretty Girls, a bride and her groom, or senior portraits.

Rick said...

I don't have a vest. But if you get the itch for film again, let me know. I've a now-unused RB67 Pro-S in the closet you can borrow. :D