How many pictures do you average per day while traveling? I often shoot between 500 and 600 frames. That’s one picture every two waking, semi-caffeinated minutes. On our last trip, however, I hardly took any. And the results were enlightening.
We took a family vacation to Yellowstone when I was young. After a hike one day we returned to the parking lot to find a doe lurking about the cars. (I'm sure she was up to no good.) My mom wanted a picture. My dad handed her the camera, she put the viewfinder to her eye, and composed a shot. The deer was a bit smaller in the frame than she hoped, initially, so she moved a few steps forward, eye fixed to the viewfinder. She crouched a little, adjusting the perspective, and took a few steps more. She didn’t realize she was looking through a 24mm lens. When she finally pulled the camera down from her eye, she was standing about six feet from the doe’s wet nose. Its ear twitched. My mom gave a start and jumped back, the doe, totally accustomed to weird behavior from tourists, sauntered off in the other direction. (Gotta love my wonderfully cantankerous father for just letting that whole thing play out.)
The thing is, the camera has the ability to both expand, and limit, the way we experience the world.
Why Do We Shoot?
Why take pictures at all? Note that this is from the perspective of an amateur photographer doing personal trips, obviously not from the perspective of a working professional on a paid shoot (or a shoot they hope to get paid for). That’s totally different.
For me, there are a couple of reasons. One is an internal drive to express something about what I’m experiencing artistically, to share the beauty or heartache of a place or a moment through images. The target audience is the broader artistic and conservation-minded community on social media and at Fstoppers. Yet, there aren’t that many opportunities to be successful at this type of photography each day, especially if you’re traveling with others who may have a different way they want to experience the trip. Successfully capturing fine-art or photojournalistic quality images usually means investing real time. No matter how accommodating your travel companion(s), they almost certainly will have some limit to their tolerance for this style of photography as it can easily begin to impact their experience of a place. That often constrains how much time you can devote to making any given image.
The second reason I take pictures is to tell a more personal story for our family and friends, and to jog my own memory a few years down the line. These images are a way to keep alive some of the cool experiences we’ve had that might otherwise fade from my consciousness. The vast majority of the 500-600 frames taken each day fall into this latter category.
What’s Gained? And What’s Lost?
Playing at being a landscape or adventure photographer on your travels can have its advantages. When we’re thinking about composing a photo, we tend to see the world consciously, in an artistic way, scanning for inspiring moments, unique light, beautiful compositions. We focus on things in a way and with an attention that they wouldn’t otherwise receive. That level of visual consciousness can be beneficial. In the best case, it can allow us to capture and convey something meaningful for a broader audience who might not otherwise have an opportunity to see the same remote places, creatures, or peoples.
The downside is that it can lead to tunnel vision. Whether we’re shooting with the goal of making a fine art image or just capturing a moment for posterity’s sake, our attention is on the shot and not elsewhere. Even if the camera is just sitting on the seat beside me, I’ll often find that my attention is still on it, wondering whether I should be looking through it, whether I should be getting this shot or that shot. What if I miss something? That level of distraction isn’t necessarily healthy, nor is it likely to yield the best overall experience of a trip.
Finding a Better Balance
Each of us will have a different way to divvy up our attention on a trip that we can live with, both in the moment and after we get back. It’s been helpful to me to consciously think about the reason I’m contemplating making an image. Am I trying to make art or preserve a memory? And, if it’s the latter, have I already captured another image that’s sufficient for the purpose?
Do I really need fifty images of a pair of burrowing owls along a river bank in the Amazon? Of course, not. They’re interesting, but from a 150-yards out with a convoluted background and crappy light, the images aren’t ever going to be fine art. Two or three shots is more than enough to identify the birds and remind me later of what we saw. Forty-seven more snapshots isn’t going to improve my memory or my editing experience when I get home (since I’ll have to go through ten times as many poor images), but it is likely to detract from the broader experience of sitting in a canoe on a tributary of the Amazon in the middle of a rain forest. Put the camera down, waft in the thick, strangely cool air, listen as the water laps at the side of the canoe, whisper to your traveling companion(s) about the shared experience.
I might even take it a step further, though. A few images meant to later jog our memory might just as easily be replaced by a minute or two of video. Video is closer than stills to how we normally experience the world; it can involve more of our senses. You can hear the lapping of the water, the call of a tropical bird, the whispered excitement. It’s more likely to pull you back into the moment years later than a snapshot is. In the moment, I personally find that I tend to feel some innate need to shoot still images, but when I get home, I almost always regret that I didn’t shoot more video.
On a recent trip paddling down Arkansas’ Buffalo River, I went to the other extreme. Under normal circumstances the trip might have resulted in 3,000-4,000 images. Instead, I took only a few dozen shots over the course of the nearly week-long float. It’s not that I didn’t shoot at all. I was just careful about where to expend the time and attention. I still managed to come away with two or three images that might be worthy of inclusion in my portfolio. For me, that’s a pretty decent keeper rate. And it suggests I really might be capable of seeing where there’s potential for an image and where my energy is likely to be wasted.
What I didn’t get were all the shots that might help send my memory curling back to that sweet, soulful river a few years down the road. And I’m a little bummed about that, to tell the truth. I’ll have to recalibrate a bit on the next adventure, maybe take some video next time.
Image by Alyssa Thompson | Medium.
But it did have some unexpected benefits. One of my favorite shots from the trip wasn’t taken by me. On our final day on the water, I got to experience the beautiful tranquility of an early morning paddle, the peace that comes with pulling a blade rhythmically through cold, dark waters — without once interrupting the moment to pull the camera out. Even better, I got to watch a blossoming photojournalist beginning a journey similar to my own, learning to see, capture, and share her own unique perspective and experience of the world. I'll still be able to relive the experience, just with the added benefit of seeing it from someone else's perspective. Totally a win-win. Sometimes it's best just to be lazy and let the next generation do all the hard work.