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Some thoughts on photography and isolation
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Jonathan Rozes

Locale: Pacific Wonderland
Some thoughts on photography and isolation on 02/16/2012 13:44:38 MST Print View

After years of lurking, here goes my first post...

In the cell phone thread, several folks noted that they feel isolated from the environment when they bring a camera. I wonder how much of this is inherent to photography vs. the attendant state of mind most people have while snapping away at every turn of the trail?

Consider the typical compact digital camera, which with it's effectively limitless storage capacity and auto-everything, encourages taking lots of photos with a minimum of thought or effort.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, consider large format photography. Having only a handful of exposures to make and an investment of time in setting up a shot encourages one to slow down and close in with the environment, to think critically, and to find things one would completely miss if just casually hanging out.

Personally, doing the former absolutely disconnects me from the environment, while the latter is imbued with a certain zen that makes me feel like an active participant in my surroundings. Interestingly, I think this holds true with almost any type of camera as long as I'm technically proficient with it, and I use a tripod and cable release. Maybe it's not having to hold something in your hands?

Hands or not, I think presence of mind is what this is ultimately about. For me, contemplative photography is just one way I can reliably bring my focus to the present. As a bonus, I get lasting, vivid impressions of my experience to appreciate and share.

I'm curious to hear more thoughts on the subject.


Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Some thoughts on photography and isolation on 02/16/2012 13:52:07 MST Print View


I just posted some thoughts on this exact topic. You are correct about the large format cameras and logistics. And I found that after dealing with them, I enjoyed going without for the most part.

But let us not lose sight of the fact that each one of us hikes for various reasons, with various goals. There is nothing wrong with a camera. Actually I enjoy looking at many of the pictures others take. Most of the time, recording the marvel of my trips just complicates things. And sometimes I like to share.

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
Camera distraction ... on 02/16/2012 16:56:42 MST Print View


Edited by skopeo on 09/08/2015 15:07:09 MDT.

Art Sandt
(artsandt) - F
Re: Some thoughts on photography and isolation on 02/16/2012 23:47:28 MST Print View

It seems a little like fly fishing to me, in that you can plan an entire trip around it and never truly feel like you're "backpacking." The trail is just a connection to a destination, bad weather an impediment to the activity, and the hike itself a necessary evil, rather than an end in itself. There's nothing wrong with this kind of approach, IMO, but it can ruin my enjoyment of an entire trip when I don't have my priorities straight (especially in the case of bad weather).

With photography, a strange thing has happened to me, which is that my memories of the trip itself can fade faster if I look at the photos from the trip too soon afterwards. It's like my memories of looking at the photos overwhelm my memories of actually being there. So in a sense, having the camera in front of my face can take me out of the experience, but if I wait 1-2 months before looking at the photos it's not a problem. Still kind of weird.

Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: Some thoughts on photography and isolation on 02/17/2012 00:45:16 MST Print View

I found this out early on while traveling/hiking. I would take a pic of any little thing that interested me. After I would feel like I experienced the place/trip through the lens of a camera. I would feel like I lost something of the experience. True too, about the looking at the pictures later.
I think whats going on is that the camera/pictures are mediating the experience. A mediated experience is by definition a step removed. You run the danger of being a spectator in your own hike and the hike becomes somewhat of a performance. The pictures may make you feel like more of a voyeur.
I have resisted this by being very selective about picture taking. I try to select a few pictures that kind of sum up the character of the trip. It helps to very consciously compose the picture so that it feels like a composed picture and not a snapshot slice of life. This way the picture will serve as a sign and remind me of the trip and stir up the memories.

Art Sandt
(artsandt) - F
Re: Re: Some thoughts on photography and isolation on 02/17/2012 01:14:30 MST Print View

>so that it feels like a composed picture and not a snapshot slice of life

This is good advice. A lot of people--myself included--are compulsive or collectors by nature, and, for example, once I start documenting a trip, I want to get everything, all the way down to the mundane details, so I can have a sort of "completeness" in my photos. On the other hand, if I make that conscious decision to only take out the camera when I see something really worth taking a picture of, I'm engaging in an entirely different activity. It helps that my camera's battery life is relatively short.

jacko vanderbijl

Locale: Shelley Western Australia
The viewfinder... on 02/17/2012 02:28:35 MST Print View

I have thoroughly enjoyed photography for decades longer than I have been "hooked" on hiking.
Never a "serious" photographer I have always considered myself someone who can take a good photo.
I always had an SLR, initially a Pentax and then a Nikkormat and then another Pentax before getting any digital cameras.
I have also been guilty of times that I have just taken "happy snaps", with little thought about the artistic merit of the photo.
I now have a Fuji Finepix for happy snaps and my third Pentax SLR (a digital).
I agree very much with the idea that taking a considered, quality shot is a totally different mindset and process than taking a snap. While digitals let us take a myriad of photos compared to the old film cameras, I have found that it is not the medium but more the viewfinder that makes the difference.
When you put your eye up to a viewfinder and close the other you compose and "sense" the picture. Holding a camera out in front of you and looking at a 2"-3" screen is happy snap stuff even with the best of cameras.
Unfortunately, while the screens have got bigger on the back of the smaller cameras, the viewfinders are vanishing.
Sadly when I hike I will continue to take the little one (or its replacements) as lugging a couple of kilos of camera gear isn't the norm for people with an interest in these forums.

While on the matter of quality photos, the following link is to a slideshow of a young pro photographer who hiked the AT in 2010. The stunning quality of the photos compared to most thruhikers snaps is obvious, particularly those of his fellow hikers (although my favourite is the backpack stealing bear). I think he used an Arn pack or similar with front bags for the camera.

Brian Lewis
(brianle) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
re: The viewfinder... on 02/17/2012 09:35:32 MST Print View

As someone who hiked on occasion with Ben (aka Rooster) in 2010, I can say that while he did sometimes take some time to set up a shot, for the most part he was fully immersed in "where he was" along the way. Whether he was as a result "more in tune" or "less in tune" with his environment I have no idea, but likely a bit more so.

Since he really is a professional photographer, I expect a big factor was just how well he already knew how to frame a shot, work with the tools at hand, etc etc. In almost any endeavor, pro's make hard things look easy.

Me, I try to think about framing shots properly, but don't let the camera (which generally now is my smartphone) drive the experience. And in using a digital camera I keep in mind Joe Stalin's famous quote, "Quantity has a quality all its own". :-)