A recent study came out that said taking pictures, even in the age of social media, can enhance, rather than ruin, your experience of an event or place.
Some people might call that crazy, claiming that being glued to our phones prevents us from paying attention to what’s around us. But as a professional photographer—I worked as a photojournalist before I became the online gear editor at Outside—I was taught to engage the world through my camera. I felt connected with people and places when I took photos. I had to pay closer attention and be an active participant.
The photo world has a name for this. It’s called “seeing.” Just like a reporter has to figure out how to tell a complete story with words, a photographer has to figure out how to tell a complete story with images. Who are the important characters? Where is the light? Where should I stand? When is the most important part of this event going to happen? When those all come together, you’re “seeing” instead of just observing. It’s a hard skill to learn, but once you do, it sticks with you. You start to see the world differently because you’re trained to record and engage with it.
I take fewer pictures now, and my photos aren’t being used in the news. But I still try to see. I point an iPhone at my friends on the skin track or my children eating breakfast instead of a DSLR at street protests, but that same engagement is still there. If I’m pressing the shutter button, it’s because I think what’s happening in front of me is important and visual and that I should pay close attention to it.
I acknowledge the other side. Photographers, even amateurs, are sometimes accused of using the camera as a barrier between themselves and what’s unfolding. We can pay more attention to our framing than reality. It happens, and, yes, the camera can be a distraction. But here’s the thing: We’re still there, still paying attention, and still trying to capture what’s important so others can see it.
And, yes, many of us care more about Instagram likes than the actual photo or event. I’m guilty. I can’t help but take pictures that I think will do well on my social media channels. I often avoid harder but important moments (my kids crying, for example) because people will just scroll past them on their phones. But even so, when I look back through my Instagram feed, I’m always glad I was motivated to take pictures—even if those pictures are edited.
I know our smartphone cameras come between us. If you’re suffering from selfie elbow because your social feeds are full of narcissistic face shots, you’re unnecessarily distracted. But I also love that we’ve developed phones with cameras so good that they rival and sometimes beat regular digital cameras. I think the occasional selfie or food portrait (also guilty!) is a small price to pay for having a pocket-size recording device. With a camera on me at all times, I’m motivated to “see” more often and am therefore constantly engaged.
The technology is only getting better, and taking more and better pictures will only get easier. I personally can’t wait to keep snapping away.