Seeing with and without cameras

Maple footprint

I’m questioning again how (and how much) to use cameras. One of my favourite naturalists, Barry Lopez, has written about why he gave up photography. He recalls being so busy fussing with f-stops he almost missed experiencing what it was like to see a polar bear up close.

As a connoisseur of textures and colours, I can relate. When I walk with photography in mind I look for certain things: a particular object of beauty, contrasts in light and shadow, a line in the landscape to draw the eye. I become preoccupied with composition. The challenge of creating an image that will please viewers requires my own attention.

When I find something to photograph I become absorbed in technical aspects. Often I need a tripod to stabilize the camera. I must balance perspective, exposure, depth of field, and other desirable qualities. An absorbing conversation begins between the focal point, camera, and my eyes, hands, and brain. To photograph small things on the ground, my whole body must do macro yoga.

This point of view has drawbacks, not only the risk of overlooking unusual wildlife like a polar bear. With digital single-lens reflex camera, macro lens mounted, and a tripod in hand, I seldom walk far before something captures my attention. Then it’s easy to spend 20 minutes in one place observing the same thing without thinking about it much beyond how it looks. This is rewarding enough in its own way.

Same place next year

But it serves other purposes for going on a walk less well. As a naturalist I want to see the bigger picture. I need to notice more than just the handsomest objects. While focused on one flower, it’s easy to miss a butterfly landing on the next one over. The camera can obscure my senses of smell and hearing.

In a spiritual journey, photography plays an even more complicated part. I enjoy finding remarkable images, executing them well, and sharing them with you. However it distracts the soul from meditation, and entering a more profound conversation with nature.

I’m also striving for a healthier body (inextricable from the soul, I believe). Photography invariably means less time for exercise. Back in the office I’ll spend more time processing these careful images in Lightroom, less time writing.

I like to walk a 1.3 km (0.8 mile) loop around the woods each day for health and inspiration. I’ve been taking the camera and macro lens every time. Consequently I often make it no further than the edge of the woods and there spend all the time available. I need more exercise and time to reflect. So now I’ve resolved not to take the camera on morning walks.

Last warm day

Unlike Lopez, I’m unwilling to give up photography but it will require more outings during the week. I want to reread his essay on the subject: “Learning to see,” in the memoir, About This Life.

This morning I went for a walk alone without the camera. The woods was moist, the elegant maples whispering with drops of falling water. It felt like sacred ground. My head was open, mindful, attentive, not working.

Several times I paused to capture photos on my phone. This is still allowed. It’s much less a task of creation, more a record of experiences to help me remember.

Included were the two images of the maple stump at the beginning and end of this post, and the maple leaf above. Back in the office, processing the photos, I noticed things I hadn’t while out in the woods. I pass that maple foot every day but have never bothered to photograph it before. Too many other lighter, livelier things vie for my attention.

Now I’m eager to go back with the camera and macro lens to capture more detail – or perhaps to sit with the laptop for an hour to write. The old tree fragment has more stories to tell. Now I’m ready to listen. A phone often proves useful in the hands of a naturalist, as it did this morning.

The eyes of these two cameras will not darken. Their voices will not be silent.

Dead or asleep

5 thoughts on “Seeing with and without cameras

  1. This is why I remain a mediocre photographer. It’s totally on purpose.

    OK, a bit more seriously, I think it depends on the reason you’re out. If photography is your hobby… then all that fiddling and trying to get a great shot IS the experience. If you’re just out for a walk to appreciate nature /in situ/, then it’s totally ok to say “Hmm, pretty flowers!”: point, shoot, done, show it to the folks back home. Or as you say, leave devices behind and offer yourself the chance to live in the moment.

    And if photography is your job, well you’re at work. Get the pics you can use, make them good, and hey, enjoy the fresh air and nature as much as you can while you’re at it 😀

    1. Allison, absolutely. Thanks for adding your comments. Photography is a great way of engaging with the outdoors and I don’t mean to discourage anyone from using it. Just don’t forget to see everything else that’s hard to photograph, and think about it!
      As a professional writer who happens to be very visually oriented, I have a hard time leaving the camera behind. And readers/viewers often respond more enthusiastically to images than written ideas. It’s not an easy choice, but when I spend time just me and the woods, no camera, I have a different, essential experience.

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