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Why do we take pictures?

December 30, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

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Why do we take pictures?

It’s a simple question.  But I think that the answers to this question are as many and varied as there are people on this planet.   We each have our own reasons, but I also think that there has to be some common thread, otherwise it would not be such a universal phenomenon.

I guess the first question that needs to be asked is this: What is it about the still image that captures our attention?

Could it be that it is the process of stopping time, allowing us to examine a scene in detail, consciously appreciating all the things that are normally only “noticed” on a subconscious level?  When watching a video, the scene is in a constant state of change, no two moments are the same, and the limits of our perception only allow us to “see” one small part of each scene at a time.  But with a still image, the eye has the luxury of time to explore and see not only the forest, but the individual trees as well.  A moment in time has been frozen, preserved forever, but also never to come again.

I know that for me, I am always amazed at how much detail is captured in a single still image.  Details that I was not able to notice at the time I created the image, due to either the distractions of sound and motion, or just the fact that we are all limited by the amount of information we can take in and process in any given period of time.

Maybe it’s a way for us to make a statement that “I was here.  I existed” The proof is in the pictures.  We document our lives, our experiences, not necessarily for the purpose of sharing them with others, but more as mental cue cards to help us recall with greater clarity, the experiences of our lives.  Memory is malleable, and over time details become lost, or changed.  And what we remember may not actually be what “was”.

In essence, pictures help us remember.  They are the closest we have yet come to true time travel, to allow us to go back and experience the feelings we had, and remember.

We take pictures of things that are important to us.  Family gatherings, and other “life events” such as birthdays, weddings, and the birth and growth of a child.  For many this is the extent of their picture making, documenting the good times, the major moments.

But for those of us that takes things a step further, those of us that integrate this activity of recording our lives, our experiences, more into our daily lives, we photographers want to capture not just the watershed moments, but also the many other, usually smaller yet still significant moments where something stuck us.  Where we connected with a feeling, or were impacted by something we saw.

This type of shooting is more than just a documentary of our lives, but rather and emotional journal.  Capturing a mood, or a feeling, and attempting to express that feeling in an image.  I say “Attempt” because this seems to be the most difficult of all things to accomplish.  I my past ten years of photography, I can’t lay claim to ever really capturing a feeling.

Not even once.  (At least not to the extent that I had intended.)

We each carry our own filter through which we see the world, and the same image can speak in many different ways to different people.  It all depends on each individuals own personal frame of reference, how their life experiences up to that point have colored their filter.  An image that means very little to me can have a profound effect on another person if it strikes some sort of personal chord with them.  The opposite also holds true.  An image that I absolutely treasure can (and usually does) hold no interest to others.

Some call this the subjectivity of Art.  But what is this subjectivity but the manner in which we all see the world through our own set of filters?

When I first took up photography I was only concerned about documenting as accurately as possible the scenes in front of me. This lead me down a long path of learning the equipment and techniques, the real “nuts and bolts” type of things related to image making.

After 3-4 years I had pretty much figured out, through some trial and a lot of error, how to document an image.  Perfect focus, sharpness, exposure, they were all there.  Technically I had figured out how to take a picture.  But my images started to feel stale.



In looking back into my photo archives I noticed that some of my more early images seemed to be better than what I had been recently producing, and upon examining them further I came to the realization that while it is important to learn the technical side of image making, it is equally important to shed that analytical skin and step into a more instinctive style to truly progress as an image maker.  It is still important to stand on that technical foundation, but in doing so you have to know when to leave it behind and trust your instincts in reaching towards a more ethereal goal.  The capture of a feeling.

Before learning the technical side I would more commonly get lucky and break some (or all) of the “rules” of photography and the result would be the capture of a feeling.  But as I learned the technical side of the process, I was forcing myself down a perfectly engineered, yet sterile path, nearly devoid of emotion.

When you first start taking pictures you just flail around.

Then you learn the technical side and this allows you to more consistently capture what you intended.  But once you are able to do that every time, then you should stop worrying so much about the technical things, by that time they will be deeply enough ingrained to be there even when you are not conscious of them.  Just forget about all the technical stuff, and start flailing again.  Shoot on instinct.  The fact that you have learned the technical side will ensure you don’t stray too far off the path, but giving yourself the freedom to have fun again and “go nuts” will add a new refreshing dimension to your images.

We often say “I took a picture”, and in most cases that is exactly what we have done.  We have documented something as it was.  But what is to me, the highest form of art, is when one is able to cross the threshold between taking pictures, and capturing emotions.  And never worry about weather or not people like your images.  After all, it is a subjective thing.  So long as you are true to your own vision, and you enjoy the results then you can be sure that you are on the correct path.

Our experiences make up the music of our lives, and at least for me, photographs are the notes.

Categories: philosophy
  1. December 30, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    The koyo leaves photo is amazing.

  2. December 30, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Love this post! And that last photo with the red leaves is gorgeous 🙂

  3. David
    December 31, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Happy New Year

  4. ksporry
    December 31, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    very deep indeed.
    happy new year Jeff! that it may bring you lots of happiness, health, and success!

  5. Tregix
    January 3, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Jeff, it’s interesting that you bring up the issue that some of your early pictures were better than your current production. I think I understand your point very well. A couple of thoughts (not so well organized) came to me after reading your post:

    • Mike Johnson from the on line photographer (if you don’t read his blog, you should take a look, it’s worth it) noticed to some extend a similar thing while browsing the Flikr Hive Mind (http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2009/12/looking-for-the-photographer.html)
    “…the work done with the cheaper cameras seems more interesting, less conventional. I fantasize that that’s because the cheaper cameras are being used by younger people who are newer to photography. There’s an exuberance there, a sense of real exploration. They’re pictures made by people who haven’t yet learned what you’re not supposed to take pictures of. The pictures made with very expensive cameras show a more staid, conventional, less exploratory, more technically perfectionist mindset, like a sixty-year-old driving a Ferrari cautiously. There’s a higher boredom quotient. It’s a premise that would be hard to prove, but it’s the sense I get, anyway.”

    This is dead on to me. While I cannot/don’t want to force myself to forget about the technical part of photography that I leaned, my personal way to keep my pictures “fresh” is to use a compact camera (GF1) a single focal length (40mm) and to simplify the exposure to the maximum (ISO 400, the shutter speed at 1/125s or 1/60s in general) and forget about the technical part of the picture and concentrate on the composition. I did not start this exercise very long time ago so I don’t know how good it will be for my photography.

    I came to this by seeing that my best pictures were made with my compact point an shoot camera while my DSLR pictures were not so good and the worse were my Nikon F100+TriX pictures. Those were bad.

    • In one of the recent Image Doctor podcast (issue #100 I believe) they mentioned about Jay Maisel saying that the more gear you have with you the less imaginative you are at taking pictures.

    • Last summer I toke a photography workshop with Philip Blenkinsop ( http://www.noorimages.com/index.php?id=231 ), a very strong photojournalist (word press award, Visa d’or pour l’image etc). It was a moving workshop for me. Anyway I remember that he clearly stated that
    o One should know his equipment to the point to forget about it. It should become part of your body.
    o And you cannot achieve this if you change your focal length all the time.
    o He strongly pointed out that “you cannot achieve a coherent visual style with a zoom” (and I think he is right).
    o and “a good sense of light if you change your ISO all the time”.

    I’m trying to follow Philip Blenkinsop advise and Mike Johnson comment. It’s not easy because I like camera gear, they are like toy for me. I gave up on buying a D700 (but my wife is very happy about that 😉 Anyway I’ll see if my pictures improve and stay “fresh”.



  6. January 7, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Very well said, Jeff!

    I guess we get ourselves into the “flail around mood” most easy by playing with new equipment or going to new places. An expensive way to get the creative juice flowing but it has never failed me 😉


  7. January 11, 2010 at 3:45 am

    stumbled across your blog by happy accident – this post is so familiar to me – I find the accuracy and quality of my D300 (wish it was the D700 though..) and lenses makes great pictures but, like you, I find them sterile and clinical. I’m sticking with my 30 or 50mm primes more and more to get a consistent feel..

    A little foray into film with a Holga, Diana Mini and a 40 year old Olympus Trip 35 has convinced me that feel and emotion comes from inaccuracy and lack of focus, from the unexpected and the analogue. Whimsical pictures seem to have more “reality” in them than perfect ones – maybe that’s how our brains work – making imperfect memories that identify better with imperfect pictures?

  8. mrarfarf
    January 24, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    This is easy! The reason most people take pictures is to share the experience and remember.

    • February 8, 2012 at 1:07 pm

      While I am erlmexety torn on numerous pictures and I am a long time fan of Yocum Photography so I knew the pictures would all be amazing. I am casting my three votes for #3 Brothers and Sisters

    • February 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm

      IshrZL zscmuifovumb

  9. January 27, 2010 at 7:41 am

    HI im very happy to hearing your message ,also i congratulate you, my self i love you from my soul and also to sharing some value ,altitude and some consideration of as thank.s and my god bless you.

  10. February 6, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Excellent essay and some very good points. In the latter part of your essay you comment on how knowing more about the technical aspects has led you to take images that are not as emotional or effective as some of your early work. I believe both craft and seeing are critical – but seeing is more important. But perhaps now that you have learned the technical aspects focus on your feelings and intuition. Don’t take a photograph unless the scene before you moves you emotionally. I have captured a mood and a feeling in some of my pictures – but it doesn’t occur often, it takes hard work and lots of time to be in the right place to capture the kind of images that communicates to others. A musician first needs to learn how to play their instrument well before then can begin to express their emotions through it. In photography, shoot what moves you and try to capture that essence of how you feel, always experiment and explore. Powerful pictures need to be earned and they don’t happen that often. Seeing is something I believe that all visual artists have to strive for throughout their lives. I also believe that by looking at photographs and paintings by others it can sometimes help us to see things differently and open our eyes to new possibilities.

    I photograph nature because I am in awe of it, I love sharing the images with others and it pays my bills so I can eat and have a roof over my head. I have been shooting for over 35 years and hope I can continue for at least another 35 🙂

  11. November 30, 2013 at 10:23 am

    I am curious to find out what blog system you happen to be working with?
    I’m having some minor security problems with my latest website and
    I’d like to find something more safe. Do you have any recommendations?

  12. June 5, 2014 at 6:13 am

    I almost never leave a response, however i did a few searching andd wound up here Why doo we take pictures?
    | Sushicam. Annd I do hage a couple of questions for you if
    you usually do nnot mind. Could it be only me or does it seem like a feww of these comments look like they are coming from
    brain drad people? 😛 And, if you are writing on additional places, I’d like to
    follow everything new yyou have to post. Would you make a list of all off all your public sites like your Facebook page,
    titter feed, or linkedin profile?

  13. vikas
    October 17, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    I am intrigued by your point on taking pictures as a way of making a statement that “I was here, that I existed. By stretching this argument further, it may suggest that we take pictures as a way to deal with our innate fear of death, i.e. as a coping strategy inline with Terror Management Theory (TMT). Would you agree that at a sub conscious level we take pictures as a way to defy death and live beyond our time spent on earth ??

  14. March 31, 2016 at 12:07 am


  1. June 3, 2014 at 4:28 pm
  2. September 24, 2014 at 1:36 pm

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