Photography; does it get in the way

Aurora borealis and Denali, Denali State Park, Alaska.

Aurora borealis lights up the winter night sky over Mt McKinley, highest mountain in North America, also called Denali. Viewpoint from Denali State Park, Alaska. Click on the image above to view a larger version of this photo.

Hey Folks,

One topic I’ve often heard discussed relating to nature and outdoor photography pertains to the value of the experience itself. Does photography “get in the way”, and limit the photographers’ realization of the experience itself, or does it add to it?

I have friends, for example, that don’t like to bring a camera on a backpacking trip because they feel it hinders how they are able to soak up the actual experience. They’d rather sit and watch that glorious sunrise than fiddle with the camera and try to get a good composition. They’d rather sit back and stare in awe at the Aurora borealis do its thing over Denali than take their gloves off and tweak camera settings.

Fair enough. I can appreciate that viewpoint, but I also think it misses the mark, on a number of points. As often as not, while scrounging around trying to find a balanced composition, or a strong foreground, or another angle, I’ve stumbled on to some scene or feature that only added to the experience; a patch of wildflowers or a small waterfall, or some other interesting tidbit. Similarly, in wandering around simply looking for compositions, I’ve learned to look more closely, to see more, to see more deeply, and come closer to my surroundings.

I’ve also learned an awful lot more about the ecology of a place; I can identify more species, more relationships between species, more geologic features, etc, than I used to be able to, largely through my interest in photographing them. Even more so because the follow up for a photographer involves keywording those photos; identifying subjects, learning the scientific name for them, the taxonomy, the natural history of a a subject, etc is simply part of photo editing for me. I’m far from as well versed in this area as I would like to be, but I’m improving, and much of the reason for that relates directly to my photographic pursuits.

But the main way I think I can say photography adds to the experience, rather than hinders it, is simply in how many hours I it gets me “out there”. I love to hike, ski, snowshoe, camp, etc, and I do quite a bit of that whether I’m photographing or not. But I’ve spent simply countless hours watching grizzly bears ramble up salmon streams, bald eagles soar blue skies, bull elk posture and bugle in the rut, snow-capped mountains light up and glow as if their belly’s on fire that I never would’ve were I not a photographer. Last week I just spent the better part of 2 cold nights in central Alaska, standing around or driving deserted roads, watching the faintest of northern lights, hoping they’d brighten and offer me some photographic moment.

At one overlook, for example, at about 2:00am I was joined by 2 other folks who showed up to enjoy the Aurora borealis. Both were photographers. Non-photographers? Home in bed. On backpacking trips, I might arise early and head out from camp to catch some dawn light show. Often, the only folks to join me, if any, are those going out to photograph.

I might count on one hand the times my photography has perhaps restricted my enjoyment of “the moment”, and could do so if I lost 3 of my fingers. Conversely, I can’t even begin to add up the number of times photography has led me to witness and experience some of the most amazing phenomena; wolf packs howling at the aurora, a grizzly bear family feeding on a wolf-killed caribou carcass, been approached to within a foot by a full curl Dall Sheep ram, etc, etc.

Photography doesn’t detract from how I experience the natural world, it inestimably adds to it.



6 thoughts on “Photography; does it get in the way

  1. Michael E. Gordon

    If you’re referring to that last minute scramble for a worthy subject for an evolving and worthy sky, then yeah, shooting can and does get in the way. But to be clear, there’s a difference between shooting a SUBJECT and shooting a SUNRISE/SUNSET. So I have a compromise: Strong subjects don’t require mind-blowing “sweet” light and they CAN be photographed outside the “golden hours” (or whatever they are traditionally referred to). With this approach, I can get my shooting done before the sweet light comes on, and I can still sit back and enjoy it without scrambling.

    Honestly, once you’ve photographed a few hundred sunrises and sunsets, shooting only the light begins to lose its allure. The world is overwhelmed with sweet light images, yet underwhelmed with strong subject matter and concepts (especially in landscape/nature photography).

  2. Ron Niebrugge

    That is a beautiful image Carl!

    No question photography has added to my appreciation of nature and made me a much better naturalist. If it wasn’t for photography, I would have missed a lot of amazing sunrises. But, like you I now have a better understanding of wildlife tendencies, timing of wildflower blooms and fall colors, and know far more about things like birds and plants that I didn’t have a lot of interest in – the list goes on and on.

  3. Carl D Post author

    Hey Ron,

    Thanks for the kudos.

    I agree; and it keeps me out there longer, more often than not, than I otherwise would be.

    Hey Michael,

    Well the aurora is a pretty strong subject. And certainly scouting locations and compositions ahead of time helps, but I’ve never been able to predict exactly where the aurora’s gunna pop up ahead of time, so it’s pretty much on the fly, for me. My point, I suppose, is that without the camera, I’d be less likely to sit in 0deg temperature all night long waiting for a great lightshow. I’d never have even seen this spectacle above, let alone got a photo. The same can be said of much of what I’ve seen over the years (both landscapes and wildlife).

    I’d suggest that your style of photography similarly gets you out there more often, for longer, and looking more deeply, than you would if you didn’t shoot.

    The “world” is not overwhelmed by much of anything, I expect, lease of all sweet light images. 🙂



  4. John P

    I agree with you completely Carl! When the Aurora Borealis was here in MN I traveled North, for two nights I traveled the backroads at night and cat napping in the vehicle waiting for the lights, took many star images but no Northern Lights. Of course two nights after I got home they were in MN! Like you I have not only witnessed some of natures wonder because of my camera but have also gathered much greater knowledge about all of the flora and fauna that abound on this great land!
    Good Shooting
    John P

  5. Jackson Frishman

    I have occasionally found that my photographers’ eye can make me a little dismissive on ostensibly non-photogenic scenes. For instance, sometimes my wife will make a comment like, “The light’s really nice,” and I catch myself starting to reply, “Yeah, but there’s no composition here.” This is definitely a flaw in myself, and I try to fight against it, and given the opportunity to work “non-photogenic” scenes and see what I can make of them. But overall, I very much agree with you, photography immensely enriches my experience of the outdoors, makes me look deeper into the landscape, gets me out in locations and conditions I would otherwise not see.

  6. Mark

    I know I have certainly experienced more, seen more, and learned more with a camera in my hands. I wouldn’t have sat 5 hours out in the rain waiting for bears and would have missed the endearing relationship of a mother feeding her cubs. So many more examples like that.

    I do see where it can cause me to miss something else going on because my concentration is on something else. Happened to me in Galapagos and I missed my first chance with a whale shark because I was photographing a scorpion stonefish on the bottom and was always looking down. Meanwhile others just above me and around the bend had a whale shark encounter. Had I not been so preoccupied, I might have had that experience.

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