Are You Losing Interest?

I've had a 50-year career dealing with images in some way or another. That's been as the photographer, the editor, or the consumer of images (for marketing and PR purposes). While it takes more to make an image stand out to me today—including for my own work—I still find myself interested in capturing, viewing, and commenting on images.

But let's be honest, not all of you are in that same category. 

Over time, it's somewhat natural to lose interest in one pursuit (e.g. photography) and have that eclipsed or supplanted by another. For most practitioners, photography is more hobby than work, and hobbies come and go. Or at least ebb and flow.

Lately I've encountered more and more people who say "I'm not using my camera as much any more," and thus consider themselves moving from the interested to the not interested category when it comes to photography. Some of this is just the usual burnout that happens over time. Moreover, that burnout is fueled by our being inundated with more images than ever. 

I'm amused to find myself on planes full of people who are sitting there looking at (mostly) photos on their mobile phones, swiping, up, down, left, and right ridiculously fast. Even images on social media that temporarily halt the non-stop scrolling/swiping for a moment seem to only last on the screen for the few seconds that it takes to find the Like button and use it.

Susan Sontag hypothesized many years ago that a photograph becomes the memory of an event. In 2014, a psychologist published a small study that had participants visit a museum and take photos of just half the paintings they saw. Turns out that people remembered the paintings they didn't photograph better than the ones they did. Subsequent studies all say the same thing: taking a photograph impairs people's memory of an event or place. 

The trigger for this is apparently something called cognitive offloading. If our brains are forced to take something in, they work to try to save that information. But if you take a photograph, the brain thinks it has free rein to not store the memory, because you have a photograph ;~). 

I think of this a different way. My job as a photographer is to capture and show something to be remembered. I believe that's actually one of the things that separate the pros from the amateurs much of the time: the pro is trying to find the story, understand it, then figure out how to convey it before they press the shutter release. If you do that, your memory isn't typically impaired because you're doing the same thing that people do when they store memories. I remember most of the times when I've decided that I needed to capture a particular photograph for a particular reason. That's because I studied and analyzed the situation before I started taking images. 

I clearly remember taking this photo back in 1994 because of the preparation. Galen (Rowell) turned to me and said "we can't waste a sunset, we only get a finite number of them." But we were in a place where there wasn't an obvious image. This led me to carefully think about where we were, what we had to work with, and what I might be able to convey. I was actually thinking about what I wanted to remember, and I decided that was the dust in the air at near sunset. And that dust was generated by vehicles kicking up the Savuti sand. So here it is over 25 years later and I not only remember where we were, but the discussion I had, the thinking I was doing, and how I came to take this image.

In sports photography, I'm thinking like coaches: what's the situation, what's the opponent doing, what is the play that counters that? All before I bring the camera to my eye to photograph the play that ensues. Sometimes the coach and I don't see eye to eye and I'm following/anticipating the wrong thing, but more often than not my knowledge of team tendencies and abilities has anticipated the right thing. For those photographs, I can often remember the situation (third and eight, deep in own territory, behind in the game, etc.) when I see the photograph again.

The corollary here is "the unthinking shot." This is the conflict I have with those that get all excited because their camera can take 30 fps without worrying about buffer. They start their sequence early, end it late, and rarely think about the play. Somewhere in the hundreds of images they end up with for the play will be something useful ;~). But does it tell the story of the game? Often not, because the resulting image is really a random moment in time taken randomly. 

All those studies about photography impairing one's memory of an event point to something I've been preaching for a long time: take in the situation and assess it before putting the camera up to your face and pressing buttons. Think story. Anticipate moments. Take everything in. Then, and only then, start making photographic decisions. 

Yes, it's possible that you may miss "peak moment" by doing this. Often on safari the tendency of the group I'm with is to immediately start taking photos as we approach something interesting, and a few times that's paid off. I, on the other hand, am trying to understand what's happening, how it's likely to evolve based upon past observations and animal behaviors, and where the best place to be is for that situation. I take far fewer images than most on safari, but I also have a high rate of interesting and compelling images, many of which tell a story.

The true best balance for a photographer is something else I've written before: above all else, take the shot. Since moments in time are truly ephemeral, spontaneous situations call for a spontaneous reaction first and foremost. However, once you've satisfied your index finger's first impulse, you need to step back, think, observe, and analyze. There's almost always a better shot lurking, but to get it requires your brain to be fully functioning, not just reacting. 

You can take it too far either direction: (a) you just react spontaneously on impulse and take images without thinking; or (b) you spend too much time analyzing, checking settings, trying to understand what's happening and you don't take any images at all. 

One of the things I love about safari is that while we get a few events that happen wicked fast and then are no more (a), most of the time understanding animal behaviors and ground situations can help you get ready for and take long sequences of useful images (b). We once sat at an odd location for almost two hours because we realized that the lilac-breasted rollers were actually starting to show mating behaviors. Actually, we observed this might be about to happen as we drove by a shabby-looking tree while looking for lions, but soon decided that this might be our best bet for interesting late morning images, so we headed back and sat for a bit. Sure enough, things started to get birdy-intense and once you understood how the mating ritual worked, it was easy to frame up the camera and then wait for something to happen.

bythom INT BOTS Savuti 2019 Z7 75420a

No, this is not a Photoshop composite, it's a competitive mating ritual. I can tell you exactly where that tree is (again in Savuti; today seems to be a Savuti day). 


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