What’s more important: an experience or a picture?

This article is not intended for professional photographers, hobbyist photographers, or people who get a good deal of satisfaction from taking pictures. If taking photos is meaningful to you, keep doing it. This article is for everyone with a smartphone who takes pictures without knowing why. This used to be me…

There are a few reasons why I used to take more photos than I do now (which is hardly any)…

  • To get attention. I wanted people to see what I was doing, even make them feel a little jealous. I wanted validation that I was doing the right thing or the cool thing. I wanted validation that I was funny, adventurous, or going against the status quo.

  • To capture and collect. When I took a photo, I was often taking it so I could build up my collection of experiences, kind of like how I built up my collection of DVDs when I was younger. But photos aren’t experiences…

  • To remember something I thought I ought to remember. I had a fear of forgetting things, even things that weren’t important to me. Taking a picture is an easy way to remember something days, weeks, or years from now. The consequence is that I removed myself from the moment and failed to understand if the moment was even worth remembering in the first place.

  • To remember something meaningful. I think this is the only reason we should take a picture and it probably only accounted for 5% of my photos. Now I understand that I should experience the thing first, then take a picture to appreciate it even more. I once read that taking pictures helps us pay attention to details and appreciate moments. I think this is only true if we appreciate something from outside the camera first.

Mindless picture taking: Prague edition

When I was walking back to my coworking space from lunch today, I passed by the astronomical clock tower in Prague’s city circle. The clock is currently under construction and looks like shit. This doesn’t stop people from crowding around it and taking pictures. They heard it’s famous. May as well take a pic…

If picture-taking wasn’t a thing, most people would walk right past it. But they stay there and snap photos because they think they should be. They see everyone else doing it so they do it as well. This is a terrible reason to take pictures.

Someone taking a picture of the clock tower in Prague

To get out of the habit of taking pictures of popular sites I didn’t much care for, I rationalized that I could grab a better picture from Google Images if I wanted to create a lookbook later on. Pictures you find on Google often look better anyways.

Looking back, when I mindlessly took a picture, I became part of the swarm. I was following everyone else. No longer did I have control of my life. I was just going with the flow.

(Yes, we’re still talking about pictures here.)

After passing the clock tower, I saw a freshly married couple getting their picture in front of a cool building. Immediately after exiting their horse carriage, they positioned themselves in front of the building, barely even taking a look behind…

Married couple getting photo in Prague city center

I’m not anti-picture-taking. I believe that picture-taking can enrich our lives. It helps us remember. It helps us stir up nostalgia when we need a morale boost. But sometimes I think we’re unintentionally heading down the path of documenting rather than living.

This seems like a bleak future, so I pose the question — What’s more important: an experience or a picture?

Exercises for taking less pictures

  • After going on a sightseeing trip in a new place, find better photos online taken by professionals and create a lookbook with them. It will look better, plus you’ll be able to give your full attention to the environment on your excursion.

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    Leave your smartphone or camera at home on your next sightseeing trip. Let go of the fear of missing out on the photo. Trade this fear for an appreciation of what’s in front of you.

  • Only take a picture if you have a good experience with the environment first. If you catch yourself taking a photo because your head is saying, Oh! That would make a nice photo!, don’t take the photo. Take the experience instead.

Happy picture taking!