When should you take photographs?

JKottke, a loyal MR reader, asks:

Is taking a photo or video of an event for later viewing worth it, even
if it means more or less missing the event in realtime? What’s better,
a lifetime of mediated viewing of my son’s first steps or a one-time
in-person viewing?

If you take photos you will remember the event more vividly, if only because you have to stop and notice it.  The fact that your memories will in part be "false" or constructed is besides the point; they’ll probably be false anyway.  In other words, there’s no such thing as the "one-time in-person viewing," it is all mediated viewing, one way or the other.  Daniel Gilbert’s book on memory is the key source here.

Furthermore you don’t need the later viewing for the photo or video to be worthwhile.  It’s all about organizing your memories in the form of narratives and that is what cameras help us do, if only by differentiating the flow of events into chunkier blocks of greater discreteness. 

A photo that requires retakes might be more effective than a photo you get right the first time.

Personally, I take pictures of Yana only when she tells me to, which I might add is often.  I’ve never owned a camera, but for most people I recommend the photos. 

By the way here are 21 ways to take better photographs.


I'm interested in the ever-shifting balance of photos-to-video in the digital age.

How are the niches occupied by still pictures and movies changing?

An early (naive) prediction might have been that there will be no more still shots as increased bandwith and server space means that it will be possible for video to be ubiquitous.

And yet...that doesn't seem to be happening.

People obviously continue to value the time-slice, the moment, the "capture" of the pause in the river of experiences.

I'm very glad that the naive prediction isn't coming true. There's something supremely, incomparably charming in the still shot. Others obviously agree.

pmp: nobody who knows the least bit about art ever doubted that photographs will always be appreciated.

I find that pictures and personal journal entries really help me enjoy my life. In addition to increasing the overall value of things I do by making these memories last for much longer, writing about what I do and taking pictures of places I go and stuff like that also gives me an incentive to do more, albeit a weak one. I really do suggest that people take pictures or write about their liver. And organize everything by date, too. You're all economists; do the cost/benefit analysis and add value to the things that you do.

This is a great post; its a question that comes up often, but is rarely addressed (its usually a shrug and frown thing).

Although snapping photos can sometimes ruin or change an event, prevent one from taking part, put a wall up, it usually does not. And it can have the reverse effect, as described here.

Is Gilbert's book on memory _Stumbling on Happiness_ or something else?

For my personal life, I always choose the memory over the photograph. In my opinion there are no more pure moments to experience because everyone has a camera and they are intrude upon and interrupt any event that occurs.

I notice that I miss the forest when I am taking pictures of trees (extend metaphor to sports, parties, travel, etc.) -- that's good in terms of looking for the "essence" of the moment (why video will never take over) and also to give me an incentive to explore even mundane things (to get the right angle, etc.)

The downside (?) is that I rarely remember things that are not recorded in photos. I regret that I cannot record more, but some photos are impossible (a conversation) and others miss the metathemes (driving a nice road, sex, cooking a meal). In some ways, video can get at there, but the video would have to be passive if it is not going to keep you from "experiencing the moment."

Daniel Reeves - "I really do suggest that people take pictures or write about their liver*"

cracking up...hahah

1) If you don't take enough pictures of your changing offspring, you're going to really, really regret it later on.

2) There are ways of taking photographs which do not involve missing the event in realtime. Back in the bad old days of film photography, taking a photograph was expensive, and so you wanted to get it right the first time. Today, you can to some degree substitute quantity for care, and this means your eyeball doesn't have to be plastered to the viewfinder or even to the LCD screen in back. Just turn off the damn flash. Nothing spoils a moment like flash. Use available light if you at all possibly can. And turn off the electronic sounds that your camera emits as a crutch for people who miss the noisy cameras of yesteryear, as they also spoil the mood.

It's a balance, at least for dance photographers. No still can ever capture what is dance so thoroughly that the motion isn't lost to some extent; some of those moments can be memorialized by using video. No video catches all the wonderful moments that come and go faster than one can take a photo; some of those moments can be relished by taking enough shots that sheer chance lets you get them. No eye can catch everything that by chance is before you, so getting multiple people to take photos/videos lets you be a part of a greater community and partake of communal memory. No mind I've met can process an entire event immediately and in real time, all the time.

Many of the photos and videos I take are not for me, they are gifts to my dancer communities, to enjoy later on or from a different perspective, to aid in remembering events and people even years later. It's a counterweight to the well-known effect, that it's very easy to miss the grand event when you are in the middle of it (walking the stage at graduation, performances, making music, dancing...). I derive joy from giving them this as well as from experiencing it. The hardest part for me is to balance experiencing something with documenting it, and as I said over at kottke's website, the best days are when I get both of them down at the same time.

As far as I see it, there's no ultimate answer. It's a simple matter of preferences.

What is better, latte or black coffee?

Heisenberg uncertainty principle, or rather observer effect, come into play in photographs. Who knew.

In response to

"The fact that your memories will in part be "false" or constructed is besides the point; they'll probably be false anyway."

I did my thesis on Photography and it's effect on how we look at things (photograph and it's influence on architectural design to be more specific). My best conclusion was that a photograph is an extraction of reality and context, the viewer of the image could only understand what was in the picture, and make assumptions of the past and future. I came to this reasoning by also studying Truth VS Reality, and which is which in a photograph... In my thesis defense, the panel of jurors brought some philosophers to the table. This is such an interesting subject.

It's a fine balancing act, situation and person dependent. The more time one spends behind the camera the greater is the risk that one's memory becomes only being behind the camera. Conversely, drawing or taking a photo of a event forces you to notice details, light etc in ways you wouldn't have appreciated had you just passed through without taking the time to truly stand still and breathe it in.

For a much better discussion on this, I have uploaded a few pages of 'The Art of Travel', in which Alain De Botton quotes Ruskin on this topic. It's a brilliant read. Here's the link to the file:


ps - A recent trick I've been employing is what I call 'taking pictures with no camera'. To do this, you just hold your gaze on an object/scene as if you were taking a photo. You observe and appreciate the details, the richness of it all. The picture is only taken in the mind. Try it, it's life-enhancing.

Photograps are necessary in ones life.They are necessary to capture moments.Moments that are special in a persons life.

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