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.