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Stopping Time: Why We Take Pictures

With the popularity of camera phones and photo sharing sites, there are a lot of images being taken and shared these days. With so much collective effort being expended on all this, it's worth stopping to consider just why we take so many pictures.

Personally, I use a camera primarily to record the beauty of the natural world. I try to show others the wonder that actually exists but that most people rarely see because they're busy with other things. It's easy for people to forget that such views do in fact exist if they never see them.

Other, more utilitarian uses also present themselves on occasion. I've used my phone camera to take pictures of items to sell on eBay, damage to my car's bumper after a run in with someone seemingly none to skilled in parking next to me, and many other tasks where my "real" camera is either not needed or not convenient.

It's common for new parents to invest in upgrading their camera investment in order to document the changes that take over the process of a newborn growing older. Especially during the first few years, a missed opportunity to record something is gone forever. Most things you don't have time to do one weekend you can always do the next. With a newborn in the first stages of life, a lot can change in a short period of time and a convenient camera is a necessity if you later want to share a rite of passage with someone else.

Birthdays, anniversaries and other "life events" are also popular subjects for photography at any age for much the same reasons. We want to remember the significant events in our lives and the lives of those we care about.

Based upon a quick scan of Facebook, at least some of my friends seem to have a compulsion to record and share even trivial moments in their day with others. Random funny faces, pictures of the daily lunch menu, cloud formations shaped like various animals and various other odds and ends aren't at all uncommon. It's hard to see all of these as truly being significant. More probable, such sharing serves to bridge the geographical divides between friends who don't see each other in person all that often. It's a modern version of saying "hey" when you pass someone see someone you know. It's not so much that there's information content to be conveyed here, it's more a function of letting the other know you're there.

Photography for me and many others also carries an element of meditation and connecting more intimately with ourselves and the world around us than the hurried pace of daily life generally permits. There can be nothing finer than to sit down under the cool shade of a convenient tree with a camera and spend an hour photographing some fallen leaves or a stray wildflower. Becoming absorbed in the minutest details of the act of photographing, I simultaneously become absorbed in my own process of perception.

Life's most amazing sights are often the most fleeting, whether that amazing sight is the firsts light on a mountain peak or the just the utter simplicity of the present moment. One moment passes and another one arrives to replace it. Photography is about stopping time and about preserving memories.

The fascinating thing about a good photograph is just how much is preserved, frozen at the moment the shutter was pressed. Details from the entire act of creating the image are captured. If the camera itself were moving at the time, that movement is liable to be captured along with the scene. If the camera is locked on a tripod set to a small aperture, its presence can be minimized to an extent but the choice of framing and focus still give away its presence. The resulting image is the sum of everything that went into its creation, from the subject and time of day, to the camera, to the photographer themselves.

In a sense, underlying all these reasons is the way a photograph stops time. It invites us to stop as well and pay more attention to moments that otherwise pass all too quickly.

As a photographer, no matter how much attention you were paying when you shot an image, there will always be more captured in that image than you noticed at the time. But the more aware of you are of what is in the image you are taking, the better photographer you will become. The surest way to take a good image is to see the potential of a good image.

Next time you're out shooting, stop, and pay attention.

Date posted: July 13, 2014


Copyright © 2014 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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