My earlier article on why we photograph led me to spend a little more time thinking specifically about what it is about the photographic process that is enjoyable. It seems that it’s engaging on many levels – firstly, there’s the anticipation of buying new equipment, and continually pursuing gear – I suppose you could call that the ‘collectors’ itch’. As much as I see cameras as tools, I admit there’s a certain satisfaction in finding, acquiring and owning/ using something rare; the F2 Titan, for example. Like every other accessory or object we choose to use – it signals something about the tastes of the owner. (There’s also the ego-stroking fact that it promotes jealousy amongst other photographers, but I’m going to ignore that and say it really is all about the image.
Then there’s the simple tactile pleasure of handling some of the objects and paraphanelia associated with the hobby – I’m talking about things that go beyond cameras and lenses, though these are certainly the two main categories; but tripods, flashes, bags, filters, grips, cases, straps…the list goes on. There’s a reason why cameras like the Leicasonics and [Hasselblad Lunar] make some sense even if they are just rebadged/ redesigned base cameras; it’s the materials and tactile feel. I doubt you could say a basic, entry-level DSLR is an especially nice thing to use – frankly, it’s soulless – but to somebody coming from a compact – the sound and feel of a real shutter is a significant improvement on a recorded noise, or nothing – at least until they realize that stealth and silence are golden, and then we go back around in a circle again in search for the smoothest, most quiet shutter available. Personally, I still like the feel of a good mechanical shutter…
Gear aside, one of the huge attractions of photography over other pursuits is that it can occupy as much or as little time as you want it to: you can take one quick shot a day, which perhaps takes a few seconds, or you can quite easily spend your entire day shooting. Better yet, you can have your photographic eye active even when you’re doing something else: if you see a composition walking to work, then there’s no reason you can’t stop for a few seconds to record it. I know this was one of the reasons why I began to shoot in the first place: I didn’t have time to do something that required long continuous blocks of time due to my ridiculous working hours, but I did need a creative outlet (I was in audit/ accounting at the time) – my solution was to pack the camera and shoot on the way to work, shoot at lunch, and shoot on the way home – I’d get about an hour and a half in total.
This is not to say you’d get good at it if you just spent a few minutes a day shooting; you do of course have to learn the ropes in other ways, such as what makes a good image, the technical requirements of how to create the images you want, and figuring out what it is you want to create in the first place. But of course the beauty of the hobby is that you can be doing these things at times when you can’t wield a camera – like on an airplane, for instance. And once you get tired of that, you can start writing about it…
Humans are also social, and increasingly, visual creatures. Part of this is simply down to our biology; part of it is down to the emerging social media trends and increasingly demanding lives we lead that reduces the amount of time we have to spend on any single activity. Visual communication is the fastest and most direct way to say something. Undoubtedly, proliferation of social media and the availability of widespread broadband over the last few years has meant that high-quality images are quite painless to view, and more importantly, share. (Interestingly, ten years ago, this would have been mostly unimaginable; now, my tech-phobic mum shares her photos on Facebook from her iPad, and appreciates the value of image stabilization and wide angle lenses.) We capture things both to show our points of view with our friends and family, but also to document and share anything out of the ordinary: just look at the enormous number of ‘top 10 most [fill in the blank]’ photo lists shared on Facebook.
Here comes the psychological element: everybody wants to be recognized and important; some more so than others. One of the ways to quickly achieve this is to have attribution to the creation of something recognized – i.e. an image – whether this recognition is due to the subject or composition doesn’t matter; but it can be addictive*. This of course leads to more and more posting…and greater and greater recognition required to satisfy the ego.
*(I bet all of you with social media platforms have wondered or paid attention to the number of visits, hits or likes received with obsessive interest at one point or another…I’ll admit I have, and still continue to do so with the site to figure out what’s of interest to my readers.)
We all have ego; it’s part of human nature. It’s not satisfied unless the kudos are attributed to us because of something we did: that’s the creation part. There’s nowhere near as much satisfaction in sharing somebody else’s image – if anything, perhaps even a small streak of ‘why didn’t I see that?’ jealousy – compared to receiving the same kudos for one of your own images. The need to create is stronger in some of us than others; the medium of photography allows for this creation in various levels of difficulty from instant gratification (the embodiment being Polaroids and SOOC JPEG snapshots) to extremely long-burn, slow-rewards – think of ordering a custom large-format camera that takes months to arrive, then having to travel for many days to reach a remote location, wait hours for the right light, shoot several sheets of film on an exposure that takes minutes (perhaps there’s water involved) and then travel home to spend more hours in the darkroom stand developing, fixing, washing, waiting for the film to dry, then making countless prints to perfectly finesse contrast…
In short, creation is like a drug: the easier it gets – both physically and mentally – the bigger the hit you’ll find yourself needing in the long run. I’m increasingly shooting a lot of still lifes because I can control light, subject position and composition, rather than just having to find it. I have to think more; I may possibly achieve better results and higher satisfaction, but I do have to work much harder, too.
It seem that perhaps Maslow summarized it correctly in his pyramid of needs; we can apply them to photography and other hobbies, too. In ascending order, we start with physiological/ basic requirements; safety; love/ belonging; esteem and finally self-actualization. Photographically, we have the gear, we have the ability, we have the friends/ core circle we socialize with, public recognition or commercial/ professional success, and finally, being able to be contented with the work we create – and of course having the ability to create that work solely for ourselves in the first place. (At this point, anyone who hasn’t read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead should probably do so.)
A lot of pursuits stop short before they hit the top two tiers because they are too inaccessible; think of professional football, for instance. Or worse still, motorsport or aerobatic flying. Photography, on the other hand, has low barriers to entry and can be appreciated by all; we can do it for as long or as short as we like, and for every photographer, the final gatekeeper to the delete button is themselves – what’s not to like? MT
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