Embrace Possibility Why Photographers Miss Out on Life
/Why Photographers Miss Out on Life

Why Photographers Miss Out on Life

I'm on vacation now and I am the photographer for the trip. As I am sitting atop an elephant and waiting for the right moment to take the picture, I began to think about all the things I am missing just because I am trying to get a "good" shot. Then I flashed back to all the other times where I was trying so hard to capture something on camera but missing the experience itself entirely (e.g. performances, ceremonies, vacations, etc).

Why am I taking pictures? What is it all for? 

Capturing memories that I can look back on?

Showing my family and friends all the interesting things I've seen and all the nice places I've been?

Making use of my digital camera?

These all sound like good reasons but the reality is with the invention of the digital camera, more than 90% of the pictures I take never see the light of day and I've yet to look back on the 10% of the pictures I have taken recently. What is a bit unsettling is thinking about all the experiences I missed taking these pictures. I have come to realize that,

To capture the moment, you have to remove yourself from the moment.

A photographer is always in the third person. Being in the third person is what allows you to take a snapshot of what is happening. As a photographer, you've also opted to sacrifice the present (experiencing the activity for yourself) for the future (capturing the experience of the activity). Photos are taken for future use and enjoyment, rarely for the present.

People take pictures to capture the moment and to reminisce but my question is:

If you didn't experience the moment because you were taking the picture, what memories would the picture bring to you when you see it in the future?

Photography is not a bad thing. I am just recognizing it for what it is. Now that I see the price of taking photos, I have made a conscious choice to change my habits in a few ways:

  • For special or one-time occasions, I will hire a photographer so I can have the experience while someone else captures it for my future pleasure.
  • I will be more aware of my purpose: Do I want to be in the experience or just to capture the experience?
  • I will analyze the pictures I never look at and stop myself from taking pictures of this kind. This helps to save time in both taking the picture and then deleting it later.

As I was writing this post, I thought about my friends who were into photography and I wanted to tell them that they are missing out on life. Upon further thought, professional photographers and photography enthusiasts are actually in the moment when they are taking pictures. That is the experience they want so they are actually not missing out on anything at all.

Next time you pick up a camera, ask yourself:

Do I want to to be present for this?

If your answer is yes, put the camera back down.

Robert Chen

Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.

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  1. JK February 19, 2012 at 8:08 am - Reply

    I agree but so here are some random reasons for taking pictures from a photographer’s pov ..

    1. SLR experience. As you said, purely enjoying the moment of snapping what you see onto a permanent memory. When you have a good SLR, it’s like having a car. The experience of hearing the click or seeing how the quality pic you snapped look better than in person etc

    2. Bad memory. There has been so many times where I had forgotten an event had happened, who was there, what I was wearing. I often laugh when I scroll through the pictures of the silly faces of the people in that moment. I recently went down the memory lane when I restored my backup to my laptop.

    3. We all age. Pictures also help us capture and freeze the time. Pictures help us share with others what we saw. From a girl’s perspective, what we wore, how we look compare to others.

    4. Sharing the moment with others not in the moment .. It allows conversation piece and hence form bonding. Recognition of picture taking skill. There are so many times that I have laughed with friends bc catching the right moment. I took a pic of my 2 friends’ little kids and their first kiss. LOL. That was a fast click or I would’ve missed that moment.

    5. Sometimes you don’t see yourself until a picture with others enable to see how you ‘fit’ in. Too fat, too skinny, aging well, etc .. It’s permanent lense …

    So in a nutshell, I prob don’t need 50 pictures of some buildings, the same flower, food. As I find myself deleting those type of pictures to save memory. The ‘people’ part of the picture taking is valuable. So I’ve learned to use the camera moderately .. I often leave the SLR home for people’s wedding because I wanted to participate in the moments instead of chasing the perfect pic of a cake, or placecars, or to flowers.

    So don’t fall off taking pictures when you atelier on top of the elephant .. Enjoy the ride =)

    • Robert Chen February 19, 2012 at 9:17 am - Reply

      Thanks for your insights! I agree with the people part. I find that most of the pictures I keep are the ones with people in it.

  2. […] What’s crazy is that if I didn’t catch myself, I would have spent the full two-months worried about where to go next instead of actually enjoying the incredible experience right in front of me. Since I was also the photographer, I was especially susceptible to this. […]

  3. […] Focus on the present moment. […]

  4. kishmisherie June 13, 2015 at 1:45 pm - Reply

    I’m glad you realized that photographers are in the moment when they are taking pictures so they are not missing out because that is the experience they want. Let me tell you, there is nothing like the experience of taking pictures.
    It makes you notice things you normally would not because photography changes your experiences of things, it enhances it so you become even more in the present. It sharpens your observation, lets you see beauty in everyday life which you might have ignored otherwise, capture visuals in interesting ways and even alter them later on for a different experience.

    Also, taking pictures and experiencing moments deeply are not mutually exclusive–as long as you are not taking pictures ALL the time. For example, you can truly enjoy a wonderful dinner with friends being in each moment, savoring it and then later gather together for a picture to keep the memory alive. Then you don’t miss out and you get to keep a record of all the people you were with as well as the food you ate. Now, if you keep taking pics of your food, of each person and every single moment or even just a lot of moments, THEN you are distracted and can’t really enjoy your food or your company fully.
    So it really depends on how you’re taking those pics.

    Sometimes when you’re having the experience you can’t really take pics of it. E.g. if you’re diving, then you can’t really take pics while you’re diving (and if you do, that’s crazy and very unsafe) so there is no chance or fear of missing out. Most likely you will take a pic *before* you dive or after or ask someone else to do it. Nothing wrong with that.

    • Robert Chen June 20, 2015 at 1:35 pm - Reply

      Thank you for sharing this kishmisherie. It really helps to clarify the nuances when you’re purposefully taken photos and when you’re just taking photos for the sake of taking them and actually missing out on the real life experience.

  5. […] on your five senses to stay in the present in the […]

  6. JPH July 14, 2016 at 10:09 pm - Reply

    It’s nice to read you all about ‘Why photographers miss out on life’. I am often blamed by my family to be too often behind my camera when I travel and I needed to share and understand the process in my mind by listening to other photographers. Indeed, sacrificing the present for the futur may not be the recipe for happiness ! But being able to catch an emotion or a special moment and share it in the futur with the people who were present or a new public is very special feeling, which is at the center of all photographs and film makers’ motivation. What is this school of thoughts ? the pleasure to create emotion ?

    • Robert Chen July 14, 2016 at 10:59 pm - Reply

      It’s a great point JPH – as long as the experience you want is to capture the moment then you are not missing out on anything

  7. Charles Orth July 27, 2016 at 10:26 pm - Reply

    I’ve been reading a lot about this question of photography versus no photography. I can’t imagine taking a vacation without taking photos. Here’s my perspective (just an amateur travel, not a photographer.)

    1: When I take pictures, I don’t just store them away and never look at them. I do things with my pictures every day. I tag them, read about them, view them in slideshows, etc. There are so many cool things that I’ve seen that I didn’t even know I saw “in the moment.” Many historical sites, statues of famous locals, etc. that I would have just forgotten about had I just seen it and walked on. For example, three years ago, I walked through a cemetery in Mexico City to take a shortcut across town. I didn’t think anything much of it. Just yesterday, I looked up the cemetery, and turns out it is the biggest cemetery in all of Mexico! I like to learn about places I’ve been, and being able to refer back to a picture of something, look it up, and learn about it, you learn so much doing that.

    2: The memories with modern cameras and pictures are amazing, especially when I take lots of them. For example, I went to Moscow earlier this year, so when I’m thinking about my trip there, I like to put on Russian music and do a slideshow of my pictures, and I feel like I’m re-living my trip.

    3: Memory fades, no matter how amazing the moment is when you’re there. I took a lot of fun family trips when was young, and since I wasn’t taking pictures, I remember very, very little of them. When I started taking a lot of pictures on trips, it really helped me remember them, even as years pass since the trip. I travel a lot, spending maybe two months a year away from home, and a lot of the memories would just come and go if I didn’t take pictures.

    4: Finally, I agree are people who go too far. People who videotape an entire concert instead of seeing it, people who have to upload everything to social media immediately, people who take selfies at every little landmark, etc. (I never do selfies haha.) But I see nothing wrong with taking pictures of things, looking at them, and moving on. You can reflect on your adventures, share them with others, learn more about things you don’t recognize, etc.

    • Robert Chen July 27, 2016 at 11:35 pm - Reply

      Charles – thank you for sharing this. What a thoughtful and meaningful way to reflect on the memories you capture.

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