The Photograph Is Not The Experience

Any photograph is a capture of a moment in time, and whether digital and viewed on a screen, or held in your hands in print form, it’s then a static object, different from the event itself.

What I’m interested in for this discussion though, is how the final image can be objectively near identical, but the experience of making it very different.

And by making, I mean the act of composing the image, choosing the settings you felt appropriate, and releasing the shutter.

For the sake of this conversation too, I’m not concerned with anything beyond that, such as processing.

Take these two images as an example.

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On the surface, there’s little difference in the subject matter, and the overall look of the images.

Indeed the processing was near identical for both, a Snapseed b/w style I set up some time ago.

So why do I feel differently when I view them, and certainly felt very differently when I made them?

The first was made with my current Sony Xperia smart phone.

Overall it’s an excellent device, very compact, responsive, and intuitive to use.

Its camera delivers all I need from a phone, and has been responsible for probably 80% or more of all the family shots I’ve taken in the last 18 months.

But for a rewarding photographic experience, like virtually all camera phones (and certainly more modern touch screen smart phones in my experience), it’s laughably lacking to the point I wouldn’t even call it a camera.

It’s a phone that happens to also make pictures. I enjoy the convenience that it’s always with me, and the competence of the lens and software.

But the handling and tactile reward is next to non-existent.

I don’t particularly enjoy using the Xperia as a camera in any way. As such, any artistic and deliberate images I make with it (as opposed to family snapshots) I have very little connection with, because they weren’t enjoyable to make.

The second image was made with my Ricoh GRD III.

In many circumstances the Ricoh would easily outperform the Sony Xperia, but for this kind of photograph its superior abilities are largely irrelevant.

Nonetheless – and crucial to this discussion – the experience I had in making the second image was hugely more enjoyable and rewarding.

In fact the Ricoh is so well designed and brings such delight, I can walk around just holding it with a big smile on my face, before I even switch it on.

When I do remember it’s also a camera, and fire it up, I’m reminded of the equally fantastic user interface and customisability. How it just feels an extension of my eye, hand and mind.

I have such a strong connection with the camera on three levels –

Physically – it feels so good to hold and fits so well in my hand.

Mentally – it’s very logical and intuitive to use, I don’t have to think much about what to press or adjust, it just comes.

Emotionally – it makes me happy just holding it, let alone making pictures with it.

Because of these, the photos I make with it are more memorable (ie they take me back to the experience of making them when I view them afterwards) and I value them far more highly than pictures made with the poor awkward, soulless Xperia.

To an outsider, when viewing a photograph, the camera which made it is irrelevant.

And indeed if we read a great novel, we don’t ask which computer (or typewriter!) it was written on.

When we see a wonderful painting, we don’t instantly enquire about which brushes were used.

I get this, entirely, that on one level any camera is just a tool to make something.

But for me there is a huge difference between different tools, even if the resultant images are near indistinguishable.

The experience and pleasure of making photographs is a massive part of why I photograph.

Put another way, the photograph is not the experience.

And the camera you use has a very significant part to play in this experience.

How about you? Does the experience of photography change depending on how much you connect with the tool you’re using, or is it all about the image for you?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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12 thoughts on “The Photograph Is Not The Experience”

  1. What I’m interested in for this discussion though, is how the final image can be objectively near identical, but the experience of making it very different.

    I think intent has a lot to do with it. If you go to an event with the intention of taking pictures, you’re of a split mind. You’re in the event, but you’re always watching for the photo-worthy moments. This “one-foot-in, one-foot-out” posture affects all of your interactions. When you look back at this, you realize that you may have gotten the shots, but you missed the larger overall experience.

    If your intent is not to take pictures, then your phone is in your pocket. While you’re immersed in the event, your awareness is more focused. If you do take photos, they’re staged, but when you look back, I think your memories are sharper overall (at least mine are).

    1. Rob, this is a phenomenon I often see at school events, like productions, sports day etc. The number of parents who’ve taken time off to come and watch, but then see the whole thing unfold with eyeballs glued to a phone or camera screen, rather than directly with their own eyes. Sometimes I might take some brief video footage with my phone but after lining up the camera, I then look over the phone so I can see for myself. Mostly I forget the camera and just enjoy the event. And then, as you say, you’re more focused so you absorb the experience more vividly and in more detail.

  2. Hmm. I don’t know that – for me – there has been any substantive difference of experience. *when the shot came off.*

    E.g.: I noticed/visualized a potential B&W shot while standing in line for coffee behind two chatty psychiatrists in the basement of a large research hospital. Only my phone was on me and it was swiftly – and subtly – done, sans noise, without fuss.

    No awkward ergos to fumble with, thanks to practiced use of a Pop Socket; image capture was graceful and swift. The shot was exactly as I had desired.

    The experience was quite as satisfying as any successfully done with a ‘real’ camera, and maybe re-doubled because of the stealthy deployment: ‘Oh, I’m just checking the old blower here; pay no attention.’

    OTOH, I often fumble and struggle with trying to adjust, um, lens focal length when using the phone, cursing, wishing I had a little short zoom or a prime on a real shooter, so….

    1. I’ve seen those Pop Sockets before and wondered how they might work in practice. Do they pop out easily enough, then lay flat again on the back of the phone? I wouldn’t want the grip part to be constantly popped out, or to have to attach and detach the whole thing each time I wanted to make a photo with my phone…

      I think in your example William, your main aim was to capture the shot you had noticed had potential. Which you did with the camera you had with you.

      Usually my aim is to enjoy the overall “hunting with camera” experience first, then any images I capture that I like in review afterwards, are a secondary bonus. There’s rarely a “decisive moment” in my photography, it’s very static!

      Yes, the focal length of phones – especially more recent ones – is an issue. They’re too wide! Mine XPeria begins at 25mm, just too wide for most situations, especially fairly close pictures of family etc. I always zoom down to x1.4 with a few presses of the volume up button on the side, which I assume means 35mm (25mm x 1.4), which is still a bit wide, but usable. Zooming any further, quality and max aperture start to suffer.

      The full 25mm is handy sometimes for landscapes (or wider portraits), especially combined with the 16:9 aspect ratio. Whilst you can fix this (I use 4:3 as my default), you can’t fix the focal length, it always goes back to 25mm, even if you just go in and review a photo and go back to the camera. Multiple shots without review in between stay at the chosen zoom, but otherwise you’re back to 25mm.

      I’d rather have a 35mm lens with the same max aperture (f/2) then I’d probably never touch the zoom controls. I’m curious about some of these newer phones with multiple prime lenses in the same phone, rather than one “do-it-all” zoom…

      1. Pop Sockets extend on demand, and fold, uh. “flatt-er”; a lump remains, but for me, it has improved the ergos of the phone camera ten fold.

        As to approach…I see what you say. I (usually) have an actual camera with me, yet I am rarely actively hunting for shots. Rather, I just see what may I see in the course of routine saunter, errand, mission,etc. Don’t have the time anymore, really, to go someplace photogenic specifically to make pictures.

      2. Yes, I am the opposite mostly, I’m not really an opportunist and make time for specific photo walks.

        Thanks for the Pop Sockets info, I looked online and there are perhaps 17,000 different colour variations. How can they afford to make so many if they then don’t sell??

  3. Interesting concept.
    I just did four ‘identical’ pictures for “Walkin’ Blues” (https://marcbeebe.wordpress.com/2019/11/21/walkin-blues/) to show how my four different cameras handled the same image. If I reflect on how instead I handled the cameras …
    Well the Canon DSLR is my favourite to use because it’s so much like a film camera of the type I’ve spent decades with. I like hearing that mirror ‘thwap’ that some people complain about!
    The Nikon is something of a pain to use until you ‘get into it’ then it becomes familiar. Some of the controls could be better placed, and the power zoom is aggravatingly slow compared to just twisting a lens ring.
    The Kodak P850 may take the best pictures (CCD sensor) in some respects, but it has even worse control placement than the Nikon and I find myself hunting for buttons too often even after I’ve been using it awhile. Case in point: the zoom control in inconveniently on the back, putting your hand between the camera and your face while you try to look through the finder and frame. The Nikon’s is at least on the side front near the lens.
    The Kodak V1003 is a terrible design. Small and awkward to hold, buttons all wrong, no eye-level finder, zoom on the back. I don’t know how people can stand to use this sort of camera. Yet in the end I’ve gotten some fine pictures from it and like using it for what it can do despite the shortcomings.
    For sheer shooting enjoyment it’s the Canon DSLR with its nostalgic overtones.
    And I would never use a smart phone for photography.

    1. Interesting experiment Marc, I just left a comment on your blog.

      So would the experience of using the Canon DSLR outweigh the “better” images from the Kodak P850? What motivates you to pick one of these four over the others on any one day?

      1. Mostly it’s a matter of what I intend shooting. Each camera has its own distinct advantages, and woe be it if I come across a picture when I’ve got the wrong one in my hands!

      2. I think with me the camera (and lens) I have influences the pictures I look for. Shooting colour with a DSLR and a longer lens, like a 70mm for example, I’ll be looking for different compositions and subjects than say shooting at 28mm on b/w with my Ricoh GRD III.

  4. I think of my color photography (taking digital pictures with my iPhone and making 4 by 6 prints to share with friends and family) as a completely different activity from my black and white photography (taking film pictures with my old Leicas and making 5 by 7 or larger prints to display). My goal with the color pictures is to show people _things_ I have seen. My goal with the black and white pictures is to show people my _impression_ of things I have seen.

    1. That’s a fascinating distinction Doug. I need to give it some further thought, though I would say in a similar way my family shots (mostly with camera phone) are pretty straight, and my deliberate camera shots are usually far more impressionistic, eg b/w, shallow DOF, closer focus etc, and not the typical straight forward image your eyes see at first glance.

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