7 days. 3 cities. 1 camera. In Italy.
Over the course of my adventure through Venice, Florence, and Rome — I, a (generally) self-respecting photographer, never took my Canon 5D MkII out of my backpack. Which, by the way, I carried with me everywhere.
The same DSLR that has been seemingly bolted to my hand for the past 3 years.
To make matters worse, I swapped my full frame sensor and f/1.8 lens for a phone camera (iPhone 6 to be exact).
What in the world would possess me to swap the beautiful clarity of raw images for a pixelated phone file? Insanity, some would say…
Although I sorely missed the accustomed weight of my DSLR and the obedient capabilities of its settings, I made the decision for several crucial reasons I invite you to consider on your next personal exploration.
One of the unfortunate things about travel is the tourism of it all. Although I understand the necessity of it for funding the economy, preserving historic sites, etc. There is the pre-schooler in me who would simply rather not share.
However, as this is both selfish and hopeless, I’ve contented myself with attempting to blend into the cultures I visit as much as possible. This stems from both an appreciation and a desire to learn. (This is not always an easy feet when you’re of Dutch, ahem, skyscraper heritage).
Ultimately, if I stay in a hotel, buy a t-shirt with “I heart Roma,” and take a selfie in front of the Coliseum, I’ve not traveled. Traveling insinuates a journey, a discovery, a process that isn’t always easily accessible. Instead, I’ve merely post-carded an experience, marketing it instead of appreciating.
While the iPhone isn’t by any means “less touristy,” (in some ways, it’s more) it is tiny and slim. This allows me to pull it out of my pocket and theive a picture before most people will notice. (I’m basically a photo ninja).
This allows me to be respectful and attempt to maintain the quiet admiration that these rich spaces deserve as well as leave local life as undisturbed as possible. (I’m sure they’re all ready to throw the 500 simeltaneously clicking DSLRs into the river — and don’t get them started on the selfie sticks)…
As a photographer, it’s easy to get into a rhythm: settings, focus, shutter. Each photo is just another thing to collect. You begin to forget what you’re shooting, or, worse, why you’re shooting it at all.
Like any activity, photography can become robotic. When we lose the purpose behind an action, it becomes souless. And while there be beauty in a mindless, well rehearsed process, when it comes to creating, this is dangerous. It’s simply happening to happen, impacting no one.
By not having a camera continually looped around my neck and thus having to decide to pull my phone out of my pocket, I currated my photos. I wasn’t some sort of humanoid photo-faced cyborg with a lens strapped to my nose. I was a pedestrian roaming the streets, assessing my surroundings, and selecting where to stop and wonder.
If photography is also your career, this comes as a much needed break. Not that you love it any less, but simply that you’re redefining the process for a time. It’s a vacation. You are not being driven by time or location or subject. You have the power to choose what not to photograph — what to leave to memory.
Back to the cyborg condition…
If you’re anything like me, you are madly in love with glass. Your lenses are extensions of your eyeballs and to consider viewing something without them is near blasphemy.
There is a slight issue that comes with that — a few actually. Lenses do not have peripheral vision. You could argue extremely wide lenses, etc. However, the reality is that no matter how you approach it, you’re looking through something else to shape your perspective.
Something is in between you and the thing you are experiencing.
Think about that for a second. That should bother you.
It’s like being at a muesum where they tell you not to touch anything. Or when your mother bakes cookies but gives them all to the new neighbors.
You’re standing two shakes and a breath away from Michaelangelo’s David and you’re staring through a tube, calculating exposure? Try again.
If you’re going to adventure — whether it be a famous, far off site or the nature trail in your local park — make sure you actually see it. Photos are meant to supplement memories, visually aid stories, and say something profoud. They can’t do any of that if the person molding their perspective isn’t taking time to understand and appreciate the broader circumstances for which the subject exists there.
Sometimes, accidental photos are profound in spite of a careless photographer. This is because the world is constantly saying something. But it is our job to listen and then attempt to communicate visually.
We photograph to capture moments of stories, right? That is what makes a photo meaningful and set apart from the ten billion half-way decent sunset photos out in the world. Without a story, a photo has no weight. It’s just “pretty.”
By sticking with a camera that required no set up, just a quick tap, I didn’t feel the panic to capture the moment in an instant. I spoke to people first. I admired the light shining through the pillars. I joked with my travel mates as we walked (and actually looked where I was going!). I invested and, therefore, was invested in by default.
A truly impactful image comes from a photographer that is shaping the circumstances surrounding the subject, adding to them to say something. It’s an engaged activity that requires understanding.
Too often we photograph like we talk at people. We ask questions but answer them for the person. We talk over their observations and speculate about the circumstances we find. As a result, we end up with closed off, hollow relationships. The same thing happens when we run around photographing something without first taking a moment to appreciate its existence in space and time.
Years ago, a well-respected camera operator told me he never takes his big cameras on vacation with him — only his iPhone. At the time, I gasped as if he was suggesting treason. The idea seemed outlandish for someone who appreciated image quality and who had spent his whole life studying framing.
Now I understand.
Some places, some moments, deserve to be encountered face-to-face first. Some images are best kept preserved in memory. And some of the best lenses are your own eyes.
Could I keep all these points in mind and still shoot with my DSLR? Absolutely.
However, sometimes I find dramatic shifts help me better appreciate. And that’s what this experiment was about.