Thoughts On Photography

By David Metsky

We had just sat down for a late lunch, really just a snack near the end of a full day of hiking. Most folks were already back in the their cars, we still had a few downhill miles to go. We were tired and sore, but in a good way, and the late afternoon sun felt good. Out of the corner of my eye there was movement, before I could react a bird of prey swooped past in a fast dive, coving in 15 seconds the distance we were about to hike for the rest of the afternoon. After it was over I cursed my inability to get my camera out in time. Upon reflection, it was the smartest thing I could have done. My reaction, rather than failing me, saved me.

I love to take pictures when hiking. I carry at least one, often two, cameras with me, one always clipped to my sternum strap, ever ready for action. Many of my hiking partners don't bother bringing one anymore, figuring that I'll capture everything that could be caught. I've taken some wonderful shots of people, wildlife, landscapes, sunrises and sunsets. On my website the pictures convey the story of the Whites in a way my words cannot. But I've come to recognize that this comes at a cost. The act of taking photos interrupts the flow of events, it's artificial to pose people around a summit sign. But more importantly, thinking about taking photos removes me from experiencing the world around me directly.

Life through the viewfinder is different from life through your eyes. This is why photography can be an art form. But thinking about the world around you as series of images abstracts you from the moment. It's a trap I often fall into, being so obsessed with taking the perfect photo that I don't experience what is happening. The bird swooping down Caps Ridge might have made an interesting photo, but the act of taking the picture would have altered the moment forever in my mind, spoiled that feeling of awe and power I felt as the solitary bird cut the still and silence. It would have turned me into an observer, not a participant.

Sometimes when I hike, I can imagine the trip report that I am going to write. This isn't an all consuming passion, I'd hike regardless of whether I maintained this website. But I sometimes string sentences together as I'm walking, describing in my head what is happening in front of me. When I catch myself I realize that I've been living outside myself, almost like I'm watching a video of my hike instead of hiking it. That's not why I got into hiking. I started hiking because I enjoyed the challenge, experiencing nature, being outside the flow of my workday life and operating on nature's schedule. When my mindset goes from a hiker to a reporter, I lose that.

Recently I bought a digital camera, allowing me to take literally hundreds of pictures without any cost. In addition, I can preview the images on the spot, letting me retake shots if they weren't perfect. I've been told by friends that I'm sometimes less present when I am using the new camera, more distant. I still love taking photos and have no plans to stop, but someday soon I will go for a hike without a camera. A hike only for me, for the present.