Saturday 19 April 2014

Why the photos on my blog are like they are

The photos on this blog are almost all taken with my smartphone camera. None of them are photoshopped. I am not a great photographer and I don't try to be one. I just point and shoot. (Most of my pictures are actually taken when one of my audiobooks has just ended. Because I have to take out my smartphone then anyway I usually look around and take a picture of what I see right then.) I am asked very often why I don't try to improve the quality of my photos. There are a lot of reasons for that. It is not only for lack of talent or interest, for me this is also an almost „philosophical“ question. Here are my thoughts on that topic:

I am an ultralighter: In the ultralight hiking scene you get almost dissed if you don't cut the handle off your tooth brush.- but no one will give you grief for carrying around 2 kg of camera equipment. Taking spectacular pictures has become so important that a decent camera is considered an absolute necessity. I think this attitude is hypocrite. Ultralight is not only about counting grams it is also an attitude. Always deliberate if you really need an item – and as I am a hiker and not a professional photographer I don't really need a great camera. The ultralight attitude also means that everything should be multifunctional. A camera isn't – and this is why I conly carry a smartphone which is one of my most versatile pieces of equipment: It is my MP3-player for listening to audiobook, my internet access, my backup GPS, my telephone – and my camera.

I am a thruhiker: As a thruhiker, hiking (or cycling and paddling) is my main focus. This is what I concentrate on. I don't want to be distracted from that. And photographing would distract me. I don't want to deal with finding the right angle or best lighting for a picture. I don't want to stop every five minutes because I see another interesting motif. I don't want to deal with tripods, zooms and chargers. Things are different if you are a professional photographer. Your focus is different. You hike because you want to take pictures – hiking becomes just a means to achieve your goal of taking great picture. That is fine and I absolutely respect that hobby. But the more you become a photographer, the less you are a thruhiker.

I want to show how it is: I just recently had a very enlightening encounter. A hiker friend showed me photos of his hike in Southwest USA, an area where I have hiked in extensively myself. But his pictures looked very differently from how I remembered the area. After a while it dawned on me: For him the landscape was a backdrop for taking the most spectacular photos possible. He just photographed what looked great and then he even enhanced this aspect by using the best angle, lightning and applying photoshop. But this is not how I see a hike. I don't usually see a landscape in the most spectacular lightning – I just see it at the time I am there. I don't see it photoshopped or color enhanced. And most importantly: A hike is not just the spectacular scenery, it also consists of less interesting or sometimes even boring or ugly parts. For me a hike is an entity of various aspects – and that includes the beautiful and the ugly ones. I then realised that I pursue a totally different goal with my photos than most photographers. I want to show how it is. I want to record and document. I want to give my readers a realistic view of how the hike has been. If I had a 30 km roadwalk, I take pictures of that road. If I pass dozens of industrial estates – I show pictures of them. I don't want to sugarcoat or cherry-pick. Most photographers are on a different mission: They want to show the beautiful and spectacular stuff only – in the most aesthetically pleasing way. There is nothing wrong with it – but just keep in mind that although this last approach will give you a lot dream pictures, it won't show the reality on the trail.

I don't want trophy photos: A hundred years ago a man could go out, have an adventure and prove it by showing trophies like tiger skins, grizzly bear teeth or antlers. Things are not that easy any more: You are not allowed to shoot at anything you like with your gun any more – but you can shoot it with your camera. Outdoor photography has become modern time trophy hunting including a similar bragging potential. I would go as far as to say the the photos you bring back from a trip have become a sort of status symbol. The better the quality the better the tour is perceived. You can do the most amazing trip – but without spectacular photos you won't receive much recognition for it. While paddling the Yukon I once met a well known adventurer who thought that his camera had just died. His first reaction was: „I will fly home now. It is no use continuing the trip if I can't take pictures....“. But why are trophies so important? Because you can impress other people with them. And I really do have the impression that some people go outdoors less for themselves but more to impress other people – throught their photos. And that is not my goal. My photos are meant to be a trip documentation and not a trophy. 

I don't want to support the outdoor photo arms race: As I have pointed out above outdoor photography has become sort of a status symbol. In order to „be better“ than others you have have better photos. And there the photo arms race starts. Outdoor people carry more, better, heavier and more expensive equipment. In 2000 it was enought to take a digital camera and take pictures, now you have to have a gopro helmet camera and to shoot videos. With more and more good photographers around you have to spend more and more time on photography to still impress people – on trail when shooting as well as off trail when editing the stuff. Another way to still make a difference is to choose more and more extreme destinations. You can't impress people anymore with hiking across your home country. Now it has to be pristine wilderness, high alpine trips or wild animals. The dangerous downside of this development is that people end up in condtions they are not prepared for - just (or also) for the sake of taking a great picture. First time hikers do solo wilderness trips and end up lost, injured or dead. People get killed or injured by wild animals because they got too close to them. (To name just one example: The first fatal grizzlybear attack in Alaska's Denali National Park occured to a tourist taking pictures too close.) I personally don't want to take part in that arms race. After so many years living outdoors my priorities have changed. I have extensively travelled in the world's most beautiful and spectacular landscapes but the more I have seen it the less important it has become. Scenery and landscape are just one important factor amongst many others when chosing a trip destination and determining the „success“ of a trip – and my pictures reflect these other factors as well: People I meet, lovely campsites, great food, the simple joys of outdoor life.

Like thruhikers say „Hike your own hike“ I want to finish this post with „Take your own pictures“. There is no right or wrong in the „philosophy“ of outdoor photography. But for me the way I take (or don't take) pictures is an deliberate act based on my personal point of (thruhiker) view.


Ron Haines said...


German Tourist said...

Thanks, Ron! I wondered how people would react to my point of view that is so contrary to mainstream opinion and I am glad that you appreciate my approach.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely agree with you! Been reading your blog for a while. It's one of the most inspiring and beautiful things i have ever read!

Greetings from the Netherlands

Anonymous said...

Hallo Christine,

ein gut formulierter Standpunkt, der viel zu selten geäußert wird. Seit Smartphone-Kameras akzeptable Ergebnisse liefern, haben wir alle doch eine große Freiheit gewonnen: die Fullsize-Kamera wegzulassen war nie leichter. Ich habe das Fotohandwerk vor 25 Jahren von der Pike auf gelernt (Plattenkameras, Hasselblads, Nikons, Studiotechnik, Labortechnik etc. pp.). Geblieben aber ist bei mir nur das Smartphone.

Ich habe schon früh festgestellt, dass ich die meisten deutlichsten Erinnerungen an die Touren habe, auf denen ich früher nur die Minox und mein Tagebuch dabei hatte.

Ganz verzichten wollte ich aber nicht, schon allein der Gesichter wegen, die für Begegnungen stehen.

Stromfahrer (ODS)

German Tourist said...

@Stromfahrer: Vielen Dank für Deinen Kommentar. Ich bin ganz erstaunt und (und positiv überrascht), dass auch ein Berufs-Fotograph zu ähnlichen Schlüssen gekommen ist. Bei meiner ersten Langstreckentour auf dem PCT wollte ich aus o.g. Gründen überhaupt keine Kamera mitnehmen, aber ein Freund hat mich dann vom Gegenteil überzeugt, in dem er mir eine Mini-Knipse geschenkt hat. Im Nachhinein bin ich froh darüber - wegen der schon von Dir genannten Gesichert, die mir heute viel wichtiger sind als irgendwelche Landschaftfotos.

Jacob D said...

Hallo Christine.

I enjoy the trip reports on your blog. I usually end up here from Hendrik's TWIR feed :) I respect your opinion on photography, but let me leave a few thoughts for you to consider...

If you're against carrying a camera for reasons of it not being multipurpose or adding unnecessary weight, I think that's justification enough. Or if you're happy with your photos as they are, then there's no reason to make a change. Some of the other reasons you indicated seem a little black and white as I read them though.

For instance, why would photography distract you from your main focus? You take photos now; why should using a small camera instead of a phone change your routine? You don't need to stop every 5 minutes nor carry a tripod, or do anything else that you would otherwise not do.

As far as trophy photos are concerned, again how does this affect your photography? Do you perceive photographers badly (comparing taking photos to killing animals and decapitating them)? It feels almost like a mean spirited shot at those of us who enjoy taking photos of our trips and sharing them on the web, forums, blogs, etc... Would you intentionally use a device that fails to do a good job at taking photos as to disassociate yourself from so called trophy photographers? When you look at an image do you make a judgement on whether it's a trophy photo or just an image documenting a place or event based on some sort of criteria? Do you believe it's not possible to document something while at the same time creating a beautiful image? I'm genuinely interested in this because I've never heard someone say anything like this. I really don't see much of a difference in posting trip reports with or without photos, or posting something like a list of trails hiked with mileages... it's all much of the same (sharing experiences with others). Based on this comment I'm really surprised to find any images in your trip reports.

Lastly, the "Photo Arms Race". Again, something I've never heard. You're suggesting that the urge to take photos leads people into situations that they're not prepared for. Are you sure it's not simply their ego that leads them to those places? And again, either way I don't see what this would have to do with you, if you decided to start taking photos with a better camera for example.

It seems as if you perceive many negative things as being related to taking photos and it's a surprise to me since you have so many nice photos in your trip reports.

This is your philosophy. I can't argue with it, but it does raise a lot of questions in my mind, some of which I can't rationalize answers to.


German Tourist said...

Jacob, first of all thanks a lot for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. Let me start with conceding that you are right with your first point: I painted things a black and white in order to make my point more obvious, but of course in reality there are a lot of shades of grey...

Now the „photo arms race“: The quality of smartphone cameras has improved so much in recent years that they can compete with the quality of older compact cameras. You could now easily leave your camera at home. But instead of adhering to the old quality standards and being happy that you can achieve those with cheaper and lighter multi-function tools the standard has been raised. What was a great outddor photo 20 years ago won't win you any admiration nowadays. In order to compete with the photo standard on websites, forums and magazins you need better, heavier and more expensive cameras. The same goes for motifs. Because exotic or extreme motifs are so widely available in the media you have to go to the same extreme to still make a difference. And this upward quality and technical spiral is what I call photo arms race.

But I agree with you in one point. The cause of all this is the person's ego and the urge to be recognized. Photography is just the means to achieve that goal – or your arms in the fight for attention.

Let me make one thing very clear: I don't have anything against photographers or photography. They pursue their hobby as intensely as I do pursue mine.

But what I dislike is the resulting social pressure on outdoor people to compete with these standards. You say that it does not make much difference to you if a trip report has photos or not. Unfortunately, you are a very rare exception. I have posted various trip reports on various forums and the result is always the same: Trip reports with no photos hardly get any attention. The first question is usually: Where are your pictures? The more and the more spectacular pictures you post the more attention and enthusiastic responses you will get. Text has a rather mariginal impact – it is the photos that count. The broad public wants spectacular photos of spectacular landscapes – and therefore landscapes are staged in the most dramatic way which leads to a convoluted reception. If you as a good photographer and I as a smartphone user would hike the exact same hike and post our respective photos, your trip would be perceived as much more dangerous, arduous and extreme than mine. Besides in order to please the public only beautiful pictures are posted. How many trip reports do you know where photos of ugly industrial estates, illegal garbage dumps or boring road walks are posted? This leads to the misconception that outdoor trips have to be all breathtaking and beautiful – but as any long-distance hiker can tell you almost every trail has its boring or even ugly stretches.

Yes, I would use a better camera if it met my criteria of being part of my smartphone, being cheap, waterproof and easy to handle. I would not intentionally use a bad device. But again: My priorities are different. Photography is just a by-product of my hikes. I love them as memories and records, but they are no trophies. Photography has no impact on my choice of destination, route and day planning. I would not stay anywhere longer just to get a great picture in the sunset. I would not hunt around to find the best perspective. I would not carry any extra gear like tripods or zooms. Because all this impacts my hike.

Mark A. said...

Hallo Christine,
mich wundert es, dass du dich überhaupt "rechtfertigst". Ist doch deine Sache, welche Fotos du machst oder zeigst.
Erst wenn man Fotos macht oder zeigt, mit denen man etwas erreichen will (z.B. Aufmerksamkeit), sollte man einfach überlegen, ob man wirklich mit den Milliarden anderen "Pics" konkurrieren will.
Ehrlichkeit mit sich selbst ist dabei wie so oft sehr heilsam. In diesem Sinne ist dein Post zum Thema Fotos vielleicht wichtig als Klarstellung (damit können wir also den Begriff "Rechtfertigung" streichen, den ich am Anfang benutzt habe).
Ich finde Fotos gut zum dokumentieren, und um Eindrücke zu vermitteln, die man nicht in Worten ausdrücken kann. Und außerdem bin ich ein sehr visueller Mensch und sehe mir einfach gerne Bilder an.
Ich würde gerne mehr Fotos in deinem Blog sehen, aber eben DEINE Sicht der Dinge und nicht das, was irgendwer anders vielleicht fordert oder was auch immer.
Technische Perfektion wird bei Fotos sowieso überbewertet. Inhalt geht über Form und die persönliche Sichtweise der Fotografin ist sowieso interessanter und macht ja gerade das Besondere aus. Wenn alle Fotos super geleckt aussehen und dem neuesten Style entsprechen, wird es langweilig.
Und das sagt ein Foto-Besessener wie ich... der versucht, die Fotos zu machen, die er selbst nach dem Trip gerne anschauen würde... gar nicht so einfach!
Danke für deinen tollen Blog, wir hatten schon Sorge wegen der langen Pause und fragen uns schon gespannt, was du als nächstes machst.
Grüße vom AT, wir sind gerade am Fontana Dam,

German Tourist said...

Hallo Mark,
danke für Deine aufmunternden Worte - und dass aus dem Mund eines bekennenden Foto-Besessenen. Übrigens keine Sorge: Ich bin zur Zeit in Deutschland und bereite meine nächsten Touren vor. Anfang Mai geht es dann wieder los.
Euch weiterhin viel Spass auf dem AT,

hanameizan said...

Hi Christine,

I came across your site via Hendrik's and was fascinated by your analysis of trophy photos.

I think you're spot on. Yes, people do feel pressure to take and post the best photos (including myself). And get themselves into trouble trying to take them - whether in the mountains or even on city streets. And it is impossible to stand out from the crowd now.

I enjoy looking at others' beautiful photos, but some part of me feels jealous and competitive. Not too dissimilar from Facebook making people unhappy!

I often see Japanese hikers chasing after wild ptarmigan to take photos (and post/boast) on their blogs. By contrast, my dog never chases the birds (she doesn't carry a camera!).

BTW, loved your report on cycling in Japan.

German Tourist said...

thanks for your comment! I loved Japan and hope to be back soon for more cycling and hiking - especially now that the exchange rate is so favourable for Europeans.
But you have a great and very outstanding photo motif - your dog is a fabulous model!

Karl said...

"To each their own", and so it should be.
I'm happy to see someone expressing their ideals, try to explain them (although this is something extremely difficult) and, above all, live by them.
Also a bit in awe of yourself writing such a post, since it goes against the tide of how things "should be done" with blogging at the moment.

Still, I can't help but getting a bit on edge when reading this post.

Are you saying that it's impossible to be a thru-hiker and a photographer at the same time? I believe that's simplifying things and people to the extreme.

The "photo arms race" - Isn't thru-hiking exactly the same? Wanting to do something bigger and more exciting than "just" talking a walk on the same old path in the woods behind your place. Exposing yourself to a lot more danger by thru-hiking than you otherwise would.

Having this as your philosophy as well as expressing it is more than good, it's excellent and admirable. However, it also means you having to accept that other people have other philosophies. The way I read your post, this doesn't seem to be the case. Not even with your ending comment "There is no right or wrong in the „philosophy“ of outdoor photography."

Maybe I have misunderstood things, but that's how I feel reading the post.

On another note:
Your blog is one of the best and most refreshing travel/hiking/trip blogs out there (in my opinion). It's always exciting as well as informative to read your posts.
The bloggosphere is certainly a much richer place with it.


German Tourist said...

Karl, you are absolutely right: to each their own. And I definitely accept other people's philosophy. On the contrary: I am very interested in photography, I visit every photo exhibition possible and several of my friends are or have been professional photographers. I admire everyone who pursues his or her hobby as I do pursue mine. Still, I see a contradiction between thruhiking and taking professional pictures. As a thruhiker your first priority is your hike and you do everything to facilitate it: therefore a hardcore thruhiker would not carry heavy camera equipment. As a thruhiker you just want to hike. You might care when the supermarket is open, because you need food for your hike - but you would not care to be at a certain place at a certain time just to have the best lighting for a photo. And you would definitely not choose your destination by what offers the best photo opportunities. So taken to the extreme there is a contradiction between thruhiking and professional photography - although in reality there are a lot of grades of shade in between. Just because you want to take good pictures does not mean you are not a real thruhiker. Like always in life you will make compromises and therefore I said: "the more you become a photographer, the less you are a thruhiker". But even I take pictures... and I admire good photographers as much as avid thruhikers.
And: thanks a lot for the compliments on my blog!

Anonymous said...

Not being a thru-hiker myself, but enjoying challenging shorter trips i can certainly agree with the paradox of ultralight equipment vs dslr with multiple lenses.
One point that i would like to bring up tho is that staying in one locale "waiting" for the sun to set does not only create better lighting for pictures ;-)
Some places more than others would make me want to stay and watch the spectable even if it results in setting up camp after dark.

RS said...

These are many interesting thoughts.
Our western society is based on competition (and more, sure). Who ist the best? Good pictures are important in the competition of travellers. If they are very good, someone is better than other photographers. Someone got more visitors on his blog. Got fans. Got more „friends“ in internet communities and „followers“ – and maybe the women like it…. Spectacular pictures means that someone is a great traveller (maybe others saw more, got more experiences – but without the „proof“ of pictures that’s worth nothing). Conclusion: Good pictures make superior.
Another thought: Often, people see spectacular pictures in blogs and because oft them they decide to travel to the place. Usally they are disappointed by reality: There are streets and cars (picture: just nature!), it’s raining (picture: always sunny), you can‘t see the top oft a mountain because of clouds (picture: clear blue sky!), many places are ugly or boring (picture: everything beautiful and exotic), your camping place is dark and so is your tent, there is nothing special exept one million mosquitos (picture: bright light in a tent next to a beautiful lake and above a millions stars). And: Where are the animals? You won’t see many (pictures: bears, lions, snakes and many moore). Conclusion: It‘s a good idea not to look to often in coffee-table-books or visit blogs.
The third: What is a good picture? The most photographs try to shoot the nature more beautiful than it is in reality. The right lens, angle of view is important. Filter and photoshop helps. You won’t see garbage, cut trees, often not even paths. Have you ever seen a pictuere that shows a lion and a plastic bag? I like realistic pictures. Often, they are made by amateurs without knowledge about photography. They just point and shoot.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Christine, for your post, especially after our joint work and discussions. This reflects my personal opinion. We are not to be perfect but to be ourselves. And we may show that proudly! I enjoy authentic people like you are, not perfect ones.

German Tourist said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment - I could not agree more.

Anonymous said...

Forty years ago when I traveled for the first time, I took very few photographs because film and film processing were expensive. But I wrote entire books — lots of them — in miniscule script, describing what I was seeing, learning, encountering and wondering about. It was a way of examining everything from every possible angle; and sometimes if I turned things over long enough, the sun swung around and shed a perfect light on the strange and uncharted (to me) territory that I was seeking to understand. It didn’t interfere with my journey (the “hike”), because the purpose of the journey wasn’t to get from A to B. It was to experience from A to B and to make some sense of that experience. To me, photography serves a similar purpose, in that it causes me to pause and to look much more closely at things than I otherwise might. It becomes a way of discovering some angle, some detail, and in that detail some truth that I would have missed if I just walked by. So for that reason, I don’t see a contradiction between having hiking as your main purpose and simultaneously taking the time to explore things from all angles, and even, sometimes, waiting around for the sun to illuminate your path. It all depends on one’s definition of hiking (and of photography).

I really appreciate your thoughtful posts and am so glad to have stumbled upon this site.

- Gail, Toronto

Anonymous said...

wunderbar beschrieben und absolut nachvollziehbar für mich!

viele liebe GRüße von Renate

Xeuster said...

So, If a tree falls in the forrest and there is no digicam .... :)

I'm a former professional photographer ( I was a full time salaried photographer for North Carolina's department of Education) and a enthusiastic photographer for over forty years.

The last few years I've had this nagging sense of discontent, but was not able to get my head around what was bothering me, and why my enthusiasm for photography fizzled, until luckily I stumble upon your wonderful post here. Thank you for having the words and the courage to post your viewpoint! It for me was an instant "THAT'S IT!" moment.

I don't hike nowadays but am considering another long distance trip to see parts of the US which I've never yet seen. You have just lightened my load by perhaps six pounds, though I may take one camera and lens with me (I like to keep the phone turned off for days at a time) but more importantly, with one astute article you have likely change my focus for the better. I realize that I travel to experience the trip. I've already learned to stay away from the typical mileage eating cyclists and go slow without a plan. Now perhaps I will leave the glamour-nature-photo trophy un-sought, and I expect that I will more likely find what I seek - just the trip itself, as it unfolds before me.

You're post truly helped me have a wake-up moment. Thank you. THANK YOU!