Why Photograph? (The Hunt And The Wonder)

The subheading of this blog sums up why I photograph, but a recent post by Jennifer has inspired me to revisit the subject a little more deeply.

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The name 35hunter covers two aspects of hunting in my photography.

First, hunting for the core arsenal of cameras and lenses that I’ll feel I can settle on and use enough so I know them like an extension of my hands and eyes.

Why do I want this, and how does it tie in with Jennifer’s “awe and wonder?”

Because, put simply, if you’re out with camera, and constantly fiddling, adjusting and generally fumbling around in trying to figure out how to use the equipment to the best of your (and its) ability, you’re not focused on what your trying to capture.

You’re lost in completely the wrong kind of detail.

When you don’t know your kit, the very activity of trying to effectively document what you’re seeing (and feeling) in front of you – capturing the full force and wonder it possesses – becomes a stumbling block at best.

At worst it becomes an impenetrable wall – solid bricks of incompetence and unfamiliarity held firm by a mortar mix of frustration and irritation.

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So being able to just raise the camera to the eye, focus, compose, meter and shoot, in one fluid motion becomes highly desirable in this pursuit.

It’s harder to do this if you have, say, ten cameras and 20 lenses (assuming they’re all compatible this gives 200 different combos, yikes!) than if you have say two cameras and three lenses, giving six arrangements.

At its peak my “collection” had maybe 30 compacts and 15 SLRs, with probably 30 lenses for those SLRs. With considerably more than 200 combinations, no wonder I was getting so frustrated. Just picking one to go out use was sometimes painful enough!

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No-one’s going to master and remember 200 different combinations of anything, but two or four or six, well that seems achievable to most of us.

The appeal grows further still when it means a higher percentage of the shots we take come closer to what we saw, which again is far less when we’re floundering with cameras we don’t fully know how to use (or even know that they fully work, in the case of many film cameras I’ve used in the past five years).

This fluid motion of capturing the scene doesn’t (necessarily) mean using a camera with full program modes and autofocus so you resort to a purely point and experience, although that is one option, and sometimes exactly what we need.

I confess in recent times some of the photographs of mine I’ve been most pleased with and excited about are the ones I’ve taken fairly spontaneously with my iPhone and Hipstmatic.

One camera, one lens, and, lately at least, just one “filter” combination in Hipstamatic.

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Most of the time though I favour my Pentax DSLRs with manual focus lenses, and manual exposure, so the process with them takes a few seconds longer. But when I know how to do it without thinking about where my fingers are, what buttons I’m pressing and dials I’m turning and why, it adds to the experience rather than hinders it.

My recent plan to use one camera and one lens for a month has inevitably gone awry, but with the DSLRs I have stuck to just one, even if I’ve used two or three lenses.

The familiarity of one camera quickly starts to make a difference and how invisible the camera’s controls become in the process of taking the photographs.

The thinking of the brain and the actions of the fingers starts to disappear, and this single fluid motion of taking the picture starts to become a reality, and consistently so.

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Which brings us to the second aspect of my hunting – for the compositions worth capturing, the photographs themselves.

For these the wonder is not so straightforward as travelling to places in the country and world where natural, er, wonders, present themselves almost on a plate, then just snapping away.

Rather, I prefer seeking out the tiny wonders of the (/my/our) world on a much more local scale, whether that’s in my back garden or a nearby woodland or churchyard or coastline.

This, I realise, is why the majority of my pictures revert to pretty close focus and shallow depth of field.

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Hunting up close you see things you would never be able to see if stood far back and assessing and capturing whole scenes.

And using a more shallow depth of field allows me to isolate objects more and hopefully better enhance and relay the beauty I saw in them in the first place.

If I think generally about moments of wonder and try to describe my state of being, I’d say I stop actively breathing (maybe my heart momentarily slows or stops) and the awareness of every thought, memory and experience outside of what’s right in front me disappears.

A short circuit from the essence of the moment to the inner essence of me occurs, a momentary direct bolt of lightning to something deep and primitive and ancient and frequently inaccessible.

All of my consciousness is open to and filled with that experience in front of or around me, and nothing else matters, nothing else even exists. 

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This, I realise, albeit on a more subtle scale, is the same kind of feeling I try to seek (and am fortunate to be able to find with enough frequency to make the hunting worthwhile) within the four edges of the viewfinder of my camera(s).

The holding of breath, the focus on the contents of that rectangle, the disappearance of all else…

It’s also, I think, a major reason I often visit old rural churches.

I don’t attend church on a religious basis (I prefer them empty), but entering them as a curious photographer, their age, history, and atmosphere do instil a sense of awe in me that no other places really do.

I would describe it as a hushed and dignified wonder rather than anything explosive or dramatic. But a wonder nonetheless, and precious.

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Starting out with 35hunter I didn’t plan to talk about equipment specifics as much as I have done over the last 22 months.

There are plenty of other photography blogs that do that more detail and expertise than I ever could.

So when I get back to the reasons underlying my desire and need to explore and photograph, it reminds me what I’ve been searching for with all these cameras and lenses over the past five years.

And reassures me that, finally, I’m getting down to the essence and the bare essentials of this “wonder hunting” – both in subject matter, and in the equipment I use.

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Why do you photograph? And (how) does wonder play a role in your hunting? Let us know in the comments below. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

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12 thoughts on “Why Photograph? (The Hunt And The Wonder)

  1. Nice Post James, I agree about the familiarity of using the kit. Lately I’ve been using a range of cameras and working out how to set them up has definitely got in the way a few times. When I switch back to the Pen-F though it is so intuitive I and fully immerse myself in the shot without having to think too much about settings.

    I photograph to capture what I see so I can share. Sometimes I feel that others walk around and don’t see the same things I see and I see a lot of beauty which I want others to enjoy, I like to hold that moment when that shadow from that angle at that moment looked amazing.

    Thanks for sharing, in today’s post my favourite image is the hook.

    1. SilverFox, thanks for your thoughts.

      Often in the past, when I was quite new to film, the thrill of trying a new camera was more important than the annoyance of fumbling unfamiliarity. Plus I realise now I was on a kind of unspoken mission to try to make a half decent photograph with any camera I bought – the cheaper the better.

      I guess I’ve worked through this phase. Partly maybe this is why I shoot far less film now – I found the cameras that suited me best and the thrill of the chase in finding them diminished.

      With digital, cameras have far less appeal generally, I have no desire say to try half a dozen Pentax DSLRs, whereas with their film bodies I must have had 20 or more. So again this appeal to explore new (old) kit has greatly diminished as I moved further towards digital than film.

      All of this means I’m in that position I wrote about above, being able to use a far more limited range of equipment to hopefully more often experience the kind of wonder that draws me into photography again and again.

      I completely relate to your statement – “Sometimes I feel that others walk around and don’t see the same things I see and I see a lot of beauty which I want others to enjoy”. Couldn’t agree more! With all the chaos and conflict in the world, photography gives us hope that beauty is still there to be found, captured and shared.

      1. The unfamiliar camera thing right now is me trying to test out cameras and get them sold and get to a few cameras that fit the niche I want.
        Yes, I feel lucky that I am able to make the time to just do something that doesn’t have a deadline or outside pressure and brings me (and hopefully others) some joy.

      2. Yes I’ve been in that phase for years almost, trouble is I kept buying more than I was having time to use. And found I was always in “camera tester” mode rather than photographer – I was rarely getting to those few favourites.

  2. I think you’ve made a really good point here about how mastering the technical can help you immerse in the mystical. And I love the small-scale, local things too…I call them “micro-wilderness.” 🙂

    1. Jennifer, yes with the line “mastering the technical can help you immerse in the mystical” you’ve managed to effectively summarise hundreds of my words in 10 words!

      Love that phrase “micro-wilderness”. Reminds me of a family trail we went on on holiday recently at a National Trust property, where the trail guide invited us to gather 10 different grasses and any number of bugs, all within a fairly small corner of a meadow. Which we did! Amazing how much vegetation and wildlife exists in small spaces.

  3. Wow … ahm … wow!
    You guys do so wonderful photography.

    Reading this post … and thanks to the recommendation also the one of the Trailhead/Jennifer … besides all the technical stuff which is always interesting and gives inspiration for ones own photographic journey … I have to admit that you put so many empathy, emotions, intensity and sense in your … interpretation of photography, that I simply have to salute 😉

    BTW, my favorite one is the rose pic … it is stunning 😉

    1. Thanks Reinhold. Maybe for some photography is all about the equipment and the technical details… But I tend to see it more as a portal to beauty and wonder, with all the associated emotion…

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