People have always asked me why I like photography so much. The early answer was an ignorant shrug, “I just like it.” And the conversation would end. A few years into my hobby the answer evolved into something pretentious and annoying. “I simply enjoy the idea that this machine can freeze a moment in time forever.” This cringe-worthy statement delivered, the conversation would end. These days, the answer to the perennial question is less lofty, but succinct and honest.
I love photography because it’s the best of all possible hobbies.
Here’s how I came to this bold conclusion.
Not long ago, I arrived home from the day-job to find my pant’s pocket empty and my house keys dangling from a hook on the opposite side of a locked front door. I gazed blankly through a frosty window at the glistening keys, swore once, and retreated to the warmth of my just-parked car. My wife wouldn’t be home for a few hours, no spare key, and shattering a window was a bit too extreme. I had time to kill. Recalling that I needed a roll of Kodak Ektar and a couple of batteries, I fired up the ignition and made my way to the local camera shop.
I arrived at the shop, bought the batteries and the film, and was heading toward the door counter when a friendly worker from behind the checkout counter said, “Hey James, we got a G2 in if you want to see it?”
Well, that escalated quickly.
But my wife still wasn’t home, and the house was still locked up. I had another couple of hours in which to contemplate my penchant for forgetfulness and my susceptibility to reduced-price photo gear, so I stopped at a sandwich shop, grabbed dinner, and read through my new camera’s manual to completion. That done, and with an hour still before my wife would be home, I noticed that the sun was doing some neat things at the center of our solar system and I figured that driving a few hundred yards closer to it would put me in a better position to take its picture with my new camera.
As I sat there watching this solar display, with time to waste and a bin full of unexpected and interesting cameras sitting on the passenger seat next to me, a voluptuous, moisture-dense cloud in the distance billowed upward and shed sudden sheets of rain. The raking sunbeams played through the undulating veil of kinetic moisture and illuminated the back edges of the clouds, and drew forth texture from the trees and the sand.
The whole thing was remarkably beautiful – and not what one expects to see from the vantage point of a Panera Bread parking lot. I sat for a handful of minutes, taking a couple of pictures, yeah, but mostly just enjoying this break in the hectic business of a typical day.
It got me thinking. Why do I love photography?
And the answer was there. But not in the form of the G2 in my hand or the other new cameras I’d bought earlier in the day, or even in the photos of the setting sun and the sudden interesting weather. The answer was in the momentary rest found in the middle of a stressed-to-the-point-of-forgetting-your-keys-like-an-imbecile modern life.
Photography isn’t unique in this. There are many hobbies available to us if we decide to dive into them, and many hobbies can provide the moments of relaxation and reflection I’ve detailed just now. But not all hobbies are created equal. I’ve enjoyed a lot of different hobbies over the years – building motorcycles, watch collecting, physical fitness, cars… the list goes on. And while these hobbies have been fun and important to me, they’re mostly transitory experiences that wane over time and leave only a general interest when they’ve passed.
What is it about photography that makes it relevant year after year, decade after decade?
To start, I think photography is distinct from many hobbies in that it’s a hobby of creation while so many others that I’ve tried have been hobbies of collection or consumption.
Collecting watches, or being really into whiskey, or fishing – these are all worthy pursuits. But to use these as examples, I was only ever spending cash to amass trinkets that might never be used, or drinking and later excreting fluids, or harming lesser animals. There was little opportunity to leave something in a better state than I found it. In fact, things were usually worse off because of my hobby. I’d scratched a couple of previously undamaged Omega Speedmasters, sent a bunch of bottles to the landfill, or stabbed a metal hook through the eye of a previously healthy, now blinded pickerel. Ouch.
With photography, it’s different. Every time I take a walk I’m given the opportunity to create something. Every time I go to the beach, or the park, or go out with the family, or take a trip (or even sit in a Panera Bread parking lot) I’m given the chance to create something.
Even in this, photography isn’t unique. Other hobbies, like painting or furniture-making to name two, give an avenue for creative people to create things of course, but none do so as easily as photography. It’s hard to think of a hobby that offers the same kind of flexible, accessible opportunity for creation. My father’s a woodworker, but you’re not going to find him spinning a lathe in the parking lot of a Panera Bread or cutting dados at Thanksgiving dinner.
Photography is also unique to most other hobbies in that it’s a hobby that’s also extremely useful. As a document of our existence, as a time capsule, as a way to make heirloom images.
If you’re any kind of self-aware human being, you’ll understand the horrifically temporary nature of our lives. Worrisome individuals, like myself, might even rage and fight against the inexorable march of time. One of the easiest ways to do this is to simply shoot photos.
Take photos of your life. Shoot your travels and adventures, shoot your friends and family, compile a lifetime of images into albums and give them away as gifts. Frame your photos and hang them on your walls. Relive the moments that are gone forever and shoot today to remember it tomorrow. You’ll be thankful that you did, and so will the people who care about you when you’re nothing more than a six-inch-pot full of ash.
Woah, but let’s not be too glum. We’ve still got life ahead of us, and we’re not just shooting for posterity. Photography also augments every aspect of the shooter’s life in a way that no other hobby can. It even enhances our other hobbies.
Are you into motorcycles? Then you’ll be into shooting photos of your motorcycle. Into entomology and nature? Then you’ll have a fun time learning about macro shooting. Do you love to travel? Don’t do it without a camera. Are you a family man or woman? Well there’s nothing better than making a gorgeous print of your beautiful little kids.
See, photography is the only hobby that so easily and effectively improves every facet of our lives. That’s remarkable.
And photography is accessible in ways that most hobbies simply aren’t. Where other hobbies might require that you live in a certain place (not many surfing enthusiasts living in Idaho, I’d guess) photography does not. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you’re talented, or if you’re rich or poor, where you come from, who your parents are, your height or weight or how many friends you’ve got. Photography is available to everyone.
There are no licenses to apply for, no special fees to pay, no government registrations or taxes, no maintenance necessary. There are no rules dictating what you must shoot, how you must shoot, where, or when, or for whom. You can shoot whatever subject you want with whatever camera you’ve got. And all that matters is you’re having fun.
Photography is there when you want it, patient when you don’t. You can shoot every day for a year, stop, and come back after six months only to pick it up right where you left off. The camera takes up no room (hard to say about my old BMW), and doesn’t require winterizing. There are no monthly dues, no subscription fees. It’s a take it, leave it, and use it when you want hobby that will be there forever.
It’s also unlimited in its scope. There’s enough variety within the hobby to keep things interesting for a lifetime.
Never shot a camera? Good, you’re the best type of new photograepher. Buy a camera and let’s get shooting. Have you shot SLRs your whole life? Then try a rangefinder for something new. Are you sick of the clinical precision of modern gear? You can shoot lenses from the 1960s as if they were manufactured yesterday. Bored (somehow) with normal photography? Try shooting film, or pinhole cameras, or view cameras, or shooting infrared light, or shoot underwater with a Nikonos, or try portraits, or landscapes, or macro, or solargraphy.
Want to focus on collecting rare cameras? You can do that too. How about collecting only brass cameras, or Russian cameras, or only Nikon cameras, or only cameras made in France, or get real specific and only collect green art deco box cameras that were made in the United States. Yes, there’s literally something for everyone.
Of course, this is all opinion. There are many avenues to happiness. My point is that photography is whatever anyone wants it to be. For different people it will be different things. For me, it’s all things. It’s relaxation when I’m stressed. It’s the hunt for a special camera, the hunt for a better shot. It’s collecting amazing machines. It’s making something out of nothing. It’s creating a document of my life and giving the gift of images to the people around me. It’s also (and this is important) having something to do for a few hours when I’ve locked my stupid ass out of the house.
In short, photography is the best hobby in the world. And that’s why I love it.