Nice View? Put the Camera Away!

I took 3,938 photos during my thru-hike. Add to that the 1,161 photos taken by my brother and erstwhile hiking companion, and the many hundreds of photos taken by friends on The Trail and uploaded to Facebook, and there are over 5,000 pictures documenting my Appalachian Trail experience. Wonderful, right? Well, in retrospect, not so much. If you have an upcoming thru-hike in the works, I am here to urge you to put the camera away. I grant that it is an essential piece of gear, and besides, how else will you prove to yourself later in life that your six months in the long green tunnel wasn’t just a delightful dream? However, your camera should be used sparingly and judiciously. Here’s why:

Nature vistas never live up to your memory.

Take a moment to look through your pictures from your last vacation, or hiking trip. Go ahead, scroll through every one. How much time did you spend looking at vast expanses of ocean and beach, or mountains and hills? They all start to look the same after a while, don’t they? It’s often just not possible to capture the majesty of most of the sights along the A.T., or other beautiful wild places, with a tiny camera and a few pixels. On the other hand, how much time did you spend looking at pictures of your friends and family on that trip? Remembering the context for each and every picture, recalling why your brother is laughing so hard in that one photo, or what precipitated the rash of well-intentioned obscene gestures in the next? I am willing to bet that you linger for much longer on these pictures than the dozens that you took of that stunning view from the summit.

Do you want to take a picture as the Trail Boss though? Of course you do.

Do you want to take a picture as the Trail Boss though? Of course you do.

There are professional photographers among us who can occasionally capture those sights along the A.T. which bring us up short and reduce us to puddles of humility, quivering at the majesty of nature, but how many thru-hikers are going to add a DSLR and a wide-angle lens to their gear list? For the rest of us, does that picture we took from the fourteenth overlook in Shenandoah or the water rushing over the moss-covered rocks in the sixth stream we passed that day truly reflect the way we felt upon taking in that scene, in that moment, with our own senses? With very few exceptions, every landscape picture I look back on imparts a twinge of disappointment — I’m sure those mountains were more awe-inspiring from where I was standing on White Rocks Cliff…I know that sunset from Russell Field Shelter was much more amazing… — and I begin to worry that I didn’t experience the moment as fully as I could have, because my eye was stuck in the viewfinder the whole time.

You don’t want to look like a fool, do you?

Let’s be honest, we all have some trace of vanity. You’re about to hike over 2,000 miles through 14 states and over hundreds of mountains. That’s no feat to sneeze at, and you’re well within your rights to brag about it. These days, all of our best passive-aggressive showboating takes place on social media, so of course you want the perfect picture of you on the A.T. to adorn your Facebook wall or your Instagram feed. Maybe that one on McAfee Knob, hand on your head, shading out the sun, eyes trained into the distance, searching for Katahdin beyond the horizon. Maybe that one of you in silhouette before an orange sky, the stark lines of your trekking poles accentuating your newly slimmed figure. Maybe you want dozens of those perfect pictures, and who can blame you?

I am not ashamed to admit I like to see those pictures of myself, and I like to show others as well. As I scrolled through the photos of me taken by my companions throughout my hike, all the elements of the perfect picture were there: craggy outcroppings, silky blue skies, verdant pastures hemmed in by towering oaks, lengthy and multichromatic sunsets…and there I am, set against each one of these amazing backdrops with with a dopey stare and my camera held out in front of me, as if I’m Rafiki announcing my photographic prowess to all the creatures assembled at Pride Rock. For shame…

Don't let this be you!

Don’t let this be you!

Nobody wants to be the buffoon that ruined that perfect shot of himself by concerning himself more with total picture count than total moment immersion.

No one wants to see a four-hour long slideshow of your thru-hike.

Your friends and family probably have mixed emotions about your upcoming adventure. Maybe they support your push into the unknown (even if they don’t understand it), maybe they greeted your news with a little more trepidation. Regardless, surely they told you that they wanted to see pictures! Your parents, friends, and co-workers will all eagerly await your return that they might be able to forget about their cubicle and their car payments, living vicariously through you as they follow your five million steps through your photos.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

However, something we may forget when thru-hiking — when we have the ultimate luxury of time, when we can nap for an hour atop a summit because we feel like it – is that most people are busy. The magnificent and colossal amount of patience that you develop as a member of the hiker community will dwarf that of the people around you as you return to “normal life.” Sources place the average human attention span at somewhere between 8 seconds and 5 minutes. Putting aside the exact number, know that yours will have stretched to a considerably longer amount by the time you reach Katahdin. Therefore, it is imperative to keep this in mind as you share the documentation of your trip with your loved ones. Trust me…no amount of familial obligation can influence someone to stare at your laptop for more than twenty minutes, despite how incredible your trip was.

Mental pictures last longer

We met a trail angel in Harper’s Ferry who was generous enough to feed us, house us, give us a bottle of wine, and regale us with hours worth of splendid conversation. However, when we parted ways, he refused to pose for a picture with us. “When you take a picture of a moment,” he said, “it drains that memory and that feeling from your brain and puts it in the camera instead.”

I respected his wishes and he remained unphotographed, but his stance on the subject got me thinking, especially as I examined more than 5,000 photographs in the weeks after summiting Katahdin. Were all 5,000 of those moments now just blips in my memory, having failed to attach to my hippocampus, and destined to fade away? As I looked at pictures of me taking pictures (of which, as I have mentioned, there were many), I found that those depictions jogged my memory and brought me right back to the particular place where I was photographed, but without the picture in front of me, it was much more difficult to close my eyes and imagine myself back at McAfee Knob (where I was more concerned with how to look cool than with the view) or in the Grayson Highlands (where I spent more time taking photos of ponies than admiring the stunning terrain).

Luckily, one place where my camera remained firmly in my pocket was on the Tablelands, the plateau on the Katahdin massif that approaches Baxter Peak. Of course, I took a silly amount of pictures with the Katahdin sign, and among fellow hikers on the summit. But for my final few hours on the Appalachian Trail, my finger didn’t once touch the shutter button. As I approached Baxter Peak, I wasn’t thinking about what would make the best profile picture, or what goofy pose to make atop the sign, or how many pictures were left on my memory card.

Put the Camera Away 4

Photo courtesy of Flickr…because I put my camera away, for a change!

I can close my eyes now and instantly return there in my imagination. I can see the deep azure of the endless sky, I can feel the rush and the chill as the breeze makes contact with the patch of sweat on the back of my shirt, I can smell the alpine flora mixed with my own now familiar body odor, I can taste the White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Clif Bar I had for lunch, and I can hear the blood pounding in my ears as the Katahdin sign first comes into view. The image of that tiny piece of weather-beaten wood standing sentinel, as if it was waiting years for me to approach it and touch it with the utmost reverence, will be burned into my mind until the end of my days.

Before my thru-hike, I enjoined a friend of mine and former thru-hiker to furnish me with some sage trail advice. Aside from the always important “hike your own hike” and various other useful nuggets of wisdom, one thing he told me stuck out in my mind: “take half as many pictures of mountains, and twice as many pictures of people.” My 5,000 A.T. photographs are proof positive that I patently ignored that advice, but looking back, I wish I hadn’t.

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Comments 10

  • Tenderfoo... : Jan 31st

    In a Photo I course I took recently, this is the first thing that we talked about. Photography “subtends” memory, replaces it. It’s how our brains work. This is from a professional fine-art photographer, and is widely accepted within the photography community… I love photography, but I’m constantly aware of this moral obligation that I have to myself… I don’t want to take my memories and put them on a computer where they can disappear in an instant and never end up being be looked at anyway. That’s why I feel no pressure to bring the DSLr backpacking, or anywhere. And plus, like you said, no-one wants to be the silly one with the camera out all the time 😉

    Great article, this needs to be read by more backpackers and people in general. Vale! -Tenderfoot

    • Connor Adams : Feb 2nd

      I like that idea of subtending, I’ll have to explore that more…it’s definitely a hard habit to break in the age of the digital camera.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Mile Marker - AT 2015 : Feb 1st

    I do understand your point, but I respectfully disagree. A large portion of AT hikers will be extremely happy they took their cameras along and used them on trail. To be clear, I am a photographer, but I still think this applies broadly.

    I’m extremely happy I took pictures on my thru-hike last year. I didn’t have a lens between me and every view, and went days without taking shots sometimes, but I captured some amazing moments and am so glad to be able to blow them up big and have them on my wall. Right next to my bed I have a picture of a window of the fire tower on Shuckstack heading into the Smokies and get to look at it every time I roll out of bed in the morning. I don’t have a nice car or a bunch of stuff but I do have amazing vistas and moments with other hikers surround me in my little place in Denver.

    I don’t think it hindered my experience in the least bit, especially since I took photos when I wanted, and didn’t when I didn’t want to. Maybe clarify your advice and limit to people who are only taking photos for social media and will never get prints of their photos to adorn their walls. Those of us who are using our cameras in lieu of journals cherish those prints and memories for years and years to come and inspire others to get on the trail and have experiences of their own.

    • Connor Adams : Feb 2nd

      Yes, absolutely. I am by no means advocating leaving your camera behind entirely. I’m also extremely grateful for most of the photos I took, and happy to have many of them printed on my wall as well.

      My point is to chasten (mostly) my past self and prospective thru-hikers not to “have a lens between them and every view,” as you say. I certainly was guilty of that all too often. I noticed myself taking pictures even when I didn’t want to, as some sort of Pavlovian response to a vista, something I needed to do when I could, and forgetting to lose myself in the moment.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Jen Hofmann : Feb 3rd

    This article is fantastic and a wonderful perspective on the role of technology in a wilderness experience. I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago three years ago without a camera. Instead, I reveled in daily journaling and making amateur sketches of birds, flowers, cathedral spires. As someone with ADD and a faulty memory at best, I’m astonished how much I remember thanks to those two practices.

    A few times when I really wished I’d brought a camera, I forced myself to stop everything and look–really see–what I found so entrancing. Taking it all in for several minutes created a vivid image in my mind, and is far better than the 8mp phone camera I would have brought.

    Cameras are great–don’t get me wrong. I love your idea of photographic people too. To me, the distinction is mindfulness, presence, and being fully where you are. I didn’t travel to Spain or walk all that way just to forget everything I saw.

    P.S. With your permission, I’d love to link to this article from my Camino blog!

    • Connor Adams : Feb 4th

      Now that you mention it, I wish I had been able to justify the weight of a sketchpad too…

      And please feel free to link!

  • Michael Palozzola : Feb 4th

    I agree with and understand bothsides. I am an amature photographer and am an aspiring thru-hiker. I am currently bouncing back and forth the concept of bringing my camera with me. I aspire to shoot not only the vistas but the people the culture and the experience. I refuse to hang anything in my residence that I have not personally shot myself. I shoot mostly wildlife normally but want to shoot some of the vista’s to be seen on the AT, and would also love to do a montage of the entirety of the trail, a highlight mural if you will with the trail as the background. I want to bring my camera but often fight with the concept of did I miss something having my camera with me. On a day with my camera I will take 800-1000 photos… over the course of the trip i tone it down but still my camera is always with me daily on said trip… In a month in the Galapagos I came back with almost 5000 same for a month in Auz. Partially I dread what I’d come back with over 6 months ….

  • Danny : Feb 5th

    I go hiking near my home and hike in other places also and get out my camera-phone to photograph things I encountere. After awhile I begin taking much less pictures. However, I have many friends that are unable to get out to some of the places I visit and they get to see places with my pictures that they would otherwise never experience when I post the pics to Facebook. My concern about using my phone for a camera has much to do with battery life. Looking forward to a through hike in April this year!

  • Carol : Feb 22nd

    I’ve had the same photography struggles during the last 20 years, since my daughter’s birth: the pull of the recording with a camera vs immersion in the moment. I, selfishly perhaps, wanted to experience every moment of our life together, so often neglected the pictures in favor of the experience. Now, at times, I wish I had documented more of her life, yet wouldn’t give up moments, even if I had it to do again.
    Your wisdom is in the suggestion of balance: record some, but experience most.
    Thanks for the post.


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