What does it really mean to "capture" a scene? For that matter, what does it really mean to "capture" a moment?
It occurred to me recently that there is something fundamentally true about an interest in photography that reflects a very basic but profound characteristic of all humanity: When we notice beauty, we often immediately want to do something with it. No matter what it is, if it's beautiful to us we want to hold on to it, we want to remember it, and we want to share it.
Photographically speaking, this is not always a bad thing as it motivates us to get better and better at interpreting that beauty in a way that really does it justice. We seek to use good composition and an eye for what really matters in a scene to record an image that brings to mind the bigger picture of what is going on around it. Through many attempts at this, however, we finally realize it is impossible to completely "capture" what our eyes see in a 3-D world with a 2-D medium. Our brains are so fast, so intelligent, so incredibly complicated, that they are interpreting multiple images (both direct and peripheral) into a concept and experience of what is surrounding us. Our best equipment cannot do that, at least not even close to the same extent, and leaves us with the somewhat cliché but true observation that there is nothing like experiencing somewhere (or something) for yourself.
Our technology, though an incredibly fun and useful tool for us, has in many ways been a hindrance to us in this department. We are becoming people who notice beauty in a particular moment, but miss many following moments (or other beauty surrounding us) because our immediate reaction tends to be "snap and post" as we rush to record and share with the world.
It's not just smart-phones and tablets though, the convenience of technology has, to some extent, limited our availability to truly experience beauty for a long time now. For example, having the ability to take pictures has always brought with it a temptation for perfection; it's only now with space for nearly unlimited frames and more and more advanced cameras we also feel any shot we are NOT taking is missing out on something we could've had.
If you care enough about landscape or travel compositions, and you have put enough time into them - undoubtedly you've come to the conclusion that there are certain scenes that you can't quite re-tell (in a traditional sense). Instead of being frustrated with this - we need to realize this is not only o.k., but liberating! Sometimes when we put the camera down, or leave it at home, we take in every moment because we enjoy them and are continually ready for the next.
There is a song by John Mayer (back in his "early" days ha) called "3x5" that references this concept. When a good friend of mine introduced me to it, it was in reference to their not being able to really bring back the beauty of Colorado to the East with pictures. Just getting started with pictures then, it's remained a grounding theme for me as I seek to embrace adventure while living free of the pressure of perfection:
"Didn't have a camera by my side this time, hoping I could see the world with both my eyes. Maybe I will tell you all about it ... You should have seen that sunrise - with your own eyes, it brought me back to life. You'll be with me, next time I go outside, no more 3x5s ... Today I finally overcame, trying to fit the world inside a picture frame..."
This is why people often see me without my camera. (This is why it may also come as a surprise to those I've come to know more recently that I've been involved with photography for so long haha.) Over the years I have tried to improve in my balance of recording beauty with just experiencing it.
I love the collision of art and science and timing and patience and vision and imagination and every other thing that comes together in the pursuit of (or lucking into) a good picture. But I love life more and I never want my need to "capture" it to blind me from the fact that it is always right in front of me anyway.
I challenge you to ditch the camera for a day and go somewhere beautiful without it. I challenge you to ditch your phone for a day and go walking through your town or city. See what you notice. And when you see a scene that begs to be photographed, note the composition in your mind, imagine taking a "mental picture" of it, and be happy with that. You'll be surprised how this practice frees you to enjoy what's in front of you while preparing you to notice composition and what scenes you can pull off when you DO have your camera by your side*.
Don't get hung up on what you didn't or can't capture, because none of us can get it all! Certainly also fight the temptation to "post" everything you see. Instead always be ready to take life in with "both your eyes" ... and celebrate the fact that sometimes what's in front of us is enjoyed best when not limited to a frame, a canvas or even beaming electrons on a sleek touch screen.
*I'm indebted to the book Extraordinary Everyday Photography, by Brenda Tharp and Jed Manwaring, for the concept of forming "pictures in your mind's eye," p. 20 (Amphoto Books). This is an incredibly encouraging book to check out in relation to approach, developing your vision and just enjoying the adventure of photography in general.