Put the camera down

It’s the end of the year. For most people, it’s a time for holiday celebrations with family and friends and looking forward to the beginning of a new year. A time for taking stock of what’s happened in the last year and making plans for the year to come. And in my family, there are also several birthdays to celebrate.

Perfect time for taking pictures, right?

But this year, in the middle of all our holiday and birthday celebrations, I stopped. I turned off the camera and put it down.

Why would I do that at a time of year when everyone takes pictures?

Before I stopped, I got some great “life in the moment” photos. You know, the ones that manage to capture not just a moment in time, but the feeling and emotion that go along with it.

This is my niece singing her heart out on her new karaoke machine to her favorite song. I love the absolute joy on her face and how she points her finger in the air while she sings. I hope she never loses her love of music and singing that shines on her face in this picture.

My niece sings her heart out on her new karaoke machine

My niece sings her heart out on her new karaoke machine

Here’s my husband feeding our two-year-old daughter a piece of cake. She’s growing up so quickly, and I treasure these little intimate moments we have with her before she gets to be too big and independent to let us take care of her like the baby she’s been until now.

My husband feeds cake to our daughter

Picture of my daughter opening her own presents (with a little help) for the first time this year

My daughter opened her own presents (with a little help) for the first time this year

So why did I stop?

I realized that I was so focused on trying to get great photos that I was missing out on a lot of what was happening during our family celebrations.

My husband sat with our daughter and helped her open her gifts this year. I was busy taking pictures and have very little memory of my daughter opening her presents. I have a few pictures of it. But I was taking pictures of many family members opening gifts at the same time. What’s not in those pictures is gone. I’ll never get it back.

I get a sort of tunnel vision when I’m taking photos. I’m concentrating so hard on the mechanics of the camera — aperture, shutter speed, composure — that I’m not there in the moment. And aren’t the holidays one of the most important times to be in the moment, to be present in a situation?

I thought about it a lot and decided that maybe getting a great shot — as fun as that can be — isn’t as important as sitting with my daughter and sharing the excitement of helping her figure out how to rip the wrapping paper off her presents to see what’s inside.

The camera is a funny thing. I love it because it’s a way of capturing a moment so you can relive it later. It augments the memories in my head and lets me show those memories to other people. And sometimes, when I catch a great moment, that picture can help me not just remember, but relive a fleeting instant in my life.

But at the same time, when I’m actually taking those pictures, I often feel removed from the situation I’m photographing. The camera feels like a barrier between me and the people I see through the lens. When I bring the camera up to my eye, there’s a loss of eye contact that’s crucial to truly sharing moments with people, especially with young children.

My daughter knows it. She can be doing something incredible and completely camera-worthy, and there’s no better way to get her to stop than to pull out my camera. It’s often an instant antidote to spontaneity.

So, for my daughter’s birthday, I (mostly) put the camera down. I got a couple of pictures of her with her cake. And, OK I admit it, I caved and grabbed the camera to take a few photos of her playing by the front window of the restaurant when she wouldn’t sit in her seat at the table anymore.

Picture of a little girl in a restaurant window

My daughter would much rather be exploring the restaurant instead of sitting at the table

But other than that, I didn’t worry about the pictures. I decided that having the experience of celebrating my daughter’s birthday was more important than having the pictures of it. I got to have conversations with family members. I picked up my daughter and danced with her to the Irish music the band was playing. I had a great time, and I think she did, too.

It’s a lesson I’m going to try to keep in mind this year: slowing down, becoming more deliberate with my photography and my life. I’m not going to put the camera up to my eye at every event and mash that shutter button incessantly. I’m going to take my time and wait for the right moment.

And — most importantly — I’m going to put the camera down and take some time to experience important moments without looking at them through a lens. Maybe the best camera I have is already a part of me. I just need to trust that I’ll always be able to see those moments I want to savor in the camera in my mind.

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