Close this search box.

The Lens Effect

cameras on the trail

Have video cameras changed the way we experience the outdoors?

When you go to a concert these days you see a band on stage, sweeping lights and smoke effects, a sea of heads bobbing in the dark before you — and also a few hundred smart phones lifted high to capture the moment. Luminescent LCD screens have replaced the traditional lighter waving overhead. And this is true in every walk of life from the 6-year-old’s birthday party to a performance by sidewalk buskers to the cat pooping in a toilet: cameras are everywhere, and we have become the documentary filmmakers of our own lives. The advent of the GoPro camera and the dSLR revolution have given every Regular Joe the tools to record his stories, and this revolution has followed us into our outdoor adventures.

The benefits of this technological renaissance need not be enumerated. For as long as humans have walked the earth we’ve been telling our stories, and now we’re able to do that with a level of polish and production value previously unimaginable. But have we fully considered what might be lost in the bargain? What happens when we go from simply dropping the long downhill on a mountain bike or linking up the five-pitch climb to taking on the additional work of making a documentary of the endeavor?

It’s not enough anymore to have a meaningful experience. With our ready access to online social networking and the powerful tools of media production, we now feel compelled to capture every moment and broadcast it to the world with the message, “Look, look! I had a meaningful experience!”

I may be unusually sensitive to the dilemma posed by bringing cameras on an adventure. As a person making a career out of photography and video production in outdoor lifestyle, I value deeply the stories that live in wild places. I am also acutely aware of the mental shift that happens when I take up a camera in such places. From attending to the intricate world around me with open eyes and ears, I undergo a perceptual pivot as I begin to look for the best light and the most interesting angle, anticipating the moment to release the shutter. In short, I stop simply being present with all of my senses in my surroundings, and I enter into work mode.

No doubt other adventurers are less susceptible to this risk while using a camera, but we all see the world differently when looking through a lens. The frame necessarily limits the picture—that is the wonder and power of picture media; it focuses our attention. But in the moment of looking out across a panoramic view or down the gullet of a class V rapid I think that we see less fully (maybe less clearly) when we look through a camera.

I’m thankful that I have friends who act as governors on my fairly constant drive to get everything down on film. Several of my kayaking buddies are of the mind that it is always better to simply run the river rather than stop to take pictures. They present a valuable tension to my impulse to capture every moment and preserve it for future review. They remind me of one of the primary reasons I am drawn to wild places: the way they make me slow down and be present, not clinging to any moment of beauty or excitement but letting it pass through my mind and heart like sand through open fingers.

As I grow more aware of the visual impairment that cameras sometimes introduce into my adventures, I’m developing new strategies to add to my personal discipline. Some days I will intentionally leave behind all cameras for a trip down the river, or else I will carry only my old film SLR which seems to be less intrusive to the experience than digital tools. Some days I will carry only my journal or sketchbook, tools that have the effect of actually making me more present and aware as I meditate on the experience. In the end, I suppose I want to make a call to my fellow adventurers and lovers of the wild, not that we forsake all recording tools and documentary work but that we dedicate some time out in the wild free from our devices. Let’s spend some days doing what we love to do with only our memories to record the journey and our words to share it when we gather around the dinner table or at the bar at the end of the day.

On a backpacking trip this October I hiked for twelve days through the Smoky Mountains and carried with me an array of camera gear and recording equipment to document the trip. I had a lot of fun looking for images and molding the story even as I lived it, but on the final night out, my last battery died and the digital camera was rendered useless. Initially I was frustrated: angry that the time lapse I’d been shooting was cut short, disappointed that I would not be able to record images the next morning on our hike out. I went to sleep that night with my camera batteries tucked into my sleeping bag, hoping to warm them and eke some last bit of life out of them. When I awoke in the dark the next morning, they were dead as can be.

I crawled out of the tent and began to climb the Mt. Sterling fire tower with only my trusty old film camera to weigh me down. Halfway up I sat on a ledge in the chilly wind and watched as light began to creep over the eastern mountains. Film is expensive; so I didn’t bother snapping a lot of pictures as the color changed and the clouds morphed. I watched the sunrise blossom in many delicate shades, and I snapped one photo before descending to the ground again. My girlfriend and I ate a hearty breakfast and broke camp; then we began the long hike home through woods brilliant with fall color, straining our eyes to take it all in. •

Chris Gallaway is an adventurer and filmmaker. In 2013 Chris will be embarking on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, and he’ll be carrying twenty pounds of camera gear to document the journey.

Share this post:

Discover more in the Blue Ridge: