mikegreenimages

Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Musings on: the problem with multi-tasking

When I first started making photographs in what some people would call a ‘serious’ manner – going out with intent to photograph, rather than merely having a camera with me to capture memories – I took my camera and all my photographic kit with me every time I went out walking. I’ve stopped doing that, and this article is about why, and in what way that’s a good idea from the perspective of my future photography.

This post was inspired directly by a very good article from Richard Childs on his WordPress site; well worth a read. Richard’s post led me to recognise that I’ve been modifying my behaviour in capturing photographs over the last few months. It’s about – I’m paraphrasing wildly here – the disadvantages of combining two things:

  • the enjoyment of being out in the countryside;
  • and the enjoyment of making images.

As with so many combined activities, each can reduce enjoyment of the other. In particular, for me, going out to make photographs can definitely detract from certain aspects of the experience of being up a hill or mountain, or wandering in an area of woodland. Richard offers a solution to this problem and I have a slightly different one. That is, I do at the moment. Over time, everything changes and no doubt my current approach may evolve further.

Why doesn’t combining the above work well for me?

A considerable part of my enjoyment in the outdoors is being very aware of everything going on around me: the sounds; the change in wind direction and speed; signs of weather systems moving in or clearing; and the landscape being revealed as I move through it, whether due to change in position or change in the weather. I could list more, but I’m sure you get the idea: I have found that I like to feel involved and part of the landscape, and to do that well I need to be aware of everything that’s happening.

This sounds great for photography! After all, if I’m so aware of my surroundings, then I am presumably more likely to notice potential compositions. That’s true, it is good …. for photography, but not for walking and the whole outdoors experience; and hence, perhaps, in the longer term, not for photography either if it puts me off going out walking as much.

The problem – well, my problem – is that I do notice things, and then I stop, for a long time, work out a composition, then wait for the light to do whatever I think it might be going to do… All perfectly fine, except that if I have any kind of objective other than capturing images – getting to the top of a series of hills on a circular route perhaps – I either don’t have time to stop for long enough to make a good job of the composition, or I choose to do so and then don’t have time to finish the walk….

The image below, for example: I remember the immediate area around this small water flow in great detail, but I have near-zero recollection of approaching it, what the weather was doing, or how the surroundings looked. Given that this is in the valley between Buachaille Etive Mor and Buachaille Etive Beag, at the top of Glencoe, a spectacular setting, that seems a bit of a waste in some respects, though I was pleased with the image.
Claw

Now that’s not necessarily a problem on the odd occasion, but when it’s repeated on every walk – and that is what was happening to me earlier this year – it starts to mean that I’m not really doing ‘decent’ walks any more, I’m doing truncated versions of them. Great for photography, somewhat less so for the whole ‘going for a planned walk’ thing. Not only that, but in order to cater for unplanned images, I feel that I need to take all my photographic equipment with me. That adds weight and means that I plan shorter walks, another detriment to the walking part of the day.

And then there’s the disconnection from the landscape which I suffer when setting up a shot and concentrating on the photographic part of the combined activity: I lose the all-important awareness of what’s happening around me; my experience reduces to the image I’m making at the expense of everything else. After such a combined walking and photography trip, what I recall tends to be the composition and capturing of images, not the walking. Over time I’ve found that every trip has that photograph-biased character and that I’m not appreciating being out in the countryside quite as much as I used to.

So, I’m clearly not great at multi-tasking; fair enough! That said, I have a strong suspicion that many people aren’t, that it’s not just me. Yes, I can do multiple things at once, but I’m pretty sure they all suffer in comparison to giving each my full attention, and, by observation, I think this is true of the majority of people. Take the example of watching television or listening to a radio programme whilst reading or writing an email, if you’ve done that: did you miss bits of the programme, or write less coherently than usual in the email? If not, congratulations. If you did have that problem, think what it means for creative activities such as photography, or meditative ones such as walking. To me it implies that something will inevitably be lost from either or both experiences.

My take on this is that over time, were I to carry on like this, my ‘being outdoors for the sake of it’ activity would be diminished by the urge to take photographs, I’d start to resent the intrusion of photography into walking, and then not only would the walking suffer, but the photography would too, in that I’d do less, or hurry things. Since I want to do both, I had to come up with some kind of plan to avoid that happening.

A simple solution?

To address the issue, I’ve adopted the approach of not taking the camera equipment on things which I deem as walks. Conversely, I’m actively thinking of the walking part of photographic outings as merely the means of getting there, so my trips either have the objective of taking photographs, or of doing a good walk, but not both – it avoids later disappointment!

Of course, that’s a little absolutist and what I’m really doing when on ‘proper walks’ is making mental notes of places which I think are worth re-visiting with a camera on a dedicated, photographic outing; but I don’t spend any time working out the composition – I just note it as having image potential and move on, or return to watching the landscape and weather unfold for its own sake, rather than with the objective of capturing it in a photograph. I’m not about to completely divorce ‘going for a walk’ from taking photographs, but I am going to make sure that I make at least some outings purely for the sake of being out there, and don’t allow the photography to take over completely.

Do read Richard’s article for a subtly different take on this. I’m not convinced that what he proposes would work for me, but, fortunately, everyone’s different. The main point here is to ask yourself whether more specialisation (‘go for a walk’ versus ‘go out to make photographs’) is a good idea or not; whether the net effect, to you, of combining two activities is to enhance them both, or whether one adversely affects the other (and it can be either way around!).

It’s something that I’m sure is worth thinking about. The more things I do in all sorts of areas – not just photography and walking – the more I feel that I achieve more rewarding results when I concentrate on doing one thing at a time and doing it well. Incidentally, this series of thought ties in directly with my earlier musing on who to go out making photographs with, in which I reached similar conclusions on a different aspect of combining activities.

In summary: it would seem that I’m doing the same with my approach to all aspects of making landscape photographs as I endeavour to do in my actual images: simplifying.

Addendum

Julian Barkway has near-simultaneously published a blog article on a related theme which is also well worth reading. It brings out another facet of this area but is also, essentially, about not letting the making of photographs spoil your enjoyment of being out in the countryside. Clearly, this is a popular theme and one which it really is worth having a think about from your own perspective!

8 Responses to “Musings on: the problem with multi-tasking”

    • Mike Green

      Strange serendipity. I saw and read your piece in my RSS feed straight after posting this and was (am) about to add a link to it in here.

      Clearly, it’s a point worthy of being made and considered!

      Reply
  1. Colin Griffiths

    Thanks for the thoughtful post Mike, it’s one with which I can completely relate to. A number of years ago I went on a walk along the Gruinard River laden with 645 camera, lenses and Benbo Mk1 tripod. After a couple of hours plodding along, I had become quite frustrated with my inability to find any compositions despite the wonderful scenery. So I sat down on a rock and thought “sod this” and for a while just relaxed and enjoyed the ambiance of the place. Then I literally looked right in front of me and saw a composition that said everything about the place. It made a nice image and was a huge lesson to me.

    Reply
    • Mike Green

      Glad you could relate to it, Colin. I’m sure it’s not exactly an uncommon feeling!

      I wrote it largely to encourage people to have a think about whether separating activities is a good idea (I currently think it is, obviously). I think your story there illustrates that if we try too hard, we perhaps lose our ‘connection’ with the landscape and that relaxing a little, as you did, can bring that back and provide both a better experience and better images.

      Of course I also wrote it, as with all my posts, as a record for myself on how my thinking is changing over time!

      Thanks for the comment.

      Mike

      Reply
  2. Dave Moorhouse

    Excellent blog Mike, & one that I can identify with.
    I agree that it’s difficult to mix the enjoyment of hill walking with carting all your gear around.
    If I’m hill walking it’s nearly always with my wife Linda, if I started erecting tripods & looking for optimum view points I think I would have to finish the walk on my own!
    But I do take my camera & a do-it all zoom, just in case I see something that I can come back to & of course record our walk, Linda is good at spotting things that I haven’t seen.
    I did have a compact camera which I used to take, but it died when it came into contact with a river. I should really replace it, something like the Canon G12 would be ideal, it’s just a question of finance at the moment.
    If I go out to take photographs then that’s the main objective, the walking is a means to an end, there’s no pressure then to complete a walk & I can take as much time as I need.
    I don’t think that this is totally distracting, I enjoy stopping & taking in the landscape, & I enjoy extreme weather, sometimes I don’t stop enough on a walk.
    Cheers
    Dave

    Reply
    • Mike Green

      Thanks very much, Dave.

      As you can tell, I’m still trying to work out the best set of compromises here ;-) At the moment, when walking with people I’m rather cheekily relying on them to take ‘remind me of this possible composition’ images – best of both worlds since I’m not carrying a camera at all, but have access to one! But yes, putting up tripods and faffing around with filters and such really isn’t what a non-photographer wants to stand around and watch, in general, I’m sure! I need to work on not letting the search for compositions detract from the ‘being there’ too much; for the time being, I think the approach of dividing the two activities will work, at least for a while.

      Reply
  3. David Barrett

    Another good read, Mike and, as you’ve discovered, seemingly very landscape photographer community zeitgeisty.

    The other day, when I was photographically poking about in Borrowdale, it was raining so heavily for much of the day that I ended up having a really good walk despite myself. Really good, that is apart from the fact that my backpack contained two heavy lenses, filters, camera, tripod … etc … and not enough lunch.

    Earlier in the day I had had a really good time clambering over some fallen trees with my three different aspect ratio laminated card viewfinders looking for compositions. I had such a good time doing that—seeing and enjoying (abstracting!) so much natural wonder—that I was reluctant to stop seeing it to photograph it. Then it started raining so heavily that I couldn’t make an image, which initially irritated me. But I decided to see it as a positive. I had seen so much and could always come back to the spot. I was formulating a blog post in my mind as I walked in the rain with a title along the lines of “Why it is a good idea to go out photographing without your camera”. But you appear to have saved me the job. I’ll just tweet and link to this instead.

    A good definition of multi-tasking that I heard somewhere not so long ago: doing more than one thing in a half-arsed way.

    I am with you and Richard Childs. Walking used to be a huge pleasure and it is somewhat spoilt but the joy/fastidiousness of composing and making landscape images. Then there’s fitness to consider. Apart from knee wear and tear, walking the hills used to be the thing that kept me a stone lighter and aerobically exercised.

    Since I started obsessing about landscape photography I don’t tend to make it onto the tops anymore. And, when I lead photography workshops or holidays, planning more than two or three miles walking is usually a mistake. Everybody seems to have the kitchen sink with them and, for fully understandable and justifiably reasons, the average walking speed is sub one mile an hour.

    My conclusion is, again, similar to yours. Go walking or go photographing. By all means make mental or GPS note of places with photography potential, but don’t spend an hour leaping about with a viewfinder in a small area. Walk the walk.

    I’ve thought of picking up a second-hand G11 and using it “sketchbookily” but I think that has the potential to stray back into half-arsedness. I’d probably end blowing some more of my daughter’s inheritance on Lee Rangefinder filters …

    You and I have talked about venturing out on a photo walk together in the Howgills—a range of hills which, I am ashamed to admit, are photographic plumbers taps for me. How about this: lets go for a Howgill photo walk or two *without cameras*. We could walk the walk and the talk we talk may or may not be about photography. Have you done the Howgill north-south traverse from near Newbiggin to Sedbergh? I think your lost valley image may be from the northern end of that.

    BTW, I’ve been wondering what to do with Google+, too. There’s far to much social media about.

    Reply
    • Mike Green

      Thanks for the comment, David. Yes, it does seem to be a popular topic of thought at the moment!

      I’ll certainly take you up on your walk offer – let’s discuss that via email. Whilst I understand the Howgills being plumber’s taps, I’d argue that it’s possible to find very fine taps ;-) And yes, ‘Hidden valley’ is from the northern end of the range looking towards The Calf. I’d parked at Bowderdale to get there.

      A very pertinent story about your Borrowdale walk! I’ve done the same: ended up carrying the camera gear, but not anything other than that, and then not used the former and regretted the lack of the latter. We seem to be violently agreeing on how to approach this problem, though I should probably have mentioned that it’s a good problem to have in many ways: I enjoy walking and I enjoy landscape photography, I merely need to avoid the idea of combining them to the detriment of each (a shame, but a good realisation). I like my technique of not having a camera, but being with someone who does have ;-) Prevents excessive ‘note taking’, but it’s still possible; quite a useful discipline I’ve found.

      Mike

      Reply

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