In a Lot of Ways, Life Was Better When We Had Fewer Cameras Around

In a Lot of Ways, Life Was Better When We Had Fewer Cameras Around

There are more cameras around than ever before, and more photos are being taken than at any other point in history. Personally, I do not think that is necessarily a good thing. 

Is this my first grumpy old man article? I think this might be my first grumpy old man article. Is 33 too young to be writing this? Oh well, I'm doing it. Here we go. Buckle up.

I am lucky to be just old enough to have grown up before the internet and handheld tech were ubiquitous, so it has given me a nice perspective on how their growth has influenced our individual experience (or at least mine) and culture at large. I remember life without these things, and I live life having largely embraced them.

Photos Were Special

Smartphones and social media have vastly changed the average person's relationship with photography. Before social media, for the average person, photography was a means of creating records of important life events: family vacations, the birth of a child, etc. Due to the inherent nature of film, its cost, and the way we related to photos, we brought the camera out for less occasions, and when we did bring it out, it was a tool with which we engaged sparingly, relatively speaking. Photos were often soft, had red-eye, were over- or underexposed, etc., but none of that mattered most of the time, because photos were almost meant less as the memories themselves and more as an impetus, a trigger for a memory or emotion. Looking at a photo would remind the viewer of that time or invite a conversation about it. Image quality issues also mattered less simply because there was no way around them short of spending a lot of money and receiving some level of training on equipment that was not as automated and user friendly as it is today.

I literally could not care less about the image quality in this photo.

Of course, if you wanted better photos, the type you might frame as family heirlooms, you could hire a professional, and people frequently did for special occasions: weddings, family holiday portraits, senior pictures, etc. These were the sorts of shots that were more of a documentary nature, meant to forever denote and archive a pivotal life event. 

The Incessant Need to Document and the Obsession With the Perfect Shot

Now, a lot of that has changed. Digital means you can take as many photos as you want essentially without incurring additional cost. The advancing capabilities of smartphones mean that pretty much anyone can take high-quality images in a variety of situations — at least situations that are normally encountered on a daily basis. Those two things in combination have led to two things: an incessant need to document and an obsession with the perfect shot. 

Documenting Everything

We document more situations than ever before, many of them things that not too long ago would be so universally considered to be mundane or of poor quality for recording that no one would dream of committing them to electronic (film) memory. And it is a weird thing when you stop to think about it, because the purpose of documenting is preservation for revisiting something later. And yet, how often do we take that terrible concert video with blown-out sound, never to watch it again? Does anyone revisit their shots of their avocado toast on their phone's camera roll? Absolutely, many things we point our smartphone cameras at are well worth preserving: birthdays, a special date night, etc. But so many others are not. So, why does we bother to do so?

Status. Some events are not documented for future consumption by the creator and those close to them, but rather for consumption in the present by those with whom the creator is in a sort of implicit social competition. The photo of the avocado toast is not of the avocado toast; it is of healthy lifestyle, of the ability to afford eating out, of the "interesting" lifestyle that aspires to those things we are told to aspire to by the often self-appointed gurus of lifestyle, those who make their living through modeling some (most often faux or at least heavily contrived and pruned) model of living. 

Ugh, just eat your food!

When the quantity of photos skyrockets, the novelty and importance of any single photo correspondingly decreases. You can see a perfect demonstration of that just by considering how you interact with photos personally. How often do you open Instagram and scroll mindlessly, perhaps pausing for a slightly longer though still insignificant moment when you see a truly good photo? I know I am certainly guilty of this behavior. Photos that took years of training and practice and hours of time to create get mere moments of our attention. We are visually bored, and it shows in our interactions with images. 

Obsession and Missing Out

We also obsess over the perfect shot, even of throwaway subjects or moments. Gone are the days of taking two shots, one in case someone closed their eyes the first time. Now, we take dozens of shots of everything from that avocado toast to groups of friends. The act of a photo is often more about a performance for an invisible audience than capturing authenticity, which has fundamentally changed our relationship to photos — not necessarily for the better.

We also miss out on experiences because we are more concerned with documenting them than experiencing them. For example, psychological studies have shown that people's ability to remember details of an experience decreases when they are focused on taking pictures. That obsession with taking photos of everything is literally decreasing our ability to experience life's events. 

It Is Not All Bad

Don't get me wrong. The mass proliferation of cameras has not been a universally bad thing. We can share photos with family and friends in ways that were not possible before, we can document social and societal issues far more thoroughly, and we almost always have cameras on hand for unexpected moments. I simply think that our relationship with photos and the act of taking photos has changed, both for better and worse. More importantly, however, I believe that we have not examined our relationship with those things in a long time and that it could potentially do a lot of good to take time to examine it. 

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31 Comments

Simon Patterson's picture

Good points there. We could probably all do with a little more introspection about what we choose to do in life, including how and why we record so much of it.

Pedro Calado's picture

I totally agree with you! Photography and taking pictures has become mundane...

I really enjoyed the article! Cheers!

There are so many great photos around now that I no longer am amazed by what the shot is or the technical expertise. Art is art and I'm not demeaning photographers who produce great shots but great shots are all around all the time.

But not everything is art. If it were, 100 photos of your tonsils in Flickr would be art.

I'm not much interested in looking at your lunch but I do find pictures of your pets and children mildly interesting.

Since you are 33 you probably never had the joy of going on vacation and carefully rationing out the photos because mom only gave you a couple 12 exposure rolls of film for a week long trip "up north" and you find out after a week that the photos are all blurry, too dark or not loaded right and you got 3 "good shots"
Or as I was doing during lockdown. Looking thru hundreds of my dads slides from the 60s and 70s. 15% are good, but most are mis focussed, or woefully under or overexposed. Into the bin they go.
I can't count the number of flash photos that I took at 1/125 when the sync speed was 1/60.

Of course there is way too much of "photos or it didn't happen" going on when there are cameras pointed at every mundane event because of FOMO.

I really am amazed at the quality of today's cameras and phones, and the great results that people get without much training. More good photos are a good thing, even of avocado toast.

I'll get off your lawn now.

How does this not apply to people in their 30s? Do you realize how terrible the point and shoots we could afford as kids were back in the 90s? Never mind that small stores (or at least the only one my parents would take me to) charged quite a bit to develop photos...

By the 1990s point and shoots were pretty idiot proof.

"In 2014, according to Mary Meeker's annual Internet Trends report, people uploaded an average of 1.8 billion digital images every single day."

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/11/how-many-photogra....

I've had a lifelong love of photography, but it was the digital revolution that the lowered the cost barrier and provided the instant feedback that accelerated my learning and enabled experimentation. But then I think of selfies and food pics. So, I agree, in a lot of ways life was better and photographs meant so much more.

Rick Knight's picture

Remember when Natural Geographic's had the most beautiful pictures? They don't anymore.

Wolfgang Post's picture

'I simply think that our relationship with photos and the act of taking photos has changed, both for better and worse.' - Replace 'taking pictures' with anything else you like, e.. air travel, (online) shopping, eating and food, money .. you name it and you will get the same set of good, thought provoking questions. Life is about changes, things that were rare and special once have become mundane and simple now. Things that were common in the past have been dropped and abandoned these days. What irks me more is when people state this 'it was all better in the past'.
Coming back to photography, one thing remains: everyone can take pictures, not so many can create good pictures but only few are able to create art. For the latter ones, the (online) audience has become much much larger.

The article does recognize that everything changes, but with the observation that perhaps not for the best. Hard to argue with that generalized proposition, even if this is no different than what happened 100 years ago when again, changes were taking place. I guess the author is trying to make the point that abundance, in of itself, is not necessarily a good thing. Perhaps it makes it much harder to find the true talent out there, or the really good photos in Flickr when someone has posted 500 photographs of their pet taken seconds apart, or something like that. Definitely, a reality of the times at which every generation lives, even if the value of all that massive proliferation is sometimes overrated.

Saying there are too many photos today is like saying there are too many words being written today. And maybe there are too many millions of meaningless, pedantic, idiotic words being written and spoken. The internet makes it all too easy for people to write whatever they want and "share" with the world. It all gets so tiresome and trite. Why bother writing anything anymore? As for words about there being too many photos, we've all heard that many times before. Do we really need more words on that hackneyed topic? There are already too many words about too many photos. That avocado toast does look good, though.

Alex Yakimov's picture

It all comes down that we are as a species are quite irrational and emotional, at least according to behavioural economics... And that is not necessarily a "bad" thing. ooops! more words...

I used to like very much the genre "I Shot Myself" wherein beautiful young women would do nude selfies. Their smiles were precious. I wonder if that is still around.

I suspect that drowned in the deluge of all the very lame selfies -- the toothy grins and the sunglasses -- two or three BFFs out having a nice time.

Call me old fashioned, but if they are not taking off their clothes I'd rather see photos of their pets.

vik .'s picture

True. Digital ruined it for many.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

life different not better. it same for pen and typewriter, user not have skil with tool

Tony Hetherington's picture

Everything has become very homogenised it seems.......all the portraits are photoshopped...all the landscapes are photoshopped..etc etc.....all of us trying to create an ideal or the idea of what is perfect ???!!!......every blemish of one sort or another has to be done away with...all very tedious......bring back wrinkles and skies as they really are I say !!!😁😁😂😂

Agreed. Plenty of that on the hoof out there.

People watching is the mother lode for natural portraits.

An aimless ramble in the fresh air can inspire satisfying landscape photos.

I am greatly appreciating people's eyes now that so many people are wearing masks.

Tony Hetherington's picture

I have just randomly picked out 10 landscapes.......10 different photographers......could have been the same person who took all of them if they didn't have the photographers name next to them...what has happened to individuality ??.......what has happened is that a certain look is expected and it's a terrible shame and it seems to apply to many other aspects of our society.....as you can tell I,m in a ranting mood today 🤐🤐🤐

Tony Hetherington's picture

😁😁😨😨😨😨😨😨😨😛😛😛😴😴😴

Great article and I agree, I am a little older 48 and have seen alot of changes with pictures. I also with kids have noticed if I do not put down my camera at times I seem to be watching from the outside not living in the moment as much.

I HAVE AN IDEA FOR NEXT GRUMPY OLD MAN ARTICLE.... Photoshop is an art so is capturing the perfect moment and lighting....but as we scroll through social media sometimes we say great pic not knowing...sky was replaced, moon was added does not even closely represent what was seen at the time....both are art but why do some people act like they caught everything in camera...as artist we should explain our art Photoshop being a form of art be proud of what you did to the sky and be proud if you did nothing but a little dodging and burning...just a thought.

A photograph that has its real sky and moon is more pleasing than the store-bought sky or cut and paste moon.

There is an authenticity to the real sky that is native to the imperfect yet pleasing reality that was captured.

I've had enough of saturated colors. I'm more pleased by the less than perfect. This is not an original aesthetic.

Back in the day there were no selfies or hordes of Instagram “influencers” trumpeting their airhead selves to the world.

Rick Knight's picture

Sorry to brake your bubble. Here is one of the first selfies... back in the days.

Timothy Gasper's picture

"In a Way, Life Was A Lot Better With Fewer Cameras Around"

Damn right Skippy

Stephen Nolly's picture

Unless you're a POC or a victim of police brutality, in which case, having cameras everywhere saves lives.

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