Why the Urge to Capture an Image?

I read a post on the Japan Camera Hunter blog in which the author posed a somewhat rhetorical question: “What’s the point in taking pictures?” It’s something I have thought about — a lot. When I bought the Maxxum 7000i, I knew exactly why I wanted to take pictures; I wanted good pics of my crocosmia and daylilies. And while I’ve taken many photos of both, I take pictures of other things as well–something I did not anticipate. It’s difficult for me to either understand or explain the appeal of wandering, camera in-hand, beyond my garden. The urge to shoot seems to start, for me anyway, with seeing things just differently enough to make them interesting. (Sorry, but I have no useful definition of “interesting.”) I’ve walked past my car many times, but when the urge is present, I suddenly notice the glare of sunlight reflecting off the windshield and hood. A vine that I have been planning to pull up, now wrapped around a pole, for some reason, seems worthy to record. Why???

A little night music, Minolta A7, Ultrafine Xtreme 100

The urge to take a picture of an object or capture a scene usually leads to action in a few well-defined steps. First, an object or setting attracts my attention. Then, at some point, a mental image begins to take shape. I start seeing angles, colors, juxtapositions, light, and shadows. There is little to no conscious effort–I don’t ponder these things–they insistently hang around in the back of my mind. After hours, days, or even weeks, I begin to wonder why the object or scene caught my attention, why it’s nagging me. Why do I want to take a picture of that building? What makes it special? Why am I drawn to it? I rarely have an answer. It is at this point that the image chooses an emulsion.  

For reasons I can’t begin to explain, some scenes are necessarily black and white. Some demand Porta 160, and for others, it’s stupidly apparent only Lomo 100 will work. All of these steps occur without my active participation. They come to me at all hours. I wake up with them or find myself daydreaming about them. When the essence of what I hope to capture crystalizes, I load some film and then figure out how to get the shot. 

In the tree tops, UltraMax, Maxxum 5

Looking back, I have come to realize that I have never taken a purely random shot unless it was to finish a roll. Rarely is a photo fully unimagined. I have hundreds— well maybe not hundreds—of mental images floating around, shots I want to take. Some are things I have seen in wandering about (places, buildings, objects), while others are still life compositions I hope to bring to reality.   

These proto-photographs linger, occasionally reminding me that they are awaiting my action. For example, a sweet gum tree in the backyard has a large “Y” branch about 25 feet above the ground. Every February, the moon rests in that “Y.” Glowing softly, tinted slightly golden by the city air, a shimmering halo surrounds it, rendering the night sky a beautiful dark blue. The first year I noticed it, I didn’t have a tripod. Last year, I tried it without much success. I recently found a site dedicated to astrophotography that explains my failure, so, next year, I plan to try again.  

Time was… XD11, HP5

Why this urge to shoot? Who knows? Why am I so particular about the exact images I want of daylilies and crocosmia? No idea. But when I manage to capture an image that is exactly what I imagined, there is an indescribable sense of satisfaction. It is a deeply pleasant experience like a nap in your favorite warm spot in winter, a perfect kiss, or watching your toddler chortle with glee while playing with a piece of cardboard.

I have no profound insights, no better answers than the guy who raised the question. I’ve learned not to question the urge—some things require no further examination. I’ve decided to worry about more important things, like making sure there is film in the fridge and batteries in the drawer. 


    1. It’s interesting to see how different people react to photography. I see my cameras primarily as tools, as a way to realize an image. I have my favorites, but they are favored because they make things easier. For me, using a camera is more meditative than it is fun.

      One aspect of photography that is fun for me is darkroom stuff. Making prints is pure enjoyment. Unfortunately, COVID put a damper on that. But I’m seriously considering turning an old basement workspace into a darkroom. A while ago, someone was offering a complete darkroom setup on eBay for 500.00. If I see something like that again, I’m buying it.

  1. 80% of the photos I take are because I think there’s something interesting there.

    The other 80% of the time I take photos because it’s fun to use my cameras!

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