Why I Take Photographs

First published in 1998 in The Light Box, the newsletter of the Peninsula Colorslide Club, now called the Peninsula Camera Club, in San Mateo, California. I used to be a member of the group, and a frequent judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs, until I moved to Washington state in November of 2002. I discovered the text of the following short article in my mother’s files after her death in April of 2023. See the new postscript at the end.

Why do I take photographs? Perhaps for the same reason I write poetry. Something moves me to express myself using photographic art—to capture a specific moment, to record this compositional idea, to preserve a certain instant of compelling light or action or stillness.

I suppose I take pictures because I caught the bug from my dad. Though I never took a single picture as a child, for years I saw my dad lug his lenses to mountaintops and canyon bottoms, in the car or along a trail. Photography went with travelling, and we did a lot of it. I saw my dad’s simple pleasure at making fine photographs and learned his patience, his compositional values, his creativity. And sometimes my siblings and I were good for contorting ourselves to create shadows around a startling flower, to reflect light off our bright T-shirts, or to carry a tripod or camera bag. It was an accidental apprenticeship.

For me photography is many things. In a way it’s like a diary. Any single roll of film is a sort of canvas, and any single shot is an attempt at my art. I’ll preserve the moments of wonder in my travels, or record images of friends and family and personal events. I arrange all my photographs in chronological order. Because I think in a linear, time-organized manner, I can quickly find most of my photographs by recalling when I took them. Pulling out one of my many binders stuffed with slide pages can take me down memory lane—not necessarily in a sentimental way, yearning for happy times of the past, but also for moments of incredible light or places where every shot of a hundred looked wonderful. At other times, when scanning my slides, I find dull pictures—times when the light exceeded the capabilities of my film or my ability to master the equipment. At times I’ll see a photo of mine and remember a picture I wish I’d taken, or remember a person I was with, the mood of travelling somewhere exotic, or of being near home with a tourist mindset.

Photography is also hard work—an intellectual challenge as well as an art. I prefer to take all of my pictures on a fully manual setting, even though the auto setting is just a click away (I’m glad to have a light meter, though!). I like the challenge of knowing a film, of setting the exposure and F-stop, of composing the shot with care. Sometimes it’s a leisurely process. At other times I’ll click a dozen times in as many breaths (no auto winder for me—yet). It’s always a mini-Christmas when I get back a new roll of slides and go through the ritual of numbering them (in my chronological system), and viewing them for the first time. “Yes!” I sometimes exclaim to no one but myself.

I suppose the main reason I take photographs is for the pleasure in sharing. Every year, at the holidays, I show my family the best of my previous year’s pictures. And at the Peninsula Colorslide Club I show pictures according to competition categories. Not only do I enjoy my pictures myself, but it’s a pleasure to share them—and a pleasure and education to see pictures taken by others.

Photography for me is something I can’t help but do. No wonder I, too, lug my lenses almost everywhere I go. I’ve caught the bug. I hope I never recover.



I can’t resist commenting on the technology referred to in this 1998 article—rolls of slide film! I was shooting with a Nikon F2 at this time and used Kodachrome 64 slide film almost exclusively. I do miss the excitement of getting rolls back from Kodak and looking through the photos for the first time. In contrast to the instant gratification of digital photography, seeing the results of slide photos took weeks, and I would always worry if a role might ever not come back to me—fortunately, that never happened. My hit rating was higher with slides, too, because I had to shoot more carefully, because every click cost money, unlike digital photography where any image could be an instant throwaway, easily replaced by a better shot taken immediately.

I must also say that I don’t lug my equipment around nearly as much these days, perhaps because of a growing dissatisfaction with my Nikon D90 digital camera and because of an increasing fulfilment from my smartphone’s camera, which has built-in features that make each photo brighter and more saturated—and my phone fits in my pocket!. Side by side, photos on my phone nearly always look better, even though they’re not as high in resolution (smartphones haven’t caught up on that score yet). My growing preference is to shoot photos with my phone, but one exception is blurred-light photos. The method I use is simply not possible on my phone, so I’m always happy to still shoot such photos on my D90, such as when I lug it out to see the fireworks on July 4. But on a summer 2022 trip to the Olympic Peninsula, I took my D90 but didn't shoot a single photo with it! I’ve definitely still got the camera bug, but it’s evolved along with the technology. I wish my phones photos were much higher in resolution, but I can’t say I miss film!

—20 April 2023