Still Worth a Thousand Words

It’s a good time to be a photographer, amateur or otherwise. An estimated 0.3 trillion photos were taken globally in 2010. By 2017, researchers estimate that number will climb to 1.3 trillion. The prevalence of digital cameras alone or in cell phones has given the public unprecedented access to simple and cheap photography. Not only are people taking more photos, but they have more ways to share them. Photos are a ubiquitous part of the social media experience, with as many as two billion photos per day being uploaded to Facebook alone.

To many, this explosion of photos is a nuisance.  Some restaurants have banned photography within their premises in an attempt to keep their customers focused on eating. When polled, 31% of people think that taking photos distracts from an activity and makes it less enjoyable. Do their complaints have a basis in science? Recent studies have taken up this question.

Wondering what effect photography might have on the attention and enjoyment of an activity, researchers Kristin Diehl, Gal Zauberman, and Alixandra Barasch devised a series of experiments. They placed people in a variety of situations where photography might often be a part of the experience, such as a bus tour, eating dinner, or at a concert. They assigned half of their participants to take photos during their activity and half to abstain. In each condition, the people who documented their experience through photography enjoyed themselves more than those that did not!

Taking a picture of this lobster roll must have helped me enjoy it more!

Taking a picture of this lobster roll must have helped me enjoy it more!

This positive relationship with photography exists throughout the many variations they carried out. People enjoyed taking photos even when the subject was relatively unchanging, like a singer in front of a blank background. They tested subjects in highly controlled lab settings where participants were given the opportunity to simulate nature photography with a bulky camera blocking much of their vision. Even when photography was more inconvenient, people still had a better time if there taking pictures.

Over and over, they demonstrated that people had more fun when they took photos than when they didn’t. Even when they removed cameras from the equation altogether and asked participants to just plan hypothetical photos they might take throughout an activity, participants still reported greater satisfaction. Apparently it’s fun to take pictures even when you’re only thinking about it!

But are you paying attention?

It’s good to enjoy yourself, but when people start taking a lot of photos, are they really focused on the experience? Are they missing vital parts of the activity because they’re distracted by photography?

Photo by Kate Dzikiewicz

Photo by Kate Dzikiewicz

In another trial, the researchers fitted participants with special glasses that could track what they were looking at and for how long. Participants were turned loose in a museum, some with cameras, and some without. Did the photographing participants have a more shallow experience, as casual photography dismissers attest? No, they didn’t.

The participants assigned to take photos paid more attention to the museum exhibit than the group who didn’t take pictures. They looked at more art, and looked at each piece for a longer time. They even looked at the descriptive placards for longer, even though they were not taking pictures of the text. Not only did they have a better time, but they also got more out of the experience by taking pictures throughout their trip.

When photos get icky

Photo by Kate Dzikiewicz

Photo by Kate Dzikiewicz

There was one condition where photography caused a decrease in enjoyment: When the situation got disturbing. Participants were presented with virtual safari experiences. Some saw animals feeding uneventfully on dead carcasses while others witnessed lions gruesomely killing their prey.

In this case, those that were asked to take photos of the more gruesome encounter reported a less pleasant experience. Unsurprisingly, increasing focus on distressing subjects makes people uneasy!

Where the research ends

Though this series of experiments showed that people gain enjoyment and focus from photography, the researchers didn’t take any measurements of memory. It is still unknown whether taking pictures will help or hurt your ability to recollect the experience after.

Nonetheless, it seems like time to stop scoffing at people taking pictures of their meals or posing for selfies with the Washington Monument. Not only are they having fun, but they’re increasing their engagement with their activities as well!

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow