Psychology of Travel: Does taking photos add or detract from the experience?

June 11, 2016 | By More
Tourist taking a photo in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

One of many tourists taking photos in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

A new study looks at how taking photos affects enjoyment of an experience.

There are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to the value of taking photos on vacation. I’m married to someone who strongly believes that photos unequivocally enhance his enjoyment of our travels. His explanation in twofold: The camera lens encourages his eyes and mind to focus on the beauty or interest of a particular site or destination. In addition, viewing the photographs afterwards brings those memories alive again—for example, where we were, what we were doing, whom we were with.

Another photographer in the Uffizi

Another tourist photographer in the Uffizi

Jerry adjusting his camera to the sun in Los Cabos, Mexico

Jerry adjusting his camera to the sun in Los Cabos, Mexico

Conversely, some travelers feel strongly that a “focus” on capturing an image interferes with the here and now—and is actually a distraction that diminishes the pleasures of travel. Although I don’t agree completely, I can understand that point of view, too. As a travel writer, I am often frustrated trying to juggle my pad, pencil and camera while staying involved. (I’m so fortunate that Jerry picks up the slack and does a solid job with great photography.)

An interesting study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports on nine experiments with more than 2000 participants that looked at how taking photos affects an individual’s enjoyment of an activity. Three of the experiments took place in the field (one involved people on a bus tour); the other six were conducted in a laboratory setting.

“To the best of our knowledge, this research is the first extensive investigation examining how taking photos affects people’s enjoyment of their experiences,” write Kristin Diehl, PhD, of the University of Southern California; Gal Zauberman, PhD, of Yale University; and Alixandra Barasch, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania.

The study authors’ conclusions were summarized in a press release from the American Psychological Association (APA):

“We show that, relative to not taking photos, photography can heighten enjoyment of positive experiences by increasing engagement.”

Tourist taking photos at the Wynwood Walls in Miami

Tourist taking photos at the Wynwood Walls in Miami

Jerry and my friend Linda taking photos in Cesenatico, Italy (Emilia Romagna)

Jerry and my friend Linda taking photos in Cesenatico, Italy (Emilia Romagna)

However, the authors identify certain instances when taking pictures can detract from the experience:

  • In one experiment comparing people actively involved in an arts and crafts project to a group of observers, the researchers found that increased enjoyment was limited to those who were observers (not the participants). Although this particular experiment wasn’t focused on travelers, per se, one might infer that taking photos during common hands-on traveler activities, like a cooking class, might interfere with enjoyment.
  • The researchers found that having to handle cumbersome camera equipment can also decrease enjoyment of the activity. We are firm believers in the “small is beautiful” brand of photography even if we have to make some sacrifices in terms of quality. We use cell phone cameras (which are constantly improving) and quality point and shoot cameras.

Given that the use of cell phone cameras has become so ubiquitous (and often controversial), the study and its conclusions are quite timely. The researchers write:

While taking photos during an experience adds another activity, unlike traditional dual-task situations that divide attention, capturing experiences with photos actually focuses attention onto the experience, particularly on aspects of the experience worth capturing. As a result, photo-taking leads people to become more engaged with the experience.

You can read this interesting study in its entirety. The full text of the article is online, available from the APA Public Affairs Office.

Jerry adjusting his camera to the dark in Castelfalfi, Italy (Tuscany)

Jerry adjusting his camera to the dark in Castelfalfi, Italy (Tuscany)


Do you ever question whether you take too many pictures or that photography might be interfering with your enjoyment of travel?

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Category: TIPS

Comments (37)

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  1. Sheryl Kraft says:

    I love taking photos when I travel but have different feelings about the act of doing so. One, it engages me more in the experience. But on the other hand, it sometimes distracts me from what is happening around me. Given the choice of taking them or not, I’d rather be behind the lens, creating my own special vision.
    PS. I love Jerry’s photos – always beautiful to behold!

  2. Laura says:

    I’ll always take pics, love the memories and looking back years later. I’ve been thinking lately about how I’m going to pass down these memories with most of my recent years stored electronically, as I rarely print hard copies.

  3. Karen Warren says:

    I love taking pictures and I’m always glad to have something to look back at. But… sometimes it’s liberating just to look. I went on a whale watching tour a few years ago and the guide kept telling us to “look with our eyes, not just with our cameras”. It was good advice!

  4. Rebecca says:

    Oh yes, I question all the time if I am not just allowing myself to ‘be’ and trying too hard to prove something. But it is hard to strike a balance, especially as a travel blogger and writer.
    I try to allow myself some time off….but even then, when I see something worth snapping, I grab my iPhone.

    Great article.

  5. Jane says:

    I’m like you, and have a partner who is a great photographer, so I think I have the best of both worlds – he captures a lot of the documentary images, we both explore our creativity with more artsy images, and I can also concentrate on taking notes, listening to guides, etc, which I love. I think as long as your photos are something that feels like part of your experience, and you’re not sacrificing the latter for the former, photography enhances travel.

  6. Janice Chung says:

    Really interesting post. I’m like your husband, believing that taking photos enhances the whole experience. I feel it helps me focus and really look at the architecture, scenery and light..much more than if I didn’t have my camera with me. Also helps if I can sit and just take it all in. Like the other commenters, when I look back on my photos, I have great memories and recall specific experiences.

  7. Perhaps a new study but not really new findings. I have heard this conclusion for years. Certainly documenting trips requires a balance and I believe it varies by person.

  8. Slowing down to take a photo is different than slowing down to absorb with all the senses, yes. But I don\’t think these two methods of experience should be pitted against each other. It reminds me of the \”are you a \’traveler\’ or a \’tourist\’\” question – both labels describe a status of being away from home, yet one attempts to delegitimize. Photographers will often wait and wait for the right shot, absorbing far more in certain cases than someone who briefly stops and then leaves, or is distracted by logistics en route, etc.

  9. I find I look at things differently since getting into photography. That came about through travel blogging so I’m glad about the different perspective it brings but I do sometimes resent feeling obliged to take photos for my blog instead of simply ‘being’ in the moment, especially when it comes to photographing my dinner. My husband is really patient most of the time but gets most annoyed when he has to wait until I’ve snapped his meal before he can dig in!

  10. Denis Gagnon says:

    You are raising a very interesting question. I think that there are situations where photography helps enjoy an experience, but I also believe that there are many situations where it represents a distraction. It is more difficult to enjoy a romantic moment with someone if you or that person is focused on taking photos, don’t you think? So my question is, are you trying to enjoy the experience or trying to enjoy the company you are with?

  11. Carol Colborn says:

    I was a traveler who snaps photos entirely for documentation purposes, for looking at later “when we are bound to our rocking chairs.” But, lately, i have been more and more of a photographer, finding the hidden gems in the beauty of the experience that engulfs us when we descend upon a new place. Now that I have won some local photo contests, I think it has definitely enhanced my travels, especially as we make long road trips, as we just recently done through the Canadian Rockies. My husband drives and I take photos.

  12. An interesting topic indeed! I definitely think taking photos enhances my focus. I often notice things in photos that I missed in person. But mainly photos refresh my memory. I don’t think I’d do a very good job of writing without them. I do find that using my iPhone now exclusively has made my job easier than when I worked with a camera. The change for me has been about 6 months now, and I am not considering going back to a camera.

    • I feel the same way. It’s too hard to juggle a notebook, camera, phone and purse. I’m fortunate that my husband can take photos that demand a better zoom.

  13. Great topic and one that has been much on my mind as we cruise the world. I love having photos as memories, but it does detract from the experience of feeling, seeing and understanding especially if you only have a moment at that spot.

  14. Donna Janke says:

    This is a great question. I can relate to both sides of it. I’ve always taken a lot of photos when I travel and enjoy the memories going through them later. Now as a travel blogger, I use those in my posts and take even more photos. It is easy to become more obsessed with getting the shots than appreciating the moment. But sometimes because I am looking for an interesting shot I notice things I wouldn’t otherwise. I am working on the balance between capturing the moment in pictures and putting the camera aside to be in the moment.

  15. Patti Morrow says:

    Excellent, excellent question and analysis! While I do love taking photos, I feel like I can do a much better job taking in all I need to write about a destination unencumbered. I absolutely love it when I have someone with me to take the photos… at my direction, of course. 🙂

  16. Lauren says:

    It’s great to have your own personal interpretation of the “ports of call” through photographs! I say… magical!

  17. I love taking photos and trying to improve my skills, but as a travel writer, it can sometimes take away from the experience as you try to make sure you have all the ‘shots’. One thing I do enjoy is going back through the files years later and reliving the experience. The key is to find balance. Not sure I’ve achieved that yet!

  18. Sue Reddel says:

    Great article Irene. Such a quandary especially for us travel bloggers. One thing I\’ve done to help \”enjoy\” the moment, especially with food is to take the photos then set all the equipment aside to really enjoy the meal. No one is going to be upset if the the photos don\’t get posted until we can actually taste it and draw our own conclusions. This helps make the experience so much better and the reporting too.

  19. Sandy says:

    Great discussion! I’m neither a pro photographer or a travel writer. I like the experience of the moment as well as the pictures that refresh my memory and help me relive the moment later. Pictures often reveal things I missed at the moment of the experience. The balance is more readily achieved when the traveler (1) really knows what the camera/cell phone can do as a tool without having to think about which settings should be used; (2) has a natural or learned understanding about composition; and (3) and responds to the moment using a photographic tool spontaneously and emotionally rather than clinically. Some of my best pictures resulted from a WOW moment when I just grabbed my camera and took the picture. Although not perfect from a technical perspective, they are immensely satisfying when viewed later.

  20. I LOVE all of the
    Photos of all the travelers taking photos!!

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