Should you take photos of your vacation?

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Youíre on a whale-watching boat, and have been for hours. Youíve seen a few puffs of airóor at least you think you haveóbut not a single whale has breached, and youíre getting impatient.

Youíve seen the glossy photos of majestic whales used in the whale watch brochure, and were hoping to get a great shot of your own. But now your arms are tired of holding your bulky, expensive camera, and you just want something to happen. Suddenly, a whaleís head emerges from the water!

With your senses dulled by the hours at sea, and hands numbed by the cold air, your reflexes arenít as quick as usual. You fumble with your camera and just miss the photo. Even worse, in trying to capture the whale on film, you didnít even get to experience it live. The boat heads home, and youíre filled with disappointment.

Was bringing the camera worth it? What if you had successfully captured the perfect moment forever? What if instead of having a camera, you had been mentally present throughout the experience, and committed the moment to memory?

Vacation and photography often go hand-in-hand. But whether they should depends on your perspective, and what youíre hoping to get out of vacation. As you plot your next trip, keep in mind how photography impacts your enjoyment of, and memory for, an experience.

Taking photos can enhance enjoyment

In one study, photography amplified the feelings people had about specific experiences. If they liked what they saw, taking a photo made them feel even better about it. But for bad experiences, taking a photo made them feel even worse[1]. The lesson: only shoot at nice things.

The good news for camera-phobes? Planning to take photos brings the same increase in enjoyment as actually taking photos[1]. So the benefit lies not in the act of pressing a cameraís button, but in paying attention to the details. When you intentionally select something you find interesting or beautiful, you become more aware of the world around you, and appreciate those moments more.

Photography narrows our focus

A common concern is that taking a photo might make you less present in the moment, or diminish your engagement with the world around you.

There is some cause for this concern: In one study, people walking through a museum were less likely to remember what they saw if they took photos of objects along the way[2].

This effect went away when they were instructed to spend more time photographing the objects, zooming in on certain details. That is, the added attention to detail helped them retain memories of the photographed objects. Still, this came at a cost: people remembered less about the objectsí surroundings[2].

Something similar happens on vacation. One study found that focusing too much on getting photos meant that people remembered those specific moments, but had fewer memories of their vacation overall[3].

Photos help us reminisce

Whether theyíre for personal use or shared over social media, having photos allows you to reminisce about your vacation after itís over. Other people who have experienced a similar vacation may also enjoy seeing these mementos of your trip[4].

Just be aware that when you look at old photos, you are also changing your memory of the vacation. Essentially, you are selectively enhancing your memory of the events and places you photographed, while your other memories continue to fade[5].

From an emotional standpoint, this may be what you want. Curating your experiences by selecting photos to share after a vacation allows you to create a narrative about what you did. This helps you to remember the best parts, and get additional enjoyment from a vacation that has long since passed[6].

So what should you do?

If you actively look for interesting or enjoyable subjects, taking photos will help you to enjoy and remember select details of your trip. And, after your trip is done, youíll have pictures to share and reminisce over.

If instead you want to be present at all moments to absorb the sights, sounds, and smells of your environment, a camera will likely be a distraction. It will narrow your attention to whatís in the viewfinder, and cause the moments you capture to dominate your memories.

Fortunately, for many events, you can have it both ways. How? By allowing yourself to fully experience an enjoyable or meaningful moment, and then only after snapping a quick photo, you get the full experience and a memento you can reminisce over and share with others.

References

1. Diehl, K., Zauberman, G., & Barasch, A. (2016). How taking photos increases enjoyment of experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111, 119-140.
2. Henkel, L.A. (2014). Point-and-shoot memories: The influence of taking photos on memory for a museum tour. Psychological Science, 25, 396-402.
3. Yu, X., Anaya, G.J., Miao, L., Lehto, X., & Wong, I.A. (2017). The impact of smartphones on the family vacation experience. Journal of Travel Research, 1-18.
4. Wang, D., Park, S., & Fesenmaier, D.R. (2012). The role of smartphones in mediating the touristic experience. Journal of Travel Research, 51, 371-384.
5. St. Jacques, P.L. & Schacter, D.L. (2013). Modifying memory: Selectively enhancing and updating personal memories for a museum tour by reactivating them. Psychological Science, 24, 537-543.
6. Weilanmann, A., Hillman, T., & Jungselius, B. (2013). Instagram at the museum: Communicating the museum experience through social photo sharing. Proceeding of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1843-1852.