a child's scooter leaned against fence with partially open gate

Photography as Play

In elementary school, I played piano and basketball. My mom, even with a stretched budget, always made sure we had money for piano lessons, and the fees for the elementary basketball team. I remember enjoying them both a lot, but lost some of my passion when the emphasis was on practice rather than play.

infrared (black and white) photo of trees, sky, and walking path

Play is something we all need more of, no matter our age. For me, photography is just that, play. Photography is something I long wanted to do, but felt shy and intimidated by it. Despite having people that I could have asked questions of, and perhaps even borrowed a camera from, when I was in high school and college, I stayed quiet about my closeted photography curiosity. It wasn’t until my purchase of a digital SLR well into adulthood that I felt freed up by the auto mode and all of my mistakes with the forgiveness of digital. It took years before I got off auto mode, but in play, I didn’t really care. I still enjoy the play, even as my knowledge base slowly grows.

small house surrounded by trees with yellow leaves and sunlight peaking through branches

I still talk about playing with cameras, rather than shooting or taking photos. Playing gives me permission to try things out. Playing allows me the space to go beyond the easy and permissible and to not care about my skill. I now play with instant film, 35mm film, 120 film, digital, infrared, and toy cameras and even a couple of toy lenses. It’s fun to experiment and to see what happens.

shadow of plant leaves on a sidewalk

I can stop in the middle of a boring Tuesday and play with panoramas on an old film point and shoot during a break from work. I teach online from home, so a break can include a quick walk outside in the neighborhood with a camera. I recently played with a small digital point and shoot camera that had been converted to infrared that I scored cheaply on an auction site. It’s perfect for taking out on a day where the light is supposedly too harsh and I get to see the world in bizarre pinks or trippy contrasted grays. I have a couple of fun “special effect” cameras that I want to play with soon.

a playground frog on snowy ground

It’s not really, though, about having a bazillion cameras, although collecting a few cameras can be fun, too. I really just like taking out a camera and making a mundane walk into something a little bit more magical. Over the last three years, where I have felt trapped by not having a car in the urban and suburban sprawl of the US and limited in movement both from the pandemic and my budget, photography has freed me up to play. I find ways to play even when the world feels heavy and my heart is sad.

fallen yellow leaves covering ground with two shadows

Playing with photography makes me get outside to see what adventures are around the corner. Photography has inspired me to play with shadows as they bounce through the house on an ordinary day. I take photos of bright yellow leaves in the fall and see the colors mimicked in the safety stripes painted on the steps outside of my building. I play with a Holga camera during Holga Week in October. I sign up for a free online photography class and fancy myself a landscape photographer for a bit as I take my camera out for the assignments. I pull myself out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and stumble into my clothes, pour coffee into an insulated mug, and walk out into the dark two miles to a nature preserve on the edge of town to get a glimpse of the sunrise, and see what might pop up in my viewfinder. I wait for the bus and take photos of a cute house that could be from another century. At the library, I sneak snaps of colorful book spines and the lovely floor-to-ceiling window right next to the study carrels on the second floor. In the summer, I lower my camera angles to get a peek at the produce in the neighborhood community garden.

large window with trees and street visible, books and table in foreground

I am pretty sure that photography will be a lifetime of play for me. I have much to learn about lighting, infrared, portraiture, action shots of toddlers, summer fireworks, star trails, nightscapes, architecture, macro images, street photography, and food photography. I want to play with cyanotypes and more instant film. I want to learn about intentional camera movement, and try my hand at a long-form project. I think about trying to document New Mexico and the places I love. I look forward to experimenting more with video and multiple exposures and pinhole cameras. I want to play with developing film and trying film soup. I hope to take more shots of sandhill cranes (my favorite bird) and the balloon fiesta in Albuquerque. I plan on hikes, runs, and vacations with a camera nearby and within reach. I want to be present for photos of family moments and quiet solitary ones.

an arrow sign with four parts/four different colors pointing in two directions, no words, and a bit of snow

I crave more play and photography provides many ways to get there.

black and white small clouds covering sky with tree tops and wires on edges of frame

If I sound all over the place, photographically, I am. I have no yearning for specialty, or profession. I like keeping my view of photography wide, just like I enjoy a wide angle lens. For now, I possess a very shallow knowledge, no, make that appreciation, of a lot of types of photography, just as many use a shallow depth of field. I look for photography puns just as I look for light and shadows. Writing for 35mmc has added to my enjoyment, and sense of play.

Photography can be a form of self-expression, a vocation, a consuming hobby, but often we can be quite serious about it. If you are a bit more serious about your knowledge and practice of photography, I invite you to find a way to play. Experiment with a lens or try your hand at a film swap with a friend. Take photos of something you have never taken photos of before. Grab a camera and go on a photography adventure, even if it’s walking around the block or aiming out the window. Give yourself permission to play, and go wild!

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About The Author

16 thoughts on “Photography as Play”

  1. Thanks Kary for sharing you thoughts one can feel the lightness of play in your fotos. And we all should try playing more (unless you have to earn money from photography) but if one can add some of that playfulness into photography the better, I am sure one can feel it.
    Thanks again and best wishes

    1. Martin, thank you! Yeah, we all need and deserve more play and photography is just one of many ways to play! I hope you’re getting to play in your photography! Thanks for reading and commenting! I appreciate it!

  2. Another enjoyable article, Kary, thank you for sharing. That old saying “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” comes to mind. It’s part of why the thought of going pro never got beyond just that, a thought (along with a lack of self confidence). If I had gone down that road, I think photography would have probably lost it’s shine. As it is, for the most part I can please myself in regard to the ’how, what and why’ of what I do (or don’t do). Keeps it light, keeps it fun 🙂. Thanks again .

    1. Ralph, yes, maybe Jack was a hobby photographer?! Ha! Kidding aside, I think you’re spot on about how taking something from a hobby into a profession can definitely diminish its enjoyment. You definitely can have more control and enjoyment over what you get to photograph when you are the one you’re photographing for!! Thanks for reading and commenting! I appreciate it!

    1. David, that’s the best answer “Nah, it ain’t work man.” Love it! May I borrow that? I’ll completely give you credit! So great! Photography is just so damn fun (pardon my language)! Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I appreciate it!

  3. Excellent article! And you have an important point: Blue Zones (areas of long longevity and long healthy lives) have 9 things in common one of which is “downtime” – time out to de-stress. I realised quite recently that my walks, with or without a camera, are my downtime. A camera for play is often what I do and I think that many more people should adopt that view.

    Plus the photos are excellent too!

    1. Geoff, great points! I only knew a little bit about the Blue Zones, but didn’t know about all the aspects! It makes sense that a hobby would be included!! I think it helps to have something that doesn’t get evaluated in the same way that our work lives force us into, and even sometimes our personal lives (family, friends, loved ones) cause! Obviously, it’s a point of privilege to have the time and tools for play and such a fun one with photography!! I hope you’re getting to have fun and play with your photography! Thank you for the comment on the photos! It’s intimidating to pick photos to go with the article for 35mmc! 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting!! I appreciate it!!

  4. Photography is definitely play for me, and necessarily is so, as it’s one of the few pastimes I have that is truly mine and where I can properly de-stress. Thoroughly agree with your sentiments 🙂

    1. Michael, that’s so awesome that photography is that for you, truly yours and something that de-stresses you. There are so many wonderful aspects to photography, and this community! It is so fun to play! How is it that we forget that when we grow into adulthood? Hope you’re having fun! Thanks for reading and commenting! I appreciate it!!

  5. Kary, I like the way you write with structure and chaos dancing around one another like moths flitting around a light, never quite reaching it but nonetheless defining it by their presence. You are right that play is central to being human and we lose it at our peril,
    Jung spent years playing with stones in his garden and emerged having created, or perhaps discovered, depth psychology while the early pioneers of photography were essentially playing as they evolved the chemistry of light. It seems to me though that documenting the process is essential too, so that at the pause between playtime’s we can reflect and discover what we have found in the perilous realm of faerie,
    Thank you for sparking my interest once again in play on my birthday

    1. Mark, Happy Birthday!! May you have a lovely year of both play and reflection!! You’re right, we need that reflection as well. Thank you for the beautiful compliment on the structure and chaos of my writing! Very well said. If you haven’t yet, please consider writing for 35mmc! I just started writing a few things and I’m having a ball! I don’t know much about Jung, but I love knowing that he played. Weirdly, I just watched two free webinars on Jung this past week, so I appreciate this all the more! Thanks for reading and commenting!! I appreciate it! Again, Happy Birthday!

  6. This is one of the most uplifting pieces I’ve read in a long time. And this was my favourite line:

    “I still talk about playing with cameras, rather than shooting or taking photos.”

    I, too, play with cameras. All sorts. None worth more than CDN$30.00. All used, thrifted, gifted, or given to me for free. Some film (110, 120, 620) many older digicams with the wonderful CCD sensors. I love them all. Equally. Each one is a different experience. Each one allows me to play, as you put it so articulately. And, like you, I’ll continue to play. Every day. It’s good for the mind. Good for the soul.

    “I find ways to play even when the world feels heavy and my heart is sad.”

    Me too.

    Thanks for writing this. It made my day.


    1. James, thank you, thank you, thank you! You made my day. Your cameras and play sound amazing. I love how the value is based on your experience and love and enjoyment of them, rather than some arbitrary money value. I completely agree. I hope that you will consider writing something for 35mmc. Your line, “I love them all. Equally. Each one is a different experience,” is perfect. Thank you for reading and for your kindness and lifting my spirits on a day when the world indeed feels heavy. I hope you have some play and fun with a camera soon.

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