Capturing a moment
The kayak rocked precariously despite the ocean's glassy surface. I clenched my camera body between my knees and pressed my telephoto lens tightly to my chest.
Tock. tickshhhhh—my lens cap hit the fiberglass floor and skidded into the puddle of murky water pooled at my feet.
The larger of the two habour seals I’d been trying to sneak up on swivelled its head, flopped over, and forced its pup to disappear alongside it into the dark blue abyss.
I cursed their effortless grace and continued to fumble with my lens. Next time I’d be ready. I fired a few shots at the horizon in order to dial in my camera settings. The glass, cleaned moments ago, was already slathered in a sodium glaze.
“I’ve always wanted a nice camera but I’m not sure I’d want to carry it around,” Thomas said when we returned to the trailer.
“You get used to it.” I swabbed the salt from my lens and laid it out on the wooden deck to dry. “My biggest regret is not buying one earlier. My photos from Africa suck. I’ve got next to nothing from the Philippines or Vietnam.”
Having a camera dangling around my neck 24/7 could be inconvenient, I agreed. The D7000 wasn’t just physically heavy; it held a signified weight. I could capture documents in the flick of a button and therefore I stood out, a spy in countless situations where I’d rather be a fly on the wall. But there was a real benefit to the camera’s inescapable presence as well—mainly that I was constantly reminded to use it.
“The best way to learn to take photographs,” a photojournalist friend once told me when I asked why he didn’t go to photography school, “is to force yourself to shoot a photo or two every day.”
Up until recently, I’d never been much of a gear-head. I enjoyed talking tech as much as the next guy. I nerded out over Goretex and GPS embedded electronics. But that was more the scientist in me than the consumer. My three year old MacBook has a spiderweb-fracture running diagonally across its app-free desktop. I commute on a bike my dad bought before I was born.
I stumbled around the world a few times before even thinking to spring for a professional camera (most plane tickets are cheaper than a professional body after-all) and had less conventional mementos to prove it: the red-mud of the Rift Valley is caked into my favourite jeans and I’ve got a hole in my foot that once held a piece of coral from Ha Long Bay. But in the years since, a few notable things have shifted in my life—most notably I began to work as an online journalist. I grew obsessed with documentation and became a stickler for visual (and often social) proof.
Before heading out on my most recent trip last December, I posted the following message on Facebook:
“Who has travelled (lightly) with gear before? How do I build a lean, mean, (hopefully theft-discouraging) story telling machine?”
“Notebook and pen,” one friend immediately wrote back. Her response conjured up daylong panic sessions, hopping from internet café to internet café in attempts to file stories during power outages. Of a particularly sweaty eight-hours in Kampala in which I attempted twelve times to key a single 200-word review. I could forego socks and a jacket but I wasn’t ready to leave my laptop and lenses behind. I was about to embark on what I hoped to be my most action-packed year to date. I needed to document my adventure at every chance I got.
My camera was still fogged up when I went to grab it that afternoon. Thomas and I had planned to hike the coastal segment of East Sooke Park—a 15 km span of rocky shore that, among other things, featured one of the best lookout points on the South Island. The sagging sun suggested I didn’t have time to wait any longer so I grabbed my receptionless iPhone instead and hit the trail. By the time we reached Beachy Head the evening mist had begun to roll in. I pulled out my phone and fiddled with the settings, anxious to capture the vanishing point where the fog devoured the coast. Suddenly, wet a slap echoed through in the bay behind me. I spun around and pointed my lens at the sound—after a moment of recalibrating, the screen showed 12 tiny black dots hopping up and down amidst surf.
“Orcas!” Thomas yelled. I turned to see a cloud of dust where he’d already begun to sprint down cliff-side. I stuffed my phone into my back pocket and scrambled after him. The fog beat us to the rocky beach and in the flat white one could barely make out the silhouetted cliffs surrounding us. Two seals slid their bellies along the rocks aware of the predators that lurked just behind the curtain of condensation. Then a dorsal fin sliced through the mist. Then another. I waded up to my ankles in the icy water and held my breath as each whale passed along the passage mouth, single file.
“I can’t believe you didn’t bring your camera for that!” Thomas and I were sweat soaked by the time we reached the trailer.
“Thanks. The regret hadn’t hit me yet.” I peeled off my shirt with one hand and grabbed a life jacket in the other. But once the words left my mouth, I realized the regret never actually came. Despite growing up on an island, I’d rarely seen whales so close up—let alone hunting so near to shore. The intimacy of the encounter was only compounded by the knowledge that I would be the only one to witness that moment. Had they really come in that shallow, or had it all been a trick of the mist? Didn’t whales hunt salmon this time or year, not seals? Without a photograph to examine, I’d never know for sure. There was something oddly magic about that—especially given how few of my recent experiences I’d be allowed to subconsciously hyperbolize. With a camera I was making memories. Without one, I was making myths.
I dropped my pants on the trailer floor without bothering to remove my phone from the pocket and slid on my bathing suit. Without the weight of glass around my neck, I pushed my kayak effortlessly into the water and paddled out into the dying day. As the setting sun unzipped the mist the sky glowed blue-electric. Completely heart-stopping, I swear to God.
The best camera is the one you have on you...