The Mood-Boosting Power of an Occasional “Photo Safari”

Your shots might suck. But it doesn't really matter.

A man holding a camera up into the air.
Learn to savor the world again with an assist from a camera.
Tom Pumford/Unsplash

I recently finished reading Michael Kimmelman’s The Intimate City, a freewheeling tome in which the longtime architecture critic meets with urban planners, developers, historians and designers for walks around New York City neighborhoods. It was a pandemic project, and the interviews naturally reflect that, but Kimmelman and guests offer decades of context, timely critique and hopeful prognostications for each area they amble through, from Jackson Heights to Rockefeller Center.

I picked up some different architectural terms in the course of reading (and learned some fascinating bits of city history, too), but ultimately my relationship with the book was more spiritual than technical. The Intimate City reminded me to look up, to savor, to consider what’s there and what isn’t. Buoyed by the read, I recharged the memory pack in my Canon Rebel TS7 and set out for some city strolls of my own.

Add a “German Fitness Walk” to Your Weekend Routine
The family affair traditionally ends with cake or cold beer

What Is a Photo Safari?

Simply put, a photo safari is a long walk with a camera. I’ve taken them for years, off and on, sometimes forgetting I ever did them at all, until something like The Intimate City drops into my life and I start them back up again. Sometimes I’ll remember I should take one thanks to a seasonal peg, like when the leaves get golden-red in Greenpoint’s Msgr. McGolrick Park. Last year I took one in my home neighborhood, Williamsburg, to shoot the area’s ever-growing collection of hand-painted murals.

There’s actually no such thing as a proper “photo safari.” At its core, it’s just an animated walkabout, predicated more on the intention of getting outside than going anywhere in particular. The inclusion of the camera is meant to anchor the activity, imbuing it with a sense of adventure and focus. You’re on the hunt for vignettes that mean something to you. There are no wrong answers.

Don’t Worry About the Quality

Now, that doesn’t mean you’re going to take good photos — although, in the process, you will probably get better at taking them. But it doesn’t really matter either way. As Vox recently covered in an interview with Thomas Curran, author of The Perfection Trap, it’s okay to suck at hobbies. Mediocrity shouldn’t dictate the intensity or lifespan of your connection to photography, especially when the stakes are this low. (Consider: everyone with a phone in their pocket these days is a photographer.)

This is more about finding another way to get outside for a walk, which we know is one of the the best natural mood-boosters available to us. And it’s also about embracing an offbeat way to engage with the world around you.

As Trent Dalton’s protagonist Eli Bell masters in Boy Swallows Universe, life’s lived in details. Aspirational photography has a tendency to turn on one’s detail-hunting sensors; all of a sudden you’re studying the tops of townhouses, sitting in parks you’ve never stopped by before, spotting license plates from out of town, seeing dogs everywhere, stumbling into new coffee shops or old boxing gyms.

Instead of fretting over your imperfect “fitness” this year, try embracing existence’s endless backdoors to improved “wellness.” Wellness is as simple as the eagerness of your worldly interactions. It’s checking yourself back into the game. Bring your kid along if you like, leave your phone at home (I rate this one as an excellent starter camera, by the way) and go see what’s out there.

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