Photography and travel go together like cheese and Vegemite. When you visit a scenic beauty-spot it is only natural to take photos; not taking photos just doesn't seem right. Yet there are benefits to going camera-free for some of the time. If you have the luxury of lingering - a good chunk of time at one location, or a few days in one place - then putting the camera away or leaving it behind for even just part of a day can be a rewarding habit.
I learned the benefits of this habit by experiencing the disadvantages of not practising it. It was on a holiday to New Zealand, carrying both still and video cameras, that I first noticed how weighed down by photography I could feel. Not just by carrying the weighty gear, but by the amount of attention I was giving to the process of documenting my experiences. Even when I wasn't taking photos or shooting video, I was constantly on the lookout for photo opportunities and assessing a scene for its photographic potential. There were times when this felt like a distraction from fully enjoying the scenery I had travelled so far to enjoy.
When skiing multiple days at one place, I resolved to take camera gear and fully document my first day at a new ski area, then leave the gear behind for subsequent days so that I could focus on skiing unencumbered. This worked very well. The video and photos I captured in one day were quite sufficient, and on the other days I was able to immerse myself more fully into what I was doing, and the beauty of where I was. The benefits of being camera-free were striking.
Why? Because we see things differently when constantly alert for photo opportunities. The time spent taking photos - or contemplating the taking of photos, even subconsciously - can get in the way of fully experiencing the place or activity being photographed. Being alert for good photos does encourage observation skills, but this is mostly visual. It isn't the same as using all senses - not just vision - to soak up all aspects of the surroundings purely for enjoyment's sake.
It's possible to take camera-free too far. Once on a hiking and camping trip to the NSW Snowy Mountains I decided not to take a camera, on the grounds that I would only be visiting areas I'd been to before and photographed well already, and needed to save weight. However the march flies were unusually bad that year, so I abandoned camping and instead went driving through parts of Victoria new to me ... and I regretted not having a camera.
Another time I left the camera at home for a trip on familiar ground, but a change of plans saw me driving Victoria's great ocean road - without a camera, and regretting it. Lesson learned: I'll never travel without a camera again.
And yet ... because I lacked a camera to record the scenery, I felt the importance of imprinting it more vividly in my memory, by spending time observing with all senses and being fully "in the moment". I may not have taken any photos of the Twelve Apostles, but I suspect I saw that great coastal landscape in more detail and with deeper appreciation than many of the multitudes who took snapshots of the view at one lookout then quickly moved on to the next. It would have been nice, though, to have struck a good balance and taken some photos as well.
On shorter trips, visiting different places every day, it makes sense to always have a camera handy so as not to miss anything. And with good digital cameras these days being so small and light, there are fewer compelling reasons not to travel with one. However, having a camera available doesn't necessarily mean it has to be in use at all times, or always in your hand while you are constantly on the alert for photo opportunities.
If you are visiting somewhere new, my suggestion is to get the photography done then put the camera away. Capture the scene through a lens, but also take the time to fully soak it up through your eyes and other senses too. If you have a few days in one place and are not seeing new sights each day, then perhaps consider a camera-free day. Even if camera-free means "camera buried at bottom of day-pack, just in case".
You may find, like me, that occasionally putting aside a "photographer's eye" view while travelling can be strangely liberating. It can leave you free to study the scenery more intensely with the naked eye, soak up the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of a place without being distracted by the process of documenting it.
Photos are great souvenirs, but so are vivid and richly-experienced memories. Don't let the former get in the way of the latter!