Ever so often, in many and different places, people take photos. The immediacy of access to cameras on smartphone devices has made photography a ubiquitous and more casual activity. The awareness and sensitivity of people to visual scenes and materials has increased, and photo images especially play a greater role in our lives. When people take their own photos to capture their experiences, this activity may become an integral part of the experience. It raises therefore an interesting question, how an experience could be subjectively affected by the act of taking photos whilst the experience is happening.
Almost obviously, our tendency to take photos is stronger during touristic experiences away from home while travelling in our own country and furthermore on visits to foreign countries. The experience could take place on holiday in a major city when touring its main streets and famous sites, or on vacation in a holiday resort in nature, going on a trip to the top of mountains, near a lake or along the sea-shore. However, we may take photos during more ordinary experiences such as dining in a restaurant (e.g., photo-taking of appetizing food dishes); in a party or family gathering; while playing (e.g., creative games like Lego); watching parades, sports events or other festivities; and even during a shopping tour. In those experiences we could be more passive observers or more active players, which may influence any additional involvement in photo-taking and its effect on the overall experience.
Kristin Diehl, Gal Zauberman and Alixandra Barasch (2016) investigated in-depth the effect that taking photos by consumers during an experience may have on their enjoyment from the experience: whether it amplifies enjoyment, or instead dampens it, and how the level of enjoyment varies in different conditions. Furthermore, they examined a proposed mechanism where engagement in an experience mediates enjoyment: in positive experiences, when individuals are more intensively engaged or immersed in the experience, it may elevate their enjoyment; thereby, to the extent that taking photos increases engagement, it would also heighten enjoyment. The researchers consider two routes of influence: (a) photo-taking competes with the ‘source’ experience by causing attention shifts, thus reducing engagement and enjoyment from the experience; (b) photo-taking helps in directing and focusing more attention on visual aspects of the ‘source’ experience, leading to increased engagement and consequently heighten enjoyment.
The photos taken may have subsequent benefits to individuals such as in aiding with memory of experienced events at a later time (i.e., serving as memory cues) and in showing photos of their experiences to relatives and friends (i.e., social benefit), but the researchers focus specifically on effect of the act of taking a photo at the time of the experience. Their research entailed nine studies (3 field studies & 6 lab experiments), using a range of methodologies and experience-contexts.
A most typical touristic experience is a city bus tour — consider riding a double-decker bus on an open-air top floor. Diehl and her colleagues organised actual bus tours in Philadelphia for photo takers and non-photo takers. They succeeded in showing in this setting that photo takers enjoyed their touristic experience more than those who did not take photos. They also obtained some evidence that the photo takers may have felt more engaged during the experience though the effect was statistically too weak. (Note: In order to exclude any benefits from using photos after the bus tour all participants were disallowed to take their personal cameras or smartphones with them and the assigned ‘photo-takers’ were given instead a digital camera with a new memory card, yet they could not keep the card afterwards).
The researchers conducted a second field study, this time in the context of a casual lunch (i.e., it was not suggested the food was especially attractive to photograph). In this study the results were already stronger. Consistent with the bus tour study, photo-takers enjoyed the lunch experience more than those not taking photos, but in addition the photo-takers were found significantly more engaged. The setting was sufficient to support just in part that greater engagement mediates the higher enjoyment felt by those taking photos. (Note: In this study no physical restrictions were imposed — those instructed to take photos could use their own cameras or smartphones).
Lab experiments create less realistic experiences since they are only simulated, and the act of taking a photo is also simulated (i.e., a camera icon and a mouse click). However, a controlled experiment can facilitate surfacing the effects of interest while testing for the influence of additional factors. It is acknowledged that the researchers have already shown there is ground to their expected effects on enjoyment in real-life settings.
A lab experiment of simulated bus tours (using videos of tours in Hollywood, California, and London, UK), found support that photo-takers enjoyed their bus tour experiences significantly more, as well as felt significantly more engaged in them, than those not taking photos. Furthermore, there also was support that engagement fully mediates or connects positively between taking photos and enjoyment. Moreover, memory of the greater enjoyment of those taking photos persists as long as a week after the experience. (Note: Remembered enjoyment is to be distinguished from remembered content of the experience).
So, does taking photos indeed work to focus greater attention on what people experience and thus enhances their engagement and increases their enjoyment? The researchers provide important evidence with the help of eye-tracking (field study, museum exhibit) that taking a photo channels more attention to the objects of interest in the experience. In particular, it directs more attention to relevant visual aspects of the experience, that is, to the exhibit artifacts vis-à-vis other objects (e.g., information displays) in the exhibit hall. First, significant effects of greater enjoyment and engagement by photo-takers, and the mediation function of engagement, are replicated. Second, taking photos leads to spending a relatively greater time fixating on the artifacts (as proportion of total duration of fixations) compared to visiting without taking photos. Visitors taking a photo of an artifact fixate for a longer duration on it compared with those who only watch it; no such differences were found for other objects. Third, it is not only the duration of fixations but also the number of fixations dedicated to artifacts that are relatively higher among those taking photos compared to those who do not. (It should be noted, however, that measures were aggregated across ‘exhibit artifacts’ versus ‘other objects’, and not verified for every single artifact being photographed or not.)
Scenes for photography can be very different, some are rich with detail, light and colour (e.g., a lakeside landscape), others being more monotonic or homogenous (e.g., a vase or a person against a dark uniform background). This difference in experience seems to matter little with regard to enjoyment or engagement when taking photos. Comparing between bus tours (Hollywood/London) and pop/rock concerts (performing against a plain and non-changing background), it is found that similarly in those experiences those taking photos enjoy the experience more and feel more engaged than non-photo takers, regardless of the type of experience (full mediation was also supported).
Any indication that participants in the experiment have enjoyed the concert somewhat more than bus tours did not lead to any consistent conclusions; it may be due more to a music concert being more energizing than a city bus tour at least in idea, especially if we take into account also the experience of the music not captured in a photograph. But in real-life concerts of performing artists the viewers more usually today record video clips, not still photographs, by simply raising the smartphone above the head and filming. It is hard to say in these circumstances how much they may lose of the experience at all if they watch it through the screen and how it may affect their attention and enjoyment. Dealing with the smartphone or tablet to check the videos during the performance may distract them somewhat more. Yet, it could be that viewers recording videos on their devices may be disturbing more to other people in the audience than their own enjoyment of the experience.
We may find ourselves in different positions in experiences: Imagine taking a boat cruise on a lake, standing on the deck viewing the landscape around, or watching a parade on a maid road, looking from the side of the road — in these events one is primarily a passive observer. However, one becomes an active participant in the event, for example, of playing a creative game such as building Lego models or possibly visiting a museum exhibit that allows learning by using interactive displays and tools. As Diehl and colleagues suggest, it may have two implications: (a) the ‘active’ experience is in origin more entertaining and enjoyable so there is less to gain by additionally taking photos; (b) engaging in the task of taking photos interferes with participation in the main activity. The researchers applied creative arts-and-crafts projects (e.g., building an Eiffel Tower from wafers and icing): to make conditions comparable, they assigned participants to either actively building the tower model or to passively observing someone else building the same kind of model.
Indeed, taking photos during the experience makes a difference in increasing engagement and enjoyment only for those observing the project and not for those who are actively building the model. Photo takers who actively built the model were also more inclined to report that taking photos during the experience interfered with their project compared to those who only observed and took photos. On the other hand, the latter took more photos (about ten on average) compared with those who tried to build the project and take photos simultaneously (5.5 on average). Reasonably observers were more free to take photos and enjoy it as well. While taking photos did not increase enjoyment of the ‘builders’, there is also no evidence that it decreased it. It could be a little disappointing as we may expect that taking photos as we progress may enhance our sense of pride and satisfaction with our creation taking form — a sort of ‘I Built It Myself’ effect (following an “I Designed It Myself” effect by Franke, Schreier and Kaiser, 2010). Two requirements may be needed: first, that the ‘builder’ is of course successful during his or her task, and second, that by intermittently advancing with the project and stopping for a minute when progress is made to take a photo, it helps to minimise interference or distraction.
This topic brings to mind a particular concern, when the task of photography intervenes in the ‘source’ experience, and potentially disrupts it. Diehl and her colleagues cleverly distinguish between the functional-physical act of taking photos (i.e., operating a camera) and the mental process driving behind it (i.e., planning the photos). It may be argued in this regard that the impact may be different on people taking photos with a smartphone or tablet device, a compact camera, or a more complex single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera. Also, more dedicated amateur photographers, with greater interest and photographic skills, may approach taking photos during an experience differently from others. This issue unfortunately does not receive an adequate answer in the research.
The researchers test two kinds of suspected interferences that may disrupt or distract photo takers from the main experience they engage in: (1) physical — by assuming one would have to carry and hold a bulky digital SLR camera (represented in the experiment just by a larger camera icon); and (2) functional — by enabling the photographer also to delete unsatisfactory photos right after taking them. The results have shown that with medium-interference (‘holding SLR’) the enjoyment of these photo-takers was in-between those taking photos as above and those not taking photos, not significantly different from either. Yet, with high-interference (‘SLR + deletion’) enjoyment was close and not statistically different from non-photo takers and lower compared with ‘regular’ photo-takers. Corresponding findings were obtained for engagement. Attending to delete photos is the task that appears to truly distract photo takers from the main experience (like checking one’s video during a concert). Holding an SLR camera should not disturb so much dedicated amateur photographers (with some exceptions of extra equipment) but certain operations in taking photos may demand additional attention that could indeed compete with the subject experience.
Nevertheless, the researchers demonstrate in another experiment that the mental process of thinking about taking photos and planning them is more crucial than the functional act of taking the photos. Planning to take photos alone increased enjoyment just as for those actually taking photos, compared with those not involved in any way in taking photos. In other words, planning to taking photos “led to similar levels of enjoyment as actually taking photos”. Reported engagement was similarly heightened when planning to take photos. For more dedicated amateur photographers planning the photos to be taken is a key part of the activity and may not be easy to separate from some functions (e.g., choices of composition, focal object, exposure and speed). Yet the photography-related activity may not be viewed as an interference but as an integral part of the whole experience, a way of living the experience more deeply and vividly.
When the experience is perceived as negative, taking photos would also increase engagement, but in this case it will result in lower enjoyment compared to those not taking photos. The increased engagement means more attention of the photo takers becomes focused on negative aspects of the experience.
The researchers study a specific mechanism of mediation by engagement between taking photos and enjoyment. But many consumers may receive their satisfaction and joy from recording their experience to refresh their memories later through the photos, perhaps more so if they are less interested in photography per se. Moreover, consumers increasingly take photos with the intention of uploading them to social media networks (e.g., Facebook, Instagram) for sharing with their acquaintances, close and far. Diehl and colleagues are not convinced, based on an initial survey, that people anticipate such benefits while taking the photos. Nevertheless, they do not exclude this possibility: they note that “individuals presumably take photos in part because they expect that reviewing those photos in the future will provide them with additional enjoyment” and such forward-looking behaviour may enhance their immediate enjoyment from the experience. In their judgement many consumers do not anticipate such an effect. They do note, however, that many marketers also forbid taking photos on their premises because they seem to believe that taking photos ruins individuals’ experiences.
The research of Diehl, Zauberman and Barasch is interesting and refreshing on a topic not studied often. It shows from different angles how taking photos enhances the enjoyment of consumers in positive experiences through increased engagement (i.e., focus more attention, feeling more deeply immersed in the experience). Taking photos could plausibly be seen as less interfering or disrupting to people the closer they perceive this activity as complementary to the experience itself, and especially so for those more interested in photography. Marketers should be less reluctant to let consumers taking photos since it is more likely to make them enjoy the experience better. Consumers have to learn when is the best timing to turn to taking photos so as to enjoy it the most as part of the whole experience.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
How Taking Photos Increases Enjoyment of Experiences; Kristin Diehl, Gal Zauberman, and Alixandra Barasch, 2016; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111 (2), pp. 119-140.