Good Hobby vs. Great Hobby, and Why Photography is One of the Best

What makes a great hobby? Most people don’t have to ask themselves this, they just naturally gravitate to activities they enjoy and make time for them–but I’ve had to think about this for years. It’s an important question, particularly when your time is being pulled in multiple directions!

We have so many options, and can’t do everything. We must examine what we are doing, and why we are doing it. What better time than in the season when our shiny New Year’s resolutions are being put to their first test‽

I’ve pondered the hobby-quality question for years and have concluded that almost anything can be a valid hobby, but to be a worthwhile pastime there are a few criteria that separate the merely good from the truly great.

Unsurprising-spoiler alert: Photography is one of the all-time best hobbies!

Hobbies Defined

First, a definition: hobbies or pastimes are the activities we generally do in our “free time”, usually a fun or satisfying or enjoyable thing done outside of work. Many hobbies tend to be expensive in financial cost or time cost; just consider some of the top-ranked examples in North America (I’m also happy to note that photography or videography pairs nicely with a number of them):

  1. Outdoor activities
  2. Video/board/card games
  3. Reading
  4. Cooking
  5. Sports
  6. Music
  7. Arts/crafts
  8. Pets/animals
  9. Travel
  10. Gardening

There can also be matters of tension in this leisurely part of our lives!

  • For better or worse, hobbies can become something you associate with your very identity.
  • Perhaps most counterintuitively of all, some hobbies can evolve into our very careers (perhaps then ceasing to technically be a hobby at all).

From Good to Great: 4 Principles

It goes without saying that we enjoy hobbies, but not all hobbies are equal; they all take something out of you, but some will give back even more. There are four facets that I argue will elevate a hobby into greatness – and while not all are required, the more these elements are at play, the better.

1. Limitlessly Creative

A great hobby should allow some degree of human creativity; some way for you to express yourself uniquely, to put your own spin on the craft. Your perspectives, tastes, and ideas are made from a lifetime of disparate experiences that allow you to make connections in a way that is entirely unique to you – how does your hobby let you express that? This creative expression could take the form of sharing an idea, or in the decisions you make (even making an unpredictable play in sport is a form of human creativity).

To foster limitless creativity is to allow one to grow in their imagination, voice, and creative vision every day; enabling the hobbyist to grow in their craft over an entire lifetime. I can’t think of a single activity that is quickly mastered and holds any value; rather it is the achievement that is difficult, and that holds lasting worth. It is the skills cultivated over years, often earned through great costs of time, pain, and money, that bring the deepest satisfaction.

The greatest hobbies will involve creation, not mindless entertainment. Mindful crafting, not mindless consumption. I share this principle first since it was the most convicting and clarifying for me.

I think of the created thing as “the fruits” of the hobby – the result of the creativity that is often shared and enjoyed further later.

2. Limitlessly Technical

The technical and creative can sound like they exist in mutually-exclusive tension, but are tightly related. Technical skill, knowledge, and technique are also hard-won trophies earned through hands-on experience and obsessive study of a discipline. Malcolm Gladwell’s famous “ten thousand hours to expertise” applies here.

For the woodworker this will include an understanding of the medium; for example, what will a certain kind of wood do with specific humidity or other environmental considerations? Additionally, there are many tools to understand, and the pros and cons of using each in circumstances where multiple options could be considered. A lifetime would not be long enough to truly know all there is to know about this craft – there is unlimited room for technical understanding here.

Some of the technical skills can be learned through reading, hearing, or watching; but most will be earned through countless, consistent, and relentless hours of disciplined practice. Analyzing every minute detail. Gleaning insight from the technique of peers and lauded experts in the field. Joyfully grinding away at some nuance for the sake of the very act itself. You are on the path to a great hobby when the tireless honing of the technical aspects of the hobby becomes one of the reasons you love it (and not just the cost of entry).

Some hobbies are more technical than others, but it’s the creative application of the technical where the magic happens!

3. Good Gear

The hobby should be done with the proper tools of the trade. Like you (I suspect), I try not to be a gear-head, but photography nerds like us are notoriously susceptible to GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).

There is something to be said about the delight of using the right tool for the job to allow the hobby to be expressed and performed with the artist’s intent. When one is bringing a technical hobby to life with creative expression inevitably some equipment will be involved – the trick is to keep this as the means, gear shouldn’t become the point or hobby itself (I suppose I’m drawing the distinction here that being a collector doesn’t seem as ripe for great creative expression as many other hobbies, your mileage may vary – collecting as a hobby seems to be more about heritage and family history).

Some photos are impossible without a macro lens. The guitar player may need a certain pedal or guitar to express the creative idea that the technical progression requires in a song. Even some of the most sparsely equipped athletes can gush passionately for hours about a particular type of shoe.

We consider gear through categories of the creative and technical. Some good gear can help us achieve goals, and understanding this is one application of the limitlessly technical skills we develop.

You’ll notice this principle isn’t labeled as “limitless gear”! The trick is to hold balance in the tension of being able to hone your hobby with the optimal creative expression and technical skill with the right tools – within our limits, and without going overboard. Hobbies are expensive, so manufacturers are there to sell! The upper limit on camera pricing seems to be about $10 billion if the James Webb Telescope is any indication.

Artists thrive with constraints, the knack is to know when more gear is needed. I often remind myself that in many hobbies I am using gear so much better than what would have been considered professional-grade just a generation or two ago.

4. Shared Experiences

We are social creatures. While many hobbies can be enjoyed alone, most things in life are best when shared with others. This may mean participating in the hobby itself with others, or perhaps the fruit of the hobby can be shared. Maybe both. I argue that a great hobby should be enjoyable in various social formats, with aspects that are enhanced by lone focus, and others enhanced by group dynamics.

For example, one could play guitar and sing alone. There are times when that experience would be richer with a band or an audience. The fruits of this hobby may be the song – a recording shared with friends to be listened to, or even learned and played; with the next artist’s own unique creative touch added, the cycle continues.

As photographers, we can share the experience of shooting by photographing our friends or photographing with them. Sharing the fruit can be such an intimate moment too; re-experiencing a memory together through a photograph is really what it’s all about for me.

Side Effects

Most hobbies will be done for their own sake; for the fun, satisfaction, or sheer delight of the activity. The greatest of these hobbies will be at their best in the company of friends while majoring in facilitating us with limitless growth opportunities in the technical and creative, and minoring in giving us some creative and technical tools to learn about along the way.

By virtue of the four principles I outline above, there will be one massive outcome that must also be mentioned and recognized: the hobby (or more accurately the skills, friends, and fruits made along the way) will make us better people. Health, coordination, happiness, satisfaction – the craft of the hobby ought to make its participants measurably better as they are stretched in skills, perspectives, or even just the simple virtue of patience!

Why Photography is Great

At the creative level, there are so many ways to show your perspective and tell a story, eliciting emotion from the viewer. The classic photographic exercise of shooting a subject from a dozen angles using varied techniques shows us that just the way we present our subjects can be approached with a wide array of creative ideas.

At a technical level, there can be a lifetime’s work to understanding the ways light works, composition, and the amazing effects of wrestling the elements of the exposure triangle to their extremes; not to mention the wide array of classic and modern tools built into our cameras and lenses these days.

Photography is a great hobby to explore alone, and new possibilities appear with others; be they fellow photographers, hikers, or even the subject of our photos.

The fruits of this hobby are the photograph itself – as it sits framed on the wall (or as the wallpaper of a device). Photos are not only easy to share but in their own way have become one of the most ‘common currencies’ in our online social communities. Like, share, and remix.

My camera helps me to see the world around me more clearly, even when I don’t have it with me it helps me recognize the beauty we are surrounded by. Yes, this can at times also be quite a costly hobby, but the memories I have captured of my loved ones are simply priceless.

Conclusion, But Never Finished

Career experts say that all workers crave mastery, autonomy, and purpose in their work. We want expertise in what we do, freedom to do it when and how we like, and for the work itself to matter. Do the hobbies you spend your time on also meet these criteria? Are you growing in your creative expression and technical understanding, becoming more expert with the tools of your craft? And are you able to share the experience itself, or the fruits of the hobby, with the people in your life or in a community of like-minded individuals?

The best thing about great hobbies is the growth that they nurture in us. Perhaps like me you’ve spent years doing photography with the camera set to “auto” – with the flick of a switch you’ll start growing in the technical skills that will evoke your creativity in a way that you will be delighted to share… it may also make you crave another lens or body; it’s all a part of the cycle!

I will close with this: I may be entirely and completely wrong. My advice here is not a one-size-fits-all solution. You might not agree with my principles, nor the importance and order of them; but I hope the concept of creating your own framework—whatever it may be—will help you to rank the quality of your own pastimes. Because we can’t do everything.

The days are long, but the years are short: May the hobbies you spend your time on be rewarding, worthy, and truly great.

About the author: Arley McBlain is a web developer, photographer, and writer based in Canada. You can find his photography on Instagram.

Image credits: Images from Depositphotos