Cameras are great for your mental health – which is why smartphones will never replace them

Photographer taking pictures with a camera in a misty woodland
(Image credit: Future)
  • This article is part of our coverage for Mental Health Awareness Week 2023

Last year I purchased a compact camera for £900 instead of the latest iPhone and wrote about why I loved the camera. As, at the time of writing, this week is Mental Health Awareness Week, I want to unpack one of the reasons why I made that choice – focused creativity. 

A smartphone can make great pictures – even my ageing Google Pixel which I still haven’t replaced is a great camera – but there’s something more important than the technical capability and the quality of pictures you make, and that’s the impact of creativity on your mental health.

It’s widely researched and recognized that excessive use of a smartphone has a negative impact on mental health, and conversely that practicing creativity can give your mental health a big boost. Getting creative and being in nature isn't going to totally cure debilitating mental health conditions, but it can provide some much-needed mood-boosting benefits and alleviate mild-to-moderate symptoms. 

But where does using your phone’s camera as a creative tool sit in this picture? Let's take a walk to find out. 

The creative tool you choose

Phone, check. Camera, check. Keys, check. And I’m out the door for a walk in the local area and to the woods a short distance from my house. I’ve been trying to get away from the computer and ground myself in nature, and what’s more, take a few pictures along the way. 

Get outdoors, go slow, enjoy the details. These are positive steps for my energy levels and mental health. It’s not long before my surroundings encourage me to stop, get the camera out and make a picture. A tree overhanging a verge, framing a field with sheep lazily chewing the cud. 

It feels good to use the camera, to breathe in the world around me. 

Photographer taking pictures with a camera in a misty woodland

(Image credit: Future)

Then I feel the vibration in my pocket. Is it a WhatsApp message? I quickly check – just a news alert – and put the phone away.

But then I think how it would be great to take this picture with my phone. Add it to an Instagram story. And so the phone comes back out.

Honestly, the phone probably does as good a job capturing this particular scene as my proper camera – certainly for viewing on a smartphone, anyway – maybe even better, in fact, with the processing that is automatically applied on capture.

However, any peace that I had just drained away. I’m wired, connected. My calendar, messages, news alerts, and Facebook and Instagram notifications are all there in my pocket. And if I’m honest, I started tracking this walk on Strava, well, just because.

I grew up without a phone, got my first aged 19 (while being a tad envious of my friend with a shiny Nokia 3310), and now I can’t remember life without one. My phone is always there. And that vibration is a reminder I’m connected to something. Serotonin used to come from other sources than a phone vibration.

I’m back at the house, lungfuls of fresh air, thousands of steps, and numerous pictures later. The time was OK. Much better than a dropped-crumbs-on-a-keyboard kind of lunch, but I feel there’s more to be had.

Photographer with a camera in a misty woodland

(Image credit: Future)

Leave your phone behind

It’s lunchtime again, and the outdoors beckons. Camera, check. Keys, check. Phone…yes it’s coming along for the ride too, but this time in airplane mode. 

I take the same walk. No vibrations, and I enjoy it. I use the camera to take pictures, and I use the phone to do the same. No uploading stories though, and no notifications. Yet somehow, there’s still a feeling I don’t like every time I use the phone to take a snap. What is it?

I decide whether the airplane mode is active or not, the very presence of my phone has a negative effect on my mood. It’s what it represents; productivity, connectivity, and inundation. Even in silence it’s there screaming "Hey look at me!"  

Next time, I’m leaving the phone behind.

Photographer taking pictures with a camera in a misty woodland

(Image credit: Future)

Focused creativity

Camera, check. Keys, check. This time, the phone is left on the side. 

I take the same walking route as last time, but what follows can only be described as an explosion of creativity, and a longer-lasting boost in my mood. It sure does feel good to be out, to create with a camera, connect with my surroundings and nurture my creative eye.

I can make great pictures with my phone, too, but it represents so much more. When I take a camera out it’s to do one thing only: create. And that’s its beauty, its limited and focused beauty. That’s why a dedicated camera can’t be replaced by a phone.

I’ve condensed my experience over many years in this article to raise a singular point. 

You may or may not label yourself as a creative, but all human beings create, we just use different tools. For photography, I encourage your tool to be a dedicated camera – if you don’t own one we have compiled the best cameras for beginners – instead of a phone. 

And don’t just switch off your phone, leave it behind and walk out the door. 

We're covering Mental Health Awareness Week on TechRadar. You can visit Mental Health Awareness Week 2023 in the UK or Mental Health America in the US to find out more and discover where you can find mental health support. 

Timothy Coleman
Cameras editor

Tim is the Cameras editor at TechRadar. He has enjoyed more than 15 years in the photo video industry with most of those in the world of tech journalism. During his time as Deputy Technical Editor with Amateur Photographer, as a freelancer and consequently editor at Tech Radar, Tim has developed a deeply technical knowledge and practical experience with cameras, educating others through news, reviews and features. He’s also worked in video production for Studio 44 with clients including Canon, and volunteers his spare time to consult a non-profit, diverse stories team based in Nairobi. Tim is curious, a keen creative, avid footballer and runner, and moderate flat white drinker who has lived in Kenya and believes we have much to enjoy and learn from each other.