Flow

Originally published at: https://www.naturephotographers.network/flow/

Why do we photograph? It’s a simple enough question. There are a variety of reasons. Most landscape photographers will tell you that it’s in order to be outdoors and enjoy the natural world. I’ve never felt comfortable with that answer. Closer to the truth are artists who will tell you they cannot not do what they do. They don’t feel right if they’re not doing art periodically. They would paint even if not paid a single penny for their work or nobody ever saw it.

The answer to this question, I propose, is something called FLOW. Flow is a brain state that can be accurately described by neuroscientists as neuron activity, biochemicals, and pathways. It was recently defined and can now be graphed with EEGs, and quantified. But it was known by the ancients long before the word was coined and I prefer their understanding of it. Flow is a state of mental well-being achieved through heightened awareness. It’s a state of rapture. A religious person would describe it as a ‘state of grace’. However, it’s not one of heightened emotion, but rather one of inner peace. It’s less of a gasp and more of a sigh of contentment.

I believe that the mental state of flow is a requirement for all good landscape photography. Flow is achieved in photography through unwavering vision. It turns out that the greatest obstacle to good photography comes from the photographer itself. When we look we often don’t see. We see physically but don’t absorb beyond the eyes themselves. Our minds are bombarded by thousands of intrusions that interfere with seeing. Flow is a state reached when all of these intrusions are removed and we see with greater awareness. The intrusions may be an old mosquito bite, an unpaid bill, a memory of a remark that hurt, or even the analysis of the composition before you. Good compositions just feel right when you’re in a state of flow. In such a state the photographer should follow the advice to Luke Skywalker, “Feel the Force, Luke”, rather than think about leading lines, S curves, or the zone system.

One can conclude therefore that all great artists experience this flow. Did Michelangelo carve David in order to serve God, or did he do it for the money, or for fame? I believe it was for the pleasure he felt working on his masterpiece. Flow is an important state for artists because not only is it necessary to achieve great work but it rewards the artist in ways that few others can achieve.

You might conclude that flow is the source of creativity in photography, that it is the wellspring of creativity. That may sound reasonable but it’s not correct. Flow is the gatekeeper, not the source. Flow only opens the door and lets that which the outside within. It opens the communication lines between the outside and the inside. But it is more than just a windshield cleaner. It puts the mind in a state where it responds and processes what you see in a manner that uses your mind fully. It calms you down and alerts you at the same time. We see more than there is physically and our compositions become personal. The mark of a good photographer is to be able to open that gate at will.

A friend once asked me what was the point of making images if only a few people see them on social media and then they sit on your drive, that they are not displayed at galleries for the greater public to see. I hope the answer is clear now. Like Homer’s Odyssey, it’s not the destination that matters but the journey. The finished image of little importance. You can do whatever you want with it. Still, another friend told me that photography is less satisfying than the ‘real thing’. Capturing images of steep cliffs is less meaningful than actually scaling them because you are making a copy of reality whereas a mountain climber is experiencing reality. Such people misunderstand photography. Making the copy is not photography. Seeing the world intensely enough to interpret the copy that is made is the act of importance. Most photographers never get to this point and quit after a short time. That’s because they never really reach a state of flow and fully experience the creative aspects of the medium. There is little satisfaction in recording images.

So how does a photographer actively pursue and achieve a state of flow? The process is actually closely related to meditation. The recorded brain waves of an individual experiencing flow have the same frequency as that in meditation. In meditation, you will recall, a practitioner concentrates on nothing (which is different than not concentrating) and when some other thought appears, it is recognized, cast aside, and attention is returned to nothing, the absence of thought. Photographers use the exact same process except with vision in place of nothing. You absorb what you see without emotion or judgment. Everything is given equal importance. When distracting thoughts appear you consciously turn away from them to what you see.

This sounds like a complicated process but, in fact, a photographic session will automatically lead you to a state of flow if done properly. When you start a shoot you are not in a state of flow but, done right with full concentration, each composition will take you deeper and deeper into a state of flow and the quality of the images will grow better and better. By doing it right I mean that you don’t interrupt the flow between images with a talk to your neighbor or a break for a smoke. This is a case where the longer you work the better the quality until you reach a state where the mind can no longer maintain the concentration required.

If this sounds difficult there is still another, easier way to reach a state of flow – shoot in the early morning. We all wake up in a state of flow and gradually lose it as the day wears on. The light is wonderful in the early hours as well, so good meaningful images come easier. The advantage of an early shoot is that you don’t have to work to get into the proper state of mind. You start out with it. Your images don’t get better during such a shoot. They’re good from the start.

If you’ve practiced meditation you know how difficult it is to reach that state of ‘nothingness’ when you first start. During a 30-minute session, you may only have 5 minutes of that state. However, if you meditate every day you soon are able to reach it in the first 5 minutes. The same is true with creative photography. Your first creative image may require a long time before you reach the necessary mental state. But if you shoot frequently then the quality of images comes much earlier during a shoot. This is why many of the great photographers are so good. Shooting frequently results in better images. Many photographers who attend multiday workshops think their images are improving because of what they have learned from the instructor whereas they are simply reaching better mental states by continually shooting.

Stress is the enemy of flow, perhaps it’s the greatest enemy. I became aware of this many years ago during my weekend excursions into the Sierras. I noticed that almost without exception the best images were shot on Sunday rather than Saturday. That was because the 5-hour drive to reach the mountains produced so much stress that reaching a state of flow was extremely difficult. It got to the point where I stopped shooting on the first day and just walked around, becoming visually acquainted.

The reverse is also true. Flow is the enemy of stress. Photography, done properly, has great therapeutic value due to the state of flow it induces. I’m actually surprised that it’s not used by people for this very purpose. People run to reach a runner’s high, a state of well-being achieved by physically exhausting yourself. Meditation, as noted above, is used to reduce stress and anguish in people. Photography can do all that and do it easily and naturally because people are curious by nature. They only need to have the right environment and the process goes by its own accord. It takes less discipline and the rewards are just as great.

And finally, I would like to discuss the relationship between image quality and flow. It’s logical to conclude that if flow is an important state to be in order to produce good work then one should be able to see by looking at an image whether the creator was in a state of flow. I believe this to be the case. I can think of only one notable exception to this at this time – Ansel Adams’ Moonrise over Hernandez which he saw from the corner of his eyes while driving. But this image’s power is from its symbolism. The composition is actually one that one would create during a quick stop. The following are two landscapes I shot, one was shot while in such a mental state and the other was taken when the view suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Can you tell the difference?

I believe that it is virtually impossible to do great work without being in a state of flow. However, being in this state does not mean that your image will be of great quality. You still need the skills to convey your vision to an image, whether they be technical or artistic. The other cause of failure is that flow can deceive you. Good photography is greatly about intuition. Since an important characteristic of flow is that is not judgmental you can ‘feel’ very positive about a vision but it itself be mediocre. In beginners this has to do with inexperience but seasoned photographers often trust their feelings and are led astray. The following image was taken when I was in a state of flow. I can tell when I’m in such a mental state now. I loved these rocks and felt they really showed the spirit of a desert. I was wrong. It is only a lovely picture but it tells little more than the characteristic appearance of the environment. I had an intuitive feeling about the place but it was more within me than what I actually saw. So, I believe that a state of flow is a requirement of good work but it doesn’t guarantee it.

In summary, it may seem that knowledge of flow is interesting, enlightening, and can even be pleasurable. But there is a very practical side to all of this for us photographers. Given that flow is the key to your creativity I feel it’s important to know when you have it and to know how to attain it when you want it. It was my purpose in this article to help you achieve that.

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Igor:

Interesting read. I did, however, encounter the following sentence that I cannot understand. Flow only opens the door and lets that which the outside within. Perhaps there is a word or two missing or misplaced.

Bob

This was a WONDERFUL article and spoke directly to my soul!

Thank you!
Stay safe and healthy
Alicia C

Igor thank you very much for writing this article expressing your views on flow and how is it important for good photography. I agree and have seen how it works in my photography, although I never thought about it as you describe it. I have a confession: I am a book-a-holic - been one forever, will remain so - no 12-step program for me. One characteristic of book-a-holics is that we collect more books than we read - usually lots more! I suspect you are familiar with the book “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I purchased a copy many years ago and read a bit, but never close to finishing it. Perhaps I should pick it up again. Best always, Greg

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Thank you Igor for sharing your thoughts and insights into this fascinating side of photography. I feel as though I’ve had that “just feels right” moments from time to time, but have never had a idea of how I got there. Thank you again for helping me find my way “there” again.

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No, that’s pretty much what I had in mind. That which is outside within means that to let that which is outside within yourself, let it inside you. Sorry for the confusion.

I really enjoyed your article Igor. Very interesting, and different. I have definitely experienced being better in tune with whatever I’m doing on Day 2 vs Day 1, so to speak. When I’ve settled into whatever I’m doing.
Thanks you!

You’re welcome, Linda. It’s hard to describe it because it’s a state of mind. People who meditate talk about achieving a state where they see the world like they did when they were a child. That’s precisely how it feels when you’re ‘there’. There is a sense of surprise of almost bewilderment in the most common things. You look up from a composition and the world looks different. The objects next to you that you paid no mind to take on an importance and beauty you hadn’t noticed before. That’s how I know when I’m in a ‘good place’ during a shoot.

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Igor,
Thanks for the insightful article.
I have found that the vast majority of the time, my first few compositions of a scene that really grabbed me, were the best compositions. If I try to “force” an improvement the over analyzing does not tend to make an improvement. The light may get better, but the composition generally does not. This may not relate to “flow”, but it is an observation that I have made.
I also agree that the lack of distraction during the creative process is really important. I am always surprised at how much time can just disappear while out shooting. It is one of the things I love about landscape photography.

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I agree. And I find that such observations you have made are really valuable in photography. I also note things like that and use them later on to improve my work. I find these personal observations, these lessons you learn on your own, to be much more helpful than what I read or videos I see. Thanks for the comment.

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Very insightful, Igor! I would bring up the thrill of anticipation when you set on for a walk with a camera in your bag. It is like looking for hidden treasure and all that joy of a perfect shot. It is very addictive. I got a real camera a couple of years ago. Once you are through with learning basics, the flow starts flowing.

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Really nice article, Igor. I find getting into the flow state requires that I park myself in a spot for some length of time, rather than getting one or two frames then moving on. Although as Alan K. says, often my first couple of shots are the best of a set. I think it’s because we are shooting from the heart at first. It’s a challenge, sometimes, to maintain that open mind as I “work” a scene (perhaps a better phrase would be to explore a scene).

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Igor, Flow as you define it is the mindset one needs to achieve in order
to realize vision. If I understand, flow is the gate that allows one to go beyond simply observing a scene in order to achieve meaningful awareness. It enables us to move from seeing on the outside to seeing on the inside of ourselves. This article did not just roll off your keyboard. I appreciate the thought and time you have taken to create this personally honest, deep, and comprehensive explanation of the mental essence of photography.

Igor, your writing skills are as wonderful as your photographic skills. I really enjoyed this, and it confirmed something I always knew about you; that your images are an extension of your soul. That’s not some great insight on my part, just an obvious conclusion after seeing hundreds of your images.

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Have you seen my recent work? It’s all dark and ominous. What does that say about my soul? lol

But there may be something to that. I’ve always been uncomfortable speaking in public or giving speeches. But one on one, or in small groups, I bare it all. I don’t hold back and hope the others will reciprocate. Maybe that’s why the pictures are like that. I communicate on a personal level with people and the same with images I guess.

I really did put quite a bit of effort into this one. It’s the one aspect of photography that I value the most and it’s the best I have to offer. It’s now being talked about more but for years I never heard mention of it. The first time I heard of the word Flow was in a chapter of Guy Tal’s More Than a Rock. I’m not really up on neuroscience.

I first discovered Flow in my early 40’s, in the mid 1980’s. At that time I realized how incredibly fulfilling photography can be in such a state of mind. The joy of a morning shoot in that state would last all day. What’s not to like about that? So when I retired I decided that my remaining years would be spent in the best state I had found in a lifetime, a state reached through photography. It was only later that I found that this is the essence f being an artist. So yes, I feel that everyone should experience this. I’m not sure photography without this state of mind is worth pursuing.

That is why, even before retirement, I avoided trips shorter than 4 days. It just takes me that long to clear my mind and get into a “flow”.

Thanks for your thoughtful analysis.

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Igor, thank you for sharing this extremely well written and thought provoking article. You obviously have reflected very deeply on this subject, and then you put your heart and soul into writing the article. To continue your Star Wars analogy, “The Flow is Strong in This One”. This article was one of the most enjoyable reads on landscape photography that I have seen in a long time.

So much of what you have said rings true for me. Other than NPN, I do not belong to any social media. No Facebook, no Instagram, I only share my work here. But as you said, I don’t care that nobody sees my work, because I cannot not do what I do, since it produces so many mental rewards for me. While I was working, I pursued landscape photography for therapeutic reasons. It was one of the few places I could fully lose myself in something that helped me escape from 70 hour work weeks in a high stress job. And even though I was already very good at the technical side of photography, my creative vision and image quality grew leaps and bounds after retirement. This was partly because I could shoot more frequently, but also because I was more relaxed and could achieve the state of Flow more quickly.

I always thought that I was just a “morning person”, since 90% of my best photography happens in the 2 hours around sunrise. I live on the east coast, and enjoy shooting seascapes, so I always thought it was logical that I was a morning person. But even when I went on photo trips to “sunset” places on the West Coast like Olympic NP, I was still finding the majority of my best shots were from early morning. Thank you for helping me to understand that “Flow” is a big part of the reason that I am a morning person.

I’ll add one last observation. I believe that part of good post-processing of landscape imagess is being able to achieve a state of “Flow” while processing. Some people achieve this relaxed state by listening to music while processing. But once I had a high enough level of technical processing skills, it allowed me to focus more deeply on the creative and artistic side of processing. I may be weird, but I actually find post-processing to be relaxing, it creates many of the same mental rewards of the field shooting experience. Some people say they enjoy re-living their experiences while viewing and processing images. But I think it may also be because while doing this they experience a state of Flow .

A wonderful article Igor, I enjoyed it very much.

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Excellent and insightful article, Igor. There are times on photo adventures when I just wander around and see no compositions and am uninspired. Friends call it the “Harley Daze”. Other times, I am the opposite and see compositions seemingly out of nothing. Getting into the flow is a good way to describe it. I very much enjoyed the article and appreciate the effort you put into it.

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