Hello! I'm John Barclay, ask me anything!

Hi John
What is “Contemplative Photography” and how best to achieve it?

Best regards


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Sarah! What an honor to have you here asking me a question. As you know, I admire and am inspired by your work and adore you as a person. I hope I can help a wee bit here… I’ll give it my best.

First, I would agree that we have a similar approach to our craft.

Next, I am likely using Contemplative with great liberty. There are those who have a complete course of study around the idea of Contemplative Photography. I would not put myself in that category. Rather, I would say I have become more contemplative in my approach.

With that, and drawing on what we work on in our Contemplative Photography Retreat, the key ideas we are inviting attendees to consider are.

  1. To allow versus to grasp. As I shared with Matt, this is a big deal. Maybe the biggest. I remember shooting with Dewitt in the Palouse. He found this great Thistle and fell in love with it. I kid you not, he stayed with that bush for three hours! Talk about allowing versus grasping!!! And the final image was glorious. So, learning this alone will have a huge impact on you work.

  2. To be open to what turns your head. So with #1 comes a real tangible thing you can do. You can, as we do during the retreat, as participants to STOP if they say WOW! Or to stop if something turns their head. Then you must make a photograph. The key is to NOT JUDGE this process. Just do it without critique of the end result. This idea is to train yourself to stop and then connect to what make you stop! Too often we are “looking” and not really “seeing”. Seeing deeply can be greatly aided by your frame of mind. By how you show up to photograph.

  3. Notice. I love hearing Rikki Cooke in our retreat sessions say to someone. “And you noticed!” This is usually in our group sharing sessions when someone is sharing an experience from an outing we just had. They are realizing something new and sharing it. Rikki is pointing out that they NOTICED!! It is important to notice what you are feeling. Notice that you are “not into it” at that moment and to put the camera away. Notice that you are feeling overwhelmed and need to take deep breath. Notice you are totally taken and can’t hear anyone else, the wind, the birds… you are in flow if you will. Noticing is so important. Noticing the good and the bad. The success and the failure, etc.

  4. To fall in love. Flint does such a great job with this at our retreats. Not love as between a spouse, but falling in love with your subject matter. This happens more fully as we get to know ourselves and open to the possibility. Most wince a bit at the idea but by the end of the week in the final sharing circle, when we ask for feedback on the week, almost to a person we do not hear about photography,. Rather we hear about the growth they have had as a person. How much they now realize THEY have more influence over their imagery then they ever realized. That they, if they are willing to tap into their soft underbelly, will produced more connected meaningful work. Again, many scoff and such thinking and if you are reading this. I would ask you to consider what Ansel says. “You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, and the people you have love” Or Ernst Haas who said, “The limitations of photography are in yourself, for what we see is only what we are.” Or Freeman Patterson who said, “seeing in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being.” To me, they are essentially saying the same thing. If you want to make deeper more meaningful images, getting to know thyself and then apply that knowledge is important.

Gosh, once again, I’m rambling… I hope some of what I’ve shared makes sense!!! :slight_smile:


Hello Ruben,

Thank you for your question. I would refer you to my just posted answer to Sarah Marino… I think that should help give some perspective as to how I think about Contemplative Photography.

If you then have a more specific question, of feel that does not answer your request, please feel free to ask for clarification.

My thanks! John

Thank you John for sharing your thoughts and experiences here. I have been trying to engage a more contemplative photography experience myself for several years. I am starting to understand you cannot run 100 miles an hour in most of your life and then expect to turn on a switch and become contemplative in the field. IMO it is something I must be embracing and practicing in my daily living before I try to be a contemplative photographer. Otherwise I revert back to old habits of chasing the light and rushing from spot to spot. How have you evolved in your personal life to embrace a more contemplative lifestyle that overflows into your photography? How difficult was/is it? Did your desire for contemplation first come in your daily life or did you want a more contemplative photography voice and it spilled into your daily life? Thank you. P.S. Hello Cole!

Thank you very much, John. I also love Sarah Marino’s works.
I would like to say something profound but words escape me. So, instead, I would like to quote Elliott Erwitt: …Photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in ordinary places…it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.

Best regards



John - First, thank you for all your thoughtful responses to the above questions. They have answered a lot of my own questions I would have asked myself. Especially your responses to Matt and Sarah. I am a relatively new photographer and am so grateful to have found amazing resources like NPN and these opportunities. I love the idea of being more contemplative in the field and in my work. What advice do you have for a “newbie” ? I’m ready to dig in deeper!

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I have only recently come into contact with the term “Contemplative Photography” so I am searching to understand what that means. Many times I have been advised to slow down and “see” before pressing the shutter button. I assume the two ideas are pretty much the same. Also, I seem to associate Contemplative and Small Scene photography. It seems that small scenes require more looking, more contemplation and a quiet and unhurried approach. Does that make sense? And can you comment on the similarities and differences in these two approaches to thoughtful images?

Hello Bill,

An insightful question. First a thought and then a story… I’m a sucker for a story… :smirk:

I have been on a spiritual journey since about 31 years old. Photography has turned out to be my spiritual path. I did not know it then, but I do now. I’m sorry to keep referring back to our Contemplative Photography Retreat, but, its subtitle is “photography as a spiritual path” for a reason. For those reading, I want to be clear. Spiritual is in no way meant to refer to religion. That said, it is quite common to find someone who is a firm practitioner of their beliefs looking at photography as a spiritual path. And again, as a point of clarity, some of the most spiritual people I’ve met, do not practice a religion.

Now the story…

Let’s go back to 2015 when I met Flint for the first time. He was a student in a workshop I was co-leading with National Geographic Photographer Jonathan Kingston. On the arrival day Flint and I were on the front lawn admiring the rainbow when he said, “I’m a bit nervous to share my 10 images tonight. I am not really a photographer, I’m very new and Dewitt said I might enjoy this offering.” Flint has a Canon 6D for about 6 months. His first “serious” camera. Of course I assured him that this was not a competition or critique, rather a celebration session. We just want folks to share how they see the world.

The moment came when Flints 10 images were next to be shown. The first image appeared on the screen and there was an audible gasp. The next image appeared, an even more audible gasp. Then the third and the entire group was transfixed and amazed with the images being shown. Filled with connection. Neatly composed. Little stories. Truly amazing.

The next day, while sitting in our sharing circle Flint starts to recite poetry without the aid of a computer, phone or notes… Incredibly appropriate insights into why we photograph. All day he is adding incredible insights. I learn he is a Zen Priest. I learn he is a phycologist… I go to bed perplexed. How does a guy with 6 months experience with a “real” camera create such memorable images??? I did this for 3 nights. On the 4th night I awoke in the middle of the night with the answer. It was SO CLEAR to me. I could not wait to speak to him the next morning. As I saw him getting ready for our morning sharing session, I grabbed him by the lapels of his Hawaiian shirt and said, I KNOW WHY!!! Of course Flint looked at me and wondered who this mad person was! He had no Idea what I was pondering! I quickly told him, I know why you are such an incredible photograph after 6 months. You have already done all of the hard work!!! You have studied to be a Zen Priest, you embody spirituality. You are the most amazing listener I have even encountered. You are TOTALLY PRESENT in the moment. As such, when you put a camera in your hand, it instinctively used all of this learning to be in touch with and to capture what moved you. What connected with you. I NEED SOME OF THAT!!! And so the idea of partnering with Flint for our Contemplative Photography Retreats was born. I knew I needed help with how to become even more settled, present, aware and connected to my subject matter.

I’ve not proof read this… so I hope it makes some sense! :slight_smile: And, that it helps answer your question adequately.


Hello Brie,

Can I start by saying what a lovely name Brie is? I get stuck with John. Every house has one! Why can’t I get a nicer name like Brie?!?!?

You might start by asking David if you can get the recording of our Webinar. I believe he is still offering that if you ask. David Kingham that is…

Next, if you’ve not yet watched my Dream - Believe - Create lecture, it is posted on this site!

And then there are a few books you might add. I have an Amazon Shopping Page with a category that has some of the books we suggest as pre retreat reading. https://www.amazon.com/shop/johnbarclay?listId=Z6UG1JADVC0Q

I just finished Zen Camera and liked it a lot. The Little Book of Contemplative Photography would be a good start.

The Zen of Creativity is an excellent book as well.

Then you might consider some of the others on that list as you work through the others.

So these are ideas that relate to Contemplative Photography as I see it. From a practical point o view with regard to photography… HAVE FUN!!! Work hard on NOT comparing your work to others. Know that it will take time to discover your voice. Experiment, try. Avoid rules, rather photograph what makes YOUR heart sing. You’ll find all the help you need right here at NPN with regard to the technical side. What is WAY more important in making connected images is the stuff that is being discussed in my replies to Sarah and Matt and then Bill.

Now go make some images that make your heart sing and share them!

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Amen and AMEN! I have seen Erwitt’s quote before and it is spot on! Thank you for sharing. I’m copying it down and adding it to my photography quotes list.

Hello Ron,

Great question!

I think you’re right and that I too have seen and heard comments that would indicate that Contemplative Photography = Small Scene Photography. While that can be a by product of contemplative practice, for me it does not ring true. For me, Contemplative Photography is a… I’m searching for the right word… philosophy, a way of showing up to photography, a practice that allow deeper seeing… Well, all of those work for me! Maybe this will help. CP (short for Contemplative Photography). is a mind set for me. I used to show up with a shot list. Rules. Should do’s a as well as don’t do’s… I no longer do that. I just try and show up! I work to quiet my mind and allow myself to be taken rather than show up to TAKE! And for me, it works much better. Not for everyone, I know that. But it does for me. I credit this shift in mindset to creating my best images. So is slowing down part of it? Yes. Is is easier to find the more intimate small scene by doing so? You bet!

So, as you can see from many of the images I chose to post, they are NOT small intimate scenes. The mindset of CP is what drove me to make these captures. Not the size of the scene.

I hope my thoughts here as well as responses to others will help with your questions.

This is so helpful, thank you! I disliked my name for many years but the uniqueness of it has helped shape who I am and now I love it. Those resources should keep my mind busy for a very long time. About that webinar, David offers that as a premium download on his site, Expressive Exposure, so I’ll have to check that out for sure. https://www.exploringexposure.com/webinars/. I am also slowly learning that while I can certainly enjoy other’s art, comparison will be the death of my enjoyment of my own. Thanks again!

Teddy Roosevelt has this to say. “Comparison is the thief of joy”

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Thanks for the thoughtful reply and clarifications. I also especially resonated with this quote:

Thanks again

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Oh good! If that is resonating that is very good!! You are on you way Ron!

Thank you for the extraordinary opportunity to be part of this “Ask Me Anything” series. I appreciate your thoughtful and wonderful questions, thank you!

I hope we have the opportunity to chat again! Don’t be bashful. Reach out with questions via my email of you wish.

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