Originally published at: https://naturephotographers.network/articles/the-mindful-photographer/
Watching the way the current moves a blade of grass—sometimes I’ve seen that happen and it has just turned me inside out.~Minor White
Consider the following scenario: a person who frequently expresses great love of Chinese food enters one of the most highly rated Chinese restaurants in the world, and orders a favorite dish. When the dish arrives, the person quickly reaches for an expensive, professional-level, camera, photographs the dish, and walks out of the restaurant without even tasting the food. Now consider the same scenario but using a photographer who proclaims to love “nature,” instead of Chinese food; and a location offering incredible natural experiences, instead of a posh restaurant.
I have seen this time and again at popular photography spots: photographers arriving shortly before the “good” light, making a few photographs when the anticipated light arrives, then packing up and leaving, the experience of being in nature for any purpose other than photography never entering their minds. This may sound like criticism of such photographers, but in fact it is not. It is entirely understandable why photographers raised in the age of constant competition for attention would (implicitly or explicitly) consider making visually-impressive photographs—photographs likely to be popular, or even win awards—as their primary goal in practicing photography. These photographers, whether they know it or not, are cheating themselves out of immensely more satisfying ways to practice photography.
Philosopher John Stuart Mill made this observation: “No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible, until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought.” I would like to propose such a great change in the context of nature photography, which is this: the most rewarding aspects of pursuing nature photography have more to do with nature, and less to do with photography.
Another great philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, wrote, “We are never further from what we wish than when we believe that we have what we wished for.” If what you wish for is to gain the greatest satisfaction from practicing photography, and if you are convinced that you are gaining this satisfaction from the way you pursue photography today, consider that such conviction, if in error, may prove to be your greatest hurdle to accomplishing what you really wish for, or even keep you from knowing what that is. In the cryptic words of painter Robert Henri, “There are mighty few people who think what they think they think.”
Unless you are open to examining approaches other than the one you currently use, it may be that what you believe you wish for, in fact is not what you really wish for, or that there may be things worth wishing for that you may not even be aware of. And awareness, as it turns out, is not only about recognizing and comparing different approaches to photography, or any other occupation—it also has the power to change, in very good and very profound ways, the way you live your life and how you experience the world. I am referring to a particular kind of awareness that, while beneficial to anyone, is especially of interest to nature photographers. This kind of awareness is known as mindfulness, and it comes with an extensive list of empirically supported benefits (some are mentioned in this article by the American Psychological Association.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines mindfulness as, “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” (Emphasis added). You might think that awareness of such things as feelings and experiences happens by default, but that is not true. For example, you may believe that if an emotion arises in you, you would be conscious of it and why you feel it, but we often experience emotions that direct our actions without realizing how or when these emotions emerged, or whether they are even related to the current situation. We also believe that if an object or event occurs within our field of view, we would see it—become consciously aware of its existence. But that, too, is incorrect, as demonstrated by such experiments as the “invisible gorilla”.
The reason we miss a lot of what happens both within us and outside of us is that awareness is a product of attention (i.e., you are aware of things you pay attention to, and unaware of things you don’t pay attention to), and attention is a scarce resource—we only have so much of it to go around. The more things you try to pay attention to, the less attention you will give each one, and the more likely you are to come to a point where no attention is left for anything else.
Our brains evolved rules by which to determine what is or is not worth paying conscious attention to. For example, in the invisible gorilla experiment, your visual system “saw” the gorilla—the photons entered your eyes, and a signal was sent to your brain for processing. Your unconscious brain may even have figured out it was looking at a gorilla, but your conscious brain was too busy counting the number of ball passes, and did not have enough attention left to make you aware that you are looking at a gorilla. Another way to think about it is this: if you followed the instruction at the beginning of the video (to pay attention to the number of passes), you essentially told your brain that counting is an important task and that it should dedicate attention to it. You now have less attention left over for other things. When your visual system detected the gorilla, unconscious processes in your brain decided that it was not important enough to take attention away from counting, and so these processes decided it was not important enough to bother you (the conscious you) with this information. To paraphrase Robert Henri’s words above: there are mighty few people who see what they think they see.
If you really want to scare yourself, consider that most of what you see with your eyes is discarded before ever reaching your conscious mind—you literally don’t see most of what you are looking at, even though you are under the illusion that you do. This handicap is of great benefit to magicians and other tricksters. It’s not magicians that make illusions possible, it’s illusions that make magicians possible.
If the implications of mindfulness in photography are still not clear, I will sum them up in this simple statement: you can’t compose a photograph from things you don’t even know exist.
It’s likely that many, perhaps all, readers have had the experience of working alongside other photographers; then, when comparing images afterward, being surprised to see compositions, or even things, that others captured and that you have not even noticed. Those who notice more than you do are not endowed with any special gift not available to others; they are simply people who have trained themselves to be mindful—to summon up attention that may otherwise be allocated elsewhere, and to focus it consciously on the task of becoming aware of things, feelings, and sensations, and to weave those into visual compositions. You can train yourself to do the same thing—to be more mindful—too.
Before touching on techniques for training your mind to become more mindful, I’d like to elaborate on an important part of the definition of mindfulness above, which is this: being aware without judgment. The point of mindfulness is to notice things, not to make any decisions about those things (e.g., whether they are photogenic; whether they have the capacity to be popular with others; whether they match a preconceived idea you had about the kind of image you wish to make; how they should fit into a composition, etc.).
When you classify feelings or things as good or bad, useful or useless, pretty or ugly, etc., you also limit the range of visual expression available to you. Such classification should be decided after you have become sufficiently aware of your surroundings—when you have the ability to consider and to choose from all the things you became mindful of, and to make an informed decision about whether or how they may serve some expressive or aesthetic purpose.
The reason you should defer judgment until after you have a rich enough list of things you make yourself aware of, is rooted in a difference between two ways of thinking—convergent and divergent. Convergent thinking uses known information and techniques, and strives for outcomes that are known and decided in advance. Another term to describe known or anticipated outcomes is preconception.
To use convergent thinking is to preconceive what you will photograph before even arriving at the location. While this may be a useful approach when the preconceived outcome is the only one you want, it is also a roadblock to creativity. A common academic definition for creativity is, “the creation of novel and useful things.” When preconceiving, you prejudice yourself in favor of the preconceived outcome without knowing all the facts and possibilities, and prevent yourself from considering anything novel (i.e., creative).
Using convergent thinking, you may accomplish things you already know how to do, and that you may even do exceedingly well. However, convergent thinking leaves little room for creative thinking—new ways of seeing and expressing. For that, you need to employ the other kind of thinking: divergent. Rather than deciding the outcome in advance, divergent thinking considers as much information and as many possibilities as you can think of, before deciding—in real time—what to do with them, so that the outcome may turn out to be different from anything you already knew (or could have known) in advance. Divergent thinking is the necessary precondition for creativity.
So, how do you make yourself more mindful? Various traditions offer ready-made means to do so. One popular example is mindfulness meditation (aka, Vipassana), which is a powerful way to quiet and to focus your mind and to direct your attention consciously away from distracting thoughts. Like mindfulness, meditation also has a long list of empirically tested benefits.
If meditation is not for you (which you should not decide until you have given it a try for at least a few weeks), a simple tool requiring no special technique, is what I call, Visual Inventories. To make a visual inventory, make yourself comfortable (e.g., remove your pack, eat or drink to avoid being distracted by hunger or thirst, etc.) and force yourself consciously to list as many things you are seeing or feeling as you can. Doing so is beneficial for the same reason many people miss the “invisible gorilla”: you are taking conscious control of your attention and directing it to a specific task, rather than having your unconscious brain decide what to pay attention to. Using this method, you will, literally, end up with a list of things you can use to create your composition, many of which you may not have even known existed if you did not take the time to seek them consciously.
I mention above that making photographs with a mindful attitude comes with considerable personal rewards—rewards that, in my mind, eclipse those that any photograph ensuing out of convergent thinking (preconception, pre-planning, etc.) can, no matter how impressive those photographs are in other ways. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of the most widely recognized is the effect of flow, described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as, “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” He adds, “One of the most frequently mentioned dimensions of the flow experience is that, while it lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life. This feature of flow is an important by-product of the fact that enjoyable activities require a complete focusing of attention on the task at hand—thus leaving no room in the mind for irrelevant information.” (Emphasis added.) Recall that the definition of mindfulness also requires, “heightened or complete awareness.”
We live today in a world that is a jungle of attention-gobbling distractions—smartphones, Social Media, advertisements designed to draw attention, sounds, etc.—considerably more so than our ancestors have evolved to handle. Without conscious control, our attention can be spread and hijacked by a lengthy list of things having nothing to do with photography, and a lot to do with why most people today have difficulty concentrating attention, and may never know the experience of flow.
In the days of view cameras and chemical darkrooms, photography required prolonged focusing of attention on some task—camera setup, focus, movements, calculating exposure, development, printing, etc. In contrast, today, photography has become a medium that tempts photographers to work fast and to take shortcuts; and promotes working in a responsive, rather than creative, attitude. (Sadder still, many take an approach that is neither reactive or creative, and instead dedicate their efforts to imitating others.) This puts photographers at a disadvantage when it comes to finding satisfaction in creative work.
Consider the time it takes to make a meticulously detailed painting or sculpture, to compose a piece of music, or to write and edit a piece of creative writing. Consider the time it takes to train and evolve the skills to do these things. By comparison, one can make (and learn to make) photographs in little time and with little investment of attention. Therefore, in order to allow for such things as mindfulness and flow, we must seek them consciously and overcome the temptation to cut corners—we must deliberately avoid such things as preconceived compositions, rushing, applying effects created by automated algorithms with no conscious attention from the photographer. That is, if we want to reap the rewards of mindfulness and flow, and not just come home with some “good” photographs but without meaningful experiences.
When I arrive in a place I wish to spend time in (usually for reasons having little to do with photography), I start with a few minutes of mindfulness meditation. I make myself aware of the silence of the rock; the whisper of the wind; the gurgle of flowing water; the chirp of a bird; the buzz of insects; the thrashing of lizards and rodents in the undergrowth, and many other sensations. I also stop to examine and characterize my mood and thoughts, to recognize their origin, acknowledge those that are useful, and set aside those that are irrelevant to my present experience. After a while, I have an inventory of things—both cognitive and sensory—that can be put to some expressive use. When successful, all elements come together like a choreographed symphony, orchestrated by some invisible maestro.
When asked if I use whatever presets, filters, plugins, etc., that happen to be in vogue, some are surprised when I respond that I process my images using just a handful of tools available in Photoshop. When further asked why I don’t use tools that can achieve the same results more quickly and easily, my response often is greeted with even greater surprise. My response is this: I have a great range of possibilities and opportunities for creative expression when I process my photographs without use of automated tools. I enjoy engaging in creative work—molding the image, a little bit at a time, until it expresses what I wished for it to express. And when I’m successful, I feel a great sense of pride and ownership in my work. Why in the world would I want to shortcut that?
My photographs emerging out of states of mindfulness and flow, and the time I spend editing them with as much precision and control as I can, are so much more satisfying to me than photographs that are just aesthetically pleasing but that did not ensue out of a meaningful experience or whose aesthetics were owed to a computer algorithm rather than my skills, that I stopped pursuing the latter altogether. To me, no experience—no photograph; no matter how “epic” the light, how “sick” the view, how “stunning” the sunset, how “awesome” some filter or preset is, or any other consideration.
On those times when I make myself mindful and immerse myself in my surroundings, but find myself unable to find a way to make a meaningful photograph, I simply set the camera aside and stop thinking about photography for a time. Later, a photograph may present itself, or it may not. Either way, just the memory of a mindful experience can be as satisfying to me as any photograph, and sometimes considerably more so. Therefore, I never return disappointed from my explorations and my appreciation of my time in the wild is not dependent on whether, or what, I photograph.