My goal with meditation photography is to quell my worries, fears and uncontrollable thoughts that often take over my mind in order to operate in the present to become a better photographer. As a photographer who has tried many different methods of shooting, who has had plenty of trial and error and who has seen cameras and technology change drastically over the past 10 years, I find that when I got past the Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) stage, I wanted to find my style and a meaning to my photography. I found this through photographic meditation.
This meditative state puts me into a hyper-awareness where I absorb the atmosphere around me – everything from the wind blowing, the smells and senses coming into my body, the sound of crickets chirping or a robin’s whistling. This present moment connects me to the world as it is, unfolding nature and reality.
The Power of Mindfulness
With my photographic meditation practice (as I call it), I am not trying to fight with or control my mind. Rather, I am finding a way to quiet the chatter so I can live and operate in the present moment without worrying about the past or fretting about the future. By being mindful, I have transformed my outlook on life and how I approach my creative pursuits. The amazing benefit that meditation gave me was that I was able to find a deep focus that resulted in a photograph, not just making an image. It became work that wasn’t just a snapshot to me; it actually became a photograph that meant something to me.
Here are 10 tips on how to start a Photographic Meditation Practice:
1. The Art of Wandering
Getting inspired may seem difficult sometimes, especially if you’re confined inside during the winter months because of bad weather. A lot of us brave the cold to go out and shoot because sometimes the weather adds a new dynamic to our photographs. I suggest leaving the house to wander somewhere you haven’t been before. My personal wanderings are a bit more extreme as I sometimes live on the road in my car and shoot and write about my adventures on my photo blog.
We all scout to find locations in order to understand what the weather is going to be and when the best light will fall because this is an essential process in photography. Instead of scouting, go out and get curious about the world. Park your car and walk into a forest or a building that sparks interest. Follow your instincts and find the place you want to meditate and shoot.
2. Find Your Subject
Landscapes are my favorite genre of photography because they possess so many variables that can make or break a photograph. I also love that you can take an image of something that’s been photographed a million times over that will still have a different light, weather pattern or even a new subject that will make your of this same landscape unique.
After I wander, I find something that captures my interest, whether it’s a vista overlooking Glacier National Park or an urban scene, and find somewhere to set up. Find your subject and a way to get comfortable. I suggest carrying around a pillow or foldable chair. The beauty of meditation is that it doesn’t have to be in a full lotus; it can be done standing, sitting and even while walking.
3. Compose & Wait
I don’t know what I’m waiting for exactly, but my composition and camera settings, including tripod and shutter release, are set up in live view so I can actively see the scene. I have found my place and the beauty or things of interest that will guide my shutter release. Composing and waiting came from my favorite photographer Sam Abell, a former National Geographic staff photographer that composes and waits. From him, I found that photography can be a beautiful practice in which you can find beauty and then capture and write about it.
Meditation can take many forms, as long as you can actively become aware of your surroundings. Now that you have already found your place and composition, it’s time to become aware of your environment through meditation. It’s important to note that meditation is not trying to keep your thoughts from happening; instead, it’s a way of observing the things that come into your mind and having the ability to not let them control you. It’s hard to do at first, but it becomes easier over time.
I also practice meditation in my life beyond photography where I close my eyes and focus on my breath. However, when I’m meditating and shooting, my eyes are open and focused on my foreground through live view. Meditation by following your breath is widely practiced because it’s a fluid and constantly moving action of the body. It shows the impermanence of the moment and allows your mind, with practice, to live in the present moment and notice things you would normally ignore.
When photographically meditating, I am staring at that point in the foreground and only focusing on that distinct area so that I am not looking all around me, but instead at a single point. This helps me create an awareness of the scene after I have been able to let my thoughts dissolve, and focus on the moment that is happening around me.
By meditating, you are observing the world in a hyper-aware state of consciousness. You are actively participating in nature by being mindful or aware of the world as it is constantly changing and moving forward. Observation is the greatest tool of the photographer in that it gives you a great sense or composition and eye for capturing the decisive moment. The photographic meditation is observing the world, and is the same thing as mindfulness or being aware. We observe the beauty, the impermanence of fleeting moments, and focus on things we normally wouldn’t pay attention to. This observation will help you find the right moment to press the shutter release.
6. Impermanence & Imperfectly Perfect Photographs
Mediation is a way to see things as they really are, which is impermanent and imperfect. The meditative state allows you to see everything unfold actively and statically, and it teaches you that the moment you are in is always in motion and changing, much like photography. Not every photograph has been replicated. As the world opens up to you, it becomes time to shoot when the precise moment or decisive moment occurs. Once we have observed and almost have a “third eye” on the world, we will know when that moment happens.
7. The Precise Moment
Life is a series of moments that will never happen again, but being able to witness them more thoroughly through meditation makes them less fleeting. You have the remote or cable shutter release ready to press. You might feel or see something, or perhaps the weather has changed. Press the shutter at the precise moment and stay aware of the things around you. Keep observing. If something happens in your point of concentration, like an animal entering or light conditions changing, press the shutter at the precise time. Don’t chimp the screen after you’ve taken a shot, but keep clicking the release and stay in your meditative state.
8. The Experience
You know that you’ve captured something special because that fleeting moment where you pressed the shutter multiple times was stopped in time by making a photograph. That feeling you get through meditation is a lasting effect on the mind, too. Not only will it make you a better photographer, it will enrich your life.
The lasting effects of meditation for me are a deeper sense of calm, compassion and ambivalence to situations that would normally cause me anxiety abd derail my good mood. Meditation literally changed my life, my writing and how I viewed my photography. I take more time to smell the roses and pick metaphorical daisies than try to make everything perfect. I believe my experience doing meditative or contemplative photography has made me a better photographer.
9. The Meditation of Editing
When we are done, we have a blank canvas with our RAW photographs. I only shoot RAW, and I suggest you do too in order to get more image data to work with, and push further in post-processing. When I edit my photographs, I find it to be a great moment of creativity and concentration. I am seeing what I saw in that moment I pressed the shutter release, but now I have a blank canvas in front of me to transform this image into my vision.
Editing may not be the absolute meditative state like shooting, but when you’re editing, you get a sense of being in the zone. I dodge and burn areas I want to lighten or darken, fix my exposure, play with presets or filters and mess with colors until I truly create my vision. This experience is meditative and profound for me because it is something I worked hard to capture that is now coming to fruition. The entire experience is rewarding.
10. Rinse & Repeat
If photographic meditation works for you, then why not try to replicate that every time you go out to photograph? This has become my style and evolution as a photographer. I compose, wait, take in nature in the present moment and find the perfect moment to click the shutter. I find that my pictures take time to create, and are better than what I used to capture. I am taking my photography more seriously, and finding a significance in why I actually shoot in the first place: to show others the beauty I see in the world. Photographic meditation has changed my look on photography, and it may well do that for you.