“Photography is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis”
Henri Cartier Bresson

I do love this quote. Not only does it summarise my view of photography beautifully, it has also been an inspiration for my development of a mindful approach to photography.

Henri Cartier Bresson was a French photographer who is generally regarded as the father of photojournalism. He was an early user of 35mm, which with his rangefinder Leica and 50mm lens attached allowed him to develop his candid style of street photography. He is perhaps most famous for coining the phrase ‘the decisive moment’, to describe the optimum time to press the shutter.

This quote neatly encapsulates the key aspects of outstanding photography and is worthy of a brief analysis.

The Eye

What we see through our eyes is light and colour. Our eyes do not know what it is that they see. In that way they are very much like the camera, they record the light. They do not label what they see.

Our eyes also see like a combination of two lenses. They have a focal length similar to a 50mm lens, but with far wider angle of view. Our peripheral vision gives us the view similar to a fish eye lens – but without the severe distortion.

All of this sensory information is passed instantaneously to the brain, and that is where the trouble starts!

The Head

By head, we mean the role of the mind in photography. Its primary purpose is to interpret all of the visual information provided by the eyes. This is to keep us safe, identifying potential threats and potential sources of food. Except when we train to be photographers all of that identification and labeling can get in the way of seeing what is really in front of us.

The features before us are the light, colours, shapes, forms, lines, space, patterns and textures. Our mind receives this visual information and in a snap compares this to known similar visual data and labels the object(s). All very useful on the Serengeti Plains when out hunting, but as a photographer creating a great photo it is the features that we need to see before the label. For it is this that will guide our artistic creation through compositional choice.

So how can we learn to forget the names of what we see and truly see everything, and every possibility? Practice. In the books I have available I share practices that can help to develop this ability.

The Heart

The heart is used here to signify the emotion of a photograph. If we are to create photographs that rise above the ‘good’ to be ‘great’ we need to engage the heart. Both ours and the viewers. How can we do that? Guess what? I share some of the foundations of how photographers first attempted to do this, and some useful mindful practices to support your development as photographers in my books.

If you are intrigued why not download the free eBook below and then you’ll get some great information, and 9 Mindful Photography Practices. These will help you to develop mindful attitudes: Patience, Beginner’s mind, Non striving, Trust, Letting Go, Acceptance, Non Judging, generosity and Gratitude. It’s a win-win!

Over the last few years I have slowly come to the realisation that it is life that is the practice. Every aspect, every element, every event, every difficulty provides opportunity to be with how it is and respond skillfully. That is for me, the heart of mindfulness. It is not just a practice, but a way of life. The practice is life. Life is the practice.

It is helpful to reflect on a current definition of mindfulness.

“Mindfulness isn’t just about knowing that you’re hearing something, seeing something, or even observing that you’re having a particular feeling. It’s about doing so in a certain way – with balance and equanimity, and without judgement. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.” Sharon Saltzburg

Sharon Saltzburg perfectly distils it down in that final sentence. ‘Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.’ The ability to do this, to be this way, is born from daily meditation practice and a commitment to pay attention to each moment of the day. It is the paying attention that is difficult to maintain. Meditation is the training ground. We sit and we pay attention to our mind leaping about. We use an anchor (breath, sound, sight) to come back to ourselves in the moment.

Modern scientific understanding of the brain’s functioning helps us to understand how meditation creates neural pathways which we can then use throughout our day to support our intention to pay attention. If you’re interested in this concept take a look at this simple explanation of neural plasticity

My own experience of meditation and mindfulness echoes this. I have had a daily practice for several years. Only in the last couple of years have I started to notice it infiltrating the rest of my life, as I have slowly developed the ability to pay attention more often in the rest of my life. Of course, I regularly fail. I fall back into old behaviours, habits and ways of thinking. I know why; those neural pathways have been around longer. I often liken them to motorways. I’m used to using them and they get me places quickly. Or so I imagine.

The intention to practice paying attention throughout my life has a simple goal. Sharon Salzburg called it creating space for insight. Another Mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn, talks about us developing the ability to respond skillfully, rather than reacting habitually. I intend to continue to develop my ability to be with each moment, fully accepting how it is and responding skillfully. That is the life practice!

So if that is the intention how can a Mindful Photography Practice help?

Mindful Photography Practice

I meditate daily, walk mindfully occasionally and intend to follow a mindful photography practice once a week. Any activity can be an opportunity to practice mindfulness, to practice and develop the habit of paying attention. As Mr Kabat-Zinn says, “Applying mindfulness to any activity turns it into a kind of meditation.”

I generally keep my practice simple and I’ll explain what I do and how below.

Camera and lens choice

Firstly, I always use the same camera and lens set up. I favour a prime lens that echoes how we normally see. A 50mm focal length or equivalent is the way to go. My current camera, the Fuji XT2, has a crop factor of 1.5. so a 35mm lens is equivalent to 52.5mm on a full frame sensor. (Confused? get a simple explanation here….and then check out your camera a lens combination here. Warning: you’ll need to know your sensor size.)

If you use a zoom lens that’s fine. You can carry on using it as is, or you could tape it up at the 50mm equivalent and just use one focal length. Why do this you ask? If you use just one lens regularly and it is similar to how you see, it will support your ability to create photographs that are similar to what you see. Wide angle and telephoto lenses distort the photo. For me the essence of the mindful photography practice is to represent what I see and how I see it.

Camera set up

My regular set up is Aperture Priority with a mid range aperture as my walk about position and ISO appropriate for the light. The basic intention is to choose a simple set up from which I can create photo that represents what I see, that is exposed correctly and with a good depth of field. If I want to make creative choices about depth of field, focus, white balance etc I can do so mindfully from this position. After creating the photo I then return to the original camera set up.

Four Stage Seeing Practice

My own Four Stage Seeing Practice is the anchor for a mindful photography practice. This involves coming back to what I see every time I notice my mind has gone elsewhere, much in the same way as you return to the breath when meditating. The four stages are Anchor, Seeing, Resting and Creating. I explain them fully in my book – Mindful Photography: How to use photography to develop mindfulness

Time

I generally practice for an hour, choosing to walk around a location and just notice what I see. The heart of the practice is to not look for a photo opportunity. That may sound contrary. After all I do expect to create some photos. My suggestion to you is, don’t look for a photo, just observe what you see. The photo will come to you.

If you practice this regularly one day this simple instruction will become part of how you photograph and you will have established a mindful photography practice as part of your intention to live a mindful life. Until then keep practicing!

 

In my new eBook – Mindful Photography: How to use photography to develop mindfulness (published later this month!) I share 16 Mindful Photography Practices. Each one is designed to hone a photography skill and develop mindfulness. I promised to share one from the new eBook so here it is.

Mindful Photography Practice – Ordinary Beauty

This activity was inspired by a quote from John Updike who encouraged us to “give the mundane its beautiful due.”

The intentions of this practice are to slow you down, improve your seeing and to create some visually stimulating photos of an ordinary subject. Once again though, whilst the photos are your outcome, the primary focus is in developing your ability to see what is in front of you. The practice is the thing, not the outcomes. Take your time. There is no time frame for this activity. Attend to the visual: the light, shapes, colours etc. Practice seeing like a camera.

  1. For this practice it is helpful if the viewscreen is not available for review. All digital cameras allow you to control whether the photo pops up after you have taken it, and how long it stays on the screen. This can be turned off. Then you can use to screen to compose your photo, but you can’t see the result.
  2. Set your camera to a mode that you are familiar with and you can use instinctively. Auto is great.
  3. Use the camera at one focal length. Do not zoom in and out.
  4. As you walk through your location do not look for a photo. Observe what is around. Wait for something to catch your eye, then stop and create a photo.
  5. Do not look at the photos you create. Notice your thoughts.
  6. Choose a subject that could be described as ‘boring’. A vehicle, building, room, sink, bicycle, chair, staircase, escalator etc.
  7. Walk all around your subject following the 4 Stage Seeing Practice.
  8. Wait for that flash of perception.
  9. Get really close.
  10. Frame really tightly.
  11. Do not include anything extra.
  12. Move your body. Change your point of view. Get high. Get low. Get interesting.
  13. Create up to 20 photos that challenge the viewer to identify the object.
  14. Finish the activity, sit quietly and review your photos.
  15. Share your favourite photo.
  16. Repeat the activity with another subject.

More Mindful Photography Practices

There are more Mindful Photography Practice available in my free eBook. Do download it!

Mindful Photography in action

Digital Photography is fantastic. Its ability to capture what we see and allow instant review has revolutionised photography. It has changed how we create photographs and how we edit them. But perhaps the most fundamental change is that it has supercharged the creation of a photograph. Photographic creation and sharing is now like a Ferrari 812 Superfast. Back in the film days it was more like a classic mini.

Now, using a digital camera you can take eight photos per second. Take fifty of a scene, review them instantly and discard the ones you do not like. It is this that has fuelled a disconnect with the experience of what you see. You know that you can take lots of photos, at no cost and reject all the ones you don’t like. You pay less attention to what you are seeing, and crucially how you are framing the photos.

By applying mindfulness to photography you connect through the visual to the present moment. You walk with your camera – not looking for a photograph but noticing what you see – everytime you notice your busy mind, you return to what you can see in front of you. The seeing becomes your anchor, just like the breath when you meditate. This also has the potential to improve what you see and how you see.

The practice of clearly seeing everything that is in front of you is something that you can learn and develop. You can learn how you see. You can learn how you interpret light, colour, shapes, forms, textures and patterns to make sense of the world; and you can begin to understand how a camera represents the same scene. Then, with practice and contemplation of the photographs you create, you can begin to hone your ability to create photographs that represent what you see.

Maybe you still hanker for that classic mini experience. We are currently experiencing a growing interest in film photography. Perhaps there are elements of that slower pace, more engaged process and almost ritualistic nature that we are missing from the digital experience. However, there are ways of experiencing a film like experience with your digital camera, ways of slowing the process down and re-introducing some ritual.

In a desire to provide you with techniques to connect you with the creative experience, I offer you the following 10 tips to slow down your photography. This slowing down is a fundamental element of becoming more mindful with your photography, of becoming a Mindful Photographer.

10 Tips to slow down and connect with your photography

  1. Turn off your review screen or tape a small piece of card over it – Just like a film camera you can’t see what you have just created. This assumes you have a viewfinder to compose the photo. If  you don’t you could still follow this tip and shoot blind, imagining what your camera is receiving.
  2. Limit the number of photos you create – go filmic with a 12, 24 or 36 limitation
  3. Use a small packet of sweets or nuts to count/remember the number of shots you have used – Count them out before you start. As you can’t see the screen (Tip 1) use 12, 24 or 36 sweets/nuts in a little bag. After every shot eat one sweet or nut. It’s a win win!
  4. Limit your location area – Combined with 1, 2 and 3 this encourages you to really notice what is around you. Limit the area to a 100 meter square area, or less if you are feeling bold.
  5. Turn your lens into manual focus – Turn off the auto focus. It is a great art re-learning how and where to focus, and it also slows you down!
  6. Shoot from the hip – Now this one could actually speed you up. But if you hold your camera at your hip, and compose by imagining what your camera can see, you will slow down. Especially if you combine it with 1 and 2.
  7. Return to the visual – Whenever you notice your mind thinking about your next meal, tonight’s activities or some aspect of photographic skill, STOP and return to what you can see in front of you.
  8. Do not download or look at your photos for at least 2 days – Back in the film days we had to wait. Unless you were developing your own film, but even then it took time. I used to send my film off for developing and then wait a few days before looking through the returned photos, hoping at least one was a keeper. So, wait for a few days – at least 2 – before downloading. When you do look through them, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Notice the judgement and the commentary.
  9. Set your own mini photo marathon – Randomly choose 4 words, set aside 4 hours and create 4 photos in order, to represent the words. Photos must be in the word order and you must finish with only 4 photos. You could limit and slow yourself even more by ONLY shooting 4 photos. No deleting.
  10. No deleting allowed – Closely linked to number 2, do not allow yourself to delete any photos. Knowing that you cannot delete will encourage choice: whether to photograph or not, and this will slow you down.

PS The three photos accompanying the post follow some of these tips

This week began the final half of the course with an exploration of how we are living now.

Often we live attached to an image of ourselves from a few years earlier. Most of us like to imagine that we are younger than we are and not admit that we are getting older. This gentle but relentless change is a challenge to us all.

However, if we experience a major change that includes a significant loss then the adjustment to this life event is even more challenging. All of the students on the course have experienced a major loss. Brain trauma happens immediately and life is unlikely to ever be the same again.

Any major loss in our life: health, relationship, loved one, job, career leads to grief, and a cycle of adjustment we know as the Grief Cycle. We may well know that the stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. We may also know that they are not linear. However it is unlikely that we will find it easy to live.

Photography provides a means by which we can create photos that illustrate how we feel. It also can be used on an ongoing basis as part of an exploration of how we are experiencing our life. Next week we will be looking at one of the engines of our struggles to adjust to great loss: fear.

After a long discussion about change, loss and grief, an opportunity to reflect how this made us feel was required. The Mindful Photography Practice we all did invited the visual contemplation of a tree, and the creation of photos that illustrated how we felt. Everyone took their time and then shared their favourite photos, and why they had chosen them with the group.

Here they are.

The photo above was my one of my first thoughts for an image that represented a Favorite Place. It suggests that I have been out with my camera, creating photos and have now settled to review the photos whilst consuming a quality cup of tea and possibly the best Apple Cake in the world!

Firstly, you want to know about the cake, I know. It’s provided at Brynmill Coffee House, my local café. A little stop on the way home after a stroll around the park. Secondly, the photos – they follow at the bottom of this post, or a favourite few do. They’re from this morning’s practice, actually in a park in Porth – nowhere near the café. That’s artistic licence for you!

My second thought, after some reflection about what made a favourite place was a connection with mindfulness. It was the moment of creating this blog post that provided the inspiration. For whilst I do have special places that I love, and people that I love to be with that turn any place into a favourite place (you know who you are), the present moment is my favourite place of all.

If I am totally present in this moment then I am really here. Completely inhabiting my mind, body and place. I am completely immersed in the one thing that I am doing. I am aware of the sights, sounds and smells. I am tuned into the thoughts whizzing through my mind and occasionally when I notice this I remember to connect back to what I can see, or the ground under my feet.

Sometimes I am present enough to be aware of how I feel. As an English middle aged man this ability is a work in progress! But supported by my photographic practices, meditation and mindfulness practices it is developing.

This morning I went out to practice mindful photography originally with the intention of creating photos whilst I was experiencing feelings of uncertainty. However as soon as I got outside in the sharp morning air and brilliant sunshine those feelings dissolved and I was there, present with the day, my camera and my dog. Another favourite place.

The home stretch! This penultimate session carried on with our consideration and development of mindful attitudes through photography and we started by reviewing the photos created by the students for their homework. After that we looked the mindful attitude of Beginner’s Mind, before setting more homework around Acceptance.

Homework – Rightness and Wrongness

Last week I finished by setting the students a mindful photography practice for homework. The goal of the practice was to notice our habit of judging our life experience. We are constantly evaluating how the world is treating us, and this usually manifests as a judgement that we either like or dislike what is happening.

From this habit we then try to repeat the things we like and avoid or deny the things we dislike. All perfectly reasonable you might think, that is how life is, but not always helpful when we can’t control what is happening and we are looking to reduce the stress in our life.

There is a middle way. A noticing that we have made a judgement, taking a few breaths and being with how it is. Feeling those emotions playing out in our body. Noticing the thoughts around avoidance creeping in. And breathe! Slowly the feelings and thoughts will soften and then dissolve.

It is a lifetime’s practice, but how can we work with this habit photographically? We make the same judgement about every photo we create. We either like them or dislike them. What if we were to create photos that were good or right and another set of the same scene that were bad or wrong?

Can we look at the different photos of each subject, notice how they make us feel and consider whether sometimes the wrong photos are more interesting than the right ones. What you need is some photos to compare. Below you will find the pair that each student chose to share.

Beginner’s Mind

The cultivation of a beginner’s mind is an intention. We resolve to receive each moment as if it was the first time we experienced it. (Which it is!) We imagine that the sensory information we are experiencing is fresh and new to us. We really notice what it is that we can see, feel, smell, touch and hear.

When we are sat meditating the object of this intention is often the breath. To sit and experience the breath as if for the first time is to alert our senses to where and how we feel the breath in our body. Its cool entry at our nose. The gentle rise and fall of our stomach. The subtle expansion of our chest. The sharpening of our senses brings us into the experience and roots us in the present moment. To expand this practice into other areas of our day and life supports our intention to be mindful.

The trick is taking this sensory experience and developing it in situations and environments that are familiar. This is a re-tuning of our senses. A conscious decision to notice. We may choose one particular sense to work with or simply remain open to what our senses reveal.

The very essence of this practice brings us into the moment, encouraging our presence within our current experience. In photography this can be explored as part of a mindful photography practice. Our intention within the practice is to notice the visual experience as if for the first time. And that is what we did!

Each student was encouraged to return to a location they had used before and to imagine that it was the first time that they had been there. Then to create some photos that represented that experience. Below you will see each student’s favourite photo from their mindful photography practice.

Homework – Acceptance

I finished by introducing the mindful attitude of Acceptance and then set the students homework around this challenging area. To find out how they got on call back next week!

 

What is Zen?

“To study Buddhism is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self.” Dogen Zenji

OK, let’s start with a definition. Or let’s not! For that’s how slippery Zen is. For there are those that suggest that defining Zen is like describing the taste of honey to someone who has not tasted it. Sure you can relate it to other things, explain its texture, its colour and so on. But to taste it is the experience. The only way to know what it tastes like is to taste it.

It’s the same for Zen, it is an experience. But perhaps a little explanation would help. Here’s one from the website Zen Buddhism.

“At the heart of the Japanese culture lies Zen. Zen is, first and foremost, a practice that was uninterruptedly transmitted from master to disciple, and that goes back to the a man named Siddhārtha Gautama – The Buddha – 2500 years ago in India.

The practice of Zen meditation or Zazen is the core of Zen Buddhism: without it, there is no Zen. Zen meditation, is a way of vigilance and self-discovery which is practised while sitting on a meditation cushion. It is the experience of living from moment to moment, in the here and now. Zazen is an attitude of awakening, which when practised, can become the source from which all the actions of daily life flow – eating, sleeping, breathing, walking, working, talking, thinking, and so on.

Zen Buddhism is not a theory, an idea, or a piece of knowledge. It is not a belief, dogma, or religion; but rather, it is a practical experience. Zen is not a moral teaching, and as it is without dogma, it does not require one to believe in anything. A true spiritual path does not tell people what to believe in; rather it shows them how to think; or, in the case of Zen – what not to think.”

All clear now? Mmmm, I know it’s slippery. But at the heart of that definition is the knowledge that it starts with just sitting and extends out to all aspects of your life. Zen is mindfulness. It is the practice.

Perhaps the real question is why am I banging on about Zen?

Why Zen?

I will be very clear here. I am no expert, but I do believe that there is great merit in a Zen approach to photography. What do I mean? Zen is experiential. Zen is full and complete presence. Zen is paying complete attention to your present experience.

Everything I read about Zen reminds me of my mindful approach to photography. The foundation of Mindful Photography is clear seeing. Using what you see as your anchor, the thing that you return to whenever you notice that your busy mind has taken you into the past or future. In fact the 4 Stage Seeing Practice (that I share at all my workshops and courses) has as its first and second stages very Zen like features.

Stage 1 is all about anchoring yourself in the moment. It is a meditation upon your presence at your location. I encourage an awareness of the sights, sounds, smells, touches and what you can hear. This brings you into the moment. But it is Stage 2 that is most Zen like.

Stage 2 is all about the seeing. But it in the instruction that the challenge lies. I ask you to walk, to observe what you see, but not to look for a photo. It is this instruction that causes most confusion and resistance. After all why should you not look for a photo? That is what you are doing, looking for things to photograph.

Yet if you do not look, you will see more. How can that be? You will not be so limited by your mind’s interpretation of what would make a ‘good’ photo. If you keep yourself open to possibility, you may begin to dissolve that very strong drive of your mind to present you with things that you are familiar with or interested in. If you remain open and aware of this drive you may see more. You may see things that ordinarily you would have missed.

Of course what makes this practice most Zen like is that you will read this and you may not understand. It is experiential. You have to do the practice with the intention of following the instruction and an awareness of your mind’s tricks. Only then will it begin to make some sense when interesting sights present themselves, or you create a photo that in some way resonates with how you were feeling when you were there. A deeper connection develops and infuses your photos.

Zen Camera

David Ulrich has written a fabulous sounding book Zen Camera: Creative awakening with a daily practice in photography which is due out next March. He is an active photographer and writer whose work has been published in numerous books and journals including Aperture, Parabola, MANOA, and Sierra Club publications. Ulrich’s photographs have been exhibited internationally in over seventy-five one-person and group exhibitions in museums, galleries, and universities.

Here is a little bit about the book. Mine is on order!

“A beautifully illustrated guide to developing a daily photography practice that draws on mindfulness and Zen Buddhism. ‘Zen Camera’ is a photography and mindfulness programme that guides you to the creativity at your fingertips – literally – requiring nothing more than your smartphone or any other type of camera. You’ll learn how to use the camera in your pocket to explore self-expression as a photographer and produce photographs that are both wildly beautiful and unique. Gorgeously illustrated with full-colour photographs, David Ulrich’s lessons combine mindfulness principles with concrete exercises and the basic mechanics of taking a good photograph. He guides you through a programme of taking photos every day and also offers insight into the nature of seeing, art and attention.”

PS The Photos

The photos were all created during a Mindful Photography practice that centered upon a consideration of my Point of View. As you might be able to tell I created the photos on a wet day in a children’s play park (in autumn of course!). I spent around 30 minutes slowly walking around the space stopping at each piece of equipment to consider how I could create an arresting photo. Did I succeed?

I try to schedule 3 retreats a year. These are a time when my intention is to slow down and be present. I sometimes have a goal, often something creative, but the intention is the foundation.

There are all types of retreat possible, but at the heart of any ‘spiritual’ retreat is “a period or place of seclusion for the purposes of prayer and meditation” (Oxford Dictionary). It is possible to do guided retreats with others or choose solitude. Many retreat centres welcome all faiths and beliefs, whether you consider yourself a participant in that belief system or just want to be somewhere peaceful and safe.

I choose to follow a solitude retreat at Llannwerchwen Retreat Centre. This centre is situated in the hills north of Brecon, Wales and is run by a Catholic order. Whilst they do offer support and guidance they also welcome everybody to use the space and accommodation for solitude retreats. I only ever see the people running the centre at the beginning and end of the retreat.

I have visited many times over the last ten years. I have witnessed the bare bones of winter and sneezed through the vibrancy of spring. I have been sunburnt in high summer and most recently experienced the onset of autumn. Each visit brings a different experience. Some of those experiences are coloured by the accommodation allocated, its view and feel. Others are influenced by what is on my mind when I arrive, but always they are shaped by the choices I make whilst I am there.

So I thought I would share a few ideas that I believe help support the possibility of a beneficial (solitude) retreat. This knowledge has been gained the hard way! For every tip below I have done the opposite. I don’t claim that the list is perfect, every experience will still be different, but these tips support the potential for an enriching experience.

15 Tips for a beneficial (solitude) retreat

  1. Set an intention. This is best kept simple. For example, to slow down or to be completely quiet. It is not a goal – something you have to achieve – this is to be a way of being whilst you are on retreat.
  2. Turn your smartphone to airplane mode. Set the ‘vacation responses’ on your email and text and still be able to access those talks by wise guides that you have pre-saved. It will remain a temptation to switch back on, but all aspects of a retreat require discipline, this is just one other. The hardcore alternative is to leave your phone in the car or at home!
  3. Be self sufficient. Bring with you all the food, drink, toiletries, reading material, arts equipment and other props that you require. But be lean with your choices, always ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this?’
  4. Don’t drive anywhere. Leave your car in the car park
  5. Exercise. Walk in nature, slowly paying attention to the sensations you experience. Do gentle yoga.
  6. Meditate. Commit to a regular meditation practice (maybe morning and night) and integrate other mindful practices: walking, washing up, art, photography. Centre upon the development of concentration.
  7. Get creative. Take the materials for a creative outlet. The quieter and more rested you get the more likely your creativity will be sparked. Try painting, drawing, colouring, sketching, writing or photography. The quieter and less stimulated you want to be the less of these things you will take.
  8. Eat well. Cook wholesome fresh food with quality ingredients. Use the preparation, cooking and eating as a mindful practice.
  9. Contemplate. Sit in nature or in your accommodation in complete silence doing nothing, maybe enjoying a hot mug of your favourite beverage.
  10. Limit sound. Choose whether your retreat will be in complete silence or if you will be supported by dharma talks or similar. Try not talk to yourself (out loud or in your head). This is particularly difficult initially.
  11. Take with you…. A flask, water bottle, pens, paper, colours, camera, inspirational reading, appropriate seasonal footwear. The quieter and less stimulated you want to be the less of these things you will take.
  12. Pay attention to how you are each day. Be aware of your sensations, your thoughts and your feelings. These will guide wise choices.
  13. Read (if you have to) that which will support your intention. Not material that will agitate.
  14. Be gentle with yourself. Be compassionate for your experience. Everything is possible. It is all passing through.
  15. Ease in and out of the retreat. Think about how the phases before and after can support your experience.

Here are a few of my favourite photos from my recent retreat

 

Generosity is regarded as a mindful attitude. Jon Kabat-Zinn added it to his initial list of seven attitudes that are found in his book Full Catastrophe Living, along with gratitude. How is it now seen as a mindful attitude and how can you develop the attitude through your photography?

What is Generosity?

Generosity is defined as the quality of being kind and generous, and it is a key element of many religions. In Christianity it is known as charity and we are told that ‘it is better to give than to receive.’

In Buddhism it is known as dana: it is the practice of cultivating generosity and is seen as a perfection.

In secular circles it may be described as philanthropy – ‘the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes’ – in the hope of building a better world.

Recently the scientific community have become interested in the act of generosity. The University of Notre Dame has conducted the “Science of Generosity Initiative” to explore the relationship between generosity, happiness and well-being.

The Paradox

I do love a paradox, and human life is full of them. Could it be that generosity provides another? Could it be that when you don’t hold on tightly to what you perceive to be yours that it makes you richer than hanging on to it?

How would it be if you cultivated an attitude of abundance that there would always be enough for you if you gave some away? Does that thought fill you with fear? Fear of not having enough. I know that it does me. And yet I always seem to have enough. Somehow something turns up to plug the gaps. This requires an attitude of abundance instead of scarcity. A belief that there will always be enough.

Such an attitude requires fearlessness. It requires you to rise past the fear that you will not have enough. For this fear generates  greed, selfishness and stinginess and if you are to be generous an attitude of abundance is the foundation stone.

True Generosity

True generosity requires a non attachment to the outcome. There is an intention to give freely without attachment to how your gift is received. This then cultivates a freedom from ego and connects us to humanity. You become less centered on me-me-me and more open to the fact that you are part of the whole. Part of humanity. Part of Earth. Part of the cosmos. After all everything is made of the same stuff, stardust.

Applied to Photography

There are two ways in which you can cultivate generosity through photography.

  1. Give your photos away for free. Now I know that this is contentious and that it runs contrary to contemporary thinking about copyright, but most of us create good photos rather than great photos. I understand that those who regularly create great photos, and earn their living that way may not want to give their work away (perhaps they would consider option 2 below). But the rest of us mere mortals create millions of photographs a day. (In 2015 it was estimated that 80 million photos were uploaded to Instagram every day! InfoTrends’ most recent worldwide image capture forecast estimates consumers will take 1.2 trillion photos in 2017.) Why not set yours free?
  2. Donate your skills, knowledge, time or money earned from photography. Why not shoot a friend’s celebration or event for free, donating your time skills and photos? Why not print and frame one of your photos and give it to a friend or relative who expressed how much they like it? If you are a professional why not offer a small part of your time and space to instruct others in an aspect of your photography? If you earn your income from photography why not donate a small, but regular amount of your income to a related charity?

Now I freely admit that I do not do any of these things regularly. I do occasionally offer my services for free or very low rates when I know the recipients cannot afford much. I do struggle with that abundance vs scarcity thought. However, I have a commitment to continue cultivating this attitude and will be looking to how I can offer some of my future online photography courses for free, as well as continuing the practice throughout the rest of my life.

Have I inspired you to cultivate your attitude of generosity?

Today I decided to follow a Mindful Photography Practice in response to this week’s Word Press Photo Challenge Elemental. This weekly topic encouraged us to respond to the four key elements: Air, Water, Earth and Fire. I decided that this would be most appropriate for me at the beach, as I live only 15 minutes drive away from one of the top beaches in the UK – Three Cliffs, and I would be in my element. I love the beach!

Air

As I wandered camera in hand I stayed present with the visual panorama and noticed my mind nagging at the difficulty of photographing Air and Fire. My response was to let the thought pass and return to what I could see. Then I looked up. The first photo of this set seemed an appropriate response to Air. Not only was the invisible visible in its movement through the clouds, our own contribution to the element, in the form of pollution was clear.

mindful photography - air

Water and Earth

At the beach it seemed apposite to include the Water and Earth together in a photo. After all is it not this interaction, wave on sand, that we most love at the beach? My favourite photo on this theme included me, foot and shadow, paddling through the warmish shallows. Though there were a couple of others I was quite drawn to as well.

mindful photography - water and earthmindful photography - water and earth mindful photography - water and earth

Fire

Of Fire there was none. I entertained storming someone’s barbecue and getting down low and close to capture the burning coals, but that idea seemed too ridiculous. It was only when I finished and reviewed my photos that I realised that I had a symbolic representation for Fire in the blazing lichen. Which of course also responds to Earth too. You can almost see the fire bursting through the cracks in the earth, like at the edge of volcanic activity.

mindful photography - fire

Finally

At Three Cliffs it is almost always necessary to visit the passage between two areas of the beach. This sea worn arch presents a teardrop view of the beach and its base looks different each time you visit. The tide takes and deposits sand, changing the passage base throughout the seasons. It seemed an appropriate watery and earthy note on which to complete this set.

 

 

 

 

Every week throughout the summer I will be posting a photography challenge that is designed to bring you into the present moment. They can be completed with any camera, even your phone. Your favourite photos are posted to our Facebook group, which is a public group so that you can invite your friends to join in.

This week’s mindful photography challenge is ‘Simple’ and is an invitation to create one photograph that illustrates the theme. It could be a photo that uses simplicity as its compositional guide, or it could illustrate the standard definition ‘easy to understand’ either directly or using a metaphor/symbol. There that’s given you something to think about. Just keep it simple! My photo below takes the first approach and was created today in the park to illustrate this post. I only created two photos. One for this post and one for next week’s.

When you go out to practice imagine that you can only create one photo. Walk around your chosen location. Observe your surroundings. Wait until a photo opportunity grabs you. Look at what stopped you and why. Consider how you will frame it (what is in the frame and what is out?) Consider how your camera will see the scene. Then create one photo.

Share your favourite photo here.

Every week throughout the summer I will be posting a photography challenge that is designed to bring you into the present moment. They can be completed with any camera, even your phone. Your favourite photos are posted to our Facebook group, which is a public group so that you can invite your friends to join in.

This week’s mindful photography challenge is ‘Shape’ and is an invitation to create one photograph that illustrates the theme. It could be a photo of an actual 2 dimensional shape (as distinct from form which is 3 dimensional) or it could be a shape create by the elements in your photo. My photo below takes the latter approach and was created whilst following a Mindful Photography practice. I do have a bit of a thing for triangles in my work. How many can you see in this one?

When you go out to practice imagine that you can only create one photo. Walk around your chosen location. Observe your surroundings. Wait until a photo opportunity grabs you. Look at what stopped you and why. Consider how you will frame it (what is in the frame and what is out?) Consider how your camera will see the scene. Then create one photo.

Share your favourite photo here.

I am aware that I write more about mindfulness than photography. I reckon that is OK as my focus is teaching mindfulness through photography, but I thought that you might find it interesting to read about my regular (mindful) photography practice. What I do and how I do it.

A couple of days ago I followed a mindful photography practice to produce the one photo for this week’s Mindful Photography Challenge. What follows here is a walk through of my practice, the camera set up, the intention of the practice and my feelings and reactions to each photo. I have included all 10 photos here so that I can reflect upon the idea that it is the practice that is most essential rather than the outcomes (the photos).

A Mindful Photography Practice – A Part of the Whole

The title for this practice was just a moment’s inspiration, an idea that sprung to mind. Usually I do not use a theme for the practice, previously I have used “Blue”, but it is more usual for me to centre just upon the observation of what is in front of me.

I chose a simple camera set up that I can now use quite instinctively, not needing to move the camera from my eye as I adjust exposure settings. I use Aperture Priority, an ISO appropriate for the light (200 on this day) and start with the camera in a mid range aperture (f8). Bryan Petersen in his books on exposure calls this a ‘who cares’ aperture, one where the depth of field is not a big issue and the object that you focus on will be super sharp. From this point you can choose to change the aperture, without removing the camera from your eye, knowing which way to move the relevant ring/button – because you have practiced! I also chose to use my 35mm lens (a 50mm equivalent on my camera) to encourage a literal creation of photos that were a part of the whole.

I decided to create 10 photos in 30 minutes on a short walk to a local park. I also set myself the intention of not looking at the review screen after each photo and keeping count of the number of photos created in my head. The purpose of this is to centre my mind upon the visual, to use seeing as my anchor, the thing I return to whenever I notice my busy mind.

This is the first photo I created, only a minute from my front door. As I reached the corner of the first road I have to cross, I looked up. I was drawn by the blue, blue sky and saw the tenacious plant clinging to the building, framed against the sky. I chose to change the aperture to a wider one to focus the eye upon the subject and used the edges of the building to create lines that lead to the plant. All of this decision making happened in an instant. Only now reflecting on it am I aware of that process. The more you practice the more instinctive that process becomes. The photo opportunity also resonated as a symbolic representation of nature and man made parts of the whole.

A few yards further on the red of this dismembered tennis ball caught my eye. Red is the strongest colour to include in a photo and in retrospect my decision to keep the wide open aperture was not necessary. Perhaps the wiser option would have been the mid range aperture, the subject is bright enough and the background, which has its own interest a little lost.

At the entrance to the park I saw this opportunity. I do like to include myself in photos; part of the whole! But my eyes deceived me. They of course have a higher dynamic range than the camera, which struggled to make out the faded word at the bottom of the frame. I didn’t know until I reviewed the photo at the end of the practice that the exposure compensation button had also been left at +1.75, from recording videos the previous day! Wisdom learnt: check all settings before starting practice. As I was shooting in raw, as well as jpegs, I was able to rectify the impact.

The simplicity of this opportunity stopped me. I like a diagonal in composition and the way the leaf shadows broke up the line suggest that they were part of the puzzle (the whole) that could be remade.

More diagonals, and sun and shadow attracted my attention here. By choosing to use my 35mm lens including just part of different elements, through deliberate placing of the frame, suggests part of the whole. It also creates triangles of shape in structure and light, which are a feature of my work.

I had wandered for a while before I came across this bench. It was the word ‘loved’ that drew my attention. That the bench was dedicated to a lost loved one reminded me that we are all part of the whole, that every element of what we are becomes something else in time. I chose a wide open aperture so that I could draw the viewer’s attention to the word that first caught my eye. Choice of point of view created the diagonal lines that lend dynamism to the composition.

The water in the lake is quite low at present, due to low rainfall (in Wales, who’d have thought it!) These old foundations the ducks are sunning themselves on are usually underwater. Of course because of the high dynamic range, the shadow and bright sunshine, some rescuing of detail has had to take place. Whilst these photographic mistakes were made during the actual practice they do not detract from the value of the practice in centering me in the moment. Fortunately some of the errors can be recovered with a little editing!

I got up real close to this plant. Creating lots of lines and shapes, with a decision to use a wide aperture to draw the viewer’s eye to the leaf that caught my eye.

Leaving the park I turned back and noticed this interplay of gate and its shadow behind. The rusted, unused chain was part of the attraction. The instinctive ‘who cares’ aperture lent itself to the opportunity.

Walking back up the hill to my house I was pretty sure I had one shot left to create. I was initially drawn by the texture and patterns of the wall on the left of this frame, but as I moved closer I saw the potential of the dead leaf. A kind of counterpoint to the first photo created. Man made and nature, also illustrating that everything is impermanent. Ironically this photo opportunity is just 5 feet from the first photo.

Normally I would not share all my photos from one practice. I would probably choose just the one or two I thought strongest. But here I wanted to share the process, warts and all. For it is the practice that is important. Mistakes helps us learn, both photographically and in life. A photography practice is providing opportunity to practice seeing like a camera, this is at the heart of photographic creation. Whilst there are also opportunities to practice and learn about our technical and compositional choices, it is the seeing that is the foundation of mindful photography.

 

 

 

This week I thought I would combine our mindful photography challenge with the The Daily Post’s own photo challenge which is Deltadelta as in a place and time that represents a transition or sliver of greater change. A river delta, where the river meets the ocean is a place of tremendous transition, and photography of course captures only a moment of that continuous change.

It is true to say that every photo represents a sliver in time. A photograph shows something as it was in that moment. That moment is then gone and the subject of the photo is no longer the same. How can that be true? What if you photograph a mountain? Everything is changing. Everything is impermanent, even a mountain. Everest was once the base of a valley. It is just that some of the changes are so slow as to trick you that they will always be that way.

So this week I would like you to create a photo that represents transition. One that represent’s a photograph’s ability to capture a moment of that transition, a moment that is then stilled for eternity. My photo is of a fragment of Swansea Bay. The photo was taken in the low early evening golden light, itself a period of transition and captures a moment and section of the beach at low tide. By using a wide aperture I have also suggested the tide’s return and the truth that this view will soon be gone, never to return in the same way again.

For your practice consider choosing a location where you feel each time you visit there is the potential for a different experience. When you arrive at the location sit for a while and really arrive. Then start to walk, not looking for a photo, only observing the scene. When an opportunity presents itself stop. Consider what it was that stopped you. Really look at it. Notice how far away the subject is. Breathe and tune in to how the scene makes you feel. When that feeling echoes transition in your heart and mind, press the shutter.

Every week throughout the summer I will be posting a photography challenge that is designed to bring you into the present moment. They can be completed with any camera, even your phone. Your favourite photos are posted to our Facebook group, which is a public group so that you can invite your friends to join in.

This week’s mindful photography challenge is ‘Self’. I would like you to create just one NEW photograph that responds to the theme. But I only want you to press the shutter once. Consider your idea for a photo. Visualise it. Frame it. Think about your technical choices for exposure. Consider what is in and out of the frame. Consider your composition. Then release all expectation and press the shutter.

Notice your thoughts when reviewing your photo. Is there any judgement creeping in? Are you tempted to create another one? How would it feel if you just posted the one you have created?

Share your one photo here. This is mine which was created just now! I went to collect my camera from the lounge and caught sight of myself in the mirror. Generally when I create a selfie I do not have the camera clearly in sight. I thought I would create a photo that celebrated my relationship with the camera. Not only is my new camera front and foremost, but one of my favourite photos is in the background.

See what you can say about your ‘self’ in one photo

 

Every week throughout the summer I will be posting a photography challenge that is designed to bring you into the present moment. They can be completed with any camera, even your phone. Your favourite photos are posted to our Facebook group, which is a public group so that you can invite your friends to join in.

This week’s mindful photography challenge is ‘Through’. Take a walk somewhere you love and create just one photograph that responds to the theme.

The challenge is to only create one photo. To walk until something shouts out at you to be photographed.

Walk slowly and observe. Observe your surroundings, the colours, the light, patterns and shapes. Pay attention to your mind. When it shoots off thinking about creating the photo, reflecting on a past event or worrying about the future, come back to what is in front of you.

Share your one photo here. This is mine which was created this morning. The sunlight shining through the leaves, highlighting the structure and shape of the leaves is what drew me in. I only had my phone with me, but that’s all you need!

 

At the end of May I held my last Spring Mindful Photography Walkshop. We were once again lucky with the weather – three walkshops in wet Wales in a row with no rain! We had an interesting challenge set, but before that I shared tips on how to stay present and create fabulous photos.

The Challenge

The Wordy Challenge was a mini photomarathon. Five topics. Five Photos. 2.5 hours. In this challenge everyone has to create only five photos, in topic order and be back at the finishing point before the ending time. I split the topics into two sections, so that we did two in the first hour and then stopped for a cup of tea (refreshment is essential!). After a cuppa and a conversation about how it was going, we embarked on the last three topics, completing an hour and a half later.

Such a photography challenge is very focussing. It provides the opportunity to become very present in your environment, and aware of the thoughts and feelings that the task is allowing to arise. These in particular are interesting and will include concerns about your photos not being good enough, whether your ideas are creative enough and how well you can manage the time. Hopefully, you can also practice being attuned to how you are: your energy, the need to stop and reflect, and remaining present in one task before the next. All great practice for life!

Before we started I provided a short overview about some of the photography techniques that could be applied to create interesting and arresting photos. These included the Seven Elements of Visual Design (Shape, Form, Texture, Pattern, Colour, Line and Shape) and the four areas of photographic composition (Simplicity, Subject & Background, Balance -including the Rule of Thirds, and Point Of View).

Finally before releasing the photographers into the wilds of Brynmill I shared five tips to complete the challenge with great photos and feeling great. Here they are.

Five Tips

  1. Make sure you understand the timescale, photography requirements, locations, pick ups, final deadline
  2. Excitement at the beginning creates more ideas and photos. Tiredness makes you more decisive. Be decisive in the first half and then you’ll be more creative in the second half.
  3. Decide on each final photo as you go. Do not leave that until the end, you’ll be tired. Do each topic in turn. Complete and choose your favourite photo and then move on. This provides creative clarity.
  4. Use insider knowledge. Talk to locals. Ask for advice. However don’t let your knowledge or information about the city limit you seeing what is right in front of you.
  5. Choose a simple overarching theme to link the photos. Some use a prop to do this (like a mini lego figure who appears in every photo). Others use in camera processing e.g Black and White. Or choose a theme, like a colour or a technique – red or low/high point of view.

The Photos

The Five Topics in order were – Your Entry Number, Busy, Look, A Change is gonna come, and Beauty in the Mundane.

Here are our photos, you can choose the winner! If this idea inspires a curiosity about photomarathons take a look at my post 10 Tips to Survive a Photomarathon

Your Entry Number

Busy

Look

A Change is gonna come

Beauty in the mundane

I live in Wales. It rains a lot. Yesterday was a fine example. I woke to rain, walked the dog in a deluge and the rain continued until the next morning. Am I deterred from creating mindful photographs? Oh no. I am challenged to create some art that reflects the day and how I am with this glorious damp weather. So I will share with you my Mindful Photography Practice for a wet day. Maybe you’ll be inspired to create some of your own.

The Mindful Photography Practice

  1. Prepare yourself for wetness. It is imperative that you remain dry and comfortable. Put on your most effective wet weather clothes and shoes.
  2. Prepare your camera for wetness
    • If you are a DSLR or CSC owner you may be able purchase a waterproof cover designed for your camera. Alternatively a good plastic bag and a rubber band works well. You will need to cut one corner of the bottom of the bag, about the diameter of the lens and secure it over the lens with the rubber band. The open end of the bag then faces you, allowing access to the controls.
    • If you are using a compact camera, your phone or a bridge camera, a large umbrella will help keep you and the camera dry. Your skills at shooting one handed and/or balancing the umbrella on your shoulder whilst you create your photos will undoubtedly develop!
  3. This is an opportunity to create photos without looking at the viewfinder or screen. To support this you can also turn off the review screen (or cover with a small piece of card taped in place). This practice of visualising what the camera can see will slow you down, teach you how your lens sees differently to your eyes, allow you to notice your attachment to the outcome and cultivate greater attention to what you are seeing. Mindful Photography is initially a practice that is about process rather than outcome. With continued practice your attention to the moment will result in more interesting photos.
  4. Choose a camera set up that you are comfortable with and can use instinctively. This could be Auto or one of the semi automatic modes if you like a bit of creative control. Remember the light will probably not be too great, so auto ISO or an 800 ISO setting may be needed.
  5. Set aside 30 minutes for the practice and set out for an interesting location. Walk slowly, observe your surroundings, do not look for a photo opportunity. Pay attention to your sensations: the sound of the rain, the trees moving, the smell of the wet land/streets, the reflections in puddles, the rain hitting the ground/objects.
  6. As you walk, observing your world, wait for a photo opportunity to present itself. When it does STOP. Breathe. Study what it was that stopped you. Absorb the scene. Notice what the subject of the scene is and what the background could be. Consider where you would place the frame, this will affect the background. Perhaps you need to move in, move up or down, or zoom in or out. Consider what the camera will see when you press the shutter.
  7. Create the photo.
  8. Repeat the practice until you have 10 photos.
  9. Edit, noticing your judging thoughts, and share your favourite photos and this practice.

The photos illustrating this post are from my own Mindful Photography Practice for a wet day yesterday

On the 25th March I am running a Photography Walkshop titled ‘Creative Limitations’ in Swansea. This post explores a little of the ground that this idea sprung from! If it interests you why not book on, there are still a few places left and it will be a small group ( not more than 10). There will also be cake. What’s not to like?

We often think of limitations in a negative sense. Can’t do this. Not able to do that. But there is a positive side to limitations that can fire your creativity and attitude to life.

I have been living with a physical limitation for several years. Many people do. It is undoubtedly true that this limitation has shaped the way I live my life. It has influenced my career, relationships and interests. It would be possible to see these changes as negative, but I feel it has provided the framework for a more conscious life.

The limitations perhaps should be described as parameters, boundaries in which I can live, love and breathe. And in much the same way we can decide upon a set of parameters in our creative work and this then can fire our creativity. I recently came across this idea in the book The Photographer’s Playbook (published by Aperture). The book comprises 307 photographic assignments and ideas from a range of practitioners of the art and this particular idea was shared by Christopher Anderson (Magnum photographer).

“The greatest freedom is to have no choice. Confining yourself to certain parameters can actually lead to discovery of a universe of subject matter that is hard to find when you (if you are like me) tend to wander endlessly.

Make a set of parameters in which you will work. This could be a geographical parameter (one city block for instance), or a psychological, thematic, or technical one. The point is to create a method of working where you make some very strict and precise choices about how you will not work. The stricter the better. Set a time constraint (one week, month, whatever) during which you will work only this way. After the time period is finished, repeat the assignment by creating an entirely different set of parameters.”

An example

I have used this idea of parameters several times, with varying degrees of commitment and outcome! I thought I would share a few photos from a project called 50/50 which I started one January a couple of years ago.

My intention was to take 50 portrait photos of people I met using just my 50 mm lens. I managed 16 before something changed. Not sure what but I stopped doing the project. Perhaps it was because it was not time bound. I now see the benefit of that. Anyway here are a few of my favourites.