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A Mindful Photography Practice for a wet day

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

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Are you feeling it?

Photos have the power to convey emotion. The way we choose to compose the scene and the technical choices we make can combine with the content to represent a feeling, through visual metaphor or symbolism.

Sometimes this is deliberately created at the moment of pressing the shutter. Sometimes it reveals itself later; maybe a happy accident or subconscious guidance. Either way it is a powerful way of communicating with the viewer.

The truth is in the viewing. Of course the emotion or feeling that the photographer intends to convey may not be what the viewer experiences. Cultural background and personal experiences guide our interpretation of visual imagery. That there may be several interpretations is not necessarily a weakness of the photo. Inspiring diverse emotions from one photo may be a strength.

Let’s look at some examples from a recent walk around Langland Bay. Notice the feelings that these photos generate for you before you read the text below.

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Photo 1 suggests uncertainty for me. Through a shallow depth of field I have created the representation of an unclear future, we cannot see where the path may lead. Though if we consider the truth of the scene, we know that Monty can see the way forward.

Photo 2 is in a similar vein to Photo 1. There is a degree of uncertainty and also potential barriers to what is unseen

Photo 3 suggests positive possibility (blue sky, sunshine), but also change (the autumnal leaves). For me these elements combine to imply change, opportunity and a hopeful future outcome.

Photo 4 uses a strong symbol to suggest that there is a clear direction we need to go. However the indistinct background could imply that the journey’s experiences may be uncertain.

What feelings did the photos inspire for you? Post your thoughts below in the comments box.

3 steps to intuitive photo creation

Much of my photography arises from a response to my environment. Pre planned and tightly described photo creation is something I have to work at. The reason I enjoyed the Photomarathon more this year was that I did not plan each shot beyond a vague idea. Often I didn’t even have a vague idea and just wandered until something stimulated one. So, how does creating a photo work for me?

Intuitive Response

I am out walking with my camera. If am practicing mindfully I am following my own 4 stage seeing practice. The nub of this practice is that the seeing is my Anchor. As I walk and observe the world my thoughts still intrude. Each time this happens I return to my visual experience. This is stage 1.

Stage 2 is Seeing and builds upon stage 1 so that when something catches my eye I stop. Stage 3 is Resting with that visual experience. Noticing what it was that stopped me. Stage 4 is Receiving and is creating the equivalent of what I can see with my camera.

The Receiving Stage is what defines us as creative photographers. It encompasses all our technical and compositional knowledge and learning. But it is more than just that. It is the reason that we were compelled to create a photograph that is our intuitive response and our window into our soul

Emotional link

Through paying careful attention to my seeing practice I am able to investigate what it was that stopped me and why. This consideration opens up the possibility that I may be able to intuit what it is about the visual stimulation that resonated. This intuition can be investigated by paying attention to my feelings: those in my body and those in my mind.

We may be able to instinctively name what it was that stopped us: a colour, a shape, a pattern etc. Then from that if we pay attention we may be able to follow the instinct toward the feeling. Sometimes this is clouded and hidden and it is enough to simply create a photograph we like. Other times we may be able, if we stay with the moment, to feel what thoughts and feelings run beneath.

Mindful Photography is more that just creating photographs. It is an opportunity to be truly present with ourselves

Creative Adjustments

And then we look at the photo we have created. This will probably involve some judgement. The creative judgement that is supportive in this process is this question. ‘Does the photo capture the equivalent of what we saw?’

If it does not, there may be changes we can make to exposure, white balance, lens choice, point of view and composition that could bring it closer to our vision. This is to be encouraged. The more we can capture of our vision in camera the more our photographic skills will develop and the more we will attune our eye and camera.

Beyond that there are adjustments that can be made in photo software (Photoshop, Lightroom etc) that can move the photo closer to our original vision. Those adjustments are often to do with light and the dynamic range; the differences between how and a camera and how an eye sees.

The Photo

This photo is an example of the process. I looked up and saw the sky. I felt the cold northerly wind on my face, countering the weak warmth of the sun. I realised that the cloudy wisps were caused by the wind and felt that they were beautiful and otherworldly. On there own they could represent a feeling of uniqueness or rareness. But they looked like a great background, rather than just a subject. (Alfred Steiglitz would probably not agree)

I wanted a subject that resonated with the other-worldliness I felt. 20 yards away I spotted these sculptures. I do not know what they represent or why they are there, but they create visions of alien craft in my mind (too much sci-fi). I wandered over found my preferred point of view and received the photo.

I made 2 creative adjustments. Firstly the sun was in front of me and so the side of the sculpture facing me was in shadow. I lightened this a little to represent the dynamic range my eyes could see (they are more sensitive than a camera’s sensor). Then I desaturated to turn the photo b&w. The blue was too dominant and earthly. The b&w accentuates that patterns and shapes, its other-worldliness.

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Lilies

These lilies were collected by Beci from her parent’s garden (at least they get to appreciate them now from the comfort of their Spanish computer). I thought I would try and create some photos that celebrated the lilies flamboyance and delicacy.

For those who are interested in these things: I used a 50mm lens with a reversing ring, which turns it into macro lens with a very shallow depth of field. Great for adding some mystery to the beauty.

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What is Mindful Photography?

Mindful Photography is mindfulness applied to the process of creating a photograph

It starts with seeing and extends through the technical and compositional choices towards an encouragement to align one’s eye, one’s mind and one’s heart whilst one is completely present in the moment.

There is a lot to unpack in that definition, so let’s start at the beginning. Where does the term Mindful Photography come from? If you enter the term into a popular search engine and review the sites that are presented you quickly come to a conclusion; it is being used by many people to mean different things. However, the general consensus is that Mindful Photography is the application of mindfulness to the art of photography and strong identification is made for its links with Buddhism. So let’s start there.

Contemplative Photography

When one first explores the idea of applying mindfulness to using a camera, the practice of contemplative photography becomes relevant. The main evolution of the practice of contemplative photography seems to have been through Buddhism.

Buddhism has a rich tradition of expressing wisdom and realisation through the arts and it seems that the Lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche may have been the first to have used his camera as an exploration into clear seeing. This history is explained by Michael Wood (the co-author of The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes) on his website. He explains Buddhism’s connection with clear seeing thus,

“Buddhism is concerned with clear seeing because clear seeing is the ultimate antidote for confusion and ignorance. Attaining liberation from confusion and ignorance is Buddhism’s raison d’être. Clear seeing is a primary concern for the art of photography because clear seeing is the source of vivid, fresh images—photography’s raison d’être.”

Buddhism is not the only religious tradition to have seen the possibility of photography as contemplative, reflective tool. The book The Tao of Photography offers a Taoist approach, considering how photography and The Way can be mutually supportive.

I have also read Christian based explorations. In The Little book of Contemplative Photography Howard Zehr relates the Christian tradition of contemplation to clear seeing with a camera. Does that sound familiar?

Clear Seeing

One thing that all these explanations have in common is that it is the process of clear seeing that is central to being at one with the present moment; to connecting with what you are experiencing. So when I practice Mindful Photography my first intention is to use what I see as my anchor. I walk, with my camera, observing the world. I am not looking for a photograph I am observing the visual panorama before me. Every time I notice that my mind has wandered into planning, reflecting or judging I come back to the seeing.

Then there will come a moment of visual stimulation, something will ‘catch my eye’. I stop and rest in that moment. I try to stay with what it was that stopped me, connecting to the visual nature of the scene.

Finally, I receive the photograph. This is achieved by creating the equivalent of what I see with my camera. I consider where to place the rectangular frame. Maybe I move in or zoom in, or both. It is almost inevitable that during this final stage my clear seeing will be influenced by four barriers; photo thinking, excitement, conceptualisation and judgement. I notice these thoughts and return to the visual stimulation that first stopped me. Press the shutter and walk on.

How do we see clearly?

Those four barriers to clear seeing each have a lot to them. Let’s start with conceptualisation as that has the clearest link to the process of seeing. Our eyes see light. It is our mind that then makes sense of what we see. In micro seconds the mind assembles all that visual information and applies labels; colours, three dimensional depth, form, shape, pattern and texture are identified and the objects are named.

But our camera doesn’t see like that. It captures light, just a small rectangle (not the almost 180 degrees we see) in two dimensions. It does not know what it is seeing. So to ‘create the equivalent’ of what stopped us in that moment of visual stimulation we need to see like a camera. Claude Monet explained this clearly.

“In order to see we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at”

In forgetting the name, or label, we start to see the light. Is that easy? Oh no, it takes practice, lots of practice. In fact as Malcolm Gladwell suggested in Outliers it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master of anything. This truth is fundamental to our development as Mindful Photographers particularly when we consider the photo thinking – the technical and compositional ideas that underpin successful photographs – that swirl about our mind when we are trying to see clearly.

I believe that Mindful Photography must also offer practices to follow that support our intention to remain with our clear seeing. As we develop as photographers, as we learn the technical and compositional context, there are techniques and practices we can follow that will help: wherever we are on that journey of 10,000 hours.

What are these techniques and how can you learn them? Read on…

The Mindful Photographer

All of these practices and techniques have one thing in common; they support the alignment of our eye, our mind and our heart. They bring us into the present moment. They open an understanding of the holistic photography experience and of life. What are they? You will have to enrol on The Mindful Photographer to find out!

The Mindful Photographer is an online course that explores what it means to be a mindful photographer. It is offered in a flexible manner over 4 Courses, each one allowing you to enrol and work at a time to suit you. Each Course comprises of 2 units and each one explores aspects of the practice, offering resources, techniques, photos and assignments to support your development.

The key element of the online courses are the assignments, at least one for each unit, which are submitted to an online group page. The assignments offer you the opportunity to apply mindful photography practices, encouraging the development of mindfulness and creating personal photos that resonate for you. I offer supportive comments on every assignment photo and you can also see and comment on other students’ photos.

Mindful Photography embraces the whole of the process of creating a photograph and offers direct practices to support our development as both photographers and people; providing mindful practices that reflect and support other mindful practices we follow in our life. It also improves our understanding of photography and expands how you see.

The Mindful Photographer will be live early in 2016 at www.photential.com

You will never see the world in quite the same way again.

Edges of Life: using visual metaphors

I do like visual metaphors. During a recent mindful photography practice I was walking from home to Mumbles (a three mile+ stroll) when I took the first photograph in the selection below. At the time I was drawn by the change of tone and texture and chose to represent this (in my mind) in black and white.

After the first photo I realised two things. Firstly that there were lots of opportunities for similarly themed photos. Secondly that the movement from one texture/tone to another could represent a transition in our lives. Change is a constant in life. Some of these changes are sudden, jagged and distinct, others are more gradual.

I thought they would look interesting as diptychs; comparing one life change to another. The last one I felt worked best in colour. What do you think?

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