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Weekly Mindful Photography Challenge – Self

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

 

Weekly Mindful Photography Challenge

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!

 

Developing Mindfulness through Photography

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

Mindful Photography is mindfulness developed through photography. It starts with seeing clearly and extends through the technical and compositional choices, towards an encouragement to align your eye, your mind and your heart whilst you are completely present.

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 development of mindfulness through photography and strong identification is often 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. 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 barriers; these include 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 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.

Your eyes see light. It is your mind that then makes sense of what you see. In micro seconds your mind assembles all that visual information and applies labels. Colours, three dimensional depth, form, shape, pattern and texture are identified and the objects are given names.

But your camera doesn’t see like that. It captures light, just a small rectangle (not the almost 180 degrees that you see) in two dimensions. It does not know what it is seeing. So to ‘create the equivalent’ of what stopped you in that moment of visual stimulation you 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 build upon the foundations offered through contemplative photography. It must offer practices that support your intention to remain with your clear seeing, whilst all that photo thinking and emotional experience is occurring. As you develop as a photographer, as you learn the technical and compositional context, there are mindful photography techniques and practices that you can follow that will help: wherever you are on that journey of 10,000 hours.

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

Mindful Photography Practices

I have created many activities that can help you to develop a mindful approach to life through your photography. I call these activities Mindful Photography Practices.

Each one of the practices is an activity designed to either apply mindfulness to the art and science of photography, or to support your development of a mindful life through photography. Within this exploration of life and photography there is an opportunity to become more familiar with who and how you are.

What you need is an example! Here is an example of a mindful photography practice that will support you on this exploration.

What happens when you practice mindfulness?

When you practice mindfulness, be it simply sitting for meditation, following a mindful movement practice like yoga or engaging in a mindful photography practice, you have the opportunity to notice what your mind is doing. Many people new to mindfulness have an expectation that it will help them respond skilfully, rather than react habitually, to the stress in their lives. This is true it will, but there is more to be aware of.

As you focus upon just doing one thing (sitting and following the breath) you begin to notice how busy and noisy your mind is. As you continue to practice over many days, months and years this experience allows you to become more aware of your mind’s habitual thinking. It is quite possible, even likely, that the more you practice the more older thoughts and feelings will arise.

These previously well buried thoughts and feelings emerge into the space and quietness that you have created. You may find this very uncomfortable. I have a mindful photography practice I am going to share here that may help you hold this experience with gentleness, as you move towards accepting what you are experiencing.

Mindful Photography Practice – Feel the photo

This practice is designed to support you through a time when you are experiencing thoughts and feelings that you do not like. You may be angry, upset, annoyed, frustrated, fearful or confused. Whatever it is that you are finding uncomfortable this practice is for those times.

  • Set up your camera in a shooting mode that you can use instinctively. Auto is fine, or if you prefer a little more control use aperture priority (choose an aperture of f8 and ISO auto).
  • Turn off your view screen so that you cannot see or review what you are creating. If you are not sure how to do this tape a piece of card or paper over the view screen, taking care not to cover any essential buttons. You can create photos by looking through the viewfinder or just shoot blind, from the hip!
  • The purpose of this is to tune you in to what you are feeling and release the control you may experience about creating photos.
  • When you are experiencing strong emotion, set your camera up as explained above, and go walking with your camera.
  • Choose any location you feel drawn to.
  • As you walk do not look for a photo opportunity, just walk, paying attention to what you can see
  • Notice the thoughts and feelings that relate to your difficulty.
  • At some point something will catch your eye. Stop and consider what it is.
  • Move closer. Frame tightly. Create the photo and move on.
  • Repeat this, paying attention to your feelings and the visual feast before you.
  • Act instinctively and release your attachment to what your photos look like.
  • Finish when you feel ready.
  • Return home and DO NOT LOOK at your photos! Leave it a day.
  • Next day review your photos and notice the feelings you experience.

It you find this practice useful please share it with your friends.

10 reasons to embrace Mindful Photography

My top 10 reasons to embrace mindful photography are outlined below. These may stimulate more questions for you than they answer. Some of those will be explored in my forthcoming online course. In the meantime I am happy to answer any questions you may have, just use my website contact page.

1) Learn how to see like a camera – A camera does not know the name of anything in its viewfinder. It sees light. You can learn to see the light, but you must forget the name of things!

2) Use what you see as your anchor – In meditation the breath is often used as an anchor; the thing we return to when we notice sensations, thoughts or feelings playing out across our mind. In Mindful Photography we return to the seeing.

3) Develop your photography skills and knowledge whilst remaining connected to the visual feast before you -My online course will explain how you can use the visual feast before you to return to the present and create photographs that capture that moment.

4) Express how you are feeling with a photograph – Photography can be used to explore and represent emotional experiences that are current or past. It can be literal, metaphorical or symbolic. Or it can just be a photo of something that resonates for you.

5) Use photography as a vehicle for self enquiry – The more you practice mindfulness the more you discover about yourself. Photography can be used to explore your world and can act as the intermediary between your inner world and the outer one.

6) Cultivate your ability to let go of unwanted thoughts and feelings through mindful photography practices This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges that mindfulness and meditation can support you with. Practicing mindfulness provides the opportunity and training to recognise the thoughts and feelings that are playing through your mind. There are mindful photography practices you can follow to support your intention to allow these to dissolve.  I provide these on my new online course.

7) Develop patience in your world through understanding and accepting your development as photographer The journey to mastery in any skill may take 10,000 hours (Malcom Gladwell in Outliers). There are mindful photography practices you can follow that support your development. These allow the quality of patience to develop as you pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise in the process of learning your craft.

8) Develop your ability to see the world as if for the first time – A beginner’s mind is a mindful attitude. It is one that you can apply to the practice of creating photographs. If you choose to return regularly to the same location, to spend time slowly exploring the visual feast available you may begin to see beauty which once eluded you. At this familiar place you can practice “giving the mundane its beautiful due” as John Updike suggested. This ability, cultivated through mindful photography, can support you to look at your daily experience with fresh eyes.

9) Develop trust in your own feelings – If you are to create photographs that are personal, unique and authoritative then you must listen to your heart, as well as your head. You can learn to trust and follow your own intuitive guide. If you cultivate this skill through mindful photography practices it will begin to seep through to the rest of your world.

10) Bring mindfulness into another aspect of your life – Mindfulness does not have to be limited to the meditation cushion that is merely the training zone! As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “Mindfulness applied to any activity turns it into a kind of meditation.” By developing mindfulness through photography we expand our potential to be fully present in our life.

Don’t miss Developing Mindfulness through Photography Part 2

Blue sky thinking, feeling and seeing

A Mindful Photography practice

I saw the sky and I could not resist: a one hour mindful photography practice with blue sky as the theme. Every photo created to have blue sky in the frame, either as the background, feature or reflection.

It is a stimulating practice to limit your creative options. By choosing one theme this also provides an anchor. Whatever is going through your head (thoughts, feelings or sensations) you can return to the theme, to seeing the blue sky.

I also wandered about with my camera in a particular and familiar set up. I had a prime lens on, so no zooming, only moving my feet and body. I had the camera in aperture priority, f7.1 and the ISO 100 (as it was a bright sunny day). This allows the technical choices to be limited (encouraging you to be with the visual) or to be subject of the practice, an element of being present.

This then allows me to create photos where depth of field is not a concern without further thought. The photographer Bryan Petersen calls this a ‘who cares’ aperture. From this point you can choose to change the aperture for creative reasons; a small aperture (f16 or above) for landscapes or a large aperture (f2.8 or below) where a shallow depth of field would help to isolate the subject from its background.

That’s it. A simple camera set up. One theme. Return to the seeing (blue sky – in this case). Here are my favourites.

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A little bit of light relief

I have been very slack of late. Perhaps the unrelenting rain and general drabness has smothered my creativity. Oh no, that can’t be right as I have been posting daily Instagram photos from my phone. No, I have to face it I have just been otherwise occupied.

However, the wall to wall sunshine today got me out and about early this morning, with both my camera and dog. Ah, what a little bright light does for photographic opportunity. I was drawn to the colours, the shadows and the frost on my mindful photography practice.

Here are my favourite few photos

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Beginning the Day

Recently I have considered the impetus created by our imaginative idea that we have now started a New Year. I say imaginative, because it is our ability to imagine that something exists – to give it structure, definition, and rules for its existence – that has produced the idea that we are in a New Year. Every other animal on the planet just carries on like it is any other moment.

I still feel very close to this concept. Maybe it is because I have been considering the Twelve Photos theme (Beginning) and following a mindful morning photography experience to start the day. So I thought I would share the activity to provide you with an opportunity to begin the day in a similar manner.

A Mindful Photography Practice

First up: you have to have a camera close to hand when you awake in the morning. Ideally you then lie there, camera in hand, slowly coming to, eyes open, paying attention to what you notice. Each time something attracts your eye you take a photo. Repeat for 5 photos. No more, no less, no deleting.

I have to admit that I wasn’t completely prepared, camera was downstairs, head was thick, stomach was calling. I first grabbed my little compact camera, made a cuppa and some toast and retired back to bed. After the refreshment had done its work I commenced the activity, as described above.

The photo above is the last one I created, contemplating the beauty of the morning. The full set is below. I enjoyed the experience, followed it with a 20 minute meditation and felt grounded and ready for the day. I commend it to you! Perhaps you could share one of your photos in our Facebook group?

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Fear 1

Fear is very much on my mind. This is a significant week for me and I am aware that there is a considerable swirling of fear swooping in and out of my mind. As part of living through this period with acceptance, compassion and wise reactions I am attempting to lean into the fear rather than run away from or resist its insistent voice.

This intention has been supported by a kind friend who has shared some very helpful talks by Tara Brach on the subject. I am listening, reflecting and re-listening to these talks and as I am finding them very helpful I thought that I would share them here and then later in the week consider how they have helped me.

Tara Brach Talk on Fear 1

Tara Brach Talk on Fear 2

A mindful photography practice

This morning I practiced responding to the feeling of fear in an instinctive practice. My inclination was that I needed to get close to my subjects but be wide open. I chose to attach my widest angle lens (20mm) and headed to the beach. I responded instinctively to my environment, both on route and on location. Once there I took off my sandals, felt the sand between my toes and went with the flow. When Monty stopped to investigate his environment, I did the same. These are the four photos that resonated with me when I down loaded and edited them. A black and white conversion felt essential.

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Changing your perspective

I first thought of this idea as a literal photography activity, actually choosing to create photographs from a different perspective. In the example above, as if I was Monty, a chunky Bijon Frise viewing the world about 12-18″ from the floor. In itself I could see the potential for photographs that felt different. I later realised that the activity and photos themselves could also work as a metaphor; that they could represent an intention to see the world in a new way.

A photo activity

This is the photography activity you can try. Your mission is to create photographs from the perspective of your pet – a cat or dog would be ideal. I imagined that in order to create a Monty like view I would need to take photographs from his height and in the places he frequented.

I also considered what camera lens combination I was going to use. Dogs have a wider peripheral vision than us and although I have no idea what kind of focal length their eyesight is (ours is around 50mm) I decided to settle on a wide angle view.

I chose to use my Canon G7X on its widest view (equivalent to about 24mm) so that I could make use of the hinged screen. This enabled me to hold the camera low, pointing in a ‘Monty manner’, and angle the view screen so I could see what I was potentially receiving.

You could chose to use any camera/lens combination, but I feel that it is wise to then stick to that combination to create a series of photos from the same perspective. This will create a ‘feel’ or ‘style’ which you could identify as the ‘pet perspective’! As in the photo above, you can imagine how it must be to be confronted by a much larger dog. That the giant hound actually ran away from Monty is also hinted at in the lack of eye contact.

I invite you to try out this activity. Be lighthearted. Create a ‘pet perspective’ and play with it. Imagine you are the pet. Create lots of photos. Share your favourites with me (return of email) and I will share mine.

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Changing your perspective – photographically

Viewing the world from a different perspective enables us to see our ‘normal’ world differently. In photography we often call this ‘point of view’ (POV). It is one of the guidelines for effective composition. By changing our POV we change the shapes, colours, patterns and perspective that our camera sees.

I was reminded of this a couple of nights ago when watching the excellent documentary ‘Finding Vivian Maier‘. Vivian Maier was an eccentric American with some compulsive habits. One of these was taking photos and when she died, at a fortunate auction, an enormous quantity of developed and undeveloped photographs was discovered amongst her other large collections of boxes, newspaper cuttings, accessories and all sorts.

I am going to focus on the impression her photos make on me because of her POV, but I do recommend that you catch the movie or have a look at the website created by the man (John Maloof) who first discovered her photographs. The website is full of great photos and fascinating stories.

Vivian Maier was a prolific photographer. Much of her best work in the 50s and 60s was taken using a Rollieflex twin lens camera. She used this camera out and about on the street. The camera has a waist level finder which, as the name suggests, means that you look down into the camera held at your waist to compose the photograph.

Many of Vivian’s photographs provide the subject with a sense of power. She often was quite close to the subject and was shooting up into their face. This provides a towering perspective, something that then creates a style that is noticeable in her work.

Changing your perspective – in life

We are the product of our experiences. Those experiences have shaped who we are. They also determine how we experience the world moment to moment. Habit and familiarity guide us to a certain view of the world and each moment in it.

I know that the world is how it is. Until some fundamental change alters my world seeing events, moments and experiences from a different perspective is challenging. Why might we want to see a different perspective? Maybe because we want change, in ourselves, in our circumstances. Maybe we want to shed a little light on a darker corner of our world.

I have found this difficult. It is challenging enough to see a new perspective when a key aspect of your life changes, never mind choosing to see an experience, before it changes, in a new light. The cultivation of certain attitudes can help. There are 7 attitudes that underpin mindfulness that support our ability to be totally in the moment and to experience the reality of a situation or experience. This reality is often a new perspective!

The 7 attitudes are non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting go. That is some list. As part of my own mindfulness practice and life enquiry I have started to write about these attitudes, their relevance to my life and to photography. You can find them via the tag cloud ‘7 attitudes’ in the right hand column of this blog. I hope that you find them of interest and I would welcome your thoughts.

Film Style – a mindful photography practice

I was feeling a little dazed this morning. An early rise and ragged breathing left me with a sense of disconnectedness. As I had to take Taylor to work in Mumbles I thought I would change my routine, drop him off and then do a mindful photography practice to ground me.

The ‘Film Style’ practice is a space, time and feature limited photo activity. Its aim is to create 24 photos (a là film) on your digital camera using as many manual features as you feel comfortable using. The key ingredient is that you turn off your review screen so that you cannot see the photos as you take them. This replicates the idea that film photography generates, that by not seeing what you are creating you only have your viewfinder/screen to guide you, and you know you will not be able to see the result. This encourages a slower, more considered pace of photography, allowing you to tune in to your current experience and particularly the visual experience.

If you have a DSLR or CSC with viewfinder you can also tape up or turn off the screen, so you only compose the photo through the viewfinder. Where the lens or camera allows, you can also choose to turn off the auto focus and only manually focus the lens. This further supports an attentiveness to the practice.

The Practice

Choose a small area, no bigger than 100 x 100 metres. When you arrive sit in the space and pay attention to your sensory information. What can you feel, smell, touch, hear and see? When you feel you have completely arrived start to move around your environment following the 4 stage seeing practice.

Create 24 photos. No more, no less. Keeping count in your head is a practice in itself! When you have 24 photos (or think you have) leave your space and return home. Do not look at your photos until you get home.

Editing

When I download and review the photos I initially select in. Rather than excluding the ones I don’t like, I select the ones I do like, often on an instinctive reaction. Out of 24 I would hope to have at least 5 I would like to share. Editing wise I do very little. Some minor cropping and a little light adjustment to replicate how I felt when I originally saw the scene.

Here are my favourite photos from this morning’s practice. Which one is your favourite?

Mindful Attention

I use photography as a practice for mindfulness. As mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, creating a photograph can provide many practices that enable us to connect with what we can see, what the camera can see and what we feel or a feeling that we wish to convey.

Recently, I have not been well and have been living through one of life’s difficult periods. I haven’t felt very creative until the last couple of days, when I have started to carry my little camera around with me again.

The two photos below I was drawn to create as they seemed to speak of how I felt. When we choose to create a photograph that illustrates an emotion the visual connection can be a very personal experience. That is all that is required. If the viewer also experiences particular feelings when the see the photo that is a bonus.

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London Mindful Photography Practice

Here are my favourite photos from a 1 hour mindful photography practice in London last weekend. The anchor I returned to when my mind got busy was ‘seeing colour’.

Looking at the photos today I am reminded of how I felt when I was there. The traffic noise, constant movement and speed, merged with iconic ideas of London: the red buses, black taxis, joggers in the mayhem, tall office blocks, ambulances on alert and people just going about their business. I didn’t find these photos they found me. Sometimes unerringly.

You will have to excuse me I am from the dreary provinces 😉

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