French impressionist artist Claude Monet loved water lilies. In fact, his well-known Water Lilies series featured approximately 250 paintings of his private water garden.
Monet enjoyed the transience of nature, that all moments were fleeting and no two were the same.
By extension, no two scenes were the same. He would often paint the same scene several times over, with the only variables being the time of day, weather, or season.
As his series progressed, he began to emphasise the interplay between light and reflections in the water. Horizons began to be omitted in his compositions, seeking to remove all distractions entirely.
Monet could see beyond his garden and paint it accordingly. He did not see the garden as merely an aesthetic collection of plants in water.
Rather, he saw it as depicting the timeless, majestic interplay of light between different elements.
If you want to know how this is related to becoming a better photographer, do read on.
Mindfulness is a broad concept that has its origins in Buddhism. Very generally speaking, being mindful involves bringing your attention to experiences that are happening in the present moment, and dwelling less on the past or the future.
Click here for a more in-depth post on mindfulness and how it can help you find photographic fulfilment.
In the context of photography, it’s about noticing colour, shape, texture, light, shadow and even sound. It’s about appreciating the beauty in beautiful things and in the less beautiful. In the familiar, mundane or banal.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s about directing your attention outwards to the world, instead of inwards toward your shortcomings, complaints or problems – whether real or perceived.
Excessive inward attention is almost always related to the negative effects of ego.
Mindfulness in photography
Mindfulness is a way to anchor your thoughts on photography.
Say you’re walking through a forest and you want to tell the story of emergent fungi rising through pine needles. Your best work will not come from planning that night’s dinner or agonising over that long overdue trip to the dentist.
No, this inward thinking is distracting, limiting your photographic potential.
A few weeks ago I went down to Deep Creek Conservation Park for an afternoon of hiking and photography. I started by firing up the Trangia and making myself a cup of coffee.
I probably had 2 hours of daylight left, but I was not rushing or conscious of the time.
I sat with the coffee for twenty minutes in the picnic area, listening to the gentle trickle of water in a creek beside me.
Stringybark branches swayed periodically in the wind. Yellow-tailed black cockatoos were conspicuous in their absence, but other bird calls filled the air.
I started to become mindful of what I was drinking. The bitter taste of coffee that is somehow comforting. The warmth of my hands around the mug. The steam condensing on the underside of my nose.
These simple, yet powerful observations can help you prepare yourself for making great photographs, making space in your mind for new compositions and subject choice.
The benefits of photography as a mindfulness practice
- Clarity and focus. While it’s nice to pre-visualise some compositions before you arrive at a location, some compositions will just jump out at you if you’re open to the possibility.
- Self-awareness. What inspired you to visit a particular location? In other words, what do you want to photograph, and why? Notice the feelings that this invokes in you. This will help you create images that are uniquely you.
- Fresh eyes. Not everyone can pop over to Iceland for a month. Appreciating the inherent beauty in your backyard, so to speak, is extremely rewarding
- Improved mental health. Making a conscious effort to engage with your senses and the world around you can relieve the excessive rumination associated with mental health disorders. In the darkest days of my struggles with anxiety and depression, photography was always a source of comfort.
How to become a better photographer by cultivating mindfulness
Focus on the here and now
Enjoy and be grateful for simply being alive, doing what you love doing and having the freedom to do so.
Look at the familiar with unfamiliar eyes
As Monet intimated, do your best to look at the familiar as if it’s the first time you’ve seen it. There is lots of bracken fern at Deep Creek, so much in fact that the brain becomes accustomed to it and filters it out.
Upon closer inspection, however, bracken fronds have beautiful, intricate patterns, and the dead ones turn this beautiful copper-brown colour.
Walk slowly and deliberately
Feel the crunch of gravel beneath your feet. Pause regularly and look around. Be a sponge to your senses. Take your time.
Take lots of photographs of the same thing. Experiment with shutter speed, focal length, aperture and as many different compositions as you can find. Also, take photos of things that you might never consider.
Some of my best photos have resulted from ignoring negative self-talk along the lines of ‘that looks nice, but it probably wouldn’t make a great photo’.
Mindful photography isn’t as simple as flicking a switch. Often, we are trying to break years of loud, internal chatter. The process will take
the rest of your life some time to master.
The mind will wander, as it is prone to do. Always bring yourself back to the present moment and remind yourself why you have the camera in hand. And have fun!