On intuition, and the courage to be an expressive and creative photographer

At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.

Alan Alda

Dogs always seem to know when it is dinner time, despite the fact that they don’t wear watches.

So how do they do it?

Perhaps they recognise the sound of a family member’s car in the evening or the way that their master smells after a long day at the office.

Or maybe it is as simple as golden evening light or their increasingly vocal stomachs.

Whatever the case, dogs are naturally in tune with the minutia of our everyday lives. And after 15,000 years of domestication, they’ve become quite good at it.

But dogs have no concept of words. Instead, they respond emotionally to their surroundings. They feel and then they act without question.

They console us when we are sad and share in our excitement. They sense imminent bad weather or an unfamiliar presence at the front door and take steps to protect us from danger.

Intuition is effortless for the dog. Intuitive decisions are made with speed and accuracy. There is no deliberation or self-doubt between the feeling and acting stages. 

As photographers, we can also tap into this form of expression.

We can do this by responding emotionally to a scene and trusting our intuition as a valid and authentic form of self-expression.

Defining intuition in photography

Perhaps rather conveniently, the word intuition is derived from the Latin intueor, meaning “to see”.

Then, in the 15th century, the Medieval Latin intuitio expanded the definition to include “immediate cognition”.

A concise modern definition for intuition is more complex.

Research by Hodgkinson et al. (2008) from the British Journal of Psychology concludes that intuition is “the result of the way our brains store past experiences, process external cues and retrieve information on a subconscious level to make a decision. However, the reaction happens so fast that is at a non-conscious level.”

This “reaction” is sometimes called a gut reaction, or a gut feeling.

These feelings explain how, in the absence of explicit reasoning, we can solve problems or make decisions by subconsciously accessing information we didn’t know we possessed.

Intuition is at the core of our being. It is where our truths and deepest values reside.

While logic and rationality come from the thinking mind, intuition comes from the heart.

And in choosing to act from the heart, we act with clarity, conviction and authenticity.

We are uninhibited and go with the flow of our existence.

Why is intuition so important in photography?

As photographers, we love to express something unique about the world.

There is a sense of pride in creation, in bringing something into existence which wasn’t there before.

But with camera in hand, we can always choose to go one of two ways.

The first is the formulaic approach. We follow the recipe for the technically perfect photograph and the ingredients must be of the highest standard.

The latest camera, the most expensive workshop, the best, most gloriously golden afternoon light.

More often than not, images resulting from the formulaic approach work on some level.

They’re nice to look at, sure.

And the corner sharpness is on point.

We may even receive praise for the work, since we have, subconsciously or otherwise, set out to take popular photographs with high technical merit.

But are we really striving for technical proficiency or adulation from our peers?

The alternate approach involves mindful intuition.

We detach ourselves from lusting over gear or process and enjoy photography as a means of self-discovery and expression.

Intuition is how the painter recognises the moment when a work of art is complete. 

Similarly, photographers can use intuition to recognise the moment when a photograph should be made.

In paying heed to that sometimes physical sensation in our gut, we create deep and considered work that aligns with our most inner motivations.

But intuition can be hard.

Why? Because it requires a leap of faith.

It’s easy to plan a trip to Olympic National Park based on what the internet tells you are the best locations and the best times of year to visit.

It’s much harder to visit the park in winter and carve your own path through the snow, metaphorically or otherwise.

To some extent, we must resist the power of logical and rational thought.

If our gut tells us that there might be a photograph to be made, then we must get the camera out of the bag. Even if our logical mind is telling us that our fingers are bordering on frostbitten and that something is stalking us in the bushes.

This is not to say that technical proficiency is unimportant, of course.

But it can only take us so far. At some point, we must let go of one branch to grasp another.

What we want to be able to do, if we are completely honest with ourselves, is respond emotionally to a scene and then translate that emotion into a photograph.

In responding to emotion, we are responding to a gut feeling. 

Our gut feeling.

This feeling is an extremely fast and reliable source of inspiration. It operates at a subconscious level and can appear with relative ease in the right situations.

Intuition is how we find compositions in familiar locations. It is how we work a scene or recognise its potential in the first place.

Listening to our gut is how we go from cookie-cutter photography to something profoundly unique.

How do we go about cultivating intuition in our photography?

If we break it down somewhat, intuition has a few working parts:

  1. Self-awareness through mindfulness.
  2. Deep interest, familiarity and emotional investment.
  3. Barriers and having the courage to follow through.

Let’s look at each of the parts in more detail.

Self-awareness through mindfulness

Intuitive photography starts with mindfulness.

Indeed, mindfulness and intuition share many of the same characteristics.

They each require that you be present in your surroundings. They each require that you understand and then trust your intrinsic motivations.

What are your motivations in photography?

At some point, most photographers will go through an identity crisis where they question their motivations and their very concept of self.

They struggle to make photographs that resonate with themselves, or with others.

They struggle to come away with more than the obvious shots.

They struggle with the motivation to get out of the house and maintain the child-like wonder they once had for photography.

These problems are of course real and valid.

But the solutions to these problems are often buried under years of failure, unmet expectation and criticism from others.

Repressed intuition is like the cat trapped in a closet.

Occasionally you think you hear a meow, but it is so muffled and faint that you disregard its desperate cries as an aberration.

In marrying our intuition to photography, we must allow our minds to take a deep breath through mindfulness.

We must step outside and mindfully smell the roses. Only then will the noise level drop low enough for our intuition to be heard.

Who are you and what do you stand for?

Intuition requires that we understand ourselves and our reasons for engaging in photography.

Be photographically curious and rigorous in your pursuit of what turns you on. Take notes, if you have to, and reflect on them often.

Some may be uncomfortable with what they discover, learning things about themselves which they have repressed for years.

But with a sound understanding of your interests, you are better equipped to truly say something with your photography.

Not sure what you like photographically?

Read wide and read often.

Study the portfolios of photographers you aspire to be.

Look also for photographers who also like to write.

What possible clues lie in the way that these photographer-writers describes their work or their approach to photography in general?

Can you relate to their story?

What parts are you excited by? What would make you want to pick up the camera and head out the door right away?

Accumulate experience.

And start now. The sooner the better!

Deep interest, familiarity and emotional investment

Deep interest and familiarity go hand in hand with the things that we love doing.

Over time, we may even build enough knowledge to be considered experts.

Take chess players, for example.

A study by Dutch psychologist Adriaan De Groot (1996), a chess player himself, investigated the cognitive processes behind chess expertise

He discovered that a hallmark of this expertise was the ability to rapidly identify beneficial moves at any given point in the game.

Great chess players do this by comparing potential moves against memories of up to 100,000 moves encountered in previous games.

Over countless matches, they pick up on cues that enable them to recognise patterns which, in turn, help them decide on the best course of action.

Further research by Klein (1998) wondered how people chose this best course of action. 

How did they define best?

He discovered that chess players chose a course of action that had worked for them in the past. 

They were drawing from a reservoir of experience and could rely on that experience when faced with a familiar situation in the game.

What is fascinating is that the chess player is able to access potentially hundreds of thousands of permutations with little conscious effort.

And with so many patterns at their instant recall, one of these patterns is virtually guaranteed to be the best course of action.

In the same study, Klein concluded that firefighters make similar decisions when entering burning buildings.

Like the chess player, the experienced firefighter understands the patterns of fire behaviour through previous encounters, intuitively understanding how to best fight the fire.

Expertise in photography is harder to define and, in any case, does not need to be the ultimate goal of every photographer.

But we could do much worse than to:

  • Practice our craft with purpose and intention.
  • Dedicate ourselves to a field that continually challenges, excites and intrigues us.

Through purpose and dedication, we hopefully start to recognise patterns of our own. Patterns in shape, colour, season, location, species, whatever.

We start to see compositions in our mind’s eye – often called “third eye seeing” – because the composition is not physically viewed by the eyes.

Third eye seeing is sensing that a great photograph is waiting around the corner.

Or over that next ridge.

Or 450 kilometres away next Tuesday morning when a storm is due to hit.

It’s an urge to be somewhere, someplace, and make something of it.

Case study: Rachel Talibart

Rachel Talibart is an English photographer who primarily shoots the turbulent oceans on her local stretch of English coast.

During her childhood, her father was a keen yachtsman and would often take her sailing.

But there was a problem.

She would become terribly seasick, remarking in an interview that she is the sort of person who becomes sick on the London Underground.

However, it would seem that every cloud has a silver lining.

Rachel’s seasickness forced her to stay on deck and observe patterns in the waves.

She could see mountainscapes in the churning ocean one minute, and ferocious monsters the next.

Here, in early childhood, her connection with the sea was established.

But it would take several decades and a meeting with mentor Jonathan Chritchley for Rachel to express that interest through photography. To follow her intuition and quit her job as a lawyer.

Nowadays, Talibart favours spending time in locations that she knows well to build on her working knowledge.

She is not flittering from flower to flower like a hummingbird.

She is, like the chess player, acquiring thousands of memories that will help her effortlessly tap into her intuition the next time she needs it.

Deep interest is the emergent seedling of intuition.

Deep interest guides you to where you need to be, even if you’re not quite sure why you’re there. It is the intangible promise of something great.

When you are deeply interested in something, intuition should never feel like hard work.

When Talibart visits the coast in atrocious weather conditions, she does not lament the conditions that other photographers wouldn’t get out of bed for.

No, her intuition tells her to get out of bed and don the raincoat, and she obeys it without question.

Barriers and having the courage to follow through

Intuitive photographers follow their gut feeling long before the rational, thinking mind has a chance to come up with a counter-argument.

Nevertheless, less experienced photographers are often their own worst enemies – choosing to ignore intuition and get stuck in patterns of negative thinking.

What are some of the most common roadblocks?


Patience is one of the biggest inhibitors to intuition because some aren’t willing to put in the work to see a result.

They say that patience is a virtue, but it seems that few have a true appreciation for this principle in the 21st century.

On location with your camera, you might have an intuitive sense of a photograph that you’d like to make.

But the conditions aren’t right, and your lack of patience means you take the photograph anyway.

Dissatisfied with the result, you dismiss your photographic ability and the very intuition that lead you to the scene in the first place.

Just as the chess master must build a foundation of prior experience, so too must the photographer, cultivating patience and resisting instant gratification along the way.


Some, including yours truly, are afraid to follow their intuition because of fear.

Fear of being our highest selves and showing our highest selves to others.

Fear of disappointing others or being labelled as this or that.

Fear of going against the societal grain, even when we know there is no other option.

Fear of failure – perhaps the biggest fear of all.

We are often afraid of failing in front of others, but the fear of failing ourselves, of not living up to our expectations, can be extremely paralysing.

Fear is almost always rooted in the negative aspects of ego – obsession with gear, delusions of grandeur and sensitivity to criticism, among other things.

Get out of your head and realise that your highest self is more than enough.


Intuition means challenging your assumptions and leaving your judging, rational mind at the door.

Trust means that we value the contributions of our rational mind, but we choose to make room for and honour our gut feelings too.

We must trust our intuition at all times, but particularly when it feels the most unnatural to do so. There is no other path to creative, unique self-expression.

Intuition is not the same as a Sony a7R III. It is not something tangible that we can store in a fancy bag and use whenever we feel like it.

It is like a muscle, and we must nurture and strengthen it.


Perhaps paradoxically, intuition is both the path of least resistance and the path of most resistance.

When we listen to the shy but wise voice of intuition, we make images that are aligned with our deepest selves.

To make intuitive images, we must engage in photography that excites and fascinates us. Only then can we recognise patterns and make informed decisions about the direction of our work.

Intuition is a communion between photographer and subject, interest or location. Without this communion, intuition is near on impossible to summon.

But this freedom of expression can all too easily be overwhelmed and extinguished by self-defeating thoughts.

The photographer who is out of touch with their intuition is also out of touch with themselves, liable to be pulled in any direction that society or outside influence dictates.

When we choose to honour our intuition, we make a courageous investment in our authentic selves. We make images that are representative of our emotions, interests and unique perspectives on the world.

What more could you want?


De Groot, AD, Gobet, F & Jongman, R 1996, Perception and memory in chess: Studies in the heuristics of the professional eye. Van Gorcum, Assen.

Hodgkinson, GP, Langan-Fox, J & Sadler-Smith, E 2008, Intuition: A Fundamental Bridging Construct In the Behavioural Sciences, British Journal of Psychology, vol. 99, pp. 1-27.

Klein, G 1998, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The MIT Press.

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