How Photography Can Be a Mindful Practice

Looking at the world through the lens on your iPhone? Here are three ways to take better pictures, but more importantly, take a moment to really see what’s in front of you.

You are walking through the wide open spaces of a leafy park on a bright summer day. As you continue, dark clouds gather in the distant sky, moving toward you. You might notice how the light suddenly changes; how the foliage looks darker and the greens look richer; how the many shades of gray in the clouds give them more texture and shape.

Or else you might start worrying about oncoming rain, a spoiled outing, and the likelihood of getting drenched.

There are always two ways we can experience the world: directly or covered over by thoughts.

Photography can o er us a way to get in touch with fresh, direct experience. More often, though, it’s just another blip in the ow of our inner chatter: “I like this.”

“I don’t like that.” “Interesting.” “Boring.” “Not worth shooting at all.” “These things will make a great photograph.” Snap.

But there’s another approach to photography that many people have been discovering over the past few years. Contemplative photography is a meditative practice that invites you into the richness of direct perception. It’s not a technique for making images that look “contemplative” but a method for seeing the world in fresh ways and communicat- ing what you see. You learn to recognize when eye, mind, and heart naturally come into alignment and use the camera to replicate this experience.

1 To begin, try to notice when there are gaps in the ow of your thinking. In these little breaks, which occur naturally, fresh perceptions of sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch come through. Learning to recognize and appreciate simple, vivid ashes of perception is the foundation for this practice. In this approach, the power of the final photograph comes from bringing together clear seeing with simple, straightforward expression.

2 To communicate what you see well, you need to stay with the perceptions for more than an instant. After you experience a flash of perception, rest with it long enough to understand what you’re seeing—what part of the scene is included in the perception and what is not. Although this stage is called visual discernment, it’s not conceptual or analytical. You’re not figuring anything out or evaluating the scene emotionally, nor are you reach- ing for your camera to capture anything.

3 The last stage is described by a term coined by one of the great American photographers, Alfred Steiglitz. He talked about taking a photograph as forming the equivalent of the perception. The photo- graph and the perception are obviously di erent things, but you aim to produce an image that is equivalent to what you see. At this stage, you don’t try to do anything to make the photograph more interesting, dramatic, or compelling. You just make an image of what you perceive.

Making fine images does not require travel to exotic places, sophisticated technical skills, or expensive equipment. It does require clear seeing and a modest amount of photographic cra . Most of the images displayed here were made with an iPhone. The following pages present exercises involving color, texture, and people and will help you learn the basic technique described above.

You can’t fabricate ashes of perception. Anything you do to try to make them happen will only generate more thinking. Flashes of perception come naturally when you are open and attentive to them. They arise in the normal breaks between navigating, labeling, and evaluating the world. The more you are interested in these experiences, the more they will come to you and the more you will see.

Contemplative photography uses exercises and assignments to trigger ashes of perception. Assignments don’t tell you what type of photographs you should take. They’re simply methods for training yourself to recognize fresh per- ceptions, take the time to discern what you’re seeing, and form the equivalent of what you see.

Traditional photographic assignments are oriented toward subject matter: dramatic landscapes, interesting street scenes, cheerful babies. The contem- plative photography assignments are oriented toward you, the perceiver. They point you to your own experience of per- ception, not to things that are perceived. They do this by asking you to recognize the experiences of basic elements of your experience of the world, such as color, texture, and light.

The experience of color is the most basic. Vivid color is easy to recognize and sparks strong perceptions. The color assignment is about experiencing bold, vibrant colors. (Solely for the purposes of this assignment, black, white, gray, and beige are not considered colors.)

Shooting color gives you something to look for that will align your eye and mind. When you work with this assignment, stay focused on color. Look at color in a simple and open way. If you start to get interested in shooting other things, your intention will be- come vague and it will be hard to recognize the ashes of perception. When you experi- ence ashes of color during this assignment, your eye and your mind will be aligned.

Try to avoid getting caught up in thoughts about colorful things. You know that a re truck is bright red or yellow, but don’t go searching for them: it’s the experience of color itself that you want to be looking for. This is especially true for owers and nature. Of course flowers are colorful, but it is very hard to tune in to perceptions of the color of flowers because our concepts about the beauty of nature are so strong. For the purposes of this assignment, it also helps to avoid shooting graphic designs, gra ti, letters, or numbers—even very colorful ones. Again, these things get us thinking about other kinds of content in a way that makes it harder to see color directly.

Finally, when you experience color, get in close, so that what you see in the view nder or on the screen is just what stopped you. Don’t try to shoot color from across the street or from far away.

In contemplative photography, as in any mindfulness practice, insights come readily at the beginning, but accomplishment comes only through sustained, regular practice. While you are learning, try to dedicate time to practicing each week. When you do go out shooting, make sure to give yourself time to fully engage in the practice. It takes time to settle in and connect with seeing, as well as get comfortable with the different elements of the practice.

Begin each session by letting go of anything that insulates you from the environment. Don’t listen to music. Turn o the ringer on your cell phone. Don’t chat with friends. Try not to entertain yourself with lots of thinking, planning, or daydreaming.

You can practice in all sorts of places, but don’t bother looking for settings that are “beautiful” or “special” or “photoge- nic.” That would be missing the point.

Otherwise, it doesn’t really matter where you shoot, as long as you feel at ease. Try to nd locations with lots of visual variety. Industrial areas, pedestrian malls, and shopping areas are usually interesting places to shoot. Your normal surroundings are also good, since it is delightful to experience the familiar in fresh ways.

The second assignment explores texture, which, after color, is the most basic element of the world that presents itself to us. Everything has texture, so it’s easy to recognize. Yet, it can be difficult to think about. Beyond smooth and rough, we don’t have many concepts about it.

While texture is everywhere, it’s less prominent than color. Walking down
the street, you can experience texture everywhere: from rough pavement, to smooth glass, to coarse tree bark, to so cat’s fur.

When you are doing this assignment, try to see how the experiences of texture and color di er. Notice how the quality of light a ects your perception of texture. Rough surfaces will look one way on an overcast day, another on a bright, sunny day, and still another in the late a ernoon.

Sometimes you can pretend that your eyeballs have ngertips. When you see something, imagine you are also touching it. Let the sense of sight and touch come together. Try this for a little while without using your camera.

Begin each session by clearly forming the intention to recognize texture, so you will stay focused on that aspect and not get carried off into color or people or what have you. Try walking very slowly, and don’t make many images. Pause to connect with the details of the surfaces around you. When you take photographs of texture, fill the view nder or LCD with just the textured element that stopped you. Don’t add anything, and don’t leave anything out.

Things are always changing in gross or subtle or very subtle ways, but our thinking minds are oblivious to all but the most obvious changes. Your bedroom will appear one way in early morning light, another way in broad daylight, another way in arti cial light, and yet another way in the middle of the night. Yet all of these are boiled down to “my bedroom.”

Change-blindness is particularly acute when it comes to people. When we see someone—even random strangers in the street—labels and concepts come instantly to mind: “He looks nice.” “They seem creepy.” “I like her.”

With people we know well, we often see only our version of them: “my boss,” “my father,” “my child,” and not the people themselves, as they are, in that very mo- ment. We don’t look beyond the labels to see the eeting expressions on their faces, what they’re wearing, how they’ve combed their hair that day. The purpose of the people assignment is to help us have fresh, direct perceptions of people, to see them as they are, instead of our versions of them.

You’ll face challenges doing this assignment. You might get embarrassed taking people’s pictures. It’s probably best to start with those you know well: friends, family, and coworkers. If you keep things low-key, the camera will soon lose its novelty and you and your subjects will be able to relax.

Another challenge is that people being photographed might try to project images of what they think will make them look good, rather than just being natural. This strained e ect will show up in the nal image. It gives people a sti and lifeless look. You may have to wait them out to get fresh expressions.

The most basic challenge you will face is dealing with the ideas that will crop up in your mind about people. If you try to take a picture of “my friends having fun at Bob’s birthday party,” rather than photograph- ing a strong visual perception, you will
end up with a snapshot. “Friends having fun” is a mental image, not a visual one. Remember, the camera makes images of what “it sees” (so to speak), not what you think about it. You can try to boycott these thoughts, but the best way to deal with them is to be aware of them and let them be. If you’re patient and open, ashes of perception will come to you.

When fresh perceptions do come, don’t rush to take a picture. Look further. Discern what you’re seeing. You might have to invite the person to hold still for a minute while you ask yourself if their whole body was part of the perception or only part of it. The perception could be just the area around their eyes or part of their silhouette. When you’re con dent that you know what you’re perceiving, take the photograph.

This contemplative approa will help you photograph people in fresh ways. It might also help you see the people you already know in a new light.