Take stock: how many photos do you have on your phone right now? Now, transport yourself back to “the old days” when all those photos would have been on 35mm film and needed some darkroom treatment before they saw the light of day. Would that have changed the way you took a picture?
While having a camera on our phones—or glasses—allows us to capture momentous events in real time, we’ve also grown accustomed to viewing real time events through our screens. How can we be more present when capturing these moments? You can bring mindfulness into your photography by taking a closer look at the color, texture, and faces you want to capture.
These three contemplative photography assignments are oriented toward you, the perceiver. They point you to your own experience of perception, not to things that are perceived. They do this by asking you to recognize the basic elements of your world.
Shooting color gives you something to look for that will align your eye and mind. When you work on this assignment, be patient. It takes time to settle in and connect with seeing.
• Look for color. Period. Don’t try to shoot something interesting or worry about composition. Your intention will become vague.
• Avoid getting caught up in thoughts of colorful things. Don’t go searching for a bright yellow fire truck—it’s the simple experience of color you’re looking for.
• When you see a flash of color, get in close. Look on your viewfinder for just what stopped you. Don’t try to shoot color from far away. Get close.
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 conceptions about it. Texture is less prominent than color and requires us to dig a little deeper into the experience of seeing.
• Begin each session by clearly forming an intention to recognize texture, so you will stay focused on that aspect and not get carried away with color or people or adorable small dogs. Take an inventory of the types of textures around you: rough pavement, smooth glass, coarse tree bark, soft cat fur.
• Notice how the quality of light affects your perception of texture. Rough surfaces will look one way on an overcast day, another on a bright, sunny morning, and still another in the late afternoon.
• Think of your eyeballs as having fingertips. When you see something, imagine you are also touching it. Let sight and touch come together. Try this for a little while without using your camera.
• When you do take a photo of texture, fill the viewfinder of LCD with just the textured element that stopped you. Don’t add anything, and don’t leave anything out.
With people we know well, we often only see our version of them—“my boss,” “my child”—and not as they are, in that very moment. We don’t look beyond labels to see the fleeting expressions on their faces, or how they’ve combed their hair that day. This practice helps us cultivate a fresh way to see people as they are beyond our subjective view.
• Start with people you know well. If you keep things low-key, the camera will soon lose its novelty and you and your subjects will be able to relax.
• You’ll face challenges in this assignment. People being photographed might try to project images of what they think will make them look good, and this strained effect will show up in the final image. You may have to wait them out to get fresh expressions.
• Confront ideas in your mind about people. If you try to take a picture of “my friends having fun at Bob’s birthday party,” rather than photographing a strong visual perception, you will end up with a snapshot.
Just like a mindfulness practice, consider taking time to photograph regularly—say, once a week—to get comfortable with the practice of photography.