#1051. Grabbing, Surfing, Forcing Photography

By pascaljappy | How-To

Oct 21

Do you ever experience a clash of opposing feelings when photographing at your favourite locations? A tension stemming from the pressure to create rather than simply go with the flow?

Picture yourself roaming freely in your ideal location. Alone in a Japanese temple on a misty day. Rock-crawling through a deciduous forest in France. Scaling a Munro on a bright February morning in Northern Scotland. Resting by a tent in the Lake District. Walking, feet at the edge of the water, after snorkeling at Ningaloo. Camping in the boondocks after 9 hours of overlanding over sand dunes. Sitting at a cafe watching the world go by.

There’s no covid restrictions, no need to rush to work, no personal health issue, no financial squeeze, no kids or parent to look after, no email to tend to, no Facebook to bend the knee to, no shopping to finish. Only pure freedom like only (some) young children and mild sociopaths get to fully experience.

I experience that sensation in two situations.

While training at karate classes. Our teachers are two of those remaining treasures from another age when classes started by bashing hands into sand or stone to make bones harder and kumite (sparring) had nothing to do with scoring points and everything to do with hitting efficiency, measured in knock-outs. And even their toned-down version of that training for modern-day wusses and insurance policies requires a level of self-preserving concentration that powerfully chases away any extraneous thoughts and leaves you utterly cleansed mentally and exhausted physically. Walking away from such a class sometimes feels like a transe, a walk out of time that goes a long way towards explaining why those teachers consider their martial art a form of Zen meditation.

And when walking long distances. Forget anything extra strenouous or extra short. Brisk walking in a foreign city or through a peaceful landscape is more like it. After several hours of this bilateral regimen, your mind floats away from the reality your body is navigating, to the point where you can “wake up” with a slight shock in a different spot and in awe of everything around you.

Those are powerful moments that require time and commitment, but can be provoked (almost) at (strong) will.

In the best of conditions, photography comes close to those experiences. The elusive flow that creatives talk about and crave, and which those who never experience it sneer at in denial, is just that : a mind so utterly and effortlessly focused on one thing, and one thing only, that the rest just disappears. While the older, darker parts of your brain still deal with the unconscious tasks of breathing and walking and avoiding obstacles, your conscious mind’s entire processing power is unleashed on a single creative task, with results that no one in a more diluted state of mind could achieve so easily.

It is a fantastic feeling to experience and the resulting photographs are systematically of a much higher caliber than those achieved through mental brute force or lazily acquired as a by-product of being in a spot. Let’s not even get into the negative creative process of photographing one’s ego in the center of every possible famous background know to social media. That is not bringing your perception of the world to others but imposing yourself upon theirs.

Why, then, isn’t every trip to the hills a resounding success? Why don’t all the photographs from those mind-altering walks end up on the walls of prestigious galleries? I know the recipe, after all, so why can’t I turn out masterpieces with the regularity of a politician uttering lies and committing high-treason?

After all, I have taken the two most nefarious creativity-killing sins out of the equation:

Watching the aging of my face over the years in front of Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and Sagrada Familia was never a big one for me, so banishing self-centered photography was easy.

And, I’ve streamlined my process and my gear, ruthlessly eliminating anything with ergonomic glitches, build issues, interruption-based logic … The little Pixii scored really high with me (partly) because there was no rear screen and (partly) because it got everything right on the first attempt. So there was never any need to chimp to check exposure, colours … “Do or do not, there is no try” must have been the motto of the engineering team, and it does wonders for preserving that precious sense of flow. That can never been overstated and isn’t measured in a lab.

Having taken all left brain interruptions out of the equation to hand full power to the creative side of my grey jelly, what more is it possible for me to do to ensure better results? Obviously, it isn’t enough to ensure mastery.

The answer feels a little paradoxical.

“Kick the ego in the nads” is what!

At some point in a shoot, an unconscious desire to do better seems to set in. Even though it was the casual walking to an interesting location that put me in the right mindset to create good shots (and my conscious gear choices go far towards eliminating interruptions) the same desire to create a fruitfull process goes a step too far.

The terrible “go get them, Tiger” psychology creeps in to ruin everything. That horrendous pursuit of productivity lauded by Homo Linkedinus insinuates its deleterious pestilence into the cracks of what should be a totally receptive mind.

And, at that point, the inevitable urge to do better, get back in the zone (feel free to add any similarly ridiculous cliche here) only makes things worse. Witnessing the decline of quality (you guessed it, on the rear screen), the need to shoot more to compensate becomes overpowering. And, of course, it only goes downhill from there.

But it doesn’t have to. This is a good time to put the camera back into the bag and start enjoying yourself. Flow is broken, there’s nothing you can do about it now, good shots are already in the card, just let go. Dip your toes in the water (literally, not Internet-guru-ly), enjoy the view and the connection to nature or whatever surroundings you have chosen to bask in (this is a fun hobby, if you’ve chosen to photograph a war zone, you’re on your own …) and recharge the creative cells. And, soon enough, you might realize your camera’s out of the bag again. Huh! How did that happen? πŸ˜‰


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  • Sean says:

    Hi Pascal,
    To repeat your questions above, and I quote “Do you ever experience a clash of opposing feelings when photographing at your favourite locations? A tension stemming from the pressure to create rather than simply go with the flow?” and in response, yes. I often revisit locations that I’m familiar with as part of my photographic travels and endeavour. However, even though I have said “… Yes …” above my intent is to see if I can go deeper under the surface, or get under the skin, of a particular place with the intent to understand; to reveal something I didn’t discover on previous visits. It’s part of my learning curve approach to my way of photographing the ‘thing’ I respond to. Having said that, I also fall into the trap of ‘expectations’ generating ‘opposing feelings’ that generates a ‘tension’ to ‘create’ over and above ‘simply letting go’ and to ‘go with the flow’ – that to me, is, I suppose, to be ‘invisible’ whilst ‘being in the zone’ and ‘reacting as things unfold’ as opposed to ‘chasing a pre-conceived creation that I have formulated, but will never eventuate’. Hope this all makes sense.

  • JohnW says:

    Pascal, what I hear you talking about is the essence of meditation … practice/learn to focusing on your breathing and let go of the distractions rather than getting caught up in them. You clearly have learned/understand that from your karate practice.

    The problem as I see it is “expectations”. We tend to want to ram reality into the mold of our expectations … we have expectations about what we are going to see, photograph, accomplish … and they get in the way of our ability to SEE what’s out there for ME/YOU and photograph that. Another way to look at it is “expectations” create an internal dialogue of their own and we get tangled up in internal comparisons with the “expectations” and reality.

    If you are thinking you are not photographing!

    A few years after I took up meditation I discovered I no longer had “expectations” about my photography … a masterpiece today; maybe: if not, so what; only I will know. Now I park the expectations at the door when I leave the apartment and let the universe show me what’s on today and how I react to that.

    Are you conscious of “expectations” about your karate training session?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks John, I have expectations about my training as a whole, but not about a particular session. When I do, they are soon shattered by reality and the necessity to focus on the world as it presents itself to me (very often a teenager that’s stronger, faster, taller and a quicker learner than me πŸ˜‰ )

      Expectations are the hurdles we have to turn our back to, you are right. And that’s what is so wrong about “bucket lists”, social sensations, hot spots … they radiate so much expectation that they overwhelm our natural receptivity and ability to just soak up what we resonate with deeply, if we listen rather than think.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you Sir, you said it all!
      The beauty that surrounds us is our essence; everything else is background noise. Training an eye and heart to see beauty is a form of spiritual practice; it can prevent us from losing ourselves in the dark confines of our mind.

  • Robert says:

    Excellent piece. I think you get it quite right. Flow can’t be forced. But it’s necessary to create beautiful photos. I’ve found that photography enhances my abilities to meditate, to get into the moment and leave my ego behind. Love the photos in this wonderful post. Thanks.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Robert. The two (photography and meditation) are probably mutually reinforcing. I’m glad you like the photographs too πŸ™‚ Cheers

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Freedom is an attitudinal state. Rock climbing and brisk walking are things I leave to other, younger generations. Meditation is a constant state for me – it’s how my mind functions (even when I’m sleeping, it seems to do it). Thumping sand or bricks or other people is not my cup of tea – I have always been capable of inflicting far worse damage with word, than fists – at least, since I stopped doing fencing – LOL

    I think we’ve been travelling along vaguely parallel lines, though.

    I have had the good fortune to have been taught to see by Australia’s aborigines. They have a store of knowledge which is extraordinary, and one chapter is “how to see”.

    And I’ve spent a lifetime with a camera within reach.

    So from the moment my eyes open – and perhaps even before – I am “seeing” things – images – everywhere. I couldn’t possibly photograph all of them. I stop and stare. I select. Sometimes the camera I use is the one in my head. Sometimes it’s one produced by Nikon, or Canon, or someone else. Sometimes I draw the image instead. I can’t share all of these images, either – particularly the ones in my head – but I have an unusual memory – if I find something “interesting” I can remember it for an entire lifetime – if it’s unpleasant or uninteresting, I can forget it in a snap, as useless clutter – so for me at least, the images in my head are just as real as the rest of them.

    Other people come by, when you have a camera, and say “what’s that?” I take it they’re not retarded, and they’re seeking details of brand, model, lens etc – it’s scarcely probably that they don’t realise it’s a camera! “What are you photographing?” I try to explain. They don’t understand. They haven’t “the eye”, they haven’t been taught how to see.

    The photos aren’t all “planned” – some are spontaneous, some really are a labour of love – some are experimental – some artistic, some “records”, some “travelogue”, some “memories”. Eclectic is the only real theme. Within the main theme, there are occasional sub-plots, and they generally have a reason or a life of their own.

    Pretty much all for my own amusement. I’ve never really been much interested in what other people think of them – any more than letting them listen, when I play the piano. All of it is self expression, self indulgence. My “creative” – one “c”. Instead of a stream of c’s, like the curse of the critic – criticism instead of critique – cutting comment instead of constructive suggestion.

    Love your photos. Three of them seem to be in the same place – but each quite different from the others. Hope it’s OK to say this – I love the two colour shots, most of all.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, and yes, it’s perfectly OK πŸ˜‰ In fact, all but the second are from the same walk in a location called Sillans la Cascade. It’s a large waterfall about an hour away, but huge floods last year have damaged access to the foot so it’s actually impossible to view or photograph it form the bottom. This makes for quite the tease, and you are left with the possibility to photograph and enjoy what comes after. The first shot is of a walk along the side of the water, but not showing the water. As usual, light and shape are what draw my eye the most πŸ˜‰

      It must have been quite the experience to learn from aboriginal artists. Their work is profoundly meditative and mixes dream with the lay of the land.

      I think having the eye is very difficult for
      (1) People who have not been taught to trust themselves. They have to follow rules, go to certain set locations, fit into a specific genre
      (2) People who have fallen into the deadly trap of quantitative marketing and thing gear and technique before actually looking very deeply at something.
      In both cases, it is a crime against humanity.

      • Sean says:

        I like this bit in particular “… (1) People who have not been taught to trust themselves. They have to follow rules, go to certain set locations, fit into a specific genre…”. It resonates with my internal mantra (for want of better words) and that is ‘Believe in yourself and trust your instinct. Your photography will then come to look after itself.’

        • pascaljappy says:

          Exactly. You have to practise to get better. And to be very honest about how you judge your own work. But then, you need to also trust yourself completely, trust in the results of all that previous work and trust in the fact that it has honed your intuition and spontaneous ability to get things done.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Another crime against us all is the delusional belief that some people seem to have, that their “opinion” rules the waves, like Britannia once did.

        I have never been able to fathom where they’re coming from.

        It’s fine to have “rules of composition”, with a few provisos.

        Number one – they are NOT “rules” – they are intended as suggestions, helpful guidelines, a summation of other people’s experiences.

        Number two – what we think of our own work is channelled by our own thoughts and tastes – we might be wrong.

        Number three – the same goes for other people, commenting on our work – they might be wrong, too

        Number four – I thought the mantra was supposed to be that “man is a thinking animal” – I sometimes wonder!

        Number five – I am fascinated by the number of times I’ve stumbled across the photos taken by a “keen amateur” with a fairly ordinary camera that would put a whole heap of professionals to shame [CLUE – mostly, they’ve been women – NOT suffering from GAS – not remotely interested in trying to impress other people – just doing it because it’s something they really enjoy, in between ironing their family’s laundry]

        Number six – great “artists” throughout history have quite commonly started by learning the basics – the techniques of their art – under tutelage. What made them “great”, made them stand out from the crowd, was when they started to think for themselves, and do their own thing – sprout wings and fly – freed from the relentless choking weight of conformity – free to create, instead of copy – absorbing ideas from all over the place, but also doing their own thinking and coming up with their own ideas.

        For me, the page turned at the point when the French Academy lost control and the Impressionists surged. And from that point forward, painting and art has gone in all directions. That is what photographers must do. Or everything will end up on cellphones and Instagram.

        • pascaljappy says:

          And now comes AI, and its automation of what should be creative decision processes. It’s as if some humans beg to be deprived of the right to think for themselves …

          To me, it is far more useful to learn about psychology and physiology than any photographic rule cooked up by some one else. There’s objective fact in the fundamentals that no one can escape : here’s how the eye works, here’s what draws attention … From then on, you design your own rules to create your own body of work. Following someone else’s rules only helps us produce a subset of that person’s work. As you say, the real artist has to fly away from the nest at some point.

          I wouldn’t mind so much about Instagram if, on top of normalising vision, it wasn’t using up natural resources at a very scrary speed.

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            Oh BTW – I meant to mention – the comment about the way our aborigines “see” has nothing to do with their art. I’m not sure if this applies all over Australia, I found out in the Northern Territory, and an awful lot of the indigenous peoples live elsewhere. The thing is, they don’t “look” the way Europeans do. We look at each other’s irises. They consider that to be the height of rudeness. So they make their own irises point in quite a different direction, and then look “at” each other using only their peripheral vision.

            What they’ve done to themselves, what they’ve achieved in the process, is the most extraordinary level of visual acuity in their peripheral vision.

            So that unlike us, they actually “see” quite well over a range of 170 degrees. I think we’d be struggling to get past about 40. When they go through the bush, they see things all over the place that Europeans would never notice.

            And there must be a lot to it – because in the early days, before fingerprints and forensic experts joined in, far and away the best crime “sleuths” were “black trackers” – aborigines engaged by the police for the express purpose of finding the criminals they wanted, when white police were virtually incapable of doing the same job. These guys could simply “see better”!

            Having discussed it all with them, I’ve simply brought their ideas back here, and – as best I can – tried to apply them to my photography. It’s very absorbing, and quite rewarding.

            That’s “why” the occasional reference in my scribblings to learning how to “see”. In parallel is the need to study light – to realise it’s what we’re photographing, not some object. Thinking of it in terms of the object causes confusion – which only clears when we think of it in terms of light.

            Something else, too – those comments about great photos by keen amateurs. There is a thread running through what I’ve seen. They have mostly been women – bored with their usual routine, and looking for something creative to do – not spending up big on gear, like so many of us have, but just buying something like a half frame camera and a single lens. Not happy with using a cellphone to do it, despite all the enthusiasms out there for cellphones.

            And they all seem to have a creative bent – an “eye” – an ability to capture very impressive images.

            It’s kind of embarrassing when one of them is your wife, you were both there together, standing side by side at the time, and she saw “it” and you didn’t!

            • pascaljappy says:

              Indeed it is πŸ˜‰ But I know the feeling. My wife isn’t at all interested in photography but my daughter photographs a bit for her studying projects and she spontaneously seems to have a better I than I do (after 40 years of this πŸ˜‰ )

              Fascinating stuff about the aborigenes. It goes against commen sense, because our peripheral vision is designed to quickly spot large movement, not small and static details. So they appear to have trained against that and gained almost a new sense πŸ™‚

              • Sean says:

                Maybe, an Aboriginal person is taught to learn how to utilise another asset – their peripheral vision – so as to enhance their capacities and abilities to better discern patterns and or other tell-tale signs; all of which, come together, in a coherent and unified way, so as to reveal bits of information that would otherwise remain a hidden experience to others – others such as us. It would be an awesome skill to possess.

              • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

                Indeed it is – and they’ve been able to recruit people of European stock to do the work for them, around Kakadu National Park, and to train these people to “see” in the same way that they do. It was a revelation, seeing the difference it made – comparing those “white” people with the “white people” in the tour group I was in. The difference was startling – astonishing – astounding! They could “see” things that nobody else in the boat could.

                And I was pathetically grateful – because it opened a whole new world, for me.

              • pascaljappy says:

                This feeds back to meditation. To use peripheral vision, you must “shut off” central vision and immerse in what’s left. Sounds like fun practise to me πŸ˜‰

  • Frank Field says:

    Pascal —

    I truly don’t know the answer to the conundrum. We have all been there, sometimes for extended periods of time. My only approach has been to try to put myself in places that I find inspiring and hope for the best along with a large dose of patience. It takes a push but has worked better for me than just simply sitting a home and wishing for the motivation to pick up the camera.

    I must say that the third image in this post (also used in the e-mail notice) is simply wonderful. I find myself drawn to these images that place one in the dark but show the path (stream) to light ahead. Monochrome is indeed the better choice for this image. Very appropriate for this post. I suspect this is an image you could put on your wall and live with for quite some time.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Frank, that’s very true. Waiting for inspiration rarely works. It’s on location that our mind gets its cues to spring into action. And yes, it takes patience to get results πŸ˜‰

      Thank you for the kind words about the photograph. It is also my favourite, along with the first. It was taken at exactly the same spot as the first colour and, in the middle are the two round rocks found in the second colour. I tried various forms of PP, but mono feels to me as the best option too.

      Cheers, Pascal

  • Dallas says:

    Pascal a very simple yes, lovely images they made me feel I was with you.

  • Claude Hurlbert says:

    Pascal, wonderful images–may favorites are three through seven. For me, they do indeed suggest the flow that produced them. They suggest that creative letting go, those moments when one’s art seems to flow through one. In writing, for me, it’s when the words come so fast and from seemingly elsewhere that I can barely type fast enough. It is a high. A releasing of the brain waves and endorphins, I suppose (though I am not a physiologist), and a heightened sense of the spiritual around us (though I am not a theologian) so that one becomes a conduit for meaning. In photography it is as everyone has said, when I have the eye, when I am seeing, when I am open to both the composing and the compositions–its almost like, in these moments, the compositions find me, and they do so because I have let go of myself so as to lose myself within the composing process. In these moments, I feel I am paradoxically ever more in touch with myself, but also ever more in touch with the world. It is when I strongly feel a sense of purpose and even when I enjoy the release of personal acceptance. These are the moments to which I always want to return, though they are not always accessible to me. Your photos in this post feel like an invitation to return to such moments. They feel like a gesture, a reminder to reach for them, to plan for them, to go to them.

    I appreciate and agree with much in the comments in response to your post. Jean Pierre’s discussion of “seeing” is extraordinary.

    Wonderful images. Thank you for them and for this post.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you so much, Claude. All these things are probably connected πŸ™‚ “release of personal acceptance”. That’s a very interesting concept. And I’m flattered that you find the photographs conducive to deeper thought πŸ™‚ All the best, Pascal

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Nicely said, Pascal. I’m totally in favor of revisiting places which have presented me with photographic possibilities in the past, but only with the understanding that any one visit could prove to be a photographic β€œdisaster”.
    If the weather or light or anything else isn’t exactly as expected, I go into a meditation or introspection mode which allows me to enjoy the location to the fullest without worrying about photographic results. Patience is a big part of this too! With practice it can be achieved, I know because I’ve been practicing it for quite awhile now,
    Lovely images in your post, Pascal.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you very much, Nancee. Patience indeed πŸ˜‰ And sometimes, different conditions to what we were hoping for can be conducive to something unexpected ! Cheers.

  • philberphoto says:

    What a brilliant post! Whan an un-surprise! I do agree with what you write, the meditation, the flow, the pull-to-deliver. I would suggest one thing, though. Meditation is but one place on can go to. What is the most powerful IMHO is not what place, and how this place is for creating images, but the mastery of one’s ability go places, rather than being (forcibly) taken to them….
    And the first picture in your post, not the banner, the first full image, is exceptional, even by your standards IMHO

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