#1224. Some thoughts on Photography and Meditation

By pascaljappy | Uncategorized

Aug 24

This is not some fluffy post about inner peace. It’s not a guide. It’s an attempt to establish links between both activities and derive useful suggestions for our hobby.

Is your mind quiet like this sky? πŸ˜‰ #MonochromeAugust

Let’s begin by saying I’m not trying to convince anyone to start meditating. Meditators know for a fact what effect the practice has on their lives. Others can try for themselves, it’s free and open to all πŸ™‚

But I would like to establish a somewhat scientific link between that feeling of flow I often mention, and which systematically provokes a knee-jerk reaction in a large part of the photo community, and meditation. If only to explain that both are repeatable, scientific processes, with predictable results, not the near-mystical voodoo that some online shops and self-proclaimed gurus would like to peddle πŸ˜‰

I’ll keep it short.

Levels of consciousness #MonochromeAugust

Our mind is not unlike an operating system. Dozens of tasks are happening simultaneously. Bodily sensations, spontaneous thoughts, outside events and noises all create streams of information processed by the brain.

Unlike an OS in which the user dictates what process (a specific app, eg) should take center stage, the decision to focus our attention on one or another of those streams escapes our conscious will. Eons of survival skills, education, and the events of the moment dictate what our brain focuses on at any time of the day. Imagine how long you would survive if you had to control all those processes yourself and had to consciously tell your lungs to fill up and empty every moment of your life, yikes.

Meditation trains the mind to give you, its rightful owner and user, a lot more control on what it is it’s devoting most energy to, at any given time πŸ˜‰

Focused light #MonochromeAugust

Flow is a state of mind during which you are able to focus almost exclusively on one thing. The link with meditation should be quite clear, from this. But flow can develop naturally without sitting on a cushion, lighting incense and listening to 528Hz angelic music from Youtube πŸ˜‰

More interesting than this fake clichΓ© is the fact that meditation teaches you to focus intensely on one thing, while retaining perfect awareness of the rest of the world. You do not focus on a medication subject (very often, your breath) by shutting down all other stimuli, itches, fear anger, noises, but in the context of those things; that is being well aware of them (a.k.a. mindfulness) and keeping your conscious awareness on the breath.

Likewise, in flow, your focus is on your knitting, painting, essay, photography, equations … but your mind remains completely open to ideas and thoughts. Read accounts of major scientific discoveries and you’ll be surprised at how many ideas “pop-up” in to the mind of the Einsteins of the world. Would any of these have popped like a weasel if said minds had erected high walls all around their main area of focus?

Say what? #MonochromeAugust

In photography, you’re either a professional, living from “getting shots” and relying on gear to help as much as possible with that, or an amateur relying on flow to make images that match your feelings of the moment and enjoy the joy of success more than the image itself. The alternative is to rely on gear to create that intense feeling of achievement, with predictably dire results.

An alternative that represents what, 98% of the market? πŸ˜‰

Here’s the link with meditation. In a state of flow with a camera in your hand, ideas for images are constantly popping into your mind. You train to recognise the good ones (that’s experience and feedback training your intuition over time), and you train to transform the idea into an actual image (that’s what’s referred to as learning photography). You need to be able to maintain flow while remaining open to the through processes allowing you to recognize good shots and how to make them.

Channel #MonochromeAugust

Now, invariably, when I mention flow, it’s in the same sentence as a recommendation for a camera such as the Pixii, the Hasselblad X1D or the Mamiya 7 πŸ˜‰

But that’s just me! You often hear that gear doesn’t matter, right?

For masters of the craft, gear doesn’t matter. Because they have trained to recognize good opportunities, they have trained to transform inner vision into real-life image, and because they have trained to focus beyond the grasp of good or bad gear. For mere mortals, the task is a lot harder and my recommendation stands.

Village Plane #MonochromeAugust

However, there is good news.

In meditation, there is no hard technique to learn or master, no karmic predisposition to inherit, no darshan to receive. You focus, you lose focus, you bring back focus gently, and gradually, you spontaneously become much better at it. Automatically. The process is the sucess. That’s why I feel that Nike’s slogan “Just do it” is the most powerful, inspiring, and essential in the history of branding.

Likewise, if custom buttons, peeling faux-leather (my veins still pop at that one), unfathomable UI, noise, bugs, …, get you out of flow, just get back into it gently and you’ll eventually get better at working with any gear πŸ™‚ So, if you enjoy using a camera that would make my brain curdle (and don’t worhsip the camera but focus on image making) the basic principles of meditation should ensure you can still “get into the groove” πŸ™‚


​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Speaking purely for myself . . .

    One of the things which I think divides humans into two groups – introverts and extroverts – IS “meditation”.

    Sport – beer – pubs – parties – gregarious – going with the flow.

    Books – LEGO – quiet – alone – observing – buried in thought.

    For me, the internet has been a very liberating experience. I can do my thinking, talking to a machine, the screen sitting directly in front of me. Then press a button, it disappears, and I don’t really face or contact another person at all.

    I suppose you’d call it meditation. I certainly don’t go to yoga parties. Or weekends on the top of Bald Mountain, staring at the sky, reflecting.

    Another factor that parts the waters is boredom. Something I’ve only ever heard extroverts complain of. My mind fills the universe. Boredom doesn’t exist. I don’t even know what it means – to know that, I would have had to experience it – but because I never did, I had to look it up in a dictionary, to discover what people meant when they talked about it.

    2% vs 98%. I really couldn’t go through life, trying to use a cellphone to take my photos.

    The alternative that relies on gear to create that intense feeling of achievement, with predictably dire results! ?? I have had cellphones for many many years. I have taken less than 10 photos in the entirety of my involvement with this genre. Mostly to record something – like the day I was in the supermarket and they put the wrong price on some french cheese I am rather partial to – so before I proceeded to the checkout, I took a snapshot of their mistake – just as a precaution – and lo & behold, when I said “No, that is NOT the rice you have displayed on the shelf!”, they tried to lie about it. I told them to go check it out, for themselves. They went and had a look – came back STILL trying to tell me I was wrong. By this time, there were 20 people banked up at the checkout, waiting to be served! So I produced the “photograph” I’d taken. They couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. They gave me 4 extra packets of the cheese and only charged for one. I walked out with $75 worth of cheese, that I’d only paid the original price for – $5.00 in total. It wasn’t a “keeper”, but it was certainly worth the effort!

    I can’t really remember any of the others.

    I generally use manual settings. I enjoy post processing. Even the focusing is set manually in the vast majority of my photos. Of course I’m not a sports ‘tog, they’d HAVE to use auto focus most of the time. It’s an extension of “creativity”, the process of flooding my life with things – images. All the stuff I’ve done all my life, while extroverts played team sports and gathered together in large clumps, to entertain each other.

    No – I’m definitely one of the 2%. Funnily enough, this is not all “introverts”. It’s simply somewhere that, as an introvert, I choose to be. What amuses me a great deal, is the number of people I’ve met in my life who insist on using a camera, instead of a cellphone. They aren’t people like me, who’ve grown up with cameras – and not cellphones. They are the opposite – and they are reaching out to cameras, because they have tired of the life with computers and computerised image-creation applications inside cellphones. They are reacting – it seems – against technology taking over their lives, and going backwards. They are like ‘togs who are tiring of digi and going back to film.

    And the ones I have in mind have not done their “apprenticeship” as photographers. They have not joined camera clubs. They have not studied photography anywhere. They do not go online and hang onto the words of other photographers. They are simply exploring the world of photography, often armed with a single camera and a single lens. And taking damn fine photos with it!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pete, thanks for that comment. I’ll try reply to most of the points.

      Meditating is directing your conscious attention to one and only one subject (breath, candle, music …) while remaining completely aware of the rest (sensations, sounds, passing thoughts …) and not letting any of the competing elements in that “rest” take your mind off your subject. So reading could be considered meditation, I suppose, so long as the ideas in the text don’t take your mind away. If so, you need to redirect your attention to the reading, not the ideas in the text. After a while, it’s the process of focusing that becomes more powerful and interesting than anything else that could try to sway you.

      In photography, you see a scene and it triggers an idea, which you convert into an image. If the thought of having 30 images per second or 1 trillion ISO or anything like that pollutes the process, then you break flow. If a bug grabs your attention away from the contemplation of the scene and potential images, then you break flow.

      Most people don’t understand this until they experience it for themselves, but the pleasure derived from creating something themselves is huge compared to that of owning an object. A friend has just switched from a (great) platform with incredible computational photography abilities to a rangefinder and that has been a total eye opening experience. Crafting took a new meaning. The pleasure is in the process and the occasional resulting successes.

      As you describe, I think a lot of younger people are running away from soul-draining gear and experiences (game apps on phones, for example) and towards film cameras or any other object that lets them do something with their hands and mind.

      Smartphones have already won the battle. They now make lovely photographs, make all the processing, sharing, printing … a lot easier and hold in a pocket. When I was referring to the 98%, I meant 98% of the non-Smartphone market. I believe 98% are still placing their faith in the hands of technology rather than creativity for their enjoyment of photography. The fact that these people are constantly looking for new cameras, lenses … just proves how badly that approach is failing. If cameras want to take back some turf from phones, they need to provide satisfaction to their users, not more performance. It won’t happen.


      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Funny you should mention some of this issues.

        I felt something “peaking”, a while back. And ever since, things have been going backwards. Or forwards. Or somewhere “different”, anyway.

        I don’t know if everyone else did – but back when we were at last being offered the opportunity to get colour prints of our photos, at an affordable tariff, I found myself torn. I liked the colours – but there was something wrong.

        Then came digi, and we had a choice – take a USB to a suitable outfit and let them do our printing, or do it ourselves. So if you DIDN’T like their version, you had nobody else to blame but yourself. Or WAS that correct?

        Well I can’t speak for everyone – some went with Canon printers, some with Epson, everyone was still “different”. But for a long time I kept finding there was something too heavy in the prints I was making. Of course that was also someone else’s fault, for not sending me to a photography school – LOL. Anyway I think I’ve finally worked that one out. Long after the printing labs did. And I’m now getting better colours than they do. WITHOUT AI.

        Simply by realising I AM printing and I’m NOT correcting my images for computer screens or attachments to emails. Instead of “projected” colours, they are “reflected” colours, and CANNOT have the extremes of contrast a screen image customarily has.

        Simply recognising that has made the colours pop – literally. They might not be so intense. But they arrest the eye. In a way I have seen in years.

        I’ve found the PRINT function on Photoshop is a complete dud, much of the time, and switched to a dedicated print program called MIRAGE. It’s a bit tetchy but provide you know how to handle it, it gets the job done. Better than anything else I’ve tried. (That’s purely the PRINT function – after all the editing is done).

        On a bad day I envy the ‘togs who’ve had the opportunity to do some kind of intensive tertiary photography course, I’ve done all my learning all my life on the basis of trial and error, reading articles in photography journals, swapping ideas in a venue like this.

        I imagine a lot of your comments on “meditation” are swirling around in that mix, somewhere, Pascal.

        And while all that’s been going on – mostly related to colour, while you have been chasing B&W instead – something else has been happening. I’ve found increasingly over the past 5 years or so that I’ve gone backwards in other areas. Less use of AUTO controls, greater reliance on tripods, greater reliance on remote shutter releases [here you can have “plain vanilla” ones designed by your camera maker – with a range like 20 metres – or you can use your cellphone, save some money in the process, and be 200 metres away – maybe in a “blind”, trying to prevent wildlife or birds from seeing you, but in complete control of your camera!]. Greater reliance on a separate light meter (I now use Sekonic Speedmaster or else a more basic pocket Sekonic). FAR less use of all programmable crap in the cameras. Greater use of manual focus – except with moving subjects, I generally don’t use AUTO.

        It’s been a conscious decision. Taking back control. I want to be the one that takes the photo. I plan a lot of my images – I explore them, take trial snaps, assess them and the associated meta data, and plan the “actual” shot. Which can still take several frames, before I’m happy with it. But so what? – most of my cameras have 200,000 frames rating on the shutter, and I’ll never use them all anyway.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Interesting !

          After a while, I think we all want to take control. We want to get the image, of course, But we enjoy the act of creation even more. It’s simply more fulfilling, and we already have tens of thousands of photographs in our drives, so what’s one more?

          For what it’s worth, I’m actually trying to do colour correctly. It’s going to be a long road, being so used to b&w.

          Of course this will mean embarking on two print series. One in colour and one in b&w πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

          Mirage comes recommended by many experience printers. It’s a good app.


  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Hi Pascal,
    you give a more lucid short description of meditation

    [ >”…meditation teaches you to focus intensely on one thing, while retaining perfect awareness of the rest of the world…”]

    than others I’ve seen.

    Not because I know anything or have consciously meditated, but because I recognise my experience of something I learned to do instinctively (and was later told that I’d been meditating).
    But it was just my way of finding rest and recuperation every 3-4 hours – when stopping for petrol – of long distance driving.

    I felt like letting my eyes sink into my cup of black coffee (and still heard my environment), and after a while it felt like my brain began to be rinsed … and some 20 minutes later I became “normal” again feeling very awake.
    – – –

    Thinking about cameras…
    If I use a camera where I can select and then easily find the dials and buttons I usually want for manual control, then using those while looking through the viewfinder (or screen) becomes a way of *communicating with myself* while composing!
    Which is something I miss when using a phone…
    – – –

    And my ideal dials for minimising technical distraction … are (almost) nowhere to be found:
    1) aperture vs. exposure time (at constant exposure)
    2) EV (exposure level)
    3) ISO

    [ My second camera had it:
    Zeiss Superikonta III !
    ( – the aperture and the speed dials connected with a tab and then turned together.)

    Using Aperture-priority – or a good auto-ISO – comes close but then I miss the manual control – snapshots are, of course, something else.]


    • pascaljappy says:

      Very interesting Kristian, thank you. That cleansing effect is hard to describe, but so powerful and so few people understand it.

      The Superikonta would definitely fit into my list of flow-inducing cameras πŸ˜‰

      Aperture priority and auto ISO are my default setting. 99.9% of my shots are made like that.

      Cheers πŸ™‚

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      A Super Ikonta III? I’m jealous! I had several Super Ikontas when I was younger, and then went with a Contaflex followed by Zeiss’s 35mm masterpiece – the Contarex, with a ton of accessories. But I missed out on the Super Ikonta III.

      I also had a couple of Voigtlande Bessa II’s. The VB’s had a delightfully smooth shutter release, but a softer lens. The Super Ikonta’s had a sharper lens, but you needed to take more care releasing the shutter.

      The Contarex, however, was a masterpiece. I shot with it for nearly forty years! And still today, on my Nikon D850, I use mostly my 28mm and 55 mm Zeiss Otus lenses. Even my spectacles have Zeiss lenses!

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Well Jean Pierre,
        now I’m jealous (of your Contarex)!

        This was in the 60s. My father found me a used one w. Tessar 75mm f/3.5 for Christmas + birthday – I was 15 and he thought I could use a better camera. My camera for many years (except for a simple Xenar/3.5 Retina for pocket use).

        My only experience with VoigtlΓ€nder came when I had to resort to commercial labs, processing 35mm was so much cheaper than 60mm.
        It was a used Vitessa w. Ultron 50 f/2, my best (film) pocket camera – with its rounded shape I could just slip it in/out of my pocket.
        Until the somewhat complicated film advance mechanism broke, and my (expert) camera repair shop just shook its head.

        Great lens, a shop owner who made my occasional enlargements once asked what camera I used. It couldn’t be an SLR, he said, mirror slap wouldn’t allow that sharpness (tree after a light snow fall)!

        Except for its lack of coating.
        But that accidentally gave me a very nice backlit snap portrait, the reflection rings nicely framed the face!

        And when I longed for close ups also I longed for a Contarex – the exchangeable cassette! – but found it too expensive.

        But in the 80s I stumbled over a very cheap Alpa 11si – the repair it needed wasn’t too expensive.
        And it had adapters for Nikon F and M42 (e.g. Zeiss Jena) lenses!
        It was heavy and, even better, you could delay exposure after mirror slap just by pushing the trigger slowly!
        My best winter camera – I could use it with mittens!

  • >