#1351. Grow with the Flow (2/2)

By pascaljappy | How-To

Mar 15

Part I focused on what flow is, according to science, and why you would want to incorporate it into your life. This second part provides pointers on how to induce flow in your life and your photography.


Whether flow will make you a better photographer depends on how you define better. It will allow you to make more deeply personal images. This means your photographs will resonate more strongly with some people and will polarize others. In my mind, that is being a better photographer, but others prefer the view of creating more universally liked images, as in getting more accolades on social media. That has little to do with flow and much more with the technical ability to locate the subjects and employ the recipes that are most in vogue at the time. No bad thing at all, but different from the goal of finding your voice.

Also, flow isn’t subject to an on/off setting. You will find yourself shifting into and out of flow to various degrees depending on the circumstances. Being in a state of flow eliminates both external (other people, noises …) and – more importantly – internal influences such as doubt, hesitation, that nagging little voice inside your head, that pain in the knee, … In flow, you should also experience a heightened sense of engagement and enjoyment.

My personal experience is that my photos feel a little bit more inspired and “mysterious”. But that’s just me 😉


With those caveats out of the way, here is what you can do to induce flow in your work/life/photography/…

I’ll start with the most controversial coming from me: immediate feedback 😉 How many times have I written that you should not chimp? And I stand by that statement. But immediate feedback does appear to be favourable to a sense of flow. And it stands to reason: your intuition tells you to click, and your rear screen provides feedback about whether the photograph achieves the vision, letting you reshoot until it does, thereby providing positive reinforcement for your intuition, and personal style, without breaks from the process.

The trick is knowing what to chimp for. Intuition and technical aspects of photography don’t share a common location in the brain. If your chimping is based on purely technical aspects of the photography (its sharpness, its exposure …) you’ll soon lose flow. But if you are checking composition, the general feel of the image, then this will keep your mind in the same area of the brain as it was when shooting, thereby not breaking flow.


Then, there is focus on a specific task. It helps to begin with a clear intention in mind. And possibly one that carefully balances a challenge (providing motivation) and skills. If you’re fumbling with your camera, bye bye flow. If you’re struggling to remember rules of composition (which should be intuitive, not learned), bye bye flow. The task at hand must both challenge you and call upon your acquired skills (to provide satisfaction). Something too hard will discourage. Something too easy will bore.

That said, I’ve heard from factory workers that (almost mindless but accurate) repetitive movements soon put you in a sort of trance that feels (to me as it is) similar to flow. So, I believe repetition of anything that captures your full attention produces the effect we are after. I also believe this is what weightlifting has been called a Zen art, as it also produces this state of intense focus.

Of course, the minimization of distractions is essential too. It’s said that it takes 18 minutes to get into flow at work but we are interrupted every 2 to 8 minutes. Hence no flow. In hobbies, we at least have the opportunity to sanctuarize a little time for our personal enjoyment 🙂


Beyond this laundry list of factors, there is personal preference to consider. Some of us enjoy shooting without ever chimping, and discovering results after the fact. I belong to that delayed gratification camp, and the resurgence of film photography is built on it. Others prefer to hone in the field, and get it right through iterations.

Both are fine. The first approach guarantees that no interruption will break the spell, but it is quite possible to work in the second mode and remain “in the zone” by reviewing only artistic decisions and knowing your gear and craft well enough to not need to engage the technical part of your brain in the middle of a session.

The important thing common to all is to keep self-consciousness at bay. As soon as we become judgmental, protective mental barriers form and cut us off from the pure focus on the task. Ego is so often the enemy of progress and rarely is that more the case than in flow-based creative activities.


So it pays to accept we are not perfect, we are not all Nadav Kander or HCB, and just focus on enjoying the moment. Mindfulness practice would probably help a lot. But just telling yourself you deserve a good time, whatever the results also goes a long way. Start with a clear goal, and have fun.

Now, I need to add that flow probably applies better to other crafts than photography. Someone carving a slab of marble for 3 hours will encounter the conditions far more “easily” than a tog walking with friends in a new city.

In photography, we are probably better off maintaining a lighthearted state of mind and openness to opportunity (related to the goal) and focus intently on specific shots for a few minutes here and there. It works for me, and I’ve often written that walking naturally brings me to the right state of mind (bilateral movements are used by psychologists to access deep memories and release trauma) to pounce on opportunities when they arise.


So here are a few ideas for seeking flow yourself. Next stop in this series … agility. As unlikely as it sounds, I think you’ll find it has a lot in common with flow 🙂


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  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    you might have been quoting Pooh Bear…:

    “Hallo, Pooh,” said Rabbit.
    “Hallo, Rabbit,” said Pooh dreamily.
    “Did you make that song up?”
    “Well, I sort of made it up,” said Pooh. “It isn’t Brain,” he went on humbly, “because You Know Why, Rabbit; but it comes to me sometimes.”

    “Ah!” said Rabbit, who never let things come to him, but always went and fetched them.
    – – –

    “But it isn’t Easy,” said Pooh to himself, as he looked at what had once been Owl’s House. “Because Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

    He waited hopefully….

    “Well,” said Pooh after a long wait, “I shall begin ‘Here lies a tree’ because it does, and then I’ll see what happens.”

    This is what happened. …
    – * –

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    EEK – since when has an E-book been a “book”? Sorry Kristian – the first piece of furniture I put in this room, when we moved in, was my bookshelf. The second and third pieces were extensions of my bookshelf. When they filled, I put more bookshelves, in the living room upstairs – and then more, in the studio apartment, out the back – and more again, upstairs in the studio. Sadly, I couldn’t keep all the books I had at our previous house, so this is the “downsized collection”. On paper – bound – as only real books are.

    Moving back to the theme of Pascal’s second chapter – I really don’t care whether or not my photographs resonate with or polarize other people. You must have gathered by now that I live my life on the basis that “à chacun son goût” – to each, his own taste. In 15 days time, it will be 57 years since I took a photo which ticked all the boxes for – and when I showed it to the fan club, one and all reeled back in absolute horror – because, according to them, I’d gotten the subject back to front. But that was THEIR goût, not mine.

    After that experience, something like half a century passed, before I passed my photos around to other people. Now that I’m in my 80s, I don’t care what they think – so the photos have started circulating once more.

    But the basic start is that I photograph what I “see”. Sometimes it’s spontaneous – often, it’s very much “planned” – but always, it’s what my eye captures, transferred to the magic box. Which is part & parcel why I don’t much care which camera I shoot it with, so long as it does the job. PAUSE, while I think a moment – I think this is correct, I believe I have 6 at the moment, and eventually plan to have two more, for specific technical reasons, so if I live long enough I’ll wind up with 8. They all do different things, so it’s not completely balmy.

    Chimping? Yes I do. I never had such problems before, with film, but especially with mirrorless, I find it’s important to chimp, to ensure that the image I want is the one I have captured. Somehow, it’s not all that easy using the screen on the rear, or the EVF, to get the actual subject far enough in from the four edges. But no, I don’t chimp over things like focus & exposure.

    Exposure in particularly, actually – I’ve largely gone back to hand held exposure meters, because the one in a camera takes its reading by averaging the image and calculating the exposure on the basis that the image would represent 20% grey on a grey card. Take one look at your first image, Pascal, and I don’t even need to ask – I can see it’s WAY darker than 20%, so an auto exposure reading in camera would be way overexposed . And, in fact, that’s true of all four images. Even a small hand held meter avoids this.

    But latest idea is we should ensure the histogram is visible on the screen at the rear, or the EVF, so we can adjust the exposure reading from the camera from the histogram readings. Fine if you have time – strikes me as a rather peculiar way to “measure the light reading”, but “à chacun son goût”. Can’t imagine too many sports ‘togs or birders doing it! – and I doubt that I ever will.

    I’m glad you suggest that composition should be intuitive – once it becomes “rules”, it becomes “someone else’s image”, and no longer yours. I’ve told you B4 that I was over the moon when I first discovered a book on “Composition” (which BTW I still have), and devoured it – read it from cover to cover. Once. Over 60 years ago, when I was in my late ‘teens. And I’ve never reopened it since! OK, that’s because I don’t like being “told” what to do. Never have. But I still don’t think those ideas work, once they’re regarded as “rules”. Rules are for conformists. Rules are for making sure everyone drives safely, the same way, on the same part of the road. The idea of “originality” simply has no place as a component in “rules” – the two are antithetical. In our craft, rules would quickly destroy any possibility of “creativity”.

    As my great-grandmother would have said “Rules? Of composition? How INTERESTING!” Instantly damning all of them forever, and consigning them all to the pits of Hell. (She had quite a way with words – the trick was just to pick the one she emphasised! Other people rant on for pages – me for example – but she could demolish the Great Pyramid of Egypt, in just two words, as that example demonstrates!)

    All of that said – I wholeheartedly agree with part (2/2) of the saga.

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      Apologies, Pascal!

      Don’t say sorry, Pete!
      I never said an e-book is a book.
      Although in one sense it is.
      Both are just as capable of communicating from author to reader – though in different ways … and with different advantages.

      And Project Gutenberg is just one of many that give easy and free access to a great part of elder literature.

      I remember an article in 1960s or early -70s on (physical) books.
      It was the time when the debate on teaching by computers was growing…
      One of the main Swedish newspapers published a translation of an article in the British Punch magazine:

      “The teaching machine ‘Book’ ”
      The article described the convenience of having information organised in paragraphs, pages and chapters. With page numbers, a table of contents and references to facilitate easy finding of information. And an invention called Book Binding to keep it all together in a most convenient package which made finding a place easy and added the advantage of organising learning by inserting bookmarks.

      In fact, all the arguments for the advantages of computer learning were killed.

      And research now is said to show that using books instead of computers in school gives a deeper learning. And that annotating by hand on paper vs. in a computer gives the same advantage.

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