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How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

As you may have read in my last message I’m currently recuperating from a broken ankle. So, in this guest article, my friend and photographer Gregory Berg, will give you some tips to help develop your eye through mindful photography practice. Some may call it the art of seeing, or the photographer’s eye. Whatever you call it, being more mindful is never a bad thing, especially in photography. Enjoy – Darlene

Think back to when you first became interested in photography. As a beginner, you may have had a quick fix in mind and heard yourself saying, “If I only have the right gear or that one special camera, then I’ll be able to take much better photos!” Yes, I’m nodding along with you.

How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

Develop your Own Way of Seeing

Of course it’s true that good glass and better sensors can help; but if you first develop your eye — the lens through which you look at the world — you’ll be able to craft images that have a much greater impact with any device, in any situation. And your photography will more accurately reflect your own unique view of the world.

Your Attentional Aperture

One approach for developing your personal lens is to incorporate the concept of mindfulness into your photography using what I call your Attentional Aperture. I’ve developed a daily practice that combines walking with mindful photography. It’s a been a true gift to both my craft as well as my health and well-being.

“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction).

How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

With mindful photography, you can use your camera as a tool to learn to be present. You’ll notice more of the beauty that’s all around you, and direct your attentional focus to those forms, light, shadows, and patterns that resonate with you. I think you’ll be surprised by the scenes you capture, including subjects that you may not have even noticed or had never seen in that way before.

The Human Brain

So why is that? Recent scientific studies have shown that your brain doesn’t process the vast majority of all stimuli that it takes in. It’s simply a matter of efficiency and focus, which at an evolutionary level was necessary for our survival, plus it helps us to learn developmental skills we need as children.

How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

But as an adult, you have a choice; you can adjust your Attentional Aperture. In regards to your camera’s lens, the aperture is the opening that allows light to enter the camera. You open or close the aperture to let in more or less light and to change the Depth of Field in the resulting image. You can also do the same with your mind and your focus.

Mindfulness Basics

Let’s start with a few mindfulness basics. In a “mindless” state, the status quo for most humans rushing through their day, you’re likely walking around focused on your “to do” list, dwelling on that thing you screwed up yesterday, and worried about your big presentation tomorrow. You’re probably not paying much attention to the nuanced forms that are just above, below, and next to you.

How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

In a mindful state, you are present and aware of your surroundings, noticing the details all around. You make conscious choices about where to place your attention, energy and even your breath. You’re in the “now” as Eckhart Tolle would say.

I use my camera to help me spend more time in the latter state. Here’s how:

Backstory / Theory

Each morning, I do a mindful photo walk as part of a daily practice that also includes a sitting meditation, stretching exercises, and breakfast. It’s my commitment to start my day with practices that strengthen my mind, body, and soul. My routine pays tremendous dividends in helping me weather the inevitable ups and downs of daily life and work, by starting with what psychologists call a positive set-point.

How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

The photo walk evolved over time. I’ve lived in the same neighborhood here in San Diego for 11 years and nearly every day, I’ve taken a walk. When I first started, it was strictly for exercise and sunshine, both de-stressing agents. A few years later, after discovering the benefits of yoga and meditation, I added in elements of mindfulness and conscious breathing (focus on the breath) to my walk.

But in 2011, I discovered the missing ingredient. That year, I did a 365 project — taking, posting, and writing about at least one photo each day for a year. My morning walk became a crucial aspect of that project as it provided me with subject matter for quite a few of my daily posts. I started to apply the concepts of mindfulness to my photography and realized that the very act of taking a photo can offer some of the same benefits as meditation.

How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

Photography as Meditation

How so? Neuroscience has determined that multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain actually cannot do two things at once, which is why focusing on your breath in meditation has such a profound effect and is the core tenet of that practice.

The same thing applies to photography. If you’ve shifted your brain’s focus to the steps necessary to take a photo, at that very moment your brain isn’t engaged in all the thoughts (good, bad, and ugly) that preceded it. Even for a nanosecond, by placing your Attentional Aperture on something you find interesting and then composing and capturing an image, you’ve pulled your brain out of its usual routine and into a more mindful state.

How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

This all may sound obvious to veteran creators. As you may know, that’s what happens any time you make art or write or sustain your focus on a stimulating activity. Doing those things for a prolonged period of time can bring about a peaceful and satisfied feeling — you’re in what some call a “flow state.” (see the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi)

Doing so on a regular basis as part of a routine, also helps build pattern recognition towards the things you find appealing and interesting. It literally “trains” your brain to look for more of the same in the future. As neuroscientists like to say about neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to evolve over time, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Your personal “lens” is literally being created by your conscious and mindful choices of what to photograph and create.

The Process of Mindful Photography

How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

3 Steps to Developing Your Own Attentional Aperture:

1) Walk

Start with a mindful walking practice (a gentle form of meditation) that can help you bring more awareness into your movement and connects you to the present moment. The Chopra Center has a short article that outlines the basics.

2) Notice

As you walk mindfully, you’ll develop a greater awareness of the things that come into your field of vision. While you will still see all the usual forms that you already know are there, you’ll start noticing many new objects in your attentional field. The act of consciously noticing (mentally noting, “Hey that looks interesting!”) and then placing your attention on those things will allow you to widen the scope of what’s in your personal lens. You’re “shooting wide-opened” in aperture terms.

How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

3) Play

When you see things that interest you, stop and play with your composition. Whether that’s through the viewfinder on your DSLR or your camera app on your phone.

Play is the key word here! When you create from a space of joy, wonder, appreciation, and curiosity — all of which can arise from a mindful state — the images you craft will reflect that.

Another aspect of play involves experimenting with perspective. If you look straight ahead and point your camera at eye level while standing upright, you’re limiting what’s possible. Many of my favorite and most interesting photos involved bending down, looking up, twisting or turning, lying on my back, or climbing up or down something to change my vantage point.

How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

How to Develop the Art of Seeing Through Mindful Photography

Using these three simple steps, you can start to do more mindful photography and a bring more wide open Attentional Aperture into your images and life. You can do it on the neighborhood street you’ve walked a thousand times or in middle of the Amazonian jungle, the effects are the same.

Please give this a try, and share the images you take while practicing mindful photography in the comments below.

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Gregory Berg is a multi-media storyteller and Light Scientist with a passion for exploring the light that connects us all and the beauty that’s everywhere. He has a keen interest in frontier science and wisdom, the confluence of which he explores via weekly in-depth conversations on his podcast Life on Purpose. He’s also a yogi, meditator, and traveler. This June, he’ll be leading a group photo exploration of the light in Paris.

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  • Thanks Darlene and Gregory. Great article. Just a quick anecdote. Since I have started carrying a camera everyday, most places I go, I am always looking for something that moves me to take a picture. As a result, I now see deer and other wildlife on the the side of the road. Previously, I only the animals when they stepped in front of the car. I do like the idea of going a step farther and doing the walks.

    • Thank you David! Great that you are “noticing” those things that resonate with you and incorporating that into your photography. I hope you enjoy the walks!

  • walwit

    This is of course a great article, thank you Greg.

  • Byron Robb

    Two things I do consistently:
    1) Start every day with mindful meditation.
    2) Always carry a camera.

    Excellent article.

    • Thank you Byron! I do the same. Though sometimes the camera is just my phone. I used to bring my DSLR everyone but it became cumbersome and now most of my walk around shooting is with my iPhone. My friend Olive always says, “The best camera you have is the one you have with you.” 🙂

      • Byron Robb

        Sony mirrorless for me.

        • I’d love to have the compact size/weight of a mirrorless. The quality of those cameras given the size is really impressive!

  • Picturegal

    Are you familiar with Miksang? That is contemplative photography; there are courses throughout the country, frequently taught by Buddhist practitioners. I took 3 levels of the discipline. It taught me a lot about observation.

    • No, but that sounds cool!

    • Thanks for the tip, @picturegal:disqus! I’m not familiar with Miksang, but you have definitely piqued my interest! Will check it out.

  • Gill Morris

    Thank you, some interesting points to put into practise 🙂

  • waynewerner

    If you’re more focused on everything, wouldn’t that be shooting with a narrow aperture?

    • Depends on how you look at it, @waynewerner:disqus. For me, as I’m walking, I’m open to “noticing” more things all around me (some that I hadn’t noticed before) via being mindful. So that would be the shooting wide open part. Then when I’ve decided to focus on one thing to photograph, I narrow my focus. Should have been more clear about that. 🙂

  • Buck

    Because of my PTSD I do mindfulness on a daily basis. When walking I hear, smell and see things that in the past would have been missed. I want to thank @Picturegal for the info on Miksang. Also, thanks Darlene and Gregory for a great article.

    • Happy to hear that mindfulness provides relief for your PTSD, @disqus_NT8oCV71nM:disqus. And glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Your article is serendipitous for me – I have been job hunting for a while, and resolved while doing so to spend some additional time on exercise, meditation, and photography (and an unhurried breakfast). A neighbor recently gave me a copy of Freeman Patterson’s “Photography & the art of seeing”; I have been studying it, and trying his suggested exercises. Your article seems very similar in outlook. I’m grateful for the opportunity to gain some creative/spiritual growth during an otherwise anxious period of my life. I had not heard of Miksang – I’ll look into it as well.

    • I appreciate the heads up about the Freeman Patterson book, @funkylfc:disqus, as I’m not familiar with that. Between that and Miksang, I also have a lot to check out! And happy to hear about the synchronicity on the timing!

  • Fil Deacosta

    Great article.

  • Riina Ani

    I loved this article. Its a way also to connect with God through nature. As I’ve been allready challenged to do mindful walks then why not take my camera along with me.

    • Glad to hear that @riinaani:disqus and agree about connecting to something greater (God, intelligent Universe, Spirit) through nature, as that’s part of the equation for me as well! I started out with just the mindful walks, then added in the camera. Enjoy!

  • tmlakshmi

    Now I know what mindful photography means. greatarticle

  • I absolutely love this article Greg! So full of wonderful information and great insight into your process and how we can create our own similar process in our lives. I love your writing style in addition to your photography!

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