on photography as mindful seeing

I want to preface this post by saying that I realize that it will sound like pretentious self-important aren’t-I-great writing. That’s not what I intended, but it’s difficult to write about this without throwing caution to the wind. Although I shoot a fair number of photographs, and at least partially identify myself as a photographer, I have had absolutely no formal training. I have no “expertise” on the subject, aside from that which has been self-taught, and experience gathered from shooting something like 50,000 photographs over the years. People have been asking me to provide some pointers on how to improve their photography, resulting in this blog post. OK. That’s out of the way…

Photography can be both a noun and a verb. It is both the act of, and the product of, capturing images through photographic processes. When someone asks “what do you recommend to help me get better at photography” – I think they are meaning photography-as-noun. They want their photographs to look better. They want to take better pictures.

But, what they really mean, whether they realize it or not, is how to improve photography-as-verb. How to “get better” at taking pictures. How to be a better photographer.

And there’s no easy answer. There isn’t a simple recipe, where if followed dutifully, a person will be transformed into a better photographer. There are two separate but related aspects to photography – the technical, and the aesthetic. I believe that the technical side can be relatively easily addressed – read some books, maybe take a course or two, rtfm, and practice.

It’s the aesthetic side of photography that is harder to develop. There isn’t an easy process to do that. Some sense of aesthetics will develop as you shoot more photographs – whether through trial and error, mimicking other photographs that you like, or through deliberate composition. The most effective, long term strategy that I’ve found to improve my sense of aesthetics has been through what I call “mindful seeing.” I don’t mean in a spiritual sense, although there might be a spiritual aspect to it – mindfulness is a strong component of eastern philosophies such as Buddhism. I mean the act and process of being deliberately thoughtful about what you are seeing. To see what you are looking at. It’s something that doesn’t happen automatically – we go through life filtering what we see, reducing input and stimulus to the point that we aren’t as distracted by visual stimuli. Mindful seeing is the process of turning off the filters, of seeing your surroundings unfettered and unobstructed.

When viewing the world without filtering, even the most boring and banal subjects can become wondrous and interesting. We are constantly surrounded by interesting things that we normally don’t see – textures, lighting, patterns, shapes, objects, groupings, even messages.

Photographers are often described as distancing themselves from their surroundings by “hiding behind a camera” or “viewing the world only through a viewfinder.” I see photography from the exact opposite side of the coin. By mindfully seeing the world around me, I feel as though I am seeing much more than I would otherwise. I see patterns, convergence, divergence, shadows, lighting, juxtaposition, and composition that are likely missed by others. That’s not to say that I am “better” than any other – just that by being mindful of what I am seeing, I am aware of what is around me. And when I am aware, I am better able to take an interesting photograph.

One benefit of practicing mindful seeing is that it doesn’t require a camera. You are seeing things every second you are awake (assuming no visual disabilities). Being mindful can be as simple as stopping what you are doing, and examining what is directly in front of you. How is the light reflecting off the wall? Notice the gradients in the various shadows? How they interact with each other? The caustic refraction of light through curved glass? The texture of the floor and ceiling? From which angles would these shadows line up or be exaggerated?

Once you start to see these details (both micro and macro) you begin to take photographs of them. You begin to use them in composing photographs. And eventually it becomes second nature. I constantly catch myself being startled by seeing something interesting in unexpected places. Most of the time, I don’t have a camera handy, so I just make a mental note and say something profound like “cool.” On the occasions where I do have a camera literally in hand, I take a shot. And some of these have resulted in surprisingly interesting photographs.

The biggest example of this is when I took a series of photographs examining the texture of the back of a bus seat.  I was commuting to and from work on the bus, and kept noticing the patterns on the back of the seat, right in front of me. I put my point-and-shoot camera into super-macro mode, and took a few shots with the lens almost touching the seat back. And the results were quite amazing – textures, patterns, shadows, reflections – all of which were right in front of me every day for more than a year, but which I hadn’t seen before.

Once you start being more mindful of what you see, and taking more photographs, it becomes important to be honestly critical of your (and others’) photographs. Not critical in the negative sense – but able to give an honest evaluation of what is good, what is not so good, and what would be done differently if given the chance. This honest criticism is essential to becoming more mindful of the aesthetics of photography. Eventually, you will be able to separate yourself from your photographs (it isn’t easy) and as a result you’ll be aware of what makes your photographs good or bad aesthetically.

If I say that I took a good photograph – and it’s important that I be aware if I have – I am not saying “hey! I am an awesome photographer! Look at this awesome shot that I took! Aren’t I awesome?” No. Instead, if I am honest about the evaluation, I am saying something like “this is a good photograph. notice how the composition leads the eye, the lighting blah blah blah” – it’s not about me, it’s about the photograph. Similarly, a critique of a “bad” photograph isn’t a comment on me, or my skills, or anything other than the aesthetics of a series of binary bits representing an image.

With that said, how would I recommend someone “get better at photography”?

  • start with mindful seeing. it’s easy, because we see all day. it’s hard, because we filter what we see.
  • shoot a lot of photographs. Try shooting every day. every. day. If nothing else, it will force you to see interesting things around you. And you will learn the technical aspects of photography because you are doing it often.
  • be honestly critical of your photographs. Something that helps with this is to do it in the open – if you don’t have a Flickr account, create one and start posting photographs there. Join a few groups and participate in the community. They’ll help keep you honest.
  • be honestly critical of other people’s photographs. This doesn’t have to be in the open, but by critiquing other photographs you’ll learn what you like and don’t like, and you’ll learn what you want to (and don’t want to) photograph.
  • expose yourself to a LOT of photography. I follow 26 groups and tags on Flickr – subscribing to the RSS feeds – so I see hundreds of photographs every day.
  • expose yourself to a LOT of information about photography – I follow about 50 photoblogs where photographers talk about their craft and post their best work. It’s important to expose yourself to various opinions and techniques – things you can try out when you’re shooting every day.

So, some rambling thoughts from an amateur photographer with no training. There aren’t any guarantees, but this is the rough philosophy and process that I personally subscribe to.

19 replies on “on photography as mindful seeing”

  1. Well said. You are spot on. It is easy to identify beautiful and interesting subjects, but quite another experience to mindfully see. For example, I drive by gorgeous fields and forests each day, but I’ve not been able to mentally compose them as photographic subjects. There’s little perspective from my view, and not enough texture to show depth, so I keep driving. I am in a constant state of mindful seeing, though I’ve only got my camera phone as a tool. I do see reason, however, to take “bad” photographs. Sometimes bad photographs tell great stories. If there’s nothing aesthetically interesting in a subject, there may still be a story. Can you tell what was happening in the space when the photo was shot? Does it offer up expectation of something entering the scene after the shot? Thanks for sharing your expertise. I admire your work and am grateful for the opportunity to learn from you.

  2. I’m struck by how many of your recommendations at the end of your post would apply to learning other things. Writing, certainly. And since my current interest in which I know nothing but am trying to learn is guitar, I could even twist these principles to music as well.

    Learning is learning, and I love it when people refract their thoughts on learning through the things which they are most passionate about. More photoblogging!

  3. Right on! Mindfulness is a central struggle for me, and you have nailed what I admire about photography and photographers from afar. Of course I admire dramatic photographs of naturally dramatic subjects, but even more I admire those photos that reveal that which is hidden in plain view. Come to think of it, that’s one of the things I admire most about poetry as well… at its best, photography is a visual poetry.

  4. This was beautifully said, thoughtout– what you describe happens by instinct, reflex when you are in the mode of seeing. For me, I have long felt more connected to a place, an event, a time when I can experience it via the camera, and like your words about it not “hiding” behind the camera. I develop more meaning with something when I do the camera thing, and you’ve explained it so well. Its almost like continually exercising your observational muscles.

    But perhaps you know that “look” from others you may be with, like, “why is he taking a picture of **that**?” or “we’ll never get there if he keeps taking pictures.” You keep clicking.

    BD (Before Digital) I did somewhat enjoy the mystery between the time you “saw” it in your mind, took the photo, and then there was the delay of gratification (or not) waiting for the prints to be developed, or develop it yourself– the seeing it in your hands and confirming what you saw in your mind, negating it, or even finding it was more beautiful than what you had imagined.

    I thought the magic would be less with digital, but even with seeing it on the camera screen, I often don’t really appreciate the image until I see it on the computer, and there is magic when it turns out beyond what you had saw (or previewed).

    And like your bus seat story, some of the best moments are finding something extraordinary among the world in an ordinary spot, just by seeing, framing, composing… and then clicking.

  5. .

    nice. there are a lot of techniques and excercises to open people’s eyes to seeing things critically. finding one’s voice and helping others see them the same way takes a lifetime.


  6. @jen: some of my favorite photographs would be “bad” artistically – but I love them because of what was happening before, during, or after the shot. but that’s a personal thing, and doesn’t translate outside of my own skull. there is much more to a good photograph than simple aesthetics 🙂

    @brian: absolutely! it translates to any learning activity that is internally motivated.

    @chris: photography as visual poetry. I love that.

    @alan: thanks. I wasn’t sure how clearly the writing would/could be, but I think it came out ok 🙂 Yeah. I know “the look” – “oh, great. he’s bring the camera again” and “why on earth is he shooting a photo of that? again?” I’m becoming a bit more immune to it, perhaps selfishly, but it’s just a part of me now…

    @davidicus: it’s definitely a lifelong process. not sure anyone else can really see the same way though – we all see things uniquely…

  7. Practicing mindfulness is really so powerful for connecting wholly and appreciating the present moment. I can completely see how this would be hugely beneficial for photography.

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