183: Photography as meditation

(Willow stump.)

Yesterday, Kathy asked:

Here is a question, Robin. Do you find it easy to meditate with a camera? I find it a distraction many times, because the mind gets active watching for a possible shot, figuring out how to frame it, always moving outwards. I would like to learn how to meditate with a camera–but it hasn’t happened yet! Any advice?

Kathy’s question is so interesting to me that some of the neurons in my brain that fell asleep over the winter months awakened and started firing like crazy.  Little firecrackers in my head, going all active.  My brain is awake.  Yay.

I started to answer in comments but my answer was so long that it turned into a blog post. I will try not to turn this into the longest blog post ever.

And that desire — the strong desire to take pictures — is important.  It borders on a need, based on a habit:  the habit of seeing.  Whether working or not, photographers are looking, seeing, and thinking about what they see, a habit that is both a pleasure and a problem, for we seldom capture in a single photograph the full expression of what we see and feel.  It is the hope that we might express ourselves fully — and the evidence that other photographers have done so — that keep us taking pictures.  ~ Sam Abell, American photographer

Photography is often described as capturing a moment.  That’s true.  A crocus pushes up through the snow, a camera with a person attached to it (in some way) records it.  The moment when those tiny little bits of green show through the snow at that exact position in time is gone except for the photograph recording it and the photographer’s memory of it.  It becomes another moment, a personal moment, when someone else views it.

As I’ve noted here (I think) and in guest blog posts, photography puts me smack in the moment with a heightened awareness that I often find difficult to describe.   Perhaps a better description is feeling as if I am connected with everything.  I am present in the moment.  When I walk with my camera hanging around my neck, I rarely pay much attention to the camera itself.  I know it’s there in the same way I know my arms, hands, legs, and feet are there.  I feel it.  I am aware of lifting it, looking through the viewfinder, and taking a shot, in the same way I am aware of my feet on the earth or my arms and legs moving.

Here is a shocking bit of information about me:  I do not compose my shots.  I know.  It’s weird.  I do not consciously look at a scene and think about how I would frame it.  Subconsciously, maybe I do.  The thing is, I already see in frames.  I attribute that to having worn glasses most of my life, but I suppose it’s possible that’s just how my brain works.  I don’t believe there is anything mystical, magical, or highly artistic about it.  It is just the way I see and think.  I am fortunate in that there is a way for me to express the way I see and think.  Whenever there was a camera of any kind for me to attach to myself, I’ve taken advantage of it.  I borrowed cameras when I didn’t have the money to buy one of my own.   Taking a walk without a camera feels odd to me.  I do it once in a while because I think it’s healthy to take a break every now and then.

Although I am aware of the camera and the motions involved in taking a photo, I just don’t think about it.  At all.  I point, I shoot.  Sometimes I barely stop to do it.  The camera is, in many respects, an extension of me.  It is my way of seeing the moment as well as the world.  I am often surprised by what I find when it’s time to look at the photos.  I see things I could not have otherwise seen.  There is a drawback, though.  The camera doesn’t always see the way I see.  That’s why I’ve become more and more interested in fiddling with (processing) the photos in various programs including Photoshop, Picasa, and Picnik.  I’ve sometimes used all three for one photo to come up with what my “eye” (soul) observed.  It’s not merely an observation for me, and I think that is the difference between what I see (feel) and what the camera captures.

Photography is meditation for me in many respects.  When I am out walking and taking pictures, my mind often becomes quiet, relaxed, and present.  I’ve been known to use photography to help me through fear when hiking in high places (or on an airplane).  I lift the camera to my eye and the fear fades as my focus changes, physically and mentally.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rules of not composing, and photography as meditation.  If I go out with purpose (“today I am going to shoot This”), then it is not as much an extension of me as when I go out without expectations of any kind.  Taking photographs with intention is different than when I’m out on a hike or walk.  There might still be a meditative quality to it, something similar to a guided visualization as I usually try to map things out when I’m shooting with intention.  The other exception is shooting in manual mode, something I’ve been doing more of lately in an attempt to get the photo right in the camera so I don’t have to fuss with processing it later.  (Side note:  Shooting in manual mode has started to make me slightly unhappy with the auto modes.  That’s probably a good thing.)

As for advice, I’m not very good at that sort of thing.  You should do what feels right/best for you.  I think it may be different for everyone.  🙂

Today’s outdoor adventure

It’s another chilly day here in the Bogs.  Low temps in the teens, highs in the 30s.  At least we have sunshine, and the wind is still gusting occasionally but not quite as blustery as it was yesterday.

Today's view of the pond

I didn’t stay out any longer than I had to in order to meet my commitment.  It is just too cold.  I don’t think I whined this much about the cold throughout the winter.

Grackle in the locust tree

The birds don’t seem to be minding the cold too much today.  They’re active building nests or, in the case of the ducks, swimming in the pond.

The trees continue to bud, and the flowers have (so far) survived the cold nights.  The crocuses have shriveled a bit, but they might have been finished for the season.  The hyacinths are budding nicely.  If it continues to stay dry, I might get out in the garden soon to clean up the asparagus bed.

I should get some seeds started soon.  I’m not sure what I want to grow this year.  Tomatoes, of course.  Lettuces.  Maybe I’ll give rapini or swiss chard a try.

How about you?  Do you have a vegetable garden?  What do you plan to grow this year?

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34 Comments on “183: Photography as meditation”

  1. milkayphoto says:

    It sounds like you are a ‘free spirit’ who fully embraces her right brain and allows it to simply do what it does. I love it when I get into that kind of zone. Magic just happens!

    However, I have a strong logical side that sometimes gets in the way and trips up my creativity. When I over think things or struggle to ‘be creative’ it simply doesn’t work. Therefore, I rarely head out with the intention to ‘shoot this’ but rather, go out and see what Mother Nature has to offer to me today.

    Sometimes, I just know something is waiting for me and I just need to be patient and allow it to present itself. I love days like that!

    Now, as for my garden, yes, I grow veggies. This year will be grape tomatoes, rhubarb, snow peas, beets, herbs, lettuce, spinach and cukes for sure. May toss in green beans, eggplant and zuchinni.

    • Robin says:

      Your garden sounds wonderful, Tracy! I don’t grow too much in mine because we have a farm about a mile from us that also has their own market so I can buy from them (their prices are amazingly low). Whatever they grow, I don’t.

      I’m the same way if I go out with the intention of shooting something. It just doesn’t work as well. I think that’s why I don’t like photographing people (unless it’s completely candid).

  2. penpusherpen says:

    No vegetables in my back garden, Robin, just shrubs and a few plants which amaze me with their stubbornness to keep growing, even though Bess doesn’t ‘help’ them at all. What she doesn’t chew, she then wee’s on and I haven’t the heart to shift her. She so wobbly on her feet now, she’d end up falling over.
    I loved reading your ‘viewpoint’ on how you take photo’s, I think you’re a proper artist. With an artists eye for a great and sometimes magical shot.
    I hope it warms up soon, for you and the local wildlife, Winter had to give up it’s strong grip surely and retire gracefully admitting defeat. xPenx

    • Robin says:

      Thank you so much, Pen. I have been avoiding the word “artist” when it comes to defining myself. Not sure why. Maybe I think I need to feel more angst or something to be an artist. More likely it is due to a lack of confidence in regard to what I do. There are days, though, when the word fits. Hopefully there will be more of them.

      Eventually winter will have to move on. Or so we keep telling ourselves. It’s a cheerful thought. 🙂

  3. I think you really summed everything up so perfectly by your advice, Robin ~ “you should do what feels right for you”. That advice should follow through every aspect of a persons life too, not just photography.

    Your photos really are something special Robin, so reading how you feel about photography, to me, made total sense. Your photos are what your minds eye sees and what your soul feels. That’s why the finished product is so “right”. 🙂

    I too am at the point when I can tend to my vege garden once again, but the opposite reason to you; it’s due to the weather finally cooling down! It’s time to plant our winter crops, such as broccoli and cauliflower. We can grow tomatoes all year round here and I like to plant two or three different varieties.

    Thank you for today’s post. I really enjoyed it (wow, that’s saying something…I enjoy all of your posts!) 🙂

    • Robin says:

      Thank you, Joanne. This was a difficult post to write. Hmmm… no, that’s not true. It was easy to write, as if it was waiting for me to finally do so. It was difficult to post. Although I’m sure the personal slips through (how could it not?), I’ve tried not to get too personal when it comes to the blog for reasons that have more to do with others than myself.

      I would love to have fresh tomatoes all year round! It sounds luxurious to me. 🙂

  4. SWK says:

    You put into words what I feel about my own ventures with photography… a lot of what I do is point and shoot, and I’ve got some great shots from doing so. It feels strangely soothing at times to be very aware of beauty and certain moments in time.

    • Robin says:

      It feels strangely soothing at times to be very aware of beauty and certain moments in time.

      I love the way you put that, SWK. That’s exactly how I feel when I’m in what some call “the zone.”

  5. As usual, your pictures are beautiful. I love the reflections on the pond.
    You’ve made me want to write a post of my own, Robin. I’ve often considered this topic in the past months, since photography changed life in so many ways for me. I’ve been involved in taking pictures for a couple of years, but I didn’t take it seriously until this summer.
    To keep things short, photography saved me by making me focus on the best and the most beautiful things in this world, instead of the worst and ugliest. There’s nothing better in the universe than standing with my camera and my mp4 player, enveloped in my favorite music, in front of a stunning sunset photographing it. Just like you, I’m never more aware and present than when I’m taking pictures.
    I think I’ll write something and post it tomorrow. I do need to put these thoughts and feelings into words.

    • Robin says:

      Thank you, SunsetSeaSoul. 🙂

      I know from reading your blog that photography has come to mean a lot to you. In regards to focusing on the best, it’s done that for me too. Especially throughout this past winter when I was (forced) committed to going outside. Without the camera to keep that focus on the beautiful, I’m not sure I would have kept the promise. Although it’s possible I might have found another way to express it.

      It will be interesting to see if I feel the same way through the hot, muggy summer months when the deer flies and mosquitoes are making life miserable.

  6. Kathy says:

    This was really fascinating to read, Robin. Thank you for really thinking about your answer and sharing so much. The way you described the way you take pictures has been similar for me–at times–but for some reason I hadn’t thought of that as meditation. Perhaps you’ve just expanded the concept of meditation for me.

    Taking pictures certainly does center us in the moment, alive, looking, being here. We’re not moving through the world half-asleep, not taking in our environment.

    I think when I got the Canon I stopped taking pictures so naturally and it became more mechanical and uncomfortable and challenging. Perhaps it’s time to just return to the flow with the camera and let it do the pointing & shooting again.

    thank you so much.

    • Robin says:

      Expansion, at least when it comes to meditation, seems like a good thing to me, Kathy. 🙂 I think there are so many different ways of meditating, some probably unexplored.

      I did know what you meant when you asked about meditation and photography, and how it tends to move you outwards. I couldn’t figure out how to put it into words, but I think it’s just a different way of meditating where the inward is taken outward and a connection is made in that way. (Still not sure that makes sense!)

      I had a similar struggle when I got my new camera last year. My hands and fingers were used to the old camera and being able to operate it without much thought. Now that I’m shooting more in manual mode, I’m having a similar struggle when it comes to making the choice between a meditative walk or playing with the camera. I’m thinking that play might be meditative as well (look at children when they get really involved in something they are playing with), so I’m trying to approach it in that way.

      Thank you, Kathy, for bringing up such a great topic and giving me a chance to think about what I do and why I do it. 🙂

  7. subha says:

    this is such a great post. i was listening to a talk recently about how people in groups tend to take part in similar activities and have similar likes – even though they may not have started out like that. I am inspired lately to hear what you and others have to say because it reminds me that even though I may get busy with work and “life,” i need to make time for photography which gives me so much peace and pleasure. I, like you, do not compose my shots. And you are totally right when you talk about “seeing in frames.” i have often told my husband that ever since I got into photography, I started seeing everything in pictures. And as another commenter said, i think it truly makes you see the best in everything. my biggest lesson from photography: you can find beauty in ANYTHING.

    thanks for the inspiration and the beautiful pictures!

    • Robin says:

      Thank you so much, Subha, for your comment and for stopping by.

      I think that’s true about any art — that you can find the beauty in ANYTHING. It’s just more obvious (maybe) in photography (and even then, sometimes you might have to look hard to find it). I know what you mean about seeing everything in pictures. I think I dream in frames now. lol!

  8. Karma says:

    Robin, I think your growing dissatisfaction with auto mode is going to lead you closer to taking the plunge with a DSLR! My dissatisfaction is what finally drove me to it, and I can tell you what a pleasure it is not to have to navigate your way through menus and to focus intuitively by turning the lens, instead of pushing buttons.

    I try not to be overly concerned with technical perfection in a photo and at times I think I can “see in frames” like you describe.

    I will definitely have a veggie garden this year, but I am not feeling the seed starting this time around; I’ll let my local garden center do it for me this year!

    • Robin says:

      I’m ready to take the plunge now, Karma, but my back account is not so it will have to wait. Watching you and Kathy has been inspiring me to want to move up (although I still have concerns about taking expensive equipment out and about given how klutzy I am!).

      I’m not too concerned with technical perfection either. While it helps to know the why and how, I don’t think it necessarily “makes” a good photo. I’ve seen some amazing photographs at museum shows that might not be technically correct, but they don’t have to be as they express well what the photographer was seeing and trying to capture.

      Now that you mention it, getting the seedlings at a local garden center this year sounds like a great idea. 🙂

  9. Meditation or just a way to relieve pain. I have so many pains that drag me down daily. When I have the camera in my hand wandering the world, my mind drifts away from the pain.

    • Robin says:

      I think it can be both, Kevin. I started blogging when I was in a great deal of physical pain, and it was through blogging that I started expanding my photography. I was taking pictures of walls at first (because I couldn’t walk without pain) and other things in the apartment where I was living. Then I started moving outside and I discovered what you already know about how the mind drifts away from the pain when doing something you love.

      Thanks for commenting and taking part in the discussion. 🙂

  10. Kel says:

    some of what you describe about your process Robin, reminds me that the best creative endeavours are when we see through the eyes of our heart

    technical proficiency may help at times, but i know some very technically proficient photographers, painters, and writers, who don’t hit the nail on the head when it comes to evoking the spirit of creativity

  11. starbear says:

    Beautifully conveyed! Thank you!

  12. starbear says:

    This such an interesting and connected discussion – Thank you Robin for this opennesss and sharing. In a discussion with a fellow photographer, we realized that the images we thought, knew, believed were most successful for ourselves(personally satisfying) and then for others (gauging reactions), were those that captured the visual aspects of what we were wanting to “see,” and also stimulated other senses. Can you feel the breeze, smell the air, feel the warmth or cold, hear the bird or the silence? In that wonderful discussion we realized that our best shots did all of that. Many of my own “I want to shoot this today” images do not hit that mark. It is in those moments when I forget MySELF and become vibrationally attuned to what I am shooting, I am closer to that goal – accidently and with ease. My cameras simply become my inner eye, my innner being recorder.

  13. Robin says:

    You’re welcome, Starbear. And thank you so much for your lovely comments and addition to the discussion.

    “Inner being recorder.” I like that! It’s a great way to put it.

  14. Marianne says:

    Robin, this is beautiful! I love your description of what it’s like to use the camera, especially the part about “I am present in the moment.” That’s awesome.

    • Robin says:

      Thank you so much, Marianne. 🙂

      It was a good blog post to write although I did hesitate a time or two since this is a bit more personal than I usually get here at the Bogs blog.

  15. […] 183: Photography as meditation (bogsofohio.wordpress.com) […]

  16. Bo Mackison says:

    What a great blog read, and a great read through all the comments.

    It is a great feeling when the camera doesn’t get in the way of taking the photo. For me, that is when taking photographs becomes a meditation of sorts.

  17. […] 183: Photography as meditation (bogsofohio.wordpress.com) […]

  18. Barbara Rodgers says:

    This is a very interesting subject, Robyn, and I appreciate some of things you mentioned about taking pictures on a walk. The Barbara Kingsolver quote in your tagline came to mind, “It’s surprising how much memory is built around things unnoticed at the time.” So often I find the camera captures something I didn’t even notice at the time I was taking the picture. That memory then becomes mine…

    You wrote, “When I walk with my camera hanging around my neck, I rarely pay much attention to the camera itself. I know it’s there in the same way I know my arms, hands, legs, and feet are there. I feel it. I am aware of lifting it, looking through the viewfinder, and taking a shot, in the same way I am aware of my feet on the earth or my arms and legs moving.”

    When I read those words my heart skipped a beat – that’s it – the camera – an extension of the self! I see this with musicians and their instruments, too. Watching Eric Clapton perform, for instance, he seems to be at one with his guitar. Perhaps there are other objects that people use as parts of themselves. A gardener and her tools? The doctor and her stethoscope…

    Lots of food for thought – thanks!

  19. Robin says:

    You’re welcome, Barbara. 🙂

    I love the way you look at things. I hadn’t thought about how in art or other areas where one is passionate about what they are doing, the tools become an extension of the self. You’re right… lots of food for thought. Thank you!

  20. […] couple of weeks ago, Robin wrote about photography as meditation. I’ve had the topic bouncing around in my head ever since, and I think this post is quite […]


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