Contemplative photography is the practice of using a camera to slow down and notice the world around you. Some teachers use language like “seeing the world with fresh eyes,” “connecting with the visual richness of our ordinary daily experiences,” and “relearning how to see.” For me, contemplative photography is sort of like meditation except that instead of quieting what’s going on within us, we are turning up the visual volume of what’s going on outside of us.
As I got started, I had to shift my mindset. One of the reasons I broke up with photography in 2005 was because I felt that everyone else was into photography. That was a lame reason, but even now, I still find myself fighting with it. Only now it feels like: Everyone has seen a picture of a rose. There are no new pictures to be taken of the Grand Canyon. Nothing I photograph will be original.
The purpose of contemplative photography is not originality; it’s presence. While other (and better) photos may exist of the Grand Canyon, you’ve never been here before, so your photos are unique to you. While other photos have been taken of a rose, you’ve never photographed this rose before. I tell myself this with every new spring. Yes, I photograph my bulbs coming out of the ground every year, but every year they are new.
Seven Tips for Contemplative Photography
As you get started, remember there is no ideal or perfect way to do this. Be a learner. Experiment. Have fun. And consider my tips for getting started…
- Set an intention. This is a practice, and practice implies that you have something to learn, you want to improve, and you are putting in the time and effort to do so. Set an intention to take one photo on each of your runs this week or on each walk across campus. Look at what you are already doing throughout your week, and add “take a photo” to it.
- Use your phone camera. You do not need a special camera. If you’re like most people I know, you already take your phone everywhere you go, so use what you already have. You may be surprised by the quality of photograph that will come from your phone camera! I like the ability to take photos on the fly. Plus the costs of purchasing, learning, and using a DSLR isn’t for everyone, and I wouldn’t let that hinder you from this practice.
- Slow down and move intentionally. Watching for moments to photograph requires us to be thoughtful in how we are going about our day. As you build this mindfulness practice, set an intention (for your day, on this walk, etc.) to watch for a subject to photograph.
- Take multiple photos of the same subject. Stick with your subject for a few minutes, play with the settings on your phone, and watch for changes in your subject. Be patient. When I have a spare moment later, I review the photos on my phone and add the best of the best to a dedicated contemplative photography album. Everything else gets ruthlessly deleted!
- Edit if you like. I don’t love editing photos, so beyond adding a filter, I don’t edit mine. But if you find editing to be a nice addition to your contemplative practice, go for it! There are loads of apps with filter packages you can purchase to experiment with editing.
- Cherish other moments. Once you start this practice, you may find yourself in moments of stillness throughout your day when you spot something you’d love to capture but can’t! This often happens to me when I am sitting at a stoplight in my car. Take a moment to acknowledge the gift of what you’ve noticed and move on with your day.
- Consider video. Still photos won’t always collect all the magic of a moment. Sometimes a video will capture the movement and sound that you are contemplating. Maybe it’s watching ornamental grass swaying in the breeze, bees buzzing around your flower garden, or clouds passing by. Switch to video mode, hold your camera still, and record a video of what you’re observing for a little while.
Six Extra Photography Tips
In case you’re brand new to photography and are learning how to make mediocre photos better, here are some tips I’ve learned over the years that have improved my photos.
- Be aware of lighting. In its essence, photography is the art and science of capturing light and how it is interacting with objects and the atmosphere. Some lighting yields better photos than other lighting. The best light is during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset because there are no hard shadow edges and the world feels like it’s glowing. In a pinch, a picture in the shade works. But photos taken in the height of the day’s sun or with a flash won’t yield the lovely depth or richness in color that the golden hours offer.
- Check the focus. Did the camera pick the correct thing to focus on? Is there something else in the frame that could be focused on? Are there other camera presets available to assist with the focus? On many phones, you can touch the screen to tell the camera where to focus.
- Scan the background. Look beyond what you are focused on to check what is in the background. (Power lines kill me.) If it’s not in keeping with the vibe of the photo, can you move around to eliminate it? And if you can’t eliminate it, can you play around the photo composition to make the background look intentional?
- Check the frame. Is anything cut off at the edges? Is there margin to play with and can you get a tighter shot? If you absolutely must cut something off, be intentional and make it interesting.
- Play with the grid. Centering a subject in the frame either vertically or horizontally doesn’t make the most interesting shot. Can you align your subject on a 1/3 grid line instead? (Many phone cameras automatically display this grid.)
- Experiment with perspective and patterns. Perspective and patterns are principals of art and design and are a fun way to make interesting photos. Try getting low on the ground or up high on a bench. Watch for subjects or backgrounds that repeat. Pay attention to the geometry that is naturally occurring in your photo.
You get to decide what is most important to you as you begin a contemplative photography practice. For me, it’s the meditative slowing down and watching for images I want to capture. For someone else, it could be finding awe and wonder in the world or documenting the changing world around us as the year goes by.
Whatever the reason, have fun! Enjoy the practice of contemplative photography!