The Zen of Photography

Recently, I’ve been writing here a lot about gear and I’ll admit, I am a bit of a gear head! But I like to think there’s more to me than that, so today I’d like to go into what going out and taking photos really means to me and what it involves (or avoids).

There are as many subjects and cameras as there are people, because what really gives them meaning is the way they are seen. In a sense, photography is like a game seen this way, with a central set of rules, mostly revolving around the rules of physics and the way light travels, with other less clear ones determining the aesthetics involved in getting a good result. A ‘good’ photo comes from awareness of these rules, but more than that, a ‘great’ photo rises when one can express something remarkable despite them, feeling no limitation. A great photo is an expression of total freedom of expression, in a universe full of limitations. It is a ‘zen like’ moment.

I’d wager that there aren’t too many truly great photos in existence, though there are a lot of good ones, which for many purposes are more than good enough. I’d also add to this that the notion of a lucky capture, which is how such great photos might seem, free from the weight of effort and struggle as they appear, will only be made the most of by someone who can consistently follow the rules enough to take ‘good’ photos. An ability to transcend the rules comes from knowing what they are and at least seeming to break through and go beyond them.

You cant be open to the wonderful, serendipitous events of life if your mind is burdened by other concerns. For me, a photographic walk is a walk in the world as if one is totally free from its burdons. This doesn’t mean you have a perfect life or a perfect mind, just that you are able to lay aside anything that would get in the way of as pure a perception of things as possible. You hear a lot about the techniques and carefully-selected equipment of photographers, but not so much about their clear, open state of mind. In terms of equipment, pros tend to like easy to use and access tools that don’t get in the way, but you hear less about what they shouldn’t be getting in the way of. You hear a lot less about their mental training, or techniques of relaxation to open their mind to an ‘unstained’ view of the world, in which their ego doesn’t get in the way of pure perception, or cloud their personality.

There’s a few reasons for this. One is that many people aspire to be great photographers and think that by following the outer forms sufficiently themselves, that will be enough. They research the equipment and even buy things sometimes way out of their range of skill to use. This state of affairs is unlikely to change, as so much of the sales of super-expensive equipment no doubt is made to people who see it as the route to ‘great’ photos, which of course is partly true as the image quality and usability it has is unsurpassed in many situations. Another reason is that, unlike sports, or arts and so on, famous photographers are a lot less well known. Even they have to do many ‘bread and butter’ jobs just to get by and no-one is too interested in the less than inspiring results this can lead to. Photography, especially fast, colour photography is a relative newcomer and has only fairly recently been accepted as an art at all.

Which all means that if you really want to be a better photographer, it is best to combine a study of the skills of it, the necessities of photography as a craft, if you like, along with some learning of what the photographers you admire most get up to. What inspires them, how they approach things, what goes through their mind as they take the photo, or conversely how they are able to focus their mind as completely as their camera, so nothing else gets in the way, if only for that moment of capture, that Zen-like moment. More to the point, since there aren’s so many acknowledged greats in photography relative to other arts, it might also be good to study the work and life of artists. Or writers. Photography as an art is just another art, one among many, with its own complex tools and traditions, but obeying the same laws of composition, perspective and needing a similarly freeing, pure perception to find anything worth looking at again in the years to come.

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