Mindful Photography: 11 Tools to Get Started With This Powerful Practice

Mindful photographyClick. One, two, three, four… Click.

The waterfall’s movement was caught in a long-exposure photograph, its flow over those seconds held on one frame of the film.

Photography offers a fascinating opportunity to capture moments mindfully, on an analog SLR camera using film or digitally.

Art has long been recognized as a tool for entering mindfulness. Now, the widespread availability of cameras on smartphones offers the owner the chance to form an intimate relationship with both the act of photography and the moment itself.

Rather than focusing on the technicalities involved in taking an excellent picture, this article explores photography as a mindfulness approach.

First, though, we thought you might like to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free. These science-based, comprehensive exercises will not only help you cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your daily life, but will also give you the tools to enhance the mindfulness of your clients, students, or employees.

What Is Mindful Photography?

Art and mindfulness work well together, forming a unique bond and a symbiotic relationship, each benefitting the other.

In Essential Art Therapy Exercises: Effective Techniques to Manage Anxiety, Depression, and PTSD, Leah Guzman (2020) describes her work as an attempt to “create a safe place for clients to experience and creatively express their emotions, and cultivate new opportunities for navigating life.”

Guzman and many others see art as a way of visualizing what is going on in the human mind – thoughts, emotions, hopes, and needs – finding new perspectives and changing patterns of thinking.

And it works.

A 2017 study engaged survivors of political violence in a series of intensive mindfulness and art therapy workshops. Those who took part reported being able to use their newly acquired mindfulness skills outside of the studio, gaining control over their lives and experiencing feelings of safety when stressed and anxious (Kalmanowitz & Ho, 2017).

They found that mindfulness therapy gave them the tools to safely express who they were and how they felt.

What then is mindful photography?

Photography once required detailed knowledge, technical skills, and time to set up.

The innovation that brought us camera phones changed everything. The means to take a photograph is now close by and requires little, if any, technical understanding to take a simple shot.

As phones have developed, so too have their cameras, bringing a host of extra features and the ability to take advanced and high-quality photographs. So much so that there are many sources of training and online advice now available to take the best shots (Hale, 2020).

However, a simple photograph capturing a scene, event, or moment in time remains uncomplicated and provides an opportunity to engage in the moment and feel more present.

In 21 Days of Mindful Photography, Alexandria Searls (2019) describes the combination of mindfulness and photography as an opportunity to “open yourself up to new perceptions, and to understanding your own vision.” It is less about producing an extrinsically valuable piece of art and more about expressing yourself, being immersed in the moment, and having fun.

Mindful photography is the art of capturing narrative in a single shot, halting and freezing time and, importantly, revealing how we see things.

After all, simple shifts in our perception – how we view the world, our emotions, and our thoughts – can profoundly affect our entire day (Williams & Penman, 2016).

We can easily interpret a few words in an email or on a call in a way that upsets our state of mind, leaving us angry or worried. Yet, the smile of a stranger or the laughter of a small child can lift our spirits and make light of the worries we carry.

While you can’t always stop the trigger, you can, as mindfulness expert Mark Williams writes, escape the vicious cycle that can form when a single adverse event leads to spiraling unhappy thoughts.

Mindfulness helps you step outside the endless chatter of your thoughts and see the world with fresh eyes, reinstating a sense of wonder (Williams & Penman, 2016).

And this is where photography can help.

Writing for National Geographic, Jared Gottlieb (2014) describes how renowned meditation instructor and passionate photographer Jonathan Foust finds mindfulness in photography by reducing the number of shots he takes and in the ongoing pursuit of “ecstatic appreciation.”

Through recognizing the beautiful, the absurd, and the very nature of being, he moves away from an outlook that, he says, can be grim and anxious.

Foust ultimately sees photography as a spiritual practice, performed over a lifetime, capturing “moments of grace in the endless stream of experience” (Gottlieb, 2014).

Even the commonplace can be observed and photographed as though for the very first time.

 

A Look at the Research and Benefits

Research and mindful photographyThe Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology describes mindfulness as a flexible state of mind, characterized by “openness to novelty, sensitivity to context, and engagement with the present moment” (Lopez, Edwards, & Marques, 2020).

Mindfulness encourages openness to experience and compassion, along with an appreciation for the moment in which we find ourselves.

Capturing that instant in a photograph can help us focus on our relationship with the environment and the changing state of the subject positioned in front of the lens.

When students were asked to engage in mindful photography by capturing subjects that were meaningful to them and then discussing them in class, the process was found to increase happiness (Kurtz & Lyubomirsky, 2013).

In a follow-up study, when instructed to take photographs in a mindful way, rather than a more neutral, factual way, individuals were found to be more appreciative and motivated (Kurtz, 2015).

Both sets of research suggest that “when done thoughtfully, photography can be an effective way of improving mood and appreciation of everyday life” (Kurtz, 2015).

In a fascinating piece of research for her doctorate, Jessica Thomas (2016) explored the value of introducing mindful photography into the lives of end-of-life caregivers. Thomas found that the intervention provided time for reflection, support, and a deeper awareness and acceptance of the expected loss.

Ultimately, mindful photography and other such mindfulness practices may help create meaning in troubling times and help understand the causes of our own and others’ feelings of happiness and even loss (Thomas, 2016).

 

How to Start a Mindful Photography Practice

While mindfulness practices are not complicated and can easily be integrated into daily life, it takes time for them to become a habit.

Initially, planning and effort are required to put in place the new practices and maintain ongoing focus.

However, we should remember mindfulness’s importance. Self-care is ultimately selfless. Without helping ourselves, we are less ready to be there to support others.

The following pointers can help mindfulness photography find a place in your life:

  • Make mindful photography a priority.

  • Aim to practice mindfulness (photography and other practices) five days a week.

  • Create a ritual around mindful photography. Keep everything you need ready and close by (camera or phone, notepad and pen).

  • Ask yourself:

Where will I go?
Will I go alone or with someone?
How can I ensure my safety?

  • Choose a regular time and allow for at least 20 uninterrupted minutes. You may start with only five minutes and build up over time.

  • Accept that you cannot force mindfulness, yet practice will make it easier. Let go of expectations.

  • Do not be disappointed when you review the photographs taken and they are not as you expect. They are subjective, of the moment.

  • Continue mindful photography for a month, trying different assignments. Perhaps one day focusing on colors, emotions, numbers, past, present, and future, etc. Flip through a book or magazine, finding a word that interests you, and use that word as your theme for the day.

 

11 Mindful Photography Tips & Ideas

Taking PhotosMoving from endlessly snapping photographs to feeling present and engaged in the moment while taking pictures requires slowing down.

With a passion for both mindfulness and photography, Jonathan Foust and Alexandria Searls offer several tips to encourage mindfulness “by heightening our awareness of seeing” and fostering a more relaxed and present approach (Gottlieb, 2014; Searls, 2019).

 

Reducing the noise

While having a camera on your phone is a distinct advantage, there is also the potential for ongoing interruption.

If safe to do so and you are not expecting any urgent messages, turn off notifications or, even better, switch to airplane mode and free yourself to be more mindful.

Steer clear of uploading the photos to social media or even thinking about it, at least initially. Imagining others viewing your photographs may limit your enjoyment and feelings of presence as you take them.

 

Refreshing the scene

When you wish to photograph a familiar scene, ask yourself:

  • Can I experience it as though for the first time?
  • Can I see something in it I’ve never seen before?
  • Can I look at it from a different perspective?

Such questioning can encourage you to appreciate the moment and see what is in front of the camera lens as if for the first time.

When reviewing the photographs later, notice previously unseen features.

 

Reduce the volume

With a modern digital camera, there is no cost to taking endless photographs. But to engage mindfully and become more present, reduce the number of shots.

When you’re on vacation, consider setting a daily limit for the number of photographs you take.

For example, restricting yourself to three shots will help you become more engaged in the process and the scene, becoming a “silent witness” (Gottlieb, 2014).

 

Accepting what you capture

When looking back at photographs taken, seek enjoyment in what has been captured and the moment in which it is set, rather than technical issues.

Don’t lose sight of the beauty. An unwanted shadow or reflection can be equally beautiful as a sunrise or sunset.

Welcome what arises rather than chasing perfection or setting unrealistic expectations.

 

Travel without a camera

Traveling without a camera may seem like strange advice to promote mindful photography, and yet abstaining may be a valuable way of learning to enjoy photography more.

In the absence of a camera, you can experience feelings of being present in each scene, with no need for it to be captured.

 

Capture the istigkeit

Before taking a shot, stop for a moment and ask yourself:

  • Why am I taking this picture?
  • What story do I want the image to tell?

Look for ways to capture what is, and is not, typically considered beautiful.

Break free of cultural norms and expectations and attempt to capture the subject’s istigkeit, often translated from German as isness (Meister Eckhart, 2021).

 

Weather and light

Photographers often become hung up on finding the perfect light or weather for a photograph.

While it can be pleasurable experiencing the half-light of early morning or capturing the sun after rain clouds pass, instead try to connect with the present moment, whatever its conditions.

If the clouds are heavy and dark, or the sky is pale and gray, accept both weather and light as you find them.

Embrace how the conditions make you feel, the sense of rain or wind on your skin and the sounds in the trees, grass, or underfoot.

 

Capture your day

We often move through the day without pause for thought.

Use this exercise to be more mindful:

  1. Take your first photograph soon after waking (of the cat, the alarm clock, the light coming through the window), and make a note of the number of minutes past the hour.

  2. When possible and safe to do so, take a photo of something nearby at hourly intervals for the rest of the day.

  3. At the end of the day, review the photographs in order.

Ask yourself:

  1. Do the photographs reflect your day?
  2. What is missing from the story?
  3. What else could have been captured on film?

 

Oracle walk

Begin by asking yourself basic but essential questions, such as:

  • What is my strength?
  • What should I do as a job?
  • What do I like about that person?
  • Have I finished that piece of work?

Then attempt to answer the questions using only what you see along a walk.

Form answers out of anything that interests you, such as a flower in a garden, graffiti on the wall, a brightly lit storefront, barking dog, or an elderly couple crossing the street.

The objects themselves are unlikely to be the answer but can be interpreted metaphorically to provide an alternative perspective.

 

Earth, fire, water, and air

Let the ancient idea of four elements inspire a photography outing.

Photograph something that represents each element: earth, fire, water, and air.

Capture a frozen puddle for water, the sun or a bright light for fire, pebbles on a path for earth, and the movement of trees for air.

Single objects may be represented in multiple elements. Perhaps leaves are blowing in the wind, lit from behind by the sun, floating in water, or half covered by soil.

Ask yourself:

  • Did you find yourself drawn to one element more than another?
  • What colors are present for each element?

 

Staying put

Find a location where you can sit comfortably and safely for some time. It could be a park bench, beside a river, or outside a busy café.

  • Begin taking photographs of what you see.
  • Photograph changes that occur throughout the day, some fast, like traffic moving, and others gradual, taking place over time, such as the changing weather or light.

When home, lay them out on a table or attach them to the wall and experience the passing hours through your pictures.

Ask yourself:

  • How did you feel at the time, and how do you feel now looking at the picture?
  • Recall your emotions and what you heard and could smell while you were there.

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Tools

Mindfulness is both a fascinating area of study and a valuable approach for helping clients deal with a range of mental and physical wellbeing challenges (Shapiro, 2020):

 

A Take-Home Message

While we often snap photographs without thinking, a camera can hold the key for reconnecting with the present. But it must be used sparingly, with thought and engagement with the subject.

Don’t chase perfection, become comfortable with what is. Beauty is found equally in both excellence and flaws when viewed from a universal position with equanimity.

Instead, try to connect with the present and embrace the scene in front of the camera.

Not only does freezing a moment offer new insights and feelings of being present, but by taking more care and time while reducing the number of photos taken, it is possible to make the act of photography itself more mindful.

Then, once the scenes have been frozen in time, they can be reviewed and the feelings associated with each relived. We may also generate new thoughts and emotions from recognizing and attending to details not obvious when taking the pictures.

Use some mindful photography tips and techniques with your clients to help reduce the day’s noise and form a deeper relationship with the present.

We really hope you enjoyed this interesting topic. Don’t forget to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free.

If you wish to learn more, Mindfulness X© is our eight-module mindfulness training package for practitioners and contains all the materials you’ll need to not only enhance your mindfulness skills, but also learn how to deliver a science-based mindfulness training to your clients, students, or employees.

 

  • Gottlieb, J. (2014). The art of mindful photography. National Geographic. Retrieved January 6, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/intelligent-travel/2014/06/06/mindful-photography-jonathan-foust/
  • Guzman, L. (2020). Essential art therapy exercises: Effective techniques to manage anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Rockridge Press.
  • Kalmanowitz, D. L., & Ho, R. T. H. (2017). Art therapy and mindfulness with survivors of political violence: A qualitative study. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(Suppl 1), 107–113.
  • Kurtz, J. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). Happiness promotion: Using mindful photography to increase positive emotion and appreciation. In J. J. Froh & A. C. Parks (Eds.),  Activities for teaching positive psychology: A guide for instructors (pp. 133–136). American Psychological Association.
  • Kurtz, J. (2015). Seeing through new eyes: An experimental investigation of the benefits of photography. Journal of Basic & Applied Sciences, 11, 354–358.
  • Hale, R. (2020). Want to take better photos? Here’s how to practice at home. National Geographic. Retrieved January 6, 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/2020/12/want-to-take-better-photos-heres-how-to-practice-at-home/
  • Lopez, S. J., Edwards, L. M., & Marques, S. C. (2020). The Oxford handbook of positive psychology. Oxford University Press.
  • Meister Eckhart. (2021, January 6). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meister_Eckhart
  • Searls, A. (2019). 21 Days of mindful photography: A course in new perceptions. [Kindle DX version]. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/21-Days-Mindful-Photography-Perceptions-ebook/dp/B07TVXRRGD/
  • Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness. Aster.
  • Thomas, S. (2016). Mindful photography and its implications in end-of-life caregiving: An art-based phenomenology (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations Publishing (10096860).
  • Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2016). Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. Joosr.

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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