A photographer friend once told me a story of when he was photographing in a Tibetan monastery. He was creating images over several days when he noticed one of the monks carefully observing him. The monk watched him as he photographed, but never approached him or said a word. There was a moment when the photographer thought that the monk thought he was doing something wrong, though the monk didn’t choose to verbalize it.
The photographer was eventually approached by the monk, who leaned towards him.
“I understand now,” he said mirroring the photographer bringing the camera to his eye. “This is your meditation.”
What the monk observed was how a photographer uses the act of seeing to be present and in the moment. It is this practice that allows a photographer to create a work of art using only a fraction of a second in time.
Yet, it is this ability to stay in the moment that is one of the more difficult skills to develop as a photographer, regardless of the kind of subject matter he or she chooses to photograph. Cameras and lighting can be easily mastered with research and practice, but being present is a very different challenge. That is because the biggest obstacle lies in one’s own thoughts.
There have been many times when I have been on a shoot and have been preoccupied with my own thoughts. I’m obsessed with a mistake that I made the day before or worried whether that check will arrive in tomorrow’s mail. I am hungry or tired. My feet hurt. Whatever the distraction is, it succeeds in taking me out of the moment and robs me of the ability to actively see what is playing out in front of me.
For me, the greatest pleasure that I can have as a photographer is to be present. When I am in the moment, I discover things that I would otherwise be completely oblivious to. And it is in such moments when I discover a surprising and unexpected convergence of light, shadow, gesture, and color which culminates, if I am ready, into a successful photograph.
But such moments do not come easily and I often have to prepare myself to be present. Here are seven tips that I practice regularly to keep me in the moment.
Keep It Simple
Whenever possible, I work as simply as possible. If I can get away with working with just one camera, one lens, that is what I do. For my personal work, I will leave behind the assortment of lenses and work instead with a fixed 35mm lens or a 24-70 zoom lens. I don’t want to be burdened by carrying everything I own in a heavy backpack. More importantly, I don’t want to continually second-guess my choice of lens and spend unnecessary time switching back and forth between optics. When I use a single lens, I work within its parameters and my way of seeing adjusts accordingly. I don’t think about what I will miss if I only had some other lens. My eye and my mind adjust to the tools that I have at the ready.
Getting Settings Out of the Way
Even before I am out the door for a day of shooting, I am already presetting my camera’s key settings: ISO, white balance, focus, and aperture. I evaluate the light that I am going to be working with and adjust my ISO and white balance to reflect the light, whether it is direct sunlight, open shade or cloudy. Using aperture priority, I set my aperture to f/5.6 and check my shutter speed to ensure that am shooting at no less than 1/200 second. I reset my AF points for the center area.
I do this even before I have discovered my first subject for the day. I do this because I always know what my starting point is. I don’t have to worry that my initial shots of the day were ruined because the settings were incorrect. Instead, I adjust one or more of the settings quickly and effortlessly because I already know where I am starting from.
For much of my street photography, I go out with no agenda. I don’t hunt for a specific kind of photograph. I work with a blank slate. Even if I am photographing a demonstration or festival, I am not thinking of the kinds of scenes that I might typically expect at such events. When I do so, I limit my seeing to discovering just such moments. It is inevitable that I will overlook other unexpected and better moments as a result. This also reduces the likelihood of my creating photographic cliches.
Light & Shadow
One of the ways that I keep myself from working with an agenda and creating cliches is by paying attention to light and shadow. Instead of looking for a particular type of subject or scene, I instead observe the direction and the quality of light. I observe the presence of shadow and how it reveals or obscures a subject or elements within a scene. By doing so, I not only create the foundation of an interesting photograph, but it leads me to subject matter that I might not have otherwise discovered.
Don’t See Literally
By observing the world for light and shadow, shape and line, color and gesture, I am focusing my mind on how I am seeing something in that specific moment in time. By not looking at something simply based on its function (a chair, a table, a clock, etc), I am observing it based on its visual qualities. When I do so, I eliminate my judgment on the subject and instead appreciate how it occupies the space and the world around me at that specific moment in time. If I return to the same spot hours later, those same elements will be completely different because the light and shadows will have changed. It now provides me a new experience. I don’t say to myself that I have already photographed it. I see it as another chance to discover these same things in a new and different way. Again, I am present and in the moment.
Silence the Critic
When I am photographing, I avoid chimping. I don’t take a picture and review each shot on the back of my camera’s LCD screen. In fact, I disable the automatic playback function of the camera. This forces me to have to manually initiate playback which I may do for an initial shot in order to check exposure. But once I begin shooting, I focus on producing the photograph, judging my effectiveness by what I am seeing in the camera’s viewfinder or LCD.
By avoiding chimping, I keep myself focused on how I am seeing and photographing. I don’t run the risk of a missed opportunity because I was more focused on my camera rather than the events playing out in front of me. More importantly, it keeps me from being critical of my images as I am producing them.
The critical voice plays an important role when culling and editing images, but it doesn’t have a valid place when creating photographs. That’s for later when I am reviewing the images in Lightroom. If I allow the critic to speak to me while I am making my images, I am again out of the moment and that critical voice distorts my visual experience, which may be still evolving during a shoot.
Time to Stop
There are moments when I am not firing on all cylinders. I am breaking my own rules and I am walking around hungry or tired. I am chimping every other exposure. My stomach is growling. I look at the images and I think that they all suck. One thing builds atop another and I am quickly in a state of mind that is more about frustration and anxiety than it is about the joy of making photographs.
When I get in such a state of mind, I stop. I stop making photographs and I find a place to sit down. I have a cup of coffee. I meditate, focusing on my breathing. I don’t get on my phone and check my email or scroll through Facebook. I take this time to regroup, to return to my process of seeing, without the burden of having to make an image at that exact moment.
I return to the moment, shrugging off whatever distractions stand between me and being present and then slowly return to seeing and making photographs.
These techniques that I use in my personal work become invaluable to me when I am working for a client. On a job, I am at a much greater risk of anxiety and distraction, but my repeated practice of these principles and techniques help me to get back to center. I am able to produce the best images that I am capable of creating.