This article continues my series exploring characteristics of Zen Photography. I outlined 9 Characteristics of Zen Photography in a previous article. This article explores ways in which a Zen Photographer is intuitive. On this topic, I wrote in the original article:

A Zen Photographer is Intuitive

Zen photographers are intuitive in their picture making. This doesn’t mean the photographer is ignorant, but that the emotion and experience of the frame supersede photographic theories and rules. Rules for composing a good image are helpful, but at the end of the day, they are only there to serve our photographic vision. A Zen photographer balances vision with technique.

Photographers, all artists really, balance art and technique and that’s at the heart of the idea of intuitive photography. 

Snowy Bridge
When it snowed last week, I let my feelings guide me to places that might make good images. Intellectually, I was being pulled in one direction, but I just felt like visiting this bridge.

Communication of Feeling

The point of photography is to communicate something to an audience. It might be something obvious or something under the surface, something we don’t quite have words for, but in the best images, we’re communicating a feeling.  

If we’re successful in communicating a feeling, we’ll sometimes hear it. The person viewing our image might sigh or “awwww” or make another subtle noise that signals a feeling of appreciation.

mandarin duck florissant
Lots of people have come to look at our visiting Mandarin Duck – he really shouldn’t be in St. Louis! I took a lot of photos of this quirky little guy. I can think about photographing wildlife all I want, but I have to be ready to take the photo when the moment is right. My thinking is too slow, I have to feel the moment.

It doesn’t even need to be a feeling of acceptance. An interested, but uncertain, “hmmmm” also means we’ve struck an emotional chord with our photo. When viewing nature photos, we sometimes even get a sound of disturbance or disgust if we see a particularly graphic photo of animals doing what they do in nature – eating each other. 

The point is that our best photos communicate feelings to the viewer. If they didn’t, there’d be no point to photography – after all, we’re taking photographs of a world that everyone can already see. Photography as an art only works because we add something to the experience of seeing the world. 

Photography goes beyond what everyone can see everyday.

Thousands of people pass by this parking garage in downtown St. Louis without giving it a second thought. I walked by as well – three times – before I could figure out why it was calling to me. There was something about the graphic lines and triangles of color. I decided to take the photo and figure out later why it was important. 

Guided by Feeling

Let me get back to the photographic experience. I believe that there is a direct connection between my feelings in the field and what the viewer feels when they view the images I created. It’s not a direct 1-to-1 connection, but if I’m guided by my feelings, that will show in the my photographs. 

If I’m guided by my brain, thinking about technique of photography, that will also show in my photographs. 

If I’m feeling wonder or a sense of discovery, I’m better able to capture this sense if I let my feelings guide my camera. I work with a digital camera so I don’t have to worry so much about how many photos I take, I can let loose and point my camera in all sorts of directions and explore all sorts of compositions – even those that my brain tells me are stupid. 

My brain may be telling me that this is the best photo or the best composition – and I’ll probably take that shot as well, but then I’ll swing the camera around, guided by my intuition.

In street photography, it’s really important to let your intuition guide you. I’d been watching this group of three or four boys play at a festival. I’d taken quite a few photographs, but none that worked. Then this one boy looked back at the camera, for just a second, then ran off. I just turned off my brain and waited for the right moment. 

I may not know what this rock and not that rock is speaking to me or why I feel it’s important to stand a bit and wait for something to happen, I just feel it is the right thing to do.

But to do this, to take intuitive images, I have to turn off my brain.

Feeling & Technique

I’m not saying that you should photograph without technique. There’s a good reason to learn all those little photographic “rules”.  I’ve even written an ebook to help photographers practice foundational technique! You can get the ebook 32 Photo Etudes: Exercises in Composition, Light, Focus, Motion on my website. 

Peak Design Bags

I believe in practicing technique until it becomes part of you – until you own the technique deep down. The techniques are no longer in your head, they move into your subconscious. So much so that when you’re in the field, the technique of photography is second nature – intuitive! 

This is how the experts create amazing images without seeming to think about it. They react quickly, intuitively. 

I also believe that many of the photographic rules that guide photo making are there for a reason – one that helps us communicate emotion.

Let’s take the “Rule of Thirds” as a specific example.

A lot of the “rules” that guide our compositions exist because we find the arrangement pleasing. The “Rule of Thirds” for instance, where important elements of the photograph are placed a third of the way into the frame, is only a rule because we tend to like this arrangement. We, the collective we, tend to feel that an image is more interesting if the subject is off center. 

Elephant Rocks State Park.
Elephant Rocks State Park. Capturing the sense of geological wonder. I used the Rule of Thirds to compose this image with the horizon on the top third and the large pool of water in the bottom third.

We feel it is more interesting. The average viewer probably won’t be able to say why, but an artist will know.

Let our feelings guide us and we’ll probably gravitate towards following this “Rule of Thirds.” We only have to have a rule because photographers tend to get fixated on the subject that we’re photographing and place it in the middle of the frame. We need a reminder that the scene is more interesting off-center.

If you practice using the “Rule of Thirds” to compose images at some point you’ll stop thinking about the rule and feel it. 

It’s Cyber Monday and KEH is offering a Buy More, Save More promotion: Spend $300+/Get $50 Off, Spend $600+/Get $100 Off, Spend $1,000+/Get $200 Off! Use code CYBER11A at checkout today only, 11/26/18. In addition, KEH is offering AFFIRM financing for 6 months on Cyber Monday.

Cyber Monday Offer – Buy More, Save More: Save up to $200 at KEH! Valid 11/26 only

Final Thoughts

I come from the world of music and when I practice I’m thinking fingerings and articulations, but when it comes time for performance, I stop thinking so much and go for it. It’s time to let my work pay off and have a bit of fun with the music. 

I do sometimes talk myself out of this seemingly crazy behavior of letting my feelings guide my photographs – when I’m in a hurry or my feet are tired or I have other things I should be doing, but when I let my feelings guide my photos, I’m a happier photographer. 

It’s not that I always get a magical photograph, but when I have taken that special photograph, it’s been when I let my feelings, not my brain, make the artistic decisions. 

A Zen Photographer balances technique with art. There is a time to practice and a time to turn off the brain and enjoy the world. 

Unlimited Photo Storage