In this guide, we will look at the best mindful photography exercises for beginners.
Mindful photography (sometimes called Contemplative Photogoraphy or simply Slow Photography) is taking a stand against the current trend of mainstream competitive photography. It’s not about the one-upmanship or the desire to take the “best photo” and be number one. It’s a slower, more Zen style of photography.
What Are Mindful Photography Exercises?
Mindful photography exercises are of the many different kinds of mindfulness exercises.
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing the mind on the present moment without judgment. It was originally a Buddhist exercise but is today used in therapy, counseling, and mental health. You might have heard of such famous teachers as Jon Kabat Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as photography Minor White. That’s traditional mindfulness. But there is another type of mindfulness: Mindful Photography.
Just like with regular mindfulness meditation, the principle of mindful photography exercises is to be consciously aware of the present moment and without judgment, while taking photos.
Mindful photography exercises are not about taking a good photo. It is about experiencing the world with the lens, not through it. Too often when we take photos, we are interrupting our ability to live in the present moment. We become too consumed with the idea of capturing the perfect shot. Mindful photography, on the other hand, is about being in the moment while also doing photography. And not only can this help with your art, it can also improve mental health according to research from  Jaime Kurtz (James Madison University) and Sonja Lyubomirsky (University of California, Riverside).
What’s the Connection between mindfulness and photography?
You may have heard that mindfulness can improve your creativity [READ: Meditation For Creativity]
Similarly, photography can make you more mindful. Or less mindful. It all depends on the way in which you take your photos. For instance, if you are obsessed with taking what you consider the best photo, you will always be being judgmental of your surroundings or of the people you are capturing (a judgmental attitude is the very opposite of mindfulness).
Then again, there are many times when I will go for a hike with my camera. I will walk mindfully through the forest and really pay attention to the sensory experience of the forest. Then, if I see something I want to capture, I will let my subconscious take over and direct the shot. I don’t care about the technicalities of photography at these times. I don’t care what aperture I should use. I don’t care about the camera sensor’s ISO. I’m cool with just trusting my feelings, taking one shot, and accepting whatever shot I get. That’s mindful photography. It’s about not judging the photo. It’s about trusting your intuition, taking the shot, and being grateful for both the moment and the photo that you get from that moment.
My mindful photography definitely increases my overall mindfulness. It makes me want to experience the places I visit and to explore them so I can get good photo, but without judging the photo or caring about technicalities or, heaven forbit, giving any kind of a damn as to what people on Insta might think of it. Rather, I’m fully engrossed in the moment and going with what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “Flow State”.
Do you see how photography and mindfulness relate? Photography can make you more mindful or less mindful, and it is really all about your attitude. So, with that in mind, let me share with you some great mindful photography exercises you can try.
5 Best Mindful Photography Exercises
1: Take A Stunning Photo with Your Mind, Not Your Camera
This mindful photography exercise is going to be a challenge for you hardcore photographers. In this exercise, you deliberately go somewhere where you would be bursting with enthusiasm to take photos… but you don’t take a camera.
What?! Huh?! Why?! I hear you all saying. Hear me out on this.
Mindfulness is about being consciously aware of the present moment. But photography sometimes works against this. Instead of focusing on the moment we focus on the shot. Instead of living in the moment we save it for later, and then never really experience it.
In this mindful photography exercise, you’re going to go somewhere stunning and imagine you’re taking a photo with your mind. Just like you would if you were taking a real photo, you will find the perfect angle and the perfect lighting, wait for the perfect moment, and then capture that moment in your memory. You will do this by being 100% focused on the moment. Then, you are going to consciously observe what happens in your mind when you have the perfect image.
This mindful photography exercise does two things. First of all, it makes you more aware of the moment without the camera. You’re training your mind to be consciously aware. And second of all, you get to experience what it’s like taking a photo without actually taking one. This makes you more aware of the mental processes behind photography. It will open your eyes to many forms of mental phenomena that occur when you take photos. And you will leave this exercise with a new understanding and appreciation for what photography truly is. Because in the end, it isn’t the camera that takes the photo. The camera is just an instrument. Mechanical. Thoughtless. No, the camera does not take the photo, your mind does.
2: Take A Self-Portrait Without Judgment
In this mindful photography exercise, you take a picture of yourself without being judgmental.
Go ahead and set about taking a self portrait. Actually… wait… meditate for at least ten minutes before you do this. That will calm your mind and make you more aware. After you’ve meditated, set about taking a self portrait. Now observe all the thoughts and feelings that go through your mind while taking a photo of yourself.
This exercise will make you more aware of a lot of self criticism that goes through your mind, a lot of which you will have previously been oblivious to. When you notice thoughts and feelings, simply label them. Say to yourself, “This is just a thought / feel. It isn’t real”.
Now take the photo. And meditate on the photo. Again, observe thoughts and feelings that arise when you look at that photo of yourself. And again, label them “Thought / Feeling” as you did before. This will bring up lots of different thoughts and feelings about yourself, and once those thoughts or feelings arise you can dispel them by simply reminding yourself that they are only states of mind and do not represent reality.
Aim to take your photos without judgment. As photographer Stéphane Barbery said, “Photography is about welcoming”. Welcome the present moment with an open mind.
3: Photograph someone else with zero criticism
This is essentially the same exercise as above. All the steps are the same. Only this time you are taking a photo of someone else.
When you focus on someone else, you will naturally have many thoughts, feelings, and judgments that comes to mind about the other person. Be mindful of those things. Like you did in the previous exercise, label them “thought / feeling” and so on and realise that those thoughts and feelings are not real. Now challenge yourself to see the person in a different way, a way you usually wouldn’t. Now capture that new perspective. Not only will this change the way you think and feel about people, it will also give you a unique photo that is shot from a perspective you don’t usually see.
4: Intentionally break every rule of photography
This mindful photography exercise is for you hardcore, pro photographers. It can be easy to get too pinned down by the technicalities of photography. And oftentimes, those technicalities will inhibit your natural creativity. That’s where this exercise comes in. Deliberately take one photo in which you break all the established rules of photography. This will train you to see photography beyond the constraints of methodology.
Famous Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki discussed an issue called “Expert’s mind’. In the state in which we fail to see the present moment beyond learned theories. You see how the light should be, you see the formalities of photography. You don’t see things for what they are. This is the constraint that too much learning puts on us. Let go of all the theories and look at the present moment with the untrained mind of a child. See, as Wilfred Bion said, “without memory or desire.”
Break the rules and open your mind. In 21 Days of Mindful Photography, Alexandria Searls (2019) explains that Mindful Photography is an opportunity to open your mind to new perceptions that lead to new types of photography.
5: Upload your worst photo to Insta or Facebook
And here it is: The most horrible mindful photography exercise you could possibly do. But also, perhaps, the most rewarding.
As photographers we can become obsessed with proving our brilliance, with getting those LIKES on Facebook and Insta, and with impressing other people. This is limiting. The more perfectionist we get the more unwilling we are to try new things. The best way through this is to deliberately upload one of your worst photos to Facebook or Insta.
Why the hell would you want to do this? Because it will help you overcome your fear of showing the side of your photography that you usually hide. You will get over the obsession of being validated by the community. And you will realise that you don’t have to be perfect. This, in turn, will make you more willing to take risks with your photos, and you will ultimately be liberated to try new things.
Mindful photography exercises may be a challenge to some. When you’ve become so set in one way of doing things (especially something you’re passionate about) it can be scary to try a new way. However, I believe mindful photography is the solution to the overly competitive photography we do today. By experiencing the moment and letting go of judgment, we liberate ourselves to see the world in new ways, to take photos in new styles, and, ultimately, to let go.
- You might also like to try these minduful writing exercises!
If you’d like to learn more about mindful photography exercises, I recommend the following books:
- The Tao of Photography – Philippe Gross and S.I. Shapiro
- The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes – Andy Karr
- Photographying the World Around You: A Visual Design Workshop – Freeman Patterson
- The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating your Artistic Life – John Daido Loori