Different Perspective

I have previously written about the need to have a vision – or intent – when we are photographing (or doing any work of art for that matter). I wrote that a photograph without intent won’t convey significance to the viewers. If we start with an idea or are conscious about the reason why we take a photograph, the final result will reflect this vision of ours and be of much more interest than a random captured photograph. As I wrote; photographic vision is how you see life when the camera is put to the eye (se Vision is Beginning for more).

This concept of a vision driven photographer, isn’t the only way to approach photography, though. Of course you may catch a nice photo now and then if you do choose to shoot unconsciously or randomly, but that’s not what I have in mind. The fact is that many different philosophies about the process of taking (or making) photographs exist – probably as many as there are photographers. Although I believe in the vision driven photography, I am always open to other approaches if they can open up for a different way of shooting. As always it’s about expanding and getting out of the box.

One such approach is called contemplative photography. This practise picks up elements of Zen Buddhism and lets the photographer see subject matter differently than at least I would usually do. The word contemplative in general terms means to think things over, but in this case it means «the process of reflection that draws on a deeper level of intelligence than our usual way of thinking», according to the photographers Andy Karr and Michael Wood who practice and teach contemplative photography. In essence contemplative photography is about how to fully connect with the visual richness of our ordinary, daily experience. In many ways it’s a process of learning how to see.

The practise of contemplative photography has three stages. First you catch as sudden glimpse of something that in some way or another connects with you. It can be a beautiful flower or it can be something as mundane as a sink. Beautiful and mundane are actually words that aren’t supposed to be attributed to things according to the idea of contemplative photography, since all things have their own inherent value. Anyway these flashes of perception, as they are called, happen naturally all the time. You cannot make them happen, but you can learn to recognize them. The next stage is called visual discernment and in means to stay or rest with the experience of the perception. There is a holding-still quality to this phase that allows things to emerge, rather than trying to interpret the nature of the perception. The camera doesn’t come into play at all during these two first stages. Only the last stage does involve the camera and taking the picture. It’s called Forming the Equivalent, which means to use the camera to create the equivalent of the perception just experienced.

In contemplative photography the power of the final image comes from joining clear seeing with genuine expression, free from contrivance.

Contemplative photography is an excellent practice for opening up our ability to see. It enhances our vision and it can create some beautiful, reflective and tranquil pictures. However, if you are a sports photographer or shooting any kind of action it might not be the best approach. I still think any photographer can expand his or her photographic vision by practising contemplative photography. Since it’s impossible to give more than an idea about the practice in a post like this, if you are interested in further information, I recommend the book The Practice of Contemplative Photography by aforementioned Andy Karr and Michael Wood. It’s an inspiring book, filled with practical exercises and photographic assignments. Just to be clear about it, I am not a Buddhist myself but I still find this approach very useful in expanding my vision.

Available on Amazon:
The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

49 thoughts on “Different Perspective

  1. I looked at my photos from last weekend when I attended a conference: posed people, candid shots of people, photos of scenery and then the abstracted photos of patterns and shapes.. Totally different ways of seeing, in my opinion,, but it was the photos that took more “seeing” that I like the best and no cropping or treaks were involved I think these would fall into the definition of “contemplative photography”. I enjoyed this book immenselywhen I read it and think that I will read it again as well as “Vision is Beginning.”.

    1. I think it’s a great book and we can all learn something from it. It’s quite satisfactory to discover that images that took more seeing came out the best, isn’t it?

  2. It would not even matter if nothing came to you for a while…I find I have to be in a smooth sort of mood to ‘notice’ and truly see the potential in what is around me.

  3. I think I know what you mean. It seems like something that you see beyond your visual sense can see. A very good suggestion but very hard to do.

  4. I agree totally. Contemplative photography seems to me to be very much a photographic genre that I’d like to explore more regularly.

  5. Thanks, Otto. I think I would probably get impatient with the ‘holding still’ part of this exercise. Which makes it something that I should definitely try.

  6. I really enjoyed this post, Otto. This approach to photography — notice, engage, re-present — has enough in common with the way I do things that it feels quite familiar and comfortable. I think the second step, staying with the experience of perception, can be active as well as passive, particularly when moving subjects are involved, but I still think it’s a worthy approach for the nature photography I enjoy.

  7. I like this idea; to be attracted to something that would not usually be photographed and take the time to involve yourself in its creation is worth a try.

    1. I don’t necessarily think so. The whole point with the contemplative approach is to see and capture beyond the obvious. If I say this is a close-up of the top of a sink, maybe it’s easier to see what the photo is.

  8. Interesting read Otto. I tend to think of ideas in my head when I have a vision outside the box. Beside the people photos “who want ducks in a row” my creative inspiration sometimes has no words but a feeling.

  9. A very interesting post, Otto. I spend a lot of time in contemplation, but much (most?) of it takes place after the photograph has been taken. Sometimes the choice of subject is intuitive – I have a strong feeling about the potential for a picture without being sure of the final image. I like to collect sufficient information to take away and work with and explore at leisure (in contemplation).

  10. I love this photo, maybe because it is a subject I’ve looked at in the similar way from time to time. I guess I go into a zen mode when I wash dishes? Another post to remember 🙂

    1. I know for sure I don’t go into zen mode when doing dishes, but all the better for you if you do. Would have loved to myself instead of hating each minute I have to do the dishes…

  11. This makes sense, although it never occurred to me to approach it like this. Seems we could all use a little bit more of a Zen approach to things these days. Thanks Otto.

  12. Contemplative practices are a part of my spiritual grounding, so the way you’ve described contemplative photography grabs me, Otto, and I believe I understand what you’re saying. It resonates as true, and I feel creatively challenged in a particularly unique way. My values and beliefs are congruent, I just never extended my contemplative practices to include a tangible artistic expression. I think I may want to read this book! 🙂

  13. Great post Otto! Really enjoyed the different perspective you offered here … and found it intriguing to the point I want to learn more.

  14. Hi Otto, thanks for sharing your thoughts about contemplative photography as a process. Sometimes when I see other photographers take photos, it looks very intuitive because they naturally move into position and do it.

    For me, I do most of my thinking when I watch scenery videos, flip through photography books or view exhibition pieces so I mentally think about what makes it interesting, compare it with the photos I take visually and in terms of concept, and kind of have a better idea when I take photos.

    In a way it also helps me take photos of moving subjects because I could anticipate their movements and take the kind of photos I want, like when our dog is running freely in the park.

    Do you think about random things when you take photos?

    1. The only way to truly capturing moving objects is intuitively. So I think you approach is appropriate, to take in and learn from other photographers and thus be better prepared when you are out there shooting yourself.

      You asked about what I think about when I photograph. It’s a little in and out, so to speak. In the moment of capturing I am very concentrated on the photographic process, but otherwise my thoughts may well spread all over the place. 🙂

  15. A very enjoyable read, Otto. I’d like to expand my vision and ordered the book right away. 🙂

    “Clear seeing with genuine expression, free from contrivance” is a powerful mantra. I wrote it down on a sticker. You’ll see where I put it when you come and visit us. 🙂
    Have a great weekend, looking forward to having you in Cley.

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