Zen Camera

A Book Review


In last week’s post I wrote about Your Daily Record, a creative habit that resembles a free-ranging journal of thoughts and impressions in which you let the unconscious mind connect directly with the world around you through the camera. The idea I picked up from the book Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography by David Ulrich. The book itself is worth looking into for anyone interested in expanding his or her photography.

Zen Camera isn’t the first photo book which draws upon Eastern philosophy in its approach to photography. Others include books such as The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes, Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing and Opening The Good Eye: A Path to True Seeing, all books I can recommend even if you are not interested in Eastern Philosophy at all. They all, included Zen Camera, give you a unique and useful approach to expanding your photography.

However Zen Camera, differs from the others in that it’s more a cohesive program or a long term workshop than a book of inspiration and new ideas. David Ulrich draws on the principles of Zen practice as well as forty years of teaching photography to offer six reflective lessons for developing your self-expression as a photographer. His ambition with the book is to purify our seeing and allow our original self to emerge.

In my opinion, Ulrich largely accomplishes the objective. At least if you are willing to look beyond his sometimes a little lengthy deliberations about the meaning of it all, if you get my notion. The six lessons take you step by step from initially developing you seeing and observation skills to how to be able to reach mastery and being able to have your photography reflect whom you are as a person in grander perspective. Of course, mastery is not something you can learn by reading a book, but Ulrich’s reflections around the way to mastery are both well founded and encouraging. In fact, reading a book will not be of much help at all. You need to convert the words into skills by practicing. And Ulrich offers plenty of fun, applicable and challenging exercises.

The foundation of the “program” running as a red thread through Zen Camera is the Daily Record. All the lessons and all the exercises in each lesson can be fulfilled through the Daily Record. By working your way through the lessons and exercises you eyes will open up to seeing most likely in a different way than you are used to. It might also transform the way you perceive life, depending on your susceptibility to the Zen philosophy. At least Ulrich aims at making his thoughts valid not only for your photography but for life as such. As he write in the preface; “Zen Camera is not only about photography; it is about you. In six lessons, it guides you to cultivate creativity with the camera and all areas of your life… It helps you realize Socrates’ great directive, Know thyself, and uncover the seeds of the authentic self, hidden behind layers of conditioning and socializing”.

I am not a Zen practitioner myself, and sometimes Ulrich’s deliberations around life and meaning of life seem a little too contrived to me. It’s just too much of it and a bit too woozy and lofty. However, I am sure others will have a different perception of this. The language in the book is also somewhat scholarly and studious as is evident in the quote above—which at times makes it demanding to read. Furthermore, Ulrich’s wordiness can at times be a hurdle in and of itself for fluid reading. Personally, what I find most unpleasing is his tendency towards using a flourishing languages. An example: “Freshness blooms from the beginner’s mind that has its focus in the eternal now”. For me the language distracts. I get caught up in the wording itself rather than what the words try to convey.

Despite my objections, I have no problem recommending the book. You will just have to take it for what it is. But I am quite certain that no matter how you look upon Eastern philosophy and no matter how skilled or not skilled you are, you will arrive on the other side of the book with a different and more developed approach to photography, as long as you dig into it and transform the ideas into a practical approach. Zen Camera will make you a better photographer and if you can see beyond its elusive framework, it will be both inspirational and encouraging.

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Your Daily Record

As mentioned in my last post, over a couple of weeks around Christmas and New Year I have been trying to connect and replenish my creative well. I have spent time letting the inspiration flow and getting in touch with my muses again, particularly in order to renew this blog.

One way to tap into our creative mind is by something called Morning Pages. I will get back to this in just a second. The reason I mention Morning Pages is a book I have just finished reading. It’s called Zen Camera and written by the American photographer and teacher David Ulrich. In the book, he suggests something he calls Your Daily Record, which has many similarities with Morning Pages except instead of writing it’s a journal of photographs. I think Ulrich’s idea can be beneficial for all photographers at all levels, and that’s why I want to pass it on to whoever is interested in developing their photography.

But first Morning Pages: Let me quickly summarize what they are all about. The award-winning poet, playwright, and filmmaker Julia Cameron developed the concept. Despite her extensive film and theatre credits, which include such diverse work as Miami Vice and the prize-winning romantic comedy God’s Will, which she both wrote and directed, Cameron is best known for her hugely successful works on creativity. Particularly her book The Artist’s Way has gained worldwide recognition. The book teaches techniques and suggests exercises to assist people in gaining self-confidence in harnessing their creative talents and skills. One of the basic tools is what Cameron calls Morning Pages.

Morning Pages are a way to connect with your creative well. It’s basically writing three pages in handwriting as the first thing your do in the morning after you wake up, just whatever occurs to your mind and without trying to control neither the thoughts nor the writing. The idea is that when you wake up you are still very connected to your unconscious mind—which then expresses itself through your writing. It really works (for more about Morning Pages, look up my post Finding the Creative Well).

I recommend anyone who has embarked on a creative endeavour to do Morning Pages, or at least try out the idea. Despite the fact that you have to write, it’s by far for writers only. You don’t even have to be able to write. Well, literally you will have to, of course, but Morning Pages are good training for photographers and everybody else who is creating even if they don’t believe they can write any good. It’s not really about writing, but about getting those unconscious processes to flow and become an integral part of your creativity.

I read The Artist’s Way long ago and ever since have done Morning Pages—admittedly on and off. Nevertheless, already back then in the beginning, I thought the idea could be morphed or moulded into a similar processed using the camera. I did try my morning photographs for a period of time, but never made it work.

But, alas, here comes David Ulrich and Your Daily Record. In the preface of Zen Camera he does himself compare Your Daily Record with the Morning Pages. Imagine how excited I was when I found out. He had developed a method that works.

The baseline for the idea is acknowledging that it’s imperative to photograph regularly and frequently if you want to strengthen seeing and become a better photographer. How much then? Personally I will strongly recommend trying to shoot on a daily basis. I know, it sounds like a lot, but I am confident that you relatively easily may accomplish some shooting during the daily rut of things you need to do. At least the way described by Ulrich. Doing so will encourage development of your skills as a photographer.

Your Daily Record is similar to a free-ranging journal of thoughts and impressions. You let go of conscious thoughts on how you ought to photograph and let the unconscious mind connect directly with the world around you through the camera. When doing Your Daily Record, make it easy for yourself and use your cell phone, which you always carry around anyway. And if you use a “real” camera put it on automatic or program mode. Furthermore, capture images in jpeg-format. I am an ardently believer in shooting with raw-format, but for Your Daily Record, jpeg makes sense since these are images you would normally not process but only capture as sketches and for you to become aware of and develop your photographic mind (truth be told, though, I have set my camera I always carry to capture both formats, just in case…).

Now dedicate time for the daily exercise. It doesn’t have to be time solely for shooting; use off time if you have a change. Shoot while you go for your daily walk, or shoot while commuting with bus or train, or during your lunch break. Whatever works and doesn’t feel stressful. Now just see and record what you see with you cell phone (or camera). Don’t worry or think about making good photos. These are only sketches. Take photos of everything you see and that strikes you enough to make you become aware of it. Photograph anything and everything that ignites any kind of response or resonates with you. Just captured images without thoughts and any worries about composition, light or technique. Use your emotions as a guiding light, photographing what hits you in some way, whether positively or negatively. Shoot a lot and quickly. Shoot from the guts. Over one week, you should try to capture at least 100-200 images according to Ulrich.

Reviewing the images is just an important part of Your Daily Record as the shooting itself. This is how David Ulrich describes this second part of the process: “Organize your photos and view them daily. You can do this at night or odd times throughout the day when you have a free moment. You want to look for recurring themes and core forms or shapes that appear and reappear. Study how you use colour and form, and your magnetic attraction or revulsion to certain subject matter. Above all, seek the pearls of resonance, those images and scenes that call to you from the deep within, that touch your being in ways you cannot yet identify. Place these, and only these are gem-like reflections, in a separate folder.”

Before starting the reviewing, upload the images to a computer. It’s much easier than watching them on a small cell phone screen. Then go through them, initially without any editing or judging. Remember that Your Daily Record is most of all about the process and much less about the final product. And remember—once again—that these images are merely photographic sketches. May I finally make a recommendation at least for those of you who are serious about your photography? Make this exercise a lifelong habit. Keep shooting a journal of free images every day. I promise you it will take your photography to places you wouldn’t even imagine. I have started myself.

10 Great Tips to Take Better Photos

I am very proud to announce that my first eBook about photograph is out today. It’s a book I have been working on over the last year—on and off, of course. Now it’s finally available. For me this is a natural extension of my desire to teach and help anyone interested in taking better picture. The eBook (and the next to come) will be an addition to the workshops I teach all over the world as well as my online workshops.

10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera addresses a handful of challenges that most photographers struggle with. Over 45 pages this eBook will give you a handful of great tips (and some more background to better understand the camera) to improve you photos and make your photos connect with the viewers. The intention is to help you make better pictures without getting too technical or talk too much about visual language or composition.

My intention has also been to make it affordable to most people, which means that for only 5 dollars you get access to download the eBook (as a PDF-document) .

10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera is packed with useful information, tips and great photography. The language is down to earth and not technical at all. It aims for photographers not quite confident with the photographic process yet, but who want to learn more and improve their photography. If you are struggling with getting your photos look good or too often find that your photos don’t quite capture what you had in mind then 10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera is a book for you.

To get this book published is for me very exciting. I have for a long time wanted to publish my own series of photo books. And this is the first one. In other words; in the future more books will come, both for beginners and advanced photographers. More than anything I want to put together a book about the creative process, which is something I have already started working on.

So stay in tune for more. However, for now, maybe 10 Great Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Point-and-Shoot Camera is worth looking up. You can get it by clicking the button below. It will take you to the web site where you can order the book.

The New Visual Language

I come from a tradition of classical story telling with my photos. It’s the way documentary photographers have emphasized both content and moment in the stories each of their photographs tell. My friend and colleague, Sven Creutzmann, comes from the same tradition. And this—you may call it traditional visual language—is what we teach in our workshop, like the one in Cuba earlier this month.

We are not stuck in the way we see photography and of course let each student develop his or her own voice. At least that’s what we try to stress for ourselves as well as the students and that’s really our focus. Even though we believe in the classical use of visual language, I think it’s fair to say that we are both open to other approaches in ways of shooting and expressing oneself.

Nevertheless, over the last many years, we have seen a shift in how for instance award winning documentary photography are less and less accentuating the clear story telling, and we have both been puzzled by this change. In documentary photography, a more artistic or ambiguous approach has become more prevalent. Personally, I like photos that are open to interpretations, in which the message is not clearly set by the photographer, and where there are layers of understanding embedded in the photo. However, the photos that win these contests have quite often baffled both Sven and me.

It’s the postmodern or even post-postmodern school of young photographers that are now dominating the spearhead of photojournalism. It’s a kind of photography that is often described as deconstructed in which traditional rules or guidelines are broken in order to create a new visual language. Again, I am one who promotes not following any rules or established guidelines. However, I have found a lot of this new photography rather boring, drab and uninteresting. As I wrote in my post The Emperor’s New Clothes? a couple of years ago, the postmodern approach is often plain and boring—almost as intended—but is raised to the sky by pretentious acclamation.

I admit. This sounds like an old, outdated photographer ranting about times that are changing. And maybe I am. Still, I have always been one to push myself and try to go into unknown territory. So, after Sven and I were done with this year’s photo workshop, we decided to sit down and figure out what this new visual language is. We looked up a bunch of award winning photographers and tried to deconstruct their deconstructed photography. I tell you, the result was quite surprising.

To quickly sum up what we found: One aspect that we took away was the fact that a lot of the photography we looked at for us would have been mistakes we wouldn’t have selected and certainly not submitted to any photo competitions. Furthermore and to be more specific, we found that these photos often put elements in the foreground that are unsharp and add a visual disorder to the imagery. Photographers who shoot with this new visual language move further back or move out of the story (whereas I always teach that you cannot get close enough). They seem to capture in-between-moments where Sven and I have trained ourselves to be able to capture the peak of a moment. They use less wide-angle lenses and they often shoot reflections or through windows or openings. They often include weird details or something that is not quite clear what is and often the composition is static or symmetric. Their photos are often simplified and does not try to build a story, at least not in a classical sense, and part of this is that they often do not include moments at all (not only off-moments as already mentioned) nor people. Finally, we found that many of these photos are heavily worked over in post-production.

One thing that puzzled us was why some of these approaches were used, until a friend of us who is not a photographer, told us that maybe it’s to leave more open to interpretation instead of showing a clear-cut story, simply to be less clear. Of course, that is at least part of it.

Deconstructing is one thing, though. After having done so, Sven and I went out in the streets of Havana and tried to shoot with this new visual language as a template. At first, it felt a little weird and uncomfortable, but it didn’t take long before both of us got a sense of freedom in our shooting. The next couple of hours we completely lost ourselves in the process and captured thousands of photos. We had fun, we felt inspired and it was simply liberating to do something completely different.

Even the result took us aback. I am not saying this is amazing work, by far. But it certainly gave me a different perspective (you can judge by yourself). I think I am more open to the new visual language. Furthermore, I am sure I will pick up what this lesson taught me. It won’t shift my photography completely, but I have gotten a new tool in my photographic tool box. I really enjoyed this new visual language. Of course, by now what is new has already moved ahead to a new place. But that’s OK. I will just have to repeat this exercise every so often.

See Beyond the Subject

If you believe there is beauty and interesting stuff around you, you will see it, more and more, as you open yourself up. You just need a willingness to explore and find what’s extraordinary in the ordinary things around you. Seeing beyond the subject is a good way to expand you vision. For more on this topic, look up the practical tip I wrote in the post See Beyond the Subject on Blue Hour Photo Workshop’s blog.

A Low Hanging Sun

Learning to understand and use light is one of the key elements to make your photographs stand out. But it’s also a challenging skill to master. Light can come in so many forms and have so many qualities. If you want to handle light, the best way is to practice one kind at a time.

On my workshop blog, I have written about one that almost never fails to produce captivating photos. If you are an experience photographer you probably already know all I am writing in the post, but otherwise, check it out on Blue Hour Photo Workshops.

Natural Light Indoor

Nothing beats natural light. It’s versatile, always changing like a facet, thus always surprising and so beautiful. Even in places, you recon you would need to use artificial light; you may take advantage of natural light. Think indoor. Your first thought may be to turn on the flash, but instead of its harsh and contrasting result, here is a different approach.

If you are interested in this practical tip, you will find more about it on Blue Hour Photo Workshop’s blog.

Capturing the Atmosphere in Night Photos

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One of the changes coming with my «new» blog this year will be a complete new layout. This is still work in progress. However in addition, throughout the year, I will add new features to my blog, and today I introduce one of them.

Every so often, I will publish practical tips about how to get better photos. This blog, though, is mostly about creativity and although it’s based on my approach to photography I hope it have relevance to other creative disciplines as well. Thus, very concrete tips on shooting don’t really belong here. Instead, I will post them on the educational blog for Blue Hour Photo Workshops and only make a reference with a link here on In Flow.

This is the first tip I will present this way:

When you want to capture photos in the night, there is in particular one thing you should be aware of. Obviously everything is going to be darker and thus you would most likely need to use a tripod or at least amp up the ISO-setting significantly. Otherwise, the captured photo will be very blurry—which of course can be used creatively if that’s your intention.

However, what I really have in mind is quite something different. Look up this super advise for better night photos.

On a different note: As announced a couple of times I will draw a winner who will be able to participate in my online photo workshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» later in May. The deadline is now passed and the drawing will take place later this week. The winner will be announced in my blog post on Monday.

Collect and Save for Times of Sparseness

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In your creative endeavour, have you ever had the feeling that you are staring into a blank wall? Nothing is wanting to be expressed through you. You have no idea what to photograph. Or you have a blank canvas or a white screen in front of you, and nothing, absolutely nothing will make its way from your mind to the medium—whatever the medium is.

I am sure you have. As everybody who is engaging in a creative adventure, has. I, for one, certainly have many a time. Not long ago, I simply could not take one single photo, it was as if all of me simply didn’t want to photograph, every muscle resisting even the thought of bringing out the camera. My mind was empty. Nothing. Nada.

That’s when collecting raw materials comes in handy. Over the last year or so, I had written down ideas for photo projects I might want to pursue one day. Now I dug out that list and found an idea that could be worthwhile trying out, despite my lack of creative energy. Before I knew it, I was thoroughly engaged in the process.

We have all heard of writer’s block. It happens to not only writers, but anyone doing any kind of creative work. One way to get out of the rut is to collect raw materials whenever you encounter something that seems interesting. Then, in times of emptiness and standstill, you have a list of ideas that can help you back on the creative track again.

Creativity comes from making associations and connections, and toying with convergences of thoughts; seeing things in a new way—extrapolating, expounding, and using different perspectives that allow new concepts to be seen. All those processes begin with pre-existing materials that trigger new ideas. Raw materials.

Raw materials are words, images, objects, concepts, structures, and other stimuli already in existence that give you a place to start and banish the bewilderment of blankness. Raw materials seduce you to take something in your own unique direction by rearranging, modifying, using an aspect of, repackaging, tweaking, springing off of it, and adding your personal twist. These actions are some of the most effective ways of being creative.

Like Twyla Tharp, the renowned American dancer, choreographer, and author, points out: «Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity. But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it.»

Twyla Tharp collects boxes with anything she finds interesting, no matter whether it’s relevant for her present project or not. If something attracts her attention she collects it. This is almost like magical boxes full of unresolved ideas, available for her whenever she needs something to spring off from.

We can all learn from Tharp. Anyone working in some creative way should collect raw materials. It can be objects, words, thoughts, yes, anything; the important thing is to collect them when you encounter them. Put them in a box or write them down in your notebook or on your cell phone. Immediately. Do not wait until your mind is empty and you stare at that blankness.

About her boxes, Tharp furthermore says: «A box is like soil to me. It’s basic, earthly, elemental. It’s home. It’s what I can always go back to when I need to regroup and keep my bearings. Knowing that the box is always there gives me freedom to venture out, be bold, dare to fall flat on my face. Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.»

Do you have a box—literally or figuratively—that you collect raw materials in for later use?

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Fujifilm X-10 with the zoom set 7.1 mm, equally to 28 mm for a full frame camera. Shutter speed: 1/400 of a second. Aperture: f/3.2. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

The Blessing of Insecurity

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I believe insecurity is good for the shooting process. When you are out in the world with your digital camera and see something, you raise the camera, frame, and make a photograph. Nine times out of ten, you will look at the screen and respond to what you see previewed there and maybe try again. You might repeat this process three or four times before you «see» the result you want or expect on the screen. Then you move on.

When shooting with film, obviously you don’t have the benefit of seeing the results immediately, so you work with some degree of insecurity, having no idea if you «got it». Actually, the thought of «I got it» isn’t part of the equation at all. The instinct is more to stay within the relationship you established when you responded to something in the first place. You keep working, shooting, and keep trying as many variations as your attention allows. Your attention is not continuously shifting between the world and your tools.

I was brought up with film, so to speak; therefore, it’s been natural for me to adapt a similar opus operandi when shooting digital. What I have noticed in my own process is that photographs that interest me on my contact sheets or in the editing of the shoot later on are often far from what had grabbed my attention initially. Most are the seventh, eight or later variation into the investigation.

With this in mind, you should ask yourself if, by being able to look at your results immediately, you are just confirming what you immediately responded to and capturing what you expect? Or are you actually using the «preview» as a tool to keep working and to discover something transcendent, beyond your expectation? There is capacity for both to happen. You just need to avoid the feeling of self-satisfaction that disrupts the shooting and results in only the former and not the latter.

Another argument for not looking at the preview screen during the shooting process is the fact that you take your eyes off the subject when doing so. You might actually miss the Picture with capital P because of this defocus. (I wrote about this in my post A Curse and a Blessing).

I would like to suggest shooting photographs without looking at them in the moment. Work with a bit of insecurity lingering over your shoulder and see what happens. Put black tape over the preview screen if the draw to look at it is too great—which of course requires that you have a viewfinder to see what you actually shoot (or you can even playing with not seeing what you photograph. You are maybe in for an interesting surprise).

Do you use the preview screen all the time? Or do you take chances and turn it off?

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Lumix LX7 using a 4.7 zoom setting (the equivalent of a 24 mm full frame lens). Shutter speed: 1/1000 of a second. Aperture: f/2.8. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.