I walked away from posting for awhile. Life got in the way, but during this lockdown I have had the free time to pick up old hobbies
Photography- from the Greek graphia (“to paint”) and phos (“with light”) Zen- from the Japanese zazen, a Buddhist meditation practice
ZEN OF PHOTOGRAPHY
The Zen of Photography is a spiritual and holistic approach to creating images with light.
It is not important to be Buddhist to understand Zen or how it applies to photography. The philosophy is simple and the application is just as simple to grasp. All that is required is to develop patience, mindfulness, skillfulness, and an open mind.
Photography as a science is fairly easy to understand as well. In both film and digital, light is captured and recorded on a light-sensitive material and then eventually translated into a presentation medium: usually a photographic print or via computer monitor. The ability for the camera to craft the light is determined by two mechanical processes that adjust the amount of light allowed inside the camera (the aperture) and the amount of time the light is allows inside the camera (the shutter speed).
The lens of the camera crafts the light to create a desired effect. Long telephoto lenses bring objects closer (like a telescope). They also compress the objects in the image to feel closer together. Meanwhile, wide angle lenses allow more of the scene to be captured and give a distorted sense of space between objects.
Just as there are many different types of bushes a painter may use, there a many different types of lenses for a photographer to choose from. A painter certainly could create a wonderful piece of art using just one brush, but a variety of tools allows him more skillful means to get the job done.
One of the central concepts of Buddhism is that everything in the universe is one. A tree is not just a tree: it is a seed, a chair, fire wood, ash, nutrients for the soil and other trees. A seed must have sun, water, and the earth to become a tree. A tree must rely on the birds to eat its fruit to make more trees.
Similarly, we are not just connected to everything in the universe, but we are just one facet, or representation, of our entire ecology.We don’t exist within the world, but are an integrated part of it. No aspect of the world around us is separate, just like the tree. All we are is the awareness that is experiencing the ebb and flow of the universe from a particular point of view.
By recognizing that we are not really a separate entity (what Zen Buddhists call “no self” or anatta) we free ourselves from being reactionary creatures to our experiences and proactive processes within a cosmic context.
[Note: that this is a VERY rudimentary explanation of a very complicated Buddhist philosophy so that it may have a practical application]
When a photographer ceases to be conscious of himself as the capturing agent of an image, he can become one with the creation of the image through perfection of the technical skill.
In practical terms, the practice of the Zen of photography comes when the photographer stops grabbing in front of him to snatch pictures, and develops a sense of mindfulness and skill to create the image that should be there.
Skillfulness is simple to develop. It involves the study of the technical craft of photography. This means that there needs to be hours dedicated not only behind the camera, but in processing images; recording and deconstructing how the images were made; learning how to improve the creation of images through better photographic and light control; and most of all learning the physics of light.
A painter doesn’t just learn how to put paint on his canvas. He studies how paint chemically reacts with other paint. He knows which yellows may be mixed with blue without becoming green (btw that is “Naples yellow”). He knows when he should use titanium white instead of pure white. An artist understands how to each canvas material reacts to his brush.
Most photographers, especially in the world of digital photography, feel that technology has removed the need to learn the basic science of photography. The truth is that as technology advances, photographers need to increase the amount of knowledge they need to know in order to make the images they want.
The difference between someone who owns a camera and a photographer is purpose. A photographer makes an image with his camera, while everyone else hopes to.
With some skillfulness with a camera in a photographer’s hands, there is potential to make amazing images. Nevertheless, so many technically skills photographers fail to be satisfied with any images they make, because of one simple fact—
Once they have the camera in hand, they don’t know what to take a picture of.
This is why photographers need to develop a sense of mindfulness. They need to feel connected to the world and see the images come within them instead of passively hoping for an opportunity that the images cross their path.
This is where the Zen of photography really comes to play.
The first step is to sit. If possible sit in the environment you are going to be shooting in; but if not, that is OK.
Clear your mind with some deep slow breaths. As you breathe try to worry only about your breathing. Be aware of the sensation of the air going in the nose, down the throat and into the lungs. Notice how your chest and back move as you breathe.
Now notice how difficult it is to just think about your breath. How many thoughts jump into your head. How much of your mind is preoccupied with things that happened in the past or may happen in the future? Just let them go. If they thoughts come back, treat them like strangers walking down the street and let them come and go from your view. Just relax and focus on the breath.
Within a few moments, you will feel your mind calm. It will seem like the end of a great party where the guests slowly start to leave. A few will want to stay behind, but just learn to ignore those stubborn thoughts.
What you are doing is becoming present. You are living in the moment right now. This is important, because this also means that your attention is in the right now. There are no distractions. As you continue to practice this breathing technique, you will find it easier and faster to enter this mindful-present state. You will also develop skills to increase your sense of mindfulness as well.
Looking at Light and Set the Scene
As you look at the world around you, look for the light. Start at the large swatches of light first. See where the light comes from and see the direct and indirect lines that the light must travel to get from its source to the final location. See where it is intense and direct and where it is soft and diffused.
If the camera is the canvas, and the lens is the brush, then light is the paint. Think of it this way. See how it mixes the colors and shades of the world around you.Build an image based on the lighting of the scene around you.
What I mean is that so many photographers create an image based on the subject: the flower, the bride, the family pet becomes the focus of the image. In reality, the image should be built from the scene first. What environment will the subject be interacting with? That will set the tone, the mood, and the depth of the image. Even when the photographer has very little control over the subject, such as a candid shot, the photographer will have control over where he places himself in relation to the subject to create the best possible scene for the subject to interact with.
Example: I was asked to shoot a youth soccer game. In order to get the scene that I needed, I had to shoot from the south of the field to avoid the distracting parking lot out of the scene. In another uncontrolled photo, I made sure that had the bride & groom stand so that they had the majority of the crowd and the reception hall behind them instead of settling for the corner of the room and the DJ.
Start with building the scene and add the subjects in later.
By becoming present, calm and mindful; you will be able to better observe the light and how everything interacts with it. You will also be able to then make decisions on which scene you want your subjects in and plan accordingly. This is how Zen of Photography makes you more mindful and aware of the world around you and how you are a part of it so that you may take better images.
The Fifth Wheel
One thing that most photographers forget is that once they have their scene, their subjects and their camera gear set to take the perfect picture that there is still one aspect of the image that needs to be taken into account: the photographer.
The final audience doesn’t see the photographer, and so the photographer feels that he is “off stage” and unimportant. However, the photographer is the awkward “fifth wheel” on the cart. Although he isn’t seen, his presence is felt. He can make a model uncomfortable, a baby cry, and a bride frustrated.
This is where we return to the Buddhist philosophy of “no self.” The photographer must always be mindful that he is a part of the image. He is reflected in every aspect of the final image. If he is distracted then the shot will be distracted. If he is angry, it will affect the scene. By internalizing the philosophy that he is just as much a part of the image as he is the rest of the universe, he can develop a sense of “one” with the moment and the image.
Practically speaking, a mindful photographer will be able to be aware of how his actions affect his image. A calm spirit may make a dog friendly. A confident photographer may make a model more at ease. An energized photographer may energize a group portrait. The more mindful you are of your effect and connection to the world around you—the more effective your actions will be in creating the image you want.
The Zen of Photography is philosophy in practice. It certainly isn’t mystical or something that is difficult to obtain. Unfortunately, so many photographers don’t obtain the attention to detail of their craft to take advantage of it.
I certainly expect many e-mails explaining to me how readers (who identify themselves as photographers) do all of the practices I listed above. That is fantastic. If this is true, then you may have learned nothing new reading this. However, I have readers every day write to me and ask me how to shoot a better photo. Looking at their work, I note that what they lack is a fundamental connection and awareness of the world around them to be proactive shooters instead of reactive observers.
Get out there and start clicking with those cameras. Engage in world.
Understanding photography requires an understanding of art and science. The word photography comes from the Greek “to paint with light.” So in order to create art with photography means you have to understand how light works.
Light is a form of radiation that has been studied by scientists for hundreds of years. Two theories have been around for hundreds of years: quantum theory and wave theory. Quantum theory states that light moves in a single direction. Wave theory also believes that light has wave lengths like sounds. These wave lengths move in vary small oscillations (measured in nanometers). The visible light rang moves from 400-700nm.
Eventually, the two theories were reconciled into a unique quantum wave theory. This makes light unique in many ways.
Another characteristic of light is that, in a vacuum, light travels about 186,000 miles per second. I say “in a vacuum” because when light travels through different mediums, it changes speed. The best example I have is to imagine what it is like to walk through an empty room and then how much more difficult it is to walk through water.
When light moves through a camera lens, the speed of the light changes, and if the glass is given specific shapes it will bend as it moves through the glass. When the light re-enters normal air, it resumes it previous speed and continues on its way.
This is how a lens is able to bend the light (refraction) to capture the light on the focal plane (the flat area that captures the image on the film or computer chip).
The color of light is determined partially by the bandwidth frequency. The longer the wave length the warmer the color: Red sits closer to the 700nm wave lengths. Blues and violets are on the other end of the spectrum in the 400nm area. The color spectrum breaks out exactly like the colors of the rainbow (remember R.O.Y. G. B.I.V.?).
Light itself does not have a color. The band width frequency must first react with a material and then bounce back to the eye. Even the blue in the sky is a reaction of the moisture in the air that our eyes register.
The blue color has a tighter wave pattern and reaches our eyes with more energy than the slower frequencies of red. However, as the sun lowers to the horizon, the distance between the sun and our eyes has more atmospheres to work through. By the time the light hits our eyes only the lower frequencies meets our eyes and that is why we see a warm red, orange and pink sunsets.
When light hits a surface, the material will absorb certain frequencies and reflect others. So when you see a green cloth, you are really only seeing the light that is reflected. The red and blue light is absorbed by the cloth.
Light is effected by a medium in three ways: reflection, absorption and transmission.
Now that we understand that light is a linear wave length. It is time to start understanding how to a photography practically deals with light.
Color Balance—Each light source is transmitted at a different light frequency. That means that not all light is white. The sun at noon is about as white as you can get naturally. The sun at sunset is red. The light is different in incandescent light bulbs and fluorescent lights.
Photographers need to know how to measure the light in order to know how to deal with it. The most convenient way to describe color is by degrees Kelvin. Degrees Kelvin is a measurement of whiteness (i.e. the amount of pure light).
Kelvin is a measurement of heat. Zero degrees Kelvin is equal to -273 Celsius. If you are wondering why that number, well that is because at -273 Celsius is absolute zero. Nothing can get colder than zero degrees Kelvin. That also means that all light is absorbed and anything that is zero degrees Kelvin is absolute black.
If you have every seen a piece of metal heat up, you will notice that it changes color. The hotter it gets the more it starts to glow. At first it will glow red. Eventually it will glow blue and then white. That color can be measured in degrees Kelvin.
Daylight, or pure light, is approximately 5000-5500 degrees Kelvin. An incandescent bulb burns approximately 2000 degree Kelvin. Fluorescent lights can be 3500, 4500 and 6500 degrees Kelvin.
If your camera has precise color balance control, it will probably allow you to adjust both the default settings (incandescent bulb, fluorescents, daylight, cloudy day, and flash) AND your camera will also have the ability to adjust the specific Kelvin temperature.
Color Relationships—Color and Light can also be defined by its three qualities: hue, brightness and saturation.
Hue is the actual color (or wave length) reflected by an object. The primary colors are red, green, and blue (remember the rainbow?). There are also complimentary colors, which are even mixes of each of the primary colors. These colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow. Many photographers represent these colors in a wheel. This makes it easier to see the association of colors.
Brightness is the color of the light independent of its hue. This means you can have a bright blue and a dull blue. Think of adjusting the brightness on your monitor. Even though you can make the screen brighter and darker, the hue remains the same.
Saturation is the degree of black and white that is added to a hue. Think of it like mixing a color with paint (white and black).
Understanding these fundamentals are important to a photographer. It will allow you to learn how to adjust the color balance of your film or digital camera. Understanding how light works will also help you later on when you are crafting light for specific effects.