Photography- from the Greek graphia
(“to paint”) and phos (“with light”)
Zen- from the Japanese zazen,
a Buddhist meditation practice


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.

Do a quick Google search and you will find dozens of articles on “how to shop for a wedding photographer.” What they all have in common is a firm belief that you should hire someone who is a professional and that you shouldn’t worry about cost. That is because most articles on how to search for wedding photographers are written by wedding photographers!

Although, I am also a wedding photographer, I am also a full-time journalist who writes (among other topics) on business. So let me set you straight on the rest of the story. You have read all the WHY you need to hire a professional, let me give you the practical step-by-step on HOW to hire one.

The first problem in searching for a photographer is that you are rarely going to need this service. Unlike a good auto mechanic, you will not be calling your wedding photographer for a tune up every six month, or asking them to renew your inspection sticker. Wedding photographers are hired more along the lines of a roofer. Once you have had your roof replaced, you hope that you will never have to call them again.

If you have ever had to hire a roofer, you realize that it is a daunting task. Why? Because you have very little to go on to intelligently evaluate which roofer is the one that will do the best job for the right price.

What a minute—did I say right price? Aren’t I always reading that I shouldn’t take price into consideration?

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Nearly every photographer, or anyone who sells service, is going to do what they can to “up sell” their products to earn more money. Photography is no exception. Shooting a wedding is hard work, and as much as I work every muscle in my body to carry gear and quickly capture great moments, there are endless hours before and after a wedding that are spent in paperwork, editing, ordering products and making sure my clients are happy. So nothing makes me happier as a photographer to know that I am getting as much income as I can for the services I provide.

Unfortunately, in today’s market, many clients don’t need, or can’t afford to spend the money on, the “platinum package.”Knowing what you want and how much you can afford are important consideration when hiring a photographer.

So, what should you consider when shopping for the right photographer for you?

       Professional expertise. With the advent of digital photography, the market has been saturated with hobbyists who want to turn their love of photography into a career. Unfortunately, even the worst photographer in the world can shoot a thousand photos on their digital camera and build a wonderful twenty-shot portfolio.

Look for photographers who have professional training in photography or have trained under a professional photographer!

Ask to see a proof book of entire weddings and see the good with the bad.

Ask about an experience where something went horribly wrong and how they solved the problem to create a fantastic image.

Ask for professional references from other photographers, not just clients.

     Portfolio. Don’t trust a portfolio as an indicator of a photographer’s skill. Again, if you shoot long enough, you are bound to find a few gems in the bunch.

Make sure that the portfolio they show you in person aren’t just the same images you saw on the website.

Make sure you look online and see if the photos are the photographers

MOST IMPORTANT. Make sure that the photos are recent. Photographers should have an updated portfolio showing their recent ability.

What is the photographers experience in photography and in digital photography? There are many semi-professional photographers that take nice photos, but do not really understand their gear, or how to create an image. They photograph thousands of photos and take up valuable time looking at their monitors trying to figure out how to make a good image DURING your wedding.

->Business Sense. The wedding photography business is 40% photography and 60% business. A man with a camera is not a company. Check them out.

Ask to see their contract. Contracts are important. They provide a written agreement of expectations and responsibilities for both parties. No contract, no go!

Inquire if the photographer has a network of other photographers that will shoot if something horrible happens to them. You don’t want to be short a photographer on your wedding day, and it shows the photographer is respected amongst his peers.

Ask about time tables. A professional photographer should be able to accurately tell you when you can expect to see your photos and album.

Look at their products. Taking great pictures is nice, but ultimately useless if the photos were printed on a home printer and shipped to you in a box.

Clearly defined payment. There should never be a hidden fee. An honest businessman does what he agrees to at the price agreed on.

Beware the “car salesman.” If a photographer is haggling price to “close the deal” that day, then walk away.

Ensure they keep files of the images!

<!–[if !supportLists]–>4)<!–[endif]–>Personality. When the caterer, DJ, priest, and wedding planner go home, you are still going to be dealing with your photographer. He is the one vendor that you will live with for decades.

Does the photographer seem sincerely interested in the success of your wedding or just getting your business?

Can you see calling this photographer up one year, two years, or three years from now and expect that they are going to give you the same attention they did on your wedding day?

Do you have a connection with your photographer for a long-term relationship?

Do you feel that your photographer will add to the value of the wedding day experience or will they be “pushy,” “controlling,” “self-centered” in their work? Some photographers really do believe that you have paid them and so they are authorized to dictate how the wedding events will run.

Does the photographer pull out clauses in their contracts demanding meals, or “exclusive photographer” clauses? This is your party, and your guests should be allowed to take pictures and no one should be making demands who you feed.

Do you think that the photographer will interact well with the wedding guests? The wedding photographer is someone who will be dealing with people, and you need to know that they will act appropriately.

      Price. Now this is the sticky one. The business of photography has changed dramatically with the invention of digital camera. In the old days, the owner of the negative could dictate price because there was no way to print or scan the images yourself. Today that is not the case. It was also more difficult to find a photographer without the internet.

Check online and look at what the average wedding costs are in your area. In Pittsburgh, the average wedding cost $25,000 in 2007. The average cost for a mid-market professional photographer should be 10-15% of the overall expense. So you should expect to pay $2,500-3,500 for a good wedding photographer.

The true value of a professional photographer is in his ability to capture the right moment at the right time. The value is no longer in their exclusive ownership of the images to dictate cost. Be sure to ask the photographer the costs of prints and get it in writing.You should never be commissioning someone to photograph your wedding and then have to extra for their “artistic ability” on the printing as well. If they charge a lot of the photography, the prints should be a reasonable price.

Be sure to ask about back door fees. Are there costs for touch ups in the prints? Are the prints all made print ready as part of the original fee? Are there extra charges like taxes and travel? Some photographers will “slip in” fees later to earn a few extra bucks.

Any photographer that tells you that price shouldn’t matter is suspect in my book. Ask them what products in their life they have never considered the price for?

All photographers do not offer the ability to purchase the digital files of the wedding. I think this is silly, but I don’t run their businesses. Image ownership is fantastic. Make sure if you purchase the images what the agreement is for the photographer replacing lost disks and how long they will store the images on their database.

You don’t need to hire the most expensive photographer in town to get a good photographer, or even a great one. However, don’t let price fool you into thinking that a photographer is good. Do your research and trust your gut. Do NOT be afraid to ask questions or offend a photographer in an interview. Wedding photographers are expensive and good wedding photographers are hard to find.

When you have found a good choice of photographers that you feel comfortable with, make sure that you do not make this choice alone. Ask your friends and family what they think. Of course, they will not have a clue what the personality of the photographer is like, or if all the right questions were asked; however, they will be a good sounding board. Are you finding that you keep commenting on a particular photographer? Do you continually bring up reservations or raves? After awhile, it will become pretty clear that you have a preference and that is the photographer for you.

It is important that you hire a photographer you believe in. Your attitude about your photographer will spill over into your impressions of your wedding photos. Remember, your images will have an emotional attachment– and that connection should always be made with a positive frame of mind. The last thing you want to be thinking while you look at your album is “oh, and this is when that photographer really ticked me off!”

Photographers should be an asset to a wedding. A professional that not only knows how to take great images, but knows how to take them at the right moment. They should not be obtrusive, and they should add to the joy of the day. When the photographer leaves, you should be thanking them for making the day special.

Some of the best moments are when a guest tells me how great I was at a wedding, and they never saw a picture. They just know that I gave 100% of my heart to the day.

On a final note, be wary of thinking that the photographer that showed up first in the Google search is the best photographer. Having a high-ranking website has absolutely no connection to the quality of the photographer but only to the photographer’s skills with a website. Search through a few pages and take a good look at what is out there.