A mindful photo walk is a wonderful way to give your stressed-out mind a break and to pay attention to your life in the present moment.
Mindfulness is about slowing down and using your senses to take in the present moment, to connect to the physical world. Creativity is about curiosity and exploration and possibilities. A mindful photo walk combines both of these practices and has the added bonus of being a lot of fun!
How to Take a Mindful Photo Walk
Tell about it.”
Mary Oliver’s poem gives us wonderful instructions for taking a mindful photo walk! She tells what she saw with words, we tell what we saw with images.
What You Need for a Mindful Photo Walk
- A camera. Any camera, as long as you are proficient using it. You don’t want to be fussing with camera settings on a mindful photo walk. A phone camera will do. In fact all of the photos in this blog post were taken with a phone camera.
- A lightly packed bag. You don’t want to weigh yourself down with gear, or to start feeling pressure in your neck and shoulders, because that may distract you. If you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera, try bringing just one lens. In fact, bring the lens you use the least.
- A light snack, and something to drink.
- An open mind. Trust that the experience will unfold beautifully without a SMART goal. Leave goals like, “take an award-winning photo”, “nail a photo of the ginkgo tree” at home.
There is no perfect method for taking a mindful photo walk. You’ll know when you’re taking one, because you will feel present in the moments you captured on camera, you’ll remember having observed and noticed the moments first.
Below are the steps that help me, and I hope they are useful to you!
Mindful Photo Walk Step 1: Quiet your mind.
When you get to the place where you’re going to begin your walk, take a few minutes to sit quietly and anchor yourself in the present moment. Stop thinking about how you need to email so and so or take the chicken out of the freezer to defrost.
Let go of your expectations for the walk. The world is an incredible gift, and the photo walk is intended to connect you with the wonders all around you, as well as to give you a chance to try to capture those wonders with your camera.
Release your tendency to label and name things, “Oh, that’s a tree, I know trees,” because your mind will skip off to the next thing, oblivious to the texture of the bark, the shape and color of the leaves, and the insects that make their home in it.
Finally, give your inner critic the afternoon off. She will impede your creative efforts by judging them. She needs a break anyway, she works too hard.
Mindful Photo Walk Step 2: Come into the present moment.
When you are feeling shame or regret, your mind is replaying something in the past. When you are worrying or feeling anxiety, your mind is usually thinking about the future.
One of the best ways to leave your busy mind and come into the present moment is to connect with your physical senses. I like to begin my mindful photo walks with a simple grounding exercise that involves my senses.
First, I ask myself what I can hear, and I bring my attention to all of the sounds around me, just noticing them, and going beyond the label to notice how they sound and how they make me feel. So instead of, “I hear a bird”, “I hear high pitched, sweet-sounding chirps in repeating patterns. It makes me feel happy, like spring will be here soon.”
Then I ask, what do I smell? Flowers in bloom? The musty smell of damp city streets? Is it pleasant, or unpleasant? And how does it make me feel?
Next, what can I feel? The heat of the sun on my face? The drip of sweat down my neck? The tension in my neck from staying up too late? The wind with a little bit of chill nipping my nose? At this point I might also take some deep, slow breaths and do some neck rolls and stretches.
Finally, I ask myself what I can see. And this leads to step #3.
Mindful Photo Walk Step Three: Pay Attention.
Have you ever seen the video about selective attention? The one where you count the number of times basketball players wearing white shirts pass the ball? If not, pause for a moment right now and watch it here on YouTube. It’s about a minute and a half.
Takeaway: our brains evolved to take in the world’s constant stimulation and to filter out what it decides isn’t relevant. This is fine when you are trying to cross a street or pick up milk at the grocery store. But it’s anathema to creativity! You can’t photograph what you don’t see.
So look around, and follow your curiosity. Notice where your attention lingers, and try to understand what makes it linger. Perhaps your eyes see a rosebush against a wall, with one in bloom. If your naming mind says, “That’s a rose” and tries to move your attention along, pause. Say to yourself, “Yes, that’s a rose, and…?” And you may respond, “And it’s pink and it’s in full bloom and it’s a deeper rose color along the edges of the petal.”
So now if you try to take a photo, you won’t just snap a generic image of a rose, you’ll want to capture those specific details, to get up close to show the different shades of the petal, and maybe include a few other rosebuds in the back to highlight the fact this rose was an early bloomer.
Mindful Photo Walk Step 4: Play and Experiment
Digital photography gives you so much freedom to play and experiment, because you don’t have to worry about the cost of film or developing your images. So experiment with perspective and point of view. Try to take two or three unique photos of your subject.
Be intentional when you click the shutter, meaning, don’t do the “spray and pray” tactic of taking 100 photos of your subject and hoping one of them turns out good. This photo walk is about you developing your powers of observation and strengthening your vision, not guaranteeing that you come home with the perfect photograph.
Finally, try not to look at the back of your camera too much, and if you do, don’t let your inner critic jump in with values and judgment, “That’s photo is terrible and doesn’t capture what you saw at ALL,” or “Hey that picture was pretty good, the next one should be even better!” Just confirm that the image is properly exposed and move on.
Mindful Photo Walk Step 5: Reflect and Journal
When you get home, review your images and reflect on your experiences. What did you enjoy? Did you feel any frustration? If so, why? Were you happy with the images you took? Did they reflect what you saw? If not, why? What might you try differently next time?
We are bombarded with information and stimuli every single day – it’s like a firehose! You may enjoy the photowalk and have fun, and that can be a wonderful goal in and of itself, but if you want to retain the insights you gained from the experience you need to review your images and write down your reflections, or they (the insights) will be washed away in the tidal wave of busy-ness that is modern life.
Please note, that this post describes an ideal photowalk. Sometimes that’s really hard to fit into life! Most of the photos in this blog post were taken on a ten minute walk around my house this morning, with maybe two minutes of centering myself before I went outside. Even a micro mindful photo walk is beneficial!! So if this idea appeals to you at all, just take what works and run with it. And let me know how it goes! I absolutely LOVE to hear from my blog readers.
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