February 22, 2014

Photography Zen

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Scott’s new book “72 Essays on Photography.” It’s available on both iTunes and Amazon.

“I went into photography because it seemed like the perfect vehicle for commenting on the madness of today’s existence.”

– Robert Mapplethorpe

I have been studying Zen Buddhism and I am struck by how so much of it can be applied to photography. Don’t get me wrong. I am not religious. Nor am I somebody who would ever, or has ever said you should live your life like I live(d) mine. But I do think that we as photographers can apply the things we learn from religion (even if it’s just intellectually) and see better photos as a result. Before I go on, remember that I am relatively new at this and do not claim to be a Zen expert. I’m just trying to get people to think a little differently about their photography.

There are three concepts in Zen Buddhism that I think particularly apply to photography (I will horribly paraphrase here).

  1. Less is more. Sometimes you can achieve the best picture by taking something away rather than adding it. That can be anything from gear, to light, to subjects, to background objects, etc.
  2. There is something to be said for photographing a place as you have lived it. Too often we get caught up seeing something ONLY through the viewfinder. It’s important to remember we are also part of that moment. We need to own that and to live it. I heard Neil Young (a musician for those of you under 30) say “I write and play songs that I have lived.” He understands this concept. Another way to say this is: Awareness to see things for what they are with clear consciousness; being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion.
  3. Zen is all about enlightenment – and this can come from the energy source contained within every subject we photograph. Try applying different senses to the way you think about photography. Hear the light, sing the photograph, feel the background. It’s a hard topic to write about in a blog essay, but if you can find joy in the click of a shutter, you are already practicing a Zen Buddhism concept. For there is only now; this moment in time. No future moment is guaranteed to any of us, therefore it doesn’t exist. What can you do with THIS moment?


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Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. wow, interesting perspective. Been thinking of meditating in the morning now I have a reason to do so, possibly take better photos! Thanks for the awareness.

  2. This bird is nicely coiffed!

  3. On a perhaps somewhat related note, I noticed, when selecting quotes for my photo-site, that a number of well know photographers express themselves pretty much the same way mystics have done throughout the ages. Minor White is perhaps the clearest and most consistent example I have come across, but occasionally it is also there with e.g. Ansel Adams and Robert Rodriguez Jr.


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About scottbourne

Founder of Photofocus.com. Retired professional photographer. Now I just play with my camera.


Inspiration, Opinion