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Black Brook Beach, Cape Breton Island

Sometimes you can come across a scene that seems so perfect, you’re not sure where to begin to attempt to capture it in a photograph. This was the situation I found myself in when I accidentally happened to come across this amazing beach in the northeastern side of Cape Breton Island National Park last year. The light was magnificent, changing every minute or so as fast moving clouds did their dance on the horizon.

Sometimes I just wait and watch, and ideas will come slowly as I absorb the moment and identify those things I’m reacting to the most. Other times I need to put the camera to my eye and change my perspective—see what an actual photograph would look like. I did both in this instance, and immediately realized the sound of the surf was what held my attention in complete focus – what is commonly known as flow. Flow is when you’re so engrossed in an activity that you lose track of time, where you are or anything else that is not in your field of concentration.

With the sound of the surf in my mind, I noticed the beautiful patterns they were making in the immediate foreground, and looked for similar shapes in the scene. The foreground rocks, far side of the coast, and clouds all combined to create the composition I felt was strong enough to convey the uniqueness of the moment. Now I just waited again, and made a few shots while experimenting with the timing of the surf. A relatively fast shutter speed of 125th sec @f/11 made sure I froze the movement in the water, closely repeating the distinct patterns and lines of the clouds in the sky.

For me flow is an absolute pre-requisite for my best work. I would argue it’s essential for your work as a photographer as well. This topic is one I’m researching for a new book, including what it is, how to harness it for creativity, and what steps we can take as photographers to improve our chances of enjoying flow when we go out in the field. I want to start to introduce ideas here on the blog for conversation and feedback from you.

Have you ever experienced flow while photographing? Do you find this idea interesting and useful? Let me know in the comments below – thanks for reading!

RR Jr

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post Robert, I look forward to hearing more about your flow project, as it progresses.

    To me ‘flow’ seems synonymous with being fully in the present moment, and the sensory input it provides. A state of forgetting oneself, of not being run by the intellect in that moment. One of the main reasons I like photography is that supports me in being present with, and experiencing what actually is in front of the camera, as opposed to my thoughts about it. Sometimes the distinction between what is in front of the camera, and what is behind it seems to dissolve, and the ‘click’ happens by itself.

    It seems to me that various contemplative and spiritual practices, as well as simply doing something one truly enjoys, can be very helpful in increasing the probability of experiencing flow. In that context, it is probably not a coincidence that many quotes from well-known photographers are very similar to something that could have been said by a mystic. A couple of examples:

    Sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter (Ansel Adams)
    Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence. (Minor White)

    1. Hi Karsten – thanks for stopping in and sharing your feedback, and for adding to the community. Yes you are correct on all points, and flow is closely related to, if not synonymous with the idea of presence and being in the moment. The reason I like the word flow is because we’re still partially in the act of doing when we’re out in the field. otherwise we would never take our cameras out of their bags (which I’ve failed to do on many occasions). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’m especially interested in the confluence of flow and the act of creativity – being able to channel our feeling and emotions into our reactive expressions. For me flow has been a great aid, in addition to more traditional practices like meditation.

      When you combine that with nature, then the possibilities are really exciting, and that’s what I’m working for my workshops at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies and also a new book.

      many thanks again, and I’d love to hear your feedback on future posts! Any other way I can help, just ask.

      RR

  2. I often lose track of time (and hunger) when photographing, but the flow time I remember best (before “flow” took on this meaning) is when I was shooting film in a very cold Michigan February. It was only when I had to insert a fresh roll of film that I noticed that I was cold—my fingers were so stiff that I had to warm them before I had the flexibility to switch rolls.

    It is when I feel that I don’t have time to go out with the camera that I know I need to do it most. As KBQvist said, photography has that ability to let one live completely in the present.

    I think you have picked an intriguing topic for a book, and I look forward to reading it when it is published.

    1. Hi Linda, – thanks for the great comments, and I know exactly what you’re talking about as I have been there too, and what great feeling it is to realize you’ve been totally engrossed in something worthwhile. I think for me that is the best part of “flow” – and one I plan on exploring. thanks for the support, I’ll keep you updated on the book as I name progress.

      RR

  3. Hi Robert, I really look forward to following your ideas on this topic as they develop. As for me, when I’m out there behind the camera is the only time I’m ever fully in the moment, fully focused on what I’m doing. A spiritual director once observed about me, “Photography is your way of praying.” I’m not saying this is true every time I’m shooting–sometimes I just want to get some record shots, and sometimes I’m concerned with getting the shot before those people get into the image when I don’t want them there. I find that in cold weather I have to be careful of my fingers freezing; it’s happened a couple of times that my fingers got so numb, I couldn’t turn the key in the ignition when I returned to the car.

    1. Hi Nancy – yes I know what you mean as well – sometimes I even tell myself “pay more attention when my toes go numb!” But those are the sacrifices we make when we do something meaningful – even if they are insignificant in the overall scheme of things. Everything starts with the small, then we’re amazed at how far we can truly go…

      RR

  4. I very much appreciate all the comments here…and affirm them from my own experience as well. Yes, for me, photography is most assuredly a spiritual practice; ‘my most effective way of “being present” or shall I say, a “most real” way for me to be present. It naturally flows…. (no pun intended).
    I like Robert’s explanation for using the term “flow” as he explained in response to KBQvist; I wasn’t originally so sure of what he meant, but I believe I do now.
    Thanks to all…

    1. Thanks Hillel for the feedback. As you may recognize by now, I try to keep things as simple as possible – even if writing about them seems otherwise!

      “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” – Albert Einstein

      Now think about that!

      RR

  5. I’m sure you’ve read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s books on flow. Great resources, if not.

    I like to think that I’m most open to learning and understanding when I find that exclusive focus you talk about, and have come the practice creating flow as much as I practice landscape photography.

    I try to extend this notion to the broader experience I have in nature, in fact. Sometimes flow is most apparent in a distinct moment like the one you describe in your post. For me, practicing flow within nature has added new and rewarding dimensions to the experience of wilderness and wilderness photography.

    Thanks for the post–looking forward to hearing more about the book.

    Best,
    Wesley

    1. Hi Wesley – thanks for the visit and for the feedback – really appreciate it. Yes I have read some of Mr. C’s books and it is the inspiration for my own exploration into how flow and nature can work hand in hand to enhance creativity. I can totally relate to your experiences in nature and how it adds to the total experience in ways that go beyond photography – yet can add so much to that as well.

      I welcome your feedback in the future!

      RR

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