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I want to clarify something I wrote recently in one of my Photo Journal posts where I share my workflow from capture to print. After careful consideration, I realized I misinterpreted an important point that for me is at the heart of nature photography.

In the post, I talked about visiting a location and looking for potential images, but not really finding anything compelling at first. But there was something visually appealing, something that I couldn’t identify but was captivating nonetheless. You know the feeling I’m sure, when you can’t quite describe it, but you know it inside.

“So I waited.”

And there is the mistake I made. I chose the wrong words. You see there is a huge distinction between waiting and watching. Waiting implies a sense of expectation, of looking forward to the future with anticipation of some kind. Once that happens, we’ve left the present moment and the noticing of what is actually happening. We’re in the future and that only exists in thoughts, not in reality. It only takes one thought to lead to others, and before we know it, we’re not really seeing anymore.

“Watching” is really the word I wanted to use, because it more accurately captures what I was doing, or at the very least trying very hard to do. Did I have thoughts of what might happen? Of course, I’m human like everyone else, and that means I’m constantly flooded with thoughts. Mindfulness helps us to become aware of these thoughts, and let them go so that we can bring our attention and focus back to the experience. This also helps engage all of our senses.

So often we are simply looking and get caught up in so much thinking and analyzing that we ignore the other senses. The smells, the sounds, the feel of the place. I’lI often touch objects around me to get a sense of how they change my perception of what I’m trying to photograph.
For example, if I touch the cold water of a river, my experience is suddenly richer. I become more curious, more familiar, more aware. I get a better sense of how I might try to convey that in an image. Whether I’m successful is not the point, what matters is that I’m not taking anything for granted. The goal is to make every experience unique, especially when visiting the same locations or photographing the same subjects.

”I shut my eyes in order to see.” – Paul Gauguin

The next time you’re out in the field, try to make that simple shift from waiting to watching. Landscape photographers love to mention how they “waited” for the right light or conditions, and there’s nothing wrong with that as an act of patience. I suggest that to every student I work with. But we can go even further.
Watching brings more attention to what’s happening instead of what you’d like to happen, which reduces our awareness of nature’s intrinsic beauty.

It’s more than just semantics; it’s a clearer sense of awareness. You might think that’s a subtle difference, but it can make a huge difference in the uniqueness of your images.

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Robert. I find taking photographs to be a meditative experience—a time I can turn off verbal thinking and “think” only with my eyes. I spend a lot of time photographing rivers, but I rarely touch the water. I’m going to touch the water now, and the rocks, and the plants . . .

    1. Great to hear Linda, that’s exactly the sort of thing I recommend to students and try to practice myself as often as possible. It’s amazing really what happens when we allow ourselves to really experience without all the filters and judgements. thanks for sharing your experiences as well.


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