Photography and Zen: Discovering your true nature through photography.

In my tutor’s feedback on A1 (see here), he suggested that I could be overly concerned with the technical aspects of photography, possibly to the detriment of other aspects. This struck a chord and reminded me of my early experiences with guitar playing, when it was easy to become too focused on the technique of playing, rather than just playing. After a while one knows the technique, it becomes second nature and doesn’t need to be thought about. Through my guitar and being an erstwhile judo player, I’m aware of how it feels to be in a non-thinking zone and also that I am not yet often in that zone with my photography, sometimes actively thinking about camera settings.

I decided to turn to Stephen Bray’s book Photography and Zen as part of a reflection on my current practice and how I might break out of my technical habits. I also referred back to a review of a book I read during the EYV course, Tao of Photography by Phillippe Gross.

My earlier review of Gross’s book appears to be a series of quotations from the book with no record of what they meant to me at the time. A little disappointing in retrospect, but encouraging that I would hopefully not repeat a similar approach just over a year and a half later. I perhaps need re-read the book. The quotes listed are all about seeing and perception, for example:

It is part of a photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveller who enters a strange country – Bill Brandt

How can one see intensely if pre-occupied with the techniques of using a camera? Perhaps modern cameras contain too much technology and too many options for our own good. They are complex gadgets with countless possibilities for tinkering. I recently purchased an old Nikon FE manual focus film camera. When using it, I was immediately struck by how limited the options are for setting it up and using it compared with my modern digital cameras. There is little to do, apart from looking and capturing moments in time!

Turning to Bray’s book, I note here things that resonated with my thinking on forgetting the technical, rather than a review of the book’s contents.

  1. ‘A certificate may denote competence in many skills, but rarely is it an indicator of flair. To have flair it is necessary to fully embrace what life has to offer.’ (Bray, S. (2014), p117). The risk of academic study and focus on technical skills is becoming too focused on theory and forgetting to ’embrace what life has to offer’ and getting out and making photographs. Somewhat of a dilemma when studying and working at the same time – can leave little time for the ’embracing’ bit. The answer must be to integrate studying with doing and living as far as possible?
  2. ‘Mistakenly, I thought what I lacked were knowledge and further skill. In fact what I needed was the courage to explore my own nature.’ (ibid, p145). This is a profound insight – it is without doubt less challenging to seek knowledge and skill than to confront one’s own nature. This confrontation can bring honest and insightful work, that has something to say.
  3. ‘One of the dangers of photography is that, whilst it enables expression of your inner world upon a computer screen, book page, or gallery wall, it can also become a substitute for living.’ (ibid p197)

In the end, it is perhaps as simple as this:

Pick up your camera and make images with it.

The featured image for this post was made after reflecting on the wisdom in this book. Camera used simply – ISO fixed for the shoot (like film), manual focus, manual exposure; changes only made if there were significant changes in light and subject distance. Followed by 2 or 3 minutes in Lightroom. It was indeed refreshing. The lesson is decide on an approach/process and stick with it without unnecessary tinkering; embrace the moment intensely.

I saw sheep glowing in the sun cutting through the storm clouds. I focused singly on the glow, lowered my exposure and shot. The sheep glow!


Bray, S. (2014). Photography and Zen:: Discovering your true nature through photography. (Photography and Consciousness Book 2) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from

Context.Fitzgibbonphotography (February 2015) [blog]. Review of Tao of Photography by Phillippe Gross. Available from: [accessed 20.10.16]

One thought on “Photography and Zen: Discovering your true nature through photography.

  1. Lovely photo, Andrew. If you want to take these ideas further, it is worth looking at some of the online videos on Miksang photography. They are very helpful in explaining how to get your mind into the right zone.

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