By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator
In the chaos of a pandemic and divisive political and social climate, I need the calming effect of being out in nature with my camera. Maybe you, too, have had those moments out in the field when all the cares of the world seem to melt away and you become hyper aware of your surroundings. That mental state, of being at one with my surroundings, helps me zero in on what I was finding interesting in a scene and helps crystalize the feelings I want a photo to convey. These moments used to be sporadic and fleeting until I started practicing mindfulness. Becoming a mindful photographer could help you, too.
Imagine you are hiking in the wilderness and come around a bend in the trail to a beautiful meadow. There is a gentle breeze and birds are singing. You stop and take it all in. You are present. You smell the trees, feel the warmth of the sun and the tingle of the breeze. And then you think about how much farther you have to hike today, or thoughts about your family or finances intrude. That moment is lost. If you practice mindfulness, you can push those intruding thoughts aside and return to being present in the moment, enjoying the scene before you. Finding a composition or two. Maybe just letting it all sink in and enjoying it without even taking a photo. That experience of being in the moment is one of the joys of nature photography for me.
What is mindfulness?
First, let’s say what it’s not. It’s not some new age weirdness with crystals or chakras emitting energy. You don’t need a mantra (ooooohhhmmmm). No mat, blocks, weights or any special equipment is required and you don’t fold your body into any weird contortions. It’s not at all exotic.
Instead, mindfulness is “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” Katch Silva describes mindfulness as “being present in what is, so we can let go of what was or what could be.” It’s an ability we all have, but may need practice to fully use. And there’s a growing body of research that indicates mindfulness is has beneficial effects on the body and mind.
How do you practice mindfulness?
Mindful lays out a five step process to “tune in to mindfulness” at any time on any day.
1). Set aside a little time and find a comfortable spot to sit. Five minutes and a comfy chair would work, but so would five minutes in the great outdoors.
2). Observe the present moment as it is. What are you seeing, hearing and feeling?
3). Let your judgments roll by. We’re always judging things—people, thoughts, feelings, emotions. Be aware of them, but let them pass by.
4). Return to observing the present. It’s natural to have thoughts intrude but, as soon as you notice a thought taking you away from being present, push it aside. Return to observing.
5.) Be kind to your wandering mind. Don’t get down on yourself when thoughts intrude. It takes practice. When your thoughts wander off in other directions, softly bring them back.
You’re not trying to empty your mind. Rather, you are becoming more aware of the moment. With a little practice, your periods of mindfulness will lengthen. The purpose is not specifically to relieve stress or induce calm, but it has that effect on me. Mindfulness practice creates a little bit of space in our minds and lives for stillness and pleasure.
Mindfulness in nature photography
Mindfulness isn’t meditation. You’re paying attention to everything. So, you’re ready to shoot when the animal moves, the bird flies, the sunset peaks. You may be better able to spot potential photos when you’re fully present and engaged.
We often obsess over things we can’t change—like the weather, will there be a sunset, what we did last week—which not only takes our attention away from the here and now but also leads to negative thinking and obsessing over all the things that have gone wrong.
When I am being mindful, I’m not obsessing over anything. Instead, I am more likely to notice subtle signals, like the flap of an owl’s wings, the glint of dew on a spider’s web, or the rustle of brush as a deer peeks out of the forest edge. I am more likely to see the small wildflowers or patterns in the grass and leaves. I am more tuned in to the way light and color are changing.
All of the cares and concerns of the outside world slide away and I am fully present in the moment. In that state I sometimes don’t even have to work the scene. Instead, the photo just comes to me.
In the opening photo, I was with a group of photographers who had walked out to Going-to-the-Sun Point in Glacier National Park. Sunset, the whole point of going there, was a dud. No color in the sky at all. While some photographers got frustrated and left, calling it a waste of time, some us stayed. After all, you can always find something to photograph.
I used mindfulness to center myself. After a few breaths, I started to get a feeling of the vast age of the place. The rocks, the glaciers, the lake—how many thousands of years had they been here? I wanted to find a way to explore that. Nearby, a small rock face had been slowly flaked away by wind and rain and was dotted with patches of lichen. That was my photo.
Every time I see that photo, I’m transported back to that location and that feeling of understanding geologic time. Even if I hadn’t gotten that image, I still had that experience and the deep, powerful memories it left me with.
I didn’t go to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (second photo) for a sunset. I went for the thousands of snow geese and tundra swans that winter there. The sunset was a bonus. Photographing the swirls of birds as the flocks flew by and came in for a landing can be pretty hectic. I was exhausted by the time they’d settled in for the night. It was then that I noticed some pastel colors as the sun was going down.
While waiting for peak sunset color, practicing mindfulness encouraged me to really explore the experience of being there, with a cold breeze brushing across my face, the calls of geese behind me, the soft sounds of the water lapping on the shore. I was immersed in a sense of calm and peace which is what I hope that photo conveys.
There are probably times you’ve rushed to a location. Maybe there was a spectacular sunset brewing or an interesting weather phenomena or a snowy owl sighting was reported. You get there, full of adrenaline and out of breath. Sound familiar? In that moment, I need to stop and calm myself down before I can find my composition. A moment of mindfulness clears my head and allows me to focus on the photo while enjoying the experience.
Heaven knows, the world is a stressful place, especially now. Perhaps a few minutes of mindful practice in the evening will help you relax and sleep better. It sure helps me. So try a little mindfulness. You may be surprised at what it does for your photography . . . and life.Frank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photograph services to nonprofit organizations. He manages NANPA’s blog and edits NANPA’s annual journal, Expressions.