You Are Missing Out by Ignoring an Important Approach to Photography

You Are Missing Out by Ignoring an Important Approach to Photography

If you want to elevate it to a higher level, then there is an essential approach to your photography that you should embrace. Known for thousands of years, but nonetheless elusive, here's an approach to photography you can adopt, used by masters in all fields.

I am, of course, writing about flow. It’s that mental state that artists, musicians, athletes, chess players, scientists, entrepreneurs, and actors can find themselves in, and when they do, they reach peak performance.

What Is Flow?

Flow is the state of mind where you become engrossed in what you are doing, and all that matters is the task at hand, and you achieve high performance. It happens seemingly without thinking about it. It’s incredibly healthy for your mind to achieve flow, and a superb way to achieve perfection in your photography.

Although known for millennia, this state of mind was first identified and researched in psychology by the late Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the last century. Flow is one of the core constructs of positive psychology and is linked to a healthy mood. Moreover, it’s a state of the mind that has only recently been explored by brain science. During flow, the brain releases a feel-good hormone cocktail that enhances creativity. These include dopamine, which increases focus and motivation; endorphins for pleasure and pain relief; anandamide, which elevates mood and provides pain relief; serotonin, which promotes feelings of well-being; and norepinephrine, which increases arousal and attention.

On top of that, the brainwave patterns change. Our normal waking state beta waves become dominated by slower alpha waves and even slower theta waves. There is also decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region associated with self-monitoring and conscious control. Instead, it activates the parts of the brain associated with daydreaming and introspection. Various parts of the brain also communicate with each other more freely during flow.

Because of those physical changes, the mind changes too in a flow state. It feels very similar to meditation. Mindfulness taps into the same feelings too, removing us from all the outside world's distractions and letting us focus completely on the task at hand.

Why Would You Want to Achieve Flow?

A 10-year study showed that those who achieved a flow state were 500% more productive than those who did not.

Is it something that photographers can learn to embrace to improve their work, and at the same time find greater enjoyment from their art? Most definitely, yes.

In photographic flow, one becomes immersed. It allows awareness and action to merge into one. In the flow state, one loses self-awareness, and time can become distorted, either speeding up or slowing down. How often have you told your partner that you are going out with your camera for an hour only to return several hours later because you haven’t realized how much time has passed?

Perhaps the biggest benefit of flow is happiness. People often mistakenly try to achieve happiness as a goal. But that is a mistake. If you try to seek happiness, you won’t ever find it. Instead, happiness is a byproduct of performing an enjoyable or worthwhile activity. As the highest form of activity is in the flow state, flow will provide the greatest amount of happiness.

Flow and the resulting happiness are not instantly achievable, but it is worthwhile putting in the work to discover it. Like happiness, flow happens because of absorption in activity, so it can only be achieved indirectly.

Barriers to Flow

People are bombarded with meaningless mental junk through their cellphone feeds. At work, many are either bored by mundanity or stressed because too much is demanded of them. Consequently, they never achieve a flow state, and their performance drops.

It may seem unrealistic to leave that all behind, no matter how enticing it may be to leave a stressful or boring job. However, by immersing ourselves in photography – I presume this would be your favored activity for achieving, as you are reading this – you can achieve the flow state and reap its benefits.

How Do We Achieve the Flow State in Photography?

Flow is achieved by having your skill level and the level of challenge in balance. So, any person at any level can achieve a flow state. An utter beginner challenging themselves to what others may think is a simple photographic task can achieve a flow state. Of course, the novice’s skill level will increase, and that undertaking will become easy. So, the flow state will then be more difficult to achieve; therefore, they must find a harder challenge that matches their skills.

Importantly, maintaining flow requires learning, practice, and improvement. Therefore, one can also increase the challenge of the task.

Some Find It Harder to Achieve Than Others

Those with an autotelic personality are more likely to experience flow. Autotelic people will do activities for their own sake and reap intrinsic rewards. They have more curiosity, are persistent, and are not self-centered. They don't do things for external rewards. An autotelic photographer won’t use their camera with the aim of some future benefit, but their goal will be the experience of photography. They will experience excitement and be motivated to explore the activity more. Autotelic people are more likely to find greater fulfillment in everyday activities. That, in turn, leads to greater success in what they do.

In sports psychology, high performance is known to be achievable through positivity, and positivity is necessary for flow. Conversely, flow also brings about positivity. The same applies to photography.

The opposite of autotelic is heterotelic. This is where photography is done for some external outcome or reward. Paradoxically, they are less likely to achieve the outcomes they crave than the autotelic, for whom external achievements are secondary.

As I mentioned before, there is a balance between skill and the level of challenge that needs to be achieved. It is also essential for there to be clear, achievable goals, so the photographer knows what they are trying to achieve and has a greater sense of control over what they are doing.

One also should receive immediate and unambiguous feedback, so individuals recognize when they are on the right track. This allows them to adjust their activity in real time. So, although “chimping” (continuously checking one’s photos on the back of the camera) is often seen in a negative light, it is a healthy thing to do because looking at the photos you have just shot, you get feedback.

The Nine Aspects of Achieving Flow

Csikszentmihalyi identified nine aspects that sum up what is necessary to achieve the flow state:

  • A balance between the levels of challenge and skill.
  • The merging of action and awareness.
  • Clear goals for the activity.
  • Unambiguous feedback.
  • Full concentration on the task.
  • A sense of control
  • A loss of self-consciousness.
  • Time being sped up or slowed down.
  • Having an autotelic experience.

Have You Experienced Flow?

You will know you have achieved flow in photography if you had complete concentration on the act of taking the photos and you were utterly focused on the process and not the outcome. Your goal was clear, and you felt rewarded in your mind for the achievement. That reward came from immediate feedback when you viewed your work.

Furthermore, there was a feeling of control over the task. You will have found the photography intrinsically rewarding. Shooting images will have felt effortless because there was a balance between the challenge and your skills; it was neither too hard nor too easy. Moreover, actions and awareness were merged, and you let go of distracting self-conscious thoughts. You will also have experienced a transformation of time.

If flow in photography has seemed out of your grasp, then don’t worry, it is something you can learn. Set some clear and realistic photographic goals, i.e., don’t just walk with your camera and expect something to happen, and don’t try to take photos that are too easy or too hard for you. Practicing mindfulness when you are with your camera, focusing on the present moment, can help you too. So, avoid distractions when taking photos and concentrate on the process, not the outcome.

Do you experience flow when working? It will be great to hear some of your experiences in the comments.

Ivor Rackham's picture

A professional photographer, website developer, and writer, Ivor lives in the North East of England. His main work is training others in photography. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being. In 2023 he accepted becoming a brand ambassador for the OM System.

Log in or register to post comments

Next article, "How many angels can dance on the head on a pin"?

Thank you for explaining the science behind it. We find ourselves in that state when we are photoing fashion models in the studio. Another super-duper article. Very educational.

Thank you, Tessa for the kind comment. Warwick's comment below is worth a read.

Doesn't just have to be landscape photography as illustrated.

You are right. It can be used in all fields of photography. (I just used water-based images for obvious reasons.) Thanks for the comment.

Thank for your article Ivor. You explain flow really well. I was doing a PHD on entrepreneurial creativity and Csikszentmihalyi's work was highly relevant. As you write, true flow occurs when challenge and skills meet at the highest level. On an X/Y axis, low challenge high skill leads to boredom whereas low skill high challenge leads to anxiety. Feedback suggests that for some people, time stops and hours pass by and they are consumed by a fixed - usually, pleasurable state, or a form of 'high'. Flow is also taught in Organisational Behaviour in some business schools in Australia so the influence of his work is ongoing. Another theory of his is the 'domain theory', where each domain has a series of necessary skills plus gatekeepers. Art critics as an example, are gatekeepers because they more or less decide which emerging or established style is accepted into the domain. For a practitioner to be accepted into the domain, they need to learn the rules or methods that apply for each domain. If one's work is good enough, a new style may emerge which challenges the gatekeepers and can eventually be accepted as a relevant style in the domain. If it's really good, it changes the domain - Van Gogh is an example there, the Beatles another. Good read, thanks for that. Cheers

Wow, thanks Warwick. That's fascinating. Thanks for that.

Very nice article Ivor, thank you. And I’ve certainly experienced flow in photography and it is great when it happens. I have experienced it more often when making music, I’m an attic musician and only make music for the joy of it and only for myself. Sometimes I plan to play for just an hour and then suddenly a few hours have passed.

Thank you Ruud. Yes, it's a great feeling. Likewise, I have experienced it more when playing guitar (badly) and photographing, especially landscapes at dawn.