Curiosity and Zen Photography

Elephant Rocks Day 2 17 Web

A few months ago, I wrote an article outlining the 9 characteristics of Zen Photography – the contemplative mindset that underlies PhotoYoga. I thought I’d explore a few of these characteristics a bit more deeply.

The characteristics are in no particular order, but I’ll start with the first one that I wrote about in the original article:

A Zen Photographer is Curious

Zen photographers approach life each day with a sense of youthful curiosity, being wide-open to the wonders of the world whether they be formed as a grand landscape or found in the simplest blade of grass. Zen photographers explore the world without preconceived expectations and accept the world as it is rather than how they think it should be. They learn about the people in the world seeing the world each day as if for the first time. They bring this sense of wonder and exploration to their photography.

Exploration through Photography

I started with this one in my original post because I find that it is this sense of discovery and curiosity that keeps me coming back to photography. I can photograph the same scene as many times as I want and each time I can find something new and different in the scene. Visiting places at different times of the day brings different light and weather patterns, different people, and I will be in a different mood – meaning that I will see the world differently each time.

Sunrise Clark Bridge-
I visit this bridge across the Mississippi River frequently. Anytime I want to be alone with my camera and a sunset. Every time I visit is a new experience.

I find myself more willing to explore places with my camera. I explore my local environments, driving down random roads or walking new trails just to see what there might be to photograph. I look for both the grand landscape and the amazing little things that the world offers. Macro photography especially allows us to explore deeply into our amazing natural world.

Macro Mushroom
Curiosity sometimes means stopping and really looking at the world at your feet. Exploring a log with a simple mushroom opens up a whole new world.



I also explore other photographers’ work, looking at what they are able to achieve and seeing if their styles and view of the world work for me. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, but I always learn a little bit about myself because I tried something new.

The world is a wonderful place – if you choose to see it that way. Photography encourages me to find order and beauty and something interesting even in the most mundane of situations. Urban decay becomes beautiful as Sue Rakers showed us in her article on photographing a beam of light 

I spent the weekend walking around a state park looking for shapes and light on the grayest of days. Without curiosity and determination to find the beauty in the world, I would have taken one look at the weather and gone back to bed!

Black and white tree
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks exploring black and white photography by taking clinics and workshops with a local photographer. I’m exploring how he sees the world and finding out if his vision works with my own. This photo was taken on a gray day at Elephant Rocks State Park.

Openness to Experience

One aspect of having curiosity is being open to experiences as they come our way – even negative experiences.

I’m a naturally shy person and in many ways, photography has made me bolder. The camera gives me a reason to be places and interact with people. The answer to the question “What are you doing here?” can be “I’m looking for interesting photographs.”

There are many experiences that I’ve only had – and probably could only have had – because I had a camera in my hand.

I go to local events that in the past I’ve skipped – mostly because life just got in the way – but now I have my camera and a reason to attend (another reason to attend – I always had a reason to attend).


The camera can provide a buffer between me and the experience – a barrier of sorts. This can be both positive and negative. The camera can separate me from the experience and that is probably a negative, but sometimes that separation allows me to see with a bit more clarity and perspective. I’m an observer of life. Photography allows me to photograph experiences that I wouldn’t be comfortable having without a camera. The camera can provide a bit of psychological protection.

But sometimes I need to remember to put the camera down and just experience.

I had a recent experience photographing the crowds awaiting a presidential visit. A police officer provided me with directions – to the left were the pro-presidential crowd – to the right, the protesters. The police were trying hard to keep the groups separated. He asked which group I was there to photograph. The answer was – both.

I have a political preference, but for the experience and for my photography, I visited both groups. Whether I agree or disagree with the politics, photography allowed me to interact with people who I wouldn’t normally interact with and got to see a bit of the issues on both sides.

Biker wrapped in flag patriotic
Awaiting a Presidential Visit to Illinois

Finding Reality

 Part of curiosity is approaching the world without preconceived expectations and accepting the world as it is. This means that we look at the world carefully and fully and accept what’s there.

This isn’t to say that Zen Photography is always documentary photography. Artistic photographers change the world in their images, but in such a way that highlights a truth in the image.

In order to find a truth in our image, we must first embrace reality – at least the way we’re seeing reality.

Let me give you an example.

I love to photograph calm landscapes, often as the sun rises. The experience is meditative for me. Before photography, I could count on one hand the number of times I experienced a sunrise – experienced a sunrise, not the sun rising as I drove to work or otherwise in the background of my life.

I’m trying to communicate a peaceful scene and I use techniques like long exposure to smooth the water and clouds and try to bring this sense of peace to anyone who looks at my image.

This peaceful calm is the truth that I’m trying to communicate. I have no problem with Photoshopping out anything that gets in the way of this calm including the reality of trash littering the scene. I acknowledge the truth of the world, but then I accept the truth of my photograph.

Mississippi River levy at sunset
I removed the graffiti on this levy in the Mississippi River. The cuss words especially would change the story of this image. I didn’t want the story to be about the vandalism, but about the beauty of this sunset.

Another way of looking at the scene – another truth – would be to highlight the litter and show human thoughtlessness, but that’s not what I’m doing.

Curiosity includes finding the underlying meaning of your image and doing everything you can from composition to post-production to bring out that meaning.

Final Thoughts

Curiosity allows me to continue to grow and learn about the world. The sense of wonder that comes with exploring the world on a daily basis through my photography keeps me fresh and invigorated.

I talked about this in an article I wrote about how photography helped me through depression. LINK

The journey each day to find a photo to make – to find one thing beautiful I could share with the world – was therapeutic. Forcing myself to find something beautiful and positive each day helped break that cycle and reminded me that there were beautiful things in the world – something I desperately needed reminding of!

A curious mindset brings with it an openness to learn and explore. With or without photography, this is a healthy mindset.


Artist Tree


This post is sponsored by PhotoYoga.

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