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On Creativity – Pt 2

Part 2: Getting in the Flow…

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David Ward

David Ward

T-shirt winning landscape photographer, one time carpenter, full-time workshop leader and occasional author who does all his own decorating.


In part one of this article I looked at the psychological processes that underlie creativity and introduced the notion of flow. I tried to make it clear that creativity is an everyday part of human existence and not exclusively the domain of ‘gifted’ individuals. I don’t pretend to be an expert but it seems plain to me that humans have developed creativity because it has an evolutionary benefit. As history has repeatedly shown, creative leaps of the imagination can lead us to solve what had previously seemed ‘insoluble’. These solutions can lead to better living conditions for individual humans and the species as a whole – though, sadly, not always for the benefit of our neighbours on Earth. Creativity is not limited to artists, it’s a fundamental aspect of human psychology and appears in all walks of life. Scientists and artists – who appear on the surface to have very little in common – share the common tool of creative thought, though they differ in intent. There isn’t a single aspect of human existence that hasn’t at some stage benefited from a little creative thought. The scientists and inventors use it to gain practical advantages but artists use it to enrich our lives in less palpable but nevertheless equally positive ways.

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  • Simon Miles

    Thanks David. Very interesting. I definitely agree about having a ritual and, as you say, it’s one of the things large format photography teaches you. I’m quite into the whole flow thing lately as I just read a book about mindfulness. Seems to be quite a popular topic these days. Anyway, I thought it might be helpful to pass on a simple mindful breathing exercise, which is supposed to help you enter a state of flow. All you do is sit quietly (or stand I suppose), relax and focus on your breath, but always make sure you breathe out more slowly than you breathe in. Gradually lengthening the out breath is the key. If you do it properly you can’t help but relax and slow down. They teach basically the same technique in yoga. Now, where did I leave my hemp slippers?

    • Hi Simon,

      Thank you for giving a much better explanation of a breathing exercise than I could find. Most of the ones I read simply stated “concentrate on your breath”. And?! This seemed like a recipe for frustration, to me. “Am I relaxed yet? Damn, I missed thinking about that breath. Start again!” But it makes sense to concentrate on the rhythm in the way you describe.

      And as for hemp slippers… It all does sound a bit hippy-dippy without the hemp products (of any kind!) But meditation has been known to have value and practiced for thousands of years in many different Eastern traditions. The hijacking of meditation by a bunch of dope-smoking, free-love advocates in the late 1960’s has latterly caused it some image issues! Modern scientific studies have begun to show exactly what’s going on in the brain and why meditation is effective.

      • Simon Miles

        Dare I say we become more receptive to these things as we get older? I know I have. Never thought I would be learning yoga, mindfulness and meditation, but there it is.

  • Richard Earney

    Two things I like to do are: 1) use my DSLR very slowly and deliberately. The act of slowing down always helps; asking myself before I take the shot, “Why do I want to commit the image to permanence, and 2) when confronted by a big, famous scene, I will often turn round and find another more intimate image. Because there is more often than not just as good an image behind you as there is in front of you.
    Does 1) make me a candidate for a 5×4 camera? :)

    • Hi Richard,

      I fear it is time for you to come over to the Dark Slide ;-)

      To be serious, for a moment, there’s no reason that a more meditative approach must involve using a view camera. It’s true that the ritual involved with using a 5×4 or other technical camera helps to foster flow. But ultimately it’s within the power of anyone, regardless of camera, to adopt this way of working.

      And I couldn’t agree more about turning one’s back on the “Big View” and finding something equally powerful and engaging – perhaps even more so as it might have a novelty and freshness that has long faded from the famous vista.

      • Richard Earney

        I’m fascinated by the possibilities, but I might have to stick with a Tilt/Shift on the Canon for now and keep slow! :)

        At least I can say I turned my back on Godafoss :)

  • Paul Hill talks of “being still”, which I try to adopt as my mantra (though having seen me on workshops your image may vary ;) ). Pinhole photography I find lends itself to a contemplative approach, nothing better than sitting down, getting your flask of coffee out, taking in the scene, getting a feel for the place and then taking the exposure (and then waiting for the exposure to finish, which means more coffee).

    • Richard Earney

      And the extra coffee means you have to use a remote release which slows you down too :D

    • Hi Alastair,

      Having watched you on a number of workshops I’d say that you’re not that frenetic, though perhaps you’ve been drinking less coffee ;-)

      Just sitting – appearing to do nothing but actually absorbing the visual information around us – is one of the most powerful things to do in the landscape. When we bustle through – searching, searching, searching for an image in a self-conscious way – the “must find something” mantra actually stops us from seeing subtleties. All we can see are the obvious images, the ones that shout more loudly than the imperatival voice in our heads. Anything that arrests the rush affords the opportunity to see more deeply. If pinhole does that for you then that’s great!

  • Rich Rooney

    Practice, what a simple yet powerful concept. I’ve been beating myself up over not being able to get out with the camera. Sitting in front of the computer editing images is fun – up to a point. But, after a while it’s like caffeine withdrawal symptoms setting in. Have to get out, have to get out but I’ve got to finish editing and printing… what to do.

    I used to play the violin and I practiced every day. Now I have permission to play with my camera every day even if I’m not out in the landscape. It’s as though I’ve received a dope-slap from the professor to wake up to something so obvious. In fact, I have my camera on the desk next to me as I edit.

    Thanks Professor

  • David,

    I fully and wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on being familiar with your equipment. I may be a bit of a technophobe but I need to know exactly where the buttons are on my camera, and which one to use, and even using a new tripod head can involve me in a challenging learning curve!

    It is interesting to compare and contrast your piece with the article “The Zen of outdoor photography” in this month’s Outdoor Photography magazine. The author goes through a whole range of technique advice – which camera to use, zoom or prime lens, format, colour or b&w, use of 10-stop ND filter, none of which, in my opinion, is relevant in the slightest. These are all decisions that you make in the comfort of your own home/office/studio. He then enters the “Zen mindsets” section and finally, at point no 13, starts to get closer to the essence of it:

    “Clear your mind”

    “Enjoy the location before shooting”

    “Keep it simple”

    However, as far as I can see, nowhere does he advise readers to be familiar with their equipment. One aspect of Zen, I believe, is the direct experience of reality. I suggest that this can never be achieved if you are trying to work out which mode to use on your camera or where the depth of field button is, for example. The direct experience the photographer might be trying to express in their images will be filtered through a fog of technical uncertainty.

    Thank you very much for your article, David. It has helped to crystallise some thoughts which have been rattling around in my head for a while.


    • Hi Jerry,

      I’m glad that you enjoyed the article. I haven’t read the piece in OP so I don’t feel that it would be fair for me to comment.

      I do very strongly feel that regular practice with a camera should be more widely promoted. It’s pretty straightforward when you think about it! ;-)


  • Andrew Page

    Hi David – I used to read your column in a popular photo mag a few years back and am delighted to have rediscovered you here (I’m a new subscriber). I can’t begin to tell you how much I resonate with much of your article and am inspired by it. It’s almost as if you have been able to reach into me, draw out and articulate what I have felt for years!

    In my own work I’m often asked what camera/equipment I use, where the best places are etc but when I explain that there is another side – the craft, the patience, the contemplative side – this is often ignored.

    In today’s frenetic world it’s wonderful, and good for the soul, to close out all other distractions and be still, getting ‘into the zone’.

    So thanks again for a great article – I look forward to next installment.

    • Hi Andrew,

      Welcome back! I’m very pleased to read that you found my thoughts resonated with your own. I think that the contemplative side is more widely appreciated amongst photographers than would appear so from reading the camera press.

      There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, they need to sell advertising to survive so articles that concentrate on gear or technique are obviously desirable. Secondly, it’s not that easy to write about the psychology and philosophy behind making and reading photographs.

      I hope you continue to enjoy the articles here at On Landscape!

      • Andrew Page

        Thanks David for taking the time to reply.

        I’ve recently started assisting a landscape photographer on field workshops and I struggled to get any of these ‘softer’ issues across in the short timescales either at or between venues. It seemed equipment and ‘rules’ (in my mind quick fix shortcuts) were more popular discussion points as easier to quantify.

        I will try to champion the psychology and philosophy over gear and rules as this is what sets apart the remarkable from the acceptable in my opinion.

  • Hi David

    Given my article in this same edition, I’m going to sound a bit of a damn hypocrite if I say how much I enjoyed this piece and that much of what you say resonates ;0) But there we go – to be fair to myself, I did say that working quickly was only one way of working, when necessary – which sometimes it is… ;)

    The thing I really wanted to pick up on, though, was the random wanderings – I think a few years ago I commented on one of your articles (I’m guessing on here) when I was going through a bit of a photographic slump – and I think I said I was wandering around hoping to find some inspiration. I forget your exact answer but I think it was something along the lines of keep wandering and you’ll find it. Which is so true. I can’t tell you what changed, when – to be honest it’s more a case of things evolving than changing – but I know I now see things I just did not see X years ago. It’s amazing how the world looks a different place when you really open your eyes.

    Absolutely no doubt in my mind that wandering around slowly, with no agenda or expectations, just seeing what you can find, is the ideal photographic therapy. Great article and images, as ever!

  • As a film photographer I’m no stranger to practicing using the camera without any film loaded – composing, focussing, checking depth of field, adjusting apertures and exposures, and of course the delight of pressing the shutter. I still make mistakes like setting the shutter speed at 8s instead of 1/8s, so clearly I need to practice some more.

    Perhaps digital cameras should have an option to press the shutter without making an image ?

    • Richard Earney

      They already do!
      It is normally marked as ‘Shoot without card’. Then you can set the Preview to last for longer.

  • Bert Vliegen

    Dear David,
    thanks for helping me to get in that state of mind which should help to have fun with landscape photography rather than be frustrated at some times-) Not long ago I read an scientific article that it’s not only a matter of practicing over and over, but being ‘gifted’ is a approx. 30% base for becoming a (great) artist! What you can practice is to learn an hold the discipline as you nicely describe in your work flow. I try to say to myself that when it’s not worth to make a print of photo I want to make, don’t take the picture. But I’m not disciplined enough to resist that call-) BTW, how do you envision, before you go into the setup drill, your photo? Maybe with a cardboard?
    Many thanks,

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