September 1, 2005, Category: Essays

This article is a blend of my photography philosophy embedded with several quick tips on how to take better pictures.

Zen Photography in 10 Steps


Photography is an attempt to capture an image to make a point or remember/share a moment of time. This explains why a picture is worth a thousand words. A picture is more than a printed image. It can stir feeling and emotion. When you experience a moment of intense emotion and want to take a picture, what exactly are you trying to capture? Do you simply want to remember the sun went down on a particular day or do you want to remember a serene feeling of awe and beauty inspired by fiery red and orange sky? Is it the image or the feeling/emotion you are trying to capture? Even a simple snapshot of the kids for grandma is taken to share a personal connection. We want to remember or share feelings of love, hate, despise, sorrow, humor, awe, concern. If you mindlessly pull out a camera and press the button, you will grab the moment and you will most likely remember your emotion. But, if you want to maximize how well you can pass this on to others, you need to give some thought to the process. Call it Zen photography. This is accomplished by doing more than just pushing a button. It requires you to think about what you are feeling, identify what you want to capture, push the limits of your creativity, and understand the basic mechanics of photography.

The same picture taken in different ways can convey many different emotions. In fact, pictures might be worth a thousand words, a million words, or perhaps only a few hundred…depending on how it is taken. If you have a complex emotion or feeling to convey, make your picture say it. If you have a statement to make, make the camera create the image that makes your point. Chances are slim you’ll accomplish this with a thoughtless point and click. At the same time, you also do not need to spend hours planning every photograph. A quick moment to identify what you feel, consider methods on how to capture it, and then plan and execute a successful picture can have a huge impact on your final print. One well planned picture will say more than a barrage of snapshots.

To help you capture your ideal photograph, I’ll introduce you to the technical aspects of photography, discuss creativity, and finally, offer some ideas on connecting with your environment and subjects. Hopefully this will help you take better pictures, have more fun, and maybe even spark an interest to dig deeper into photography.

Technical Introduction

Most people enjoy taking pictures and prefer to avoid delving into the mechanics of how the camera works. I can understand not wanting to get bogged down with technical jargon and just take pictures. Cameras are pretty smart and you can get good pictures without stepping too deeply into the science, however, even the smartest camera needs a little help from the human behind it.

The building block of photography is light. Your camera captures light as it bounces off objects. Let in too much and your pictures are too bright (overexposed). Don’t let in enough and they are too dark (underexposed). Think of it like filling a glass of water. You pour until the cup is full…not too little and not too much. The process of filling the cup perfectly…or letting in just the right amount of light is called “exposure.” Your basic tools for capturing light (and thus, setting the proper exposure) are aperture and shutter speed. Your camera knows how to control these settings and, thus, allows you to get decent shots without reading my article on intermediate photography. If you get to a point where the camera isn’t taking the pictures like you want, that’s a sign it’s time for you to move on to the next level.

Until then, I’ll focus on how you can help your camera take the best shot. Most cameras today will let you specify various shooting modes. A sports mode will gear towards high shutter speeds (to freeze action), a portrait mode will emphasize a large aperture (to blur the background), and landscape will use a small aperture (to keep everything in focus). My first tip is as follows:

Basic Tip #1: Use the shooting modes offered by your camera

If you don’t understand how to select a shutter speed and aperture, at least take advantage of the various shooting modes built in to your camera. If you leave your camera in full auto, it has no clue what you are trying to shoot and will use a general setting. If you can at least tell your camera, “Hey, I’m taking a portrait,” the computer built in to your camera will work to your benefit and automatically make the adjustments to maximize the settings for a great portrait. Most cameras have a quick dial that you can turn or a button you can push to quickly hop through the different shooting modes.

Your camera, in addition to letting in the proper amount of light, must also correctly position the glass on your lens. This is known as “focus.” Generally, your camera will look at what is in the middle of your viewfinder and set the lens so that object will be sharp focus. However, let’s say you want to take a picture of your daughter standing to the right of Mt. Fuji looming in the background. Although there are many cameras on the market with multiple focusing points (they automatically focus on the closest object), most likely your camera will focus on the center object, Mt. Fuji. Your final picture will be a blurred image of your daughter and a sharp Mt. Fuji in the distance….probably not what you were after.

Basic Tip #2: Center your picture on your main subject, press the shutter halfway, and then recompose your picture

Most cameras by default will let you lock the focus by pressing the shutter button halfway down. In our example above you would point your camera at your daughter (so she is centered in the viewfinder), press the shutter button halfway down (and hold it there), move the camera slightly so she is off to the right and you have a nice view of Mt. Fuji in the distance, and finally, press the shutter release. By following this tip, your daughter will appear in sharp focus with Mt. Fuji looming in the background.

Basic Tip #3: If possible, take pictures when the lighting is soft and with the sun at your back

When the sun is bright and directly overhead, shadows are dreadfully dark and everything else is blindingly bright. Generally, this doesn’t make for a good picture. If your camera exposes for the dark areas, the light areas will be completely overexposed (all white). Conversely, expose for the bright areas and the dark areas are reduced to blackness. Sometimes, you just can’t avoid shooting in harsh lighting situations, but, when possible, take your pictures during the first or last few hours of daylight and shoot with the sun behind you. This will have a massive impact on the quality of your pictures. Get up early, take pictures, then go relax, take a nap, or read a book through the hot part of the day. When the sun starts to drop, you’ll be rested, refreshed, and ready to get more top quality photos.

On exception is that a moderately cloudy day offers a good opportunity for midday picture taking. The clouds act as a giant light box and soften the light which gives mild highlights and gentle shadows.

Basic Tip #4: Hold your camera steady

A moving camera means a blurry picture. You may choose to pan with a moving object as you take a picture, and that is fine, but even in panning, hold your camera firmly and press the shutter release with an easy gentle push. I go so far as to treat the camera as I used to treat a gun (back when I hunted). I breathe slowly, aim carefully, hold firmly, and press the button slowly and gently.


Creativity, introspection, spirituality, and critical thinking are all part of the same core concept in my mind. I think the idea is to tap into our own unique ideas, thoughts, and emotions. It’s not easy because we are so inundated with the thoughts, ideas, philosophies, teachings, rules, and images of so many before us…not a bad thing unless it stops us from doing our own thinking (which I think it often does). It can, however, even be a good thing and act as a springboard into our own creativity. We just have to practice.

On my first visit to New York, a co-worker and friend (and native New Yorker) made the comment that he loved seeing the city with first time visitors. It helped him appreciate and notice all the things he had become acclimatized to…and thus invisible to him. He encouraged me to share with him my fresh thoughts and ideas as I explored the city. I try and use this approach with my photography. I want my pictures to always feel fresh and new.

Basic Tip #5: Take pictures when you are feeling enthusiastic and inspired

To be creative, you need an emotion, feeling, or idea (without that, you may as well be a robot with a camera). Unless what you are after is boredom, don’t start with it! Let yourself become immersed in whatever you are photographing. Taking pictures at a football game? Let the excitement of the game carry you along! My opinion is that emotion is the basis of creativity. By being mindful and free with our emotions, I believe we broaden our creativity. I have laughed, cried, and been nearly stunned with awe (except for my finger pressing the shutter button) while taking pictures. If I am not feeling inspired, I generally don’t get my camera out. I get spoiled by moments when I feel like everything just comes together perfectly; perfect shot after perfect shot. Of course, I love photography so much that just picking up my camera evokes a significant amount of emotion!

Think of an intense moment in your life. How would a picture of this moment look? Would it convey what you were feeling? I remember fishing once when I was only about eight years old. I anxiously reeled in a catfish from the canal after sitting several hours in the hot sun. When I pulled the fish out of the water, however, my enthusiasm drained and replaced with sadness. I had caught plenty of fish before, but in that moment, I suddenly felt horrible. I tried to quickly and painlessly unhook the little guy, but it wasn’t easy. I was so scared he would die before I could set him free. How could I have taken a picture that would make viewers feel my sadness rather than evoke warm memories of a young boy out fishing?

Basic Tip #6: Pause once in a while and ask yourself, what am I feeling?

Your unique feelings and the way you perceive the world are part of your personal creativity. If you can learn how to take pictures that help others to feel and see the world through your own heart and eyes, it can evoke new emotions and feelings in others. People generally love to explore, feel, and see new things. Your pictures then become a way for others to grow, feel inspired, or mourn. You can share a part of yourself and have an impact on the world around you!

To explore your own personal creativity, push yourself to look at the world in different ways. There are so many different ways to take the same picture! What would happen if you tilted the camera? What would happen if you were to lie on the ground or held the camera above your head? What if you moved closer, zoomed in, or zoomed out? How your frame the picture is called composition and as you move around the object, the possibilities for composition are endless.

Basic Tip #7: Move around with your camera

Moving around with your camera is one way you can explore your creative approach. If you choose to delve into more advanced techniques, you will find many ways you can experiment (flashes, filters, reflectors, focal length, macro lenses…). A fun experiment is to take pictures of the same thing while varying composition. Can you evoke either happiness or fear based entirely on composition and technique?

Another good exercise is to take an issue, idea, or value that is important to you. Try and come up with a picture that expresses your point of view. If you feel very strongly about caring for children, how can you take a picture that inspires others to value a child? Maybe your picture will be of a sad and hungry child or maybe it will be of young girls in a caring loving environment. Maybe your message about children has no children at all, but rather an old broken neglected toy. Thoughtful photography encourages us to explore our world and feelings as both the viewer and the photographer.

The creative approach you use to show people how you see the world make your pictures different. Be creative in composition, ideas, and even in applying the mechanics of photography to expand your unique creative approach. Where you point your camera and how you configure the settings will change your message.

Zen Photography

Knowing the mechanics of photography and being able to creatively compose images are vital to capture striking images. In fact, sometimes I am taking pictures so fast and mindlessly that all I am doing is setting my camera and altering my composition. It’s not my ideal scenario. In this mode, it’s like I am just firing a shotgun randomly with a hope of bagging dinner. And yes, sometimes I do get great pictures. But without applying more heart and soul to my efforts, my pictures lack something. My most rewarding photographs happen when I slow down and tune in to the world around me.

Basic tip #8: Be mindful of the world around you

By occasionally putting my camera down and listening, smelling, touching, and watching, I can connect myself to my surroundings. Sometimes this means letting a horned owl fly by without reaching for my camera because I am watching how her feathers move, where her head turns, and listening to the flap of her wings. After slowing my mind down, I am ready to pick up the camera. Now when I look through the view finder, I see a living world around me. In my mind, I speak to the owl as I follow her with my telephoto lens. Now when I make a print of her, it’s more than just an image. I have captured a feeling.

I love candid shots. I can sit in the park, watch children play, and take pictures all day long. My best shots of children come out when I have connected on some level with them. Maybe I need to play with them for a half hour or tickle them and make them laugh. Other times I may watch them to learn what makes them smile or frown. Once I have made a connection, I am ready to capture who they are in a photograph. Anything before that is just a snapshot.

Basic tip #9: Periodically check your camera settings

Because a Zen approach is holistic, you can’t forget that mechanics are part of the process. I have blown some great pictures because I skipped tip number 8. I’m out there shooting; in the groove, excited, everything is in the flow….100 pictures later, I find out my camera is set at 1000 ISO, I’ve pushed two stops, or I am not in the correct exposure mode. I like to stop every so often and just double check my camera settings…on a point and shoot camera this is easy. You are shooting sports….are you sure you are in the sport priority mode? If you shoot digital, review your pictures and make sure they are looking right. Read your histogram if you know how. Make sure you are shooting what you think you are shooting!

Basic tip #10: Be Patient

The greatest skill of a photographer is patience. Patience, however, doesn’t mean sitting around wasted time! Use that time to begin building the perfect picture. Breath, connect, feel…use all your senses to be aware of your surroundings. Forget about the problems and issues you face out in the world. For that moment, nothing matters. It’s just you and your camera….in the living breathing world around you.


Taking photographs requires more than a finger to push a button. If all you want is snapshots, you wouldn’t be reading this article. Practice using my first ten tips and when you are ready, move on to my advanced section!

10 Basic Photography Tips

  • Use the shooting modes offered by your camera
  • Center your picture on your main subject, press the shutter halfway, and then recompose your picture
  • If possible, take pictures when the lighting is soft and with the sun at your back
  • Hold your camera steady
  • Take pictures when you are feeling enthusiastic and inspired
  • Pause once in a while and ask yourself, what am I feeling
  • Move around with your camera
  • Be a part of the world around you
  • Periodically check your camera settings
  • Be Patient

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One thought on “Zen Photography in 10 Steps

  • By Daniel - Reply


    Thanks for this article. I read it to get to know you a bit better before writing a comment regarding your writing about Continuous Ink Systems and affordable bulk printing. Enjoyed the Zen article and have started a new Bookmark Folder (How To (take good photos)).

    No reply needed.

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