Zen and the art of learning photography

by Ben Heys, July 16, 2013


I hesitate a little to use this title as “Zen & the art of xxxxx” has been used to death after the very (VERY) good book by Pirsig in the 70′s. However I just wrote this article and realised that most of what I was saying in it came from what I think of as something of a “zen” mindset so I made a couple modifications and here it is.  In order to pay tribute to one of my very favourite books & because I cannot put the summation more elegantly or succinctly myself I’ll start with a note from the man himself:

Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance book cover



“The real cycle you are working on is ‘yourself.’ ”

“The study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.  Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become a part of the process, to achieve an inner peace of mind.  The motorcycle is predominantly a mental phenomenon.”


- Robert M. Pirsig




Photography just is

Photography is one of those great careers where still to this day you don’t need any pieces of paper (reads university degrees etc) or any particular licences etc to make a living out of it. What you need is skill with a camera, you need to show that you can produce the results that your clients want. If only more jobs were like this….based on ability rather than ‘education’. As I’m sure that like me there are many others out there that have the passion and drive to learn what they need to do the job of their dreams (whatever that may be) but not necessarily the money to afford education or (in my personal case, as I live in Australia) the patience to learn at the pace of the idiots around me, and be forced to learn the curriculum that some ‘teacher’ lays out.  Also it doesn’t have to be made into a career, like all of the arts (and if we were wise all of life) it’s power lays in it’s passion, not in the dollars you attribute to it.


The end and start of my own journey

Ok, end is the wrong term as it’s not over yet, but I am currently a full time professional photographer who makes 100% of his living with a camera, has never studied (photography) at university and has done a total of 2 photographic workshops in his life. And they were both more than useless.

How did I get in the position of starting to learn photography? Well initially it was naught but a hobby that I played with now and then from high school onward. But really what happened was I got sick of doing jobs that I quickly despised (haven’t we all been there?) and found myself in a position where I was bouncing from one horrible job to another. There had to be a better way!

And so I decided that I’d make an on & off lifetime hobby into a career. I dropped some dollars on a decent camera (Canon eos 10D), a 50mm prime lens and set about to learn how to use it.


“When I started learning Zen, mountains were just mountains, as I gained knowledge of Zen mountains ceased to be mountains and when I mastered Zen once again they were just mountains…”

Sunset boat ride

I started by looking up information on photography online and through magazines and found out a couple things: firstly the basic principals behind photography are extremely easy and secondly that most articles I read tended to make them much harder than it seemed they needed to be. Looking back now I can see that photography is indeed one of those areas where the basics can be understood quite quickly but the subtle nuances and vague esoteric knowledge goes on almost infinitely until you get to the point of saying “screw it, I really don’t need to know everything”

Still to this day I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head exactly how to work out hyper-focal distance or comment intelligently on the work of “insert you favourite famous photographer”. And you know what? I don’t need to, neither do you! – it’s all a load of bollocks. Skill with a camera can come very quick, if you understand the basic principals of how shutter speed and aperture work and how they effect the end photo – and that’s about 80% of the knowledge you NEED to take great shots right there! It used to be that you also had to have a good understanding of guide number if you were going to introduce flash into the picture but with today’s LCD displays on the back of cameras you can just play around until you get the results you want.

You can go on learning indefinitely, I still learn new things every time I research a particular topic but if you start with the basics of SS & aperture you are really most of the way there. From there there is one main thing you need to do and two main ways you need to go about get better and better with a camera:


When you are hungry eat, when you are tired sleep

This is a saying in Zen that is meant to suggest that you need to be doing whatever you are doing FULLY, so when you are hungry EAT, devote every ounce of yourself to the sensation of eating, feel the texture of the food on your tongue, smell and taste every part of the food you are eating, be in the moment, don’t be thinking or obsessing over the car loan or the asshole boss at work.  Life is NOW, live it now, yesterday has gone and tomorrow is an illusion, there is just NOW, there will only ever be just NOW so do the most you can with this now.

In terms of photography this means

#1 practise…it’s an old cliche that practise makes perfect but it’s true enough (I wont get into the philosophical questions of “perfect art” but you get the idea).  But more importantly practice with conviction, think about what you are doing and if it seems there’s another way to do it then TRY that way.  The worst that will happen is that you will find out what doesn’t work (which is often as invaluable as knowing what does work)


#2 look at lots and lots and lots of photos, but more importantly look on them with this zen type of approach, this fully in the moment kind of mindset..

When you find you like a photo, don’t just say to yourself “mmmm that’s pretty, I wish I could take photos like that”, it’s very likely that you CAN! Today’s DSLRs are extremely high quality, and it’s great if you have one or two bits of decent glass. Primes are fantastic and the best option in terms of pure quality, but for convenience you can go with more expensive “L series” or the like zooms. However these are both somewhat expensive options that you need not delve into straight away as even kit zooms that come with lower end DSLR bodies can be used to snap off a decent picture. The fact is that most likely that awesome shot you are admiring so much was taken with equipment not fundamentally different from your own. You just have to learn to study the shot and reverse engineer the set up. Ask yourself questions like:

“what length lens did he use for that?” – is it a compressed perspective of a telephoto length lens or an exaggerated perspective that you find with a wide angle?

“where is the light coming from?” study the shadows & catch lights as these often give strong clues as to the location and quality of the light. Remember light sources can (until you get into multiple light setups) generally only have two aspects to them, softness and angle…photons are photons, the difference between that ludicrously expensive pro photo studio flash unit and your little speed light is mostly one of convenience, 9 times out of 10 with a bit of thought and improvisation you can make the same images with each.

“what was done in photoshop?” this is probably the hardest thing to learn as photoshop is (in my opinion) much more technical, layered & difficult to learn than actual photography. But delve into it, read some tutorials (and follow along with them with your own shots) and before you know it you’ll start to get more and more of an idea what you can do with photoshop and how other people are using it.


Question everything, even what I tell you

Zen is more than anything a practical philosophy and it likes to deal with what WORKS, it also likes to encourage it’s students to find that out for themselves.  Masters can suggest paths and do what they can to guide the steps of their pupils but it is YOU that has to walk your path.  It is so often that I talk to newish photographers that are just so overwhelmed with all the information out there on photography that often they just want to pack it in, or they believe that they’ll never learn it all. I’m hoping that from reading this you might start thinking about it in a different way. You don’t NEED to learn it all…a lot of “it all” is pure rubbish that might or might not work for you, for your individual style & vision.  Maybe even my whole philosophy might be wrong for you?  That’s certainly possible and something that you need to be aware of…just because it is written does not necessarily make it so!

I sure as hell don’t know it all & I know lots more than I did when I started earning money with a camera..all you need to do is approach it with enjoyment, a bit of determination and play around. The more you experiment the more you learn. And with the advent of digital cameras experimenting with most things in photography is now more or less free – gone are the days where you have to invest in expensive film and developing and then wait days or longer before you can see the results.

Most of all have fun & remember why it is you are taking photos in the fist place! – Ben

Boy on boat


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