Photography As Spiritual Practice

Why do you take pictures? I ask this question at the start of every photography workshop I teach. The answers vary, of course. Some are simply trying to capture a memory – for themselves, or to share with others. Some want to document a project such as a garden or the construction of a new building. Some are making art, or a reference photo from which to make art.

When I first started taking pictures, my primary goal was to learn more about what I was seeing. Field guides are heavy, so instead of carrying books into the field, I would photograph flowers, insects, trees, birds … so I could look them up later. I wasn’t trying to create something to hang on my walls … just something good enough, with just enough field marks, that I would be able to find the subject of my photo in a field guide.

As I became confident of my identification in the field, my goal became to capture beautiful portraits of each plant or animal I encountered, rather than just a snapshot for later ID. I experimented with different lenses, paid closer attention to the backgrounds, and took my time setting up the composition.

And then, over time, something changed. The whole process of making pictures became for me something other than capturing this or that subject matter. It came to be a practice bordering on the spiritual, a Zen mindfulness exercise. Subject matter and concepts give way to the play of light or a visual texture and I get lost in world of pure perception. Time zips by. Concerns fall away. I am one with the moment and seeing things I normally walk past without noticing.

This meditative mindset is easier to accomplish now that I understand the workings of my camera. It would not be possible for me if I had to stop and puzzle over which settings to use. This is not to say that I don’t still have a lot to learn. (I still haven’t experimented much with full manual mode.) Understanding aperture and shutter speed and how they interact, and knowing about exposure compensation and ISO – all these things help me make photos that represent my perceptions.

I didn’t get to that understanding by reading my camera manual. Camera manuals tell you how to change the settings, but not why you would want to. I will always be grateful to a certain experienced photographer who took me under his wing. Shortly after I got my first digital SLR, he took me on an Audubon walk-about, cameras in hand. With his guidance – and extreme patience (I think I made him repeat the same things about two dozen times each), I eventually weaned myself off automatic mode. If you’re going to have an SLR, you really want to learn all the different modes of operation; otherwise, you just have an expensive point-and-shoot.

Whatever your reason for taking photographs, if you have a digital SLR camera and want to learn how to use more of its features, consider joining us at Audubon for DSLR Boot Camp with photography instructor Mark Kirsch. Basic Training will take place on Saturday, July 13 from 1-4 p.m. and will introduce you to modes of operation other than automatic. Paid reservations are required by July 9 and can be made in person, through our website, or by calling with your credit card in hand. The price is $26; Friends of the Nature Center pay only $20.

If you already know the basic operations of your camera and are ready for some more advanced techniques, consider Intermediate Training on Tuesday, Aug. 13 and Thursday, Aug. 15 from 6-9 p.m. In this class, Mark will cover topics such as using fill and off-camera flash, photographing at night, portrait and still life lighting. Paid reservations for this class are due by Thursday, Aug. 8. The cost is $47, or $35 for Friends of the Nature Center.

Mark Kirsch is a photography instructor at Southwestern High School and Jamestown Community College, as well as a wedding and portrait photographer. He started his DSLR Boot Camps recently and has offered these workshops throughout the community. We are excited to host Basic and Intermediate Training at Audubon this summer. Mark has graciously offered to present the workshops at a discount to Audubon members and friends. We hope you will take advantage of this special pricing.

(Not sure if your camera is a DSLR? The difference between DSLR and point-and-shoot cameras continues to blur as the technology improves. These classes assume you have a camera that allows you to adjust your aperture and shutter speed and that you can change lenses. If you aren’t sure, please call the center.)

Jennifer Schlick is program director at Audubon which is located at 1600 Riverside Road in the town of Kiantone, a quarter-mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren, Pa. For more information about the Center or the Boot Camps, call 569-2345 or visit