Zen and the Art of Photography

My senior year of high school, one of the art teachers offered an Introduction to Photography course. Due to my already-on-record overachieving, I had completed most of the courses that I needed to apply for university and was scrambling to find enough courses so I could take the requisite minimum number; I figured that photography would be fun. Unfortunately, so did most of the artsy kids attending my school and the instructor wound up having to give priority to kids who had already taken a certain number of art course (which, as a music geek, I had not) and...

My senior year of high school, one of the art teachers offered an Introduction to Photography course. Due to my already-on-record overachieving, I had completed most of the courses that I needed to apply for university and was scrambling to find enough courses so I could take the requisite minimum number; I figured that photography would be fun. Unfortunately, so did most of the artsy kids attending my school and the instructor wound up having to give priority to kids who had already taken a certain number of art course (which, as a music geek, I had not) and I was shut out. I wound up taking Intro to Computer Science instead, which probably wound up being more useful over the next 15 years…

But I never forgot about my thwarted photography dreams.

When Tony & I started devising this blog, we had a very distinct division of labor: sticking to our strengths, I would focus primarily on the writing, and Tony—as a former professional photographer—would naturally be in charge of photography.

[This is not to say we don’t trade off tasks every so often, something I think the site is stronger for, but generally speaking, I write and he is our primary photographer.]


Before we left on our trip, however, Tony made it clear he didn’t want to spend our entire trip “stuck behind a camera”, something I think all of us can understand. When you’re constantly viewing the world through a viewfinder, it tends to skew your perspective a bit, and I know that I’ve gone on trips where I snapped hundreds of (lackluster) pictures only to find once I returned home that I had been so busy “capturing the moment” that I had failed to really experience my surroundings and—as E.M. Forster famously wrote—only connect. From the sounds of it, Carmel of The Journey Itself has felt similarly and struggled with this quandary herself.

Our solution was to use this trip as my crash course in photography so that this could potentially be something of a shared passion. The world would be my classroom and finally, after years of waiting, my time to finally learn the basics of photography was here!

As astute 20YH readers will have noticed, my photos have occasionally popped up in posts since the start of this journey, but it wasn’t really until we hit Tainan that I felt like the months of Tony’s excellent tutelage finally took root within me.

First, I began to feel like I was anything more than a dilettante whose camera was doing most of the work, because I started to take interesting—some might even say, beautiful—pictures, that I had worked for and executed to my satisfaction. I wasn’t mindlessly pointing my camera any which way and whispering a prayer to high heaven as I released the shutter that this would turn out. Instead, I was deliberately taking my time when it came to my photos, identifying items in the world around me that I wanted to capture, and then purposefully composing the frame, taking my time so that it was an interesting, yet accurate, reflection of my experience. When we started out on our trip, I would frequently get annoyed with Tony for dawdling and snapping photos while we were on the way to something or somewhere, impatient for us to just get there already. During our days in Tainan, I was frequently the one who lagged behind because I was always seeing one more photo I wanted to take! I would take my shot and feel a thrill course through me as it turned out exactly as I hoped. While I certainly have years of shooting ahead of me before I can hope for my photos to compete with Tony’s (and of course, this is not a competition, right?!?), I was on fire in Tainan, and we both agreed that most of the “shots of the day” came about through my eye and my hands. It gave me a huge sense of achievement to know that I had pushed myself and created something beautiful.

(Some of you might argue that Tainan is already very beautiful, a sentiment I would not wish to argue with, so I will simply counter by saying that at the very least, my photos did not detract from, and perhaps even displayed to its best advantage, the city’s particular beauty).

Maybe it’s just that Tainan is a really visually interesting city where photography possibilities are endless and it’s practically impossible to take bad photos. Maybe I clicked with it for some intensely personal, idiosyncratic reason that helped me slip into The Zone. Maybe I simply got lucky and had a string of good days. All of these things are possible, but looking back, I can’t help feeling like Tainan was the turning point for me with regards to photography, not simply in terms of consolidating my skills, but in terms of what the medium has brought to my life.


Let’s rewind a few paragraphs. I want to focus on one line in particular: “Instead, I was deliberately taking my time when it came to my photos, identifying items in the world around me that I wanted to capture, and then purposefully composing the frame, taking my time so that it was an interesting, yet accurate, reflection of my experience.” It’s a fairly innocuous, seemingly inconsequential line, but I think that if this post were a treasure map, this is the line under which all of my life’s riches might be buried.

Central to that line is the notion of taking time and being deliberate in my actions. Several weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I discussed (amongst other things) how Mindfulness Meditation has in many ways not just given me back my life, but given me back myself as well. Although the practice has offered me so much peace, it is one I have had to work at (though, not as often as I should…), in part because the act of just being present in the moment and inhabiting each second, each breath, to its fullest just doesn’t come naturally to me. I am a planner, a dreamer, a worrier, a schemer, and I am more often fixating on the past or fretting about the future than I am content to live in the simplicity of the here and now.

I never would have guessed that developing photography skills would tap into many of the same fundamental tenants of Mindfulness, but I’ve found there has actually been a lot of overlap. Photography has taught me to focus my mind on the present moment, to attend to what is directly in front of me. It may sound a little cornball, but just as there is a huge gulf between being physically and mentally present, there is a world of difference between looking and seeing and I feel like photography has taught me how to really see. I have found that unlike looking, seeing does not happen in an instant, but only happens when we take the time to go slow, to pause and process deeply. Several times on our travels we have found that by simply being free to dwell in the moment and allowing ourselves the time to see how things unfold, the most incredible experiences have arisen and I think this is true for photography as well. My best pictures don’t happen when I have an agenda, but occur when I’m able to appreciate what is right in front of me, right here, right now, and the rest of the world falls away. Simply put, photography has both encouraged and allowed me to more deeply engage with the world, and rather than feeling trapped behind a screen, I find with a camera in my hands, I’ve actually been more capable of getting caught up in my life as I am living it.


Photography has also helped me appreciate that life is lived as a series of moments, each one fleeting, each heart beat life begun anew; every frame I capture is one lifetime. This is especially true when I work on street photography in which I capture people on the go. With time I’ve learned to read the mood of a scene, and by keenly watching as life plays out, sometimes I can even anticipate when a good shot is about to come my way. But like a lion in the Serengeti, good street photography is predicated on patience—you rarely get the best shots when you’re simply blazing through snapping pictures every which way as you bustle down the street. Instead, take some time, take a breath and get your bearings, because more often than not, you’ve only got one shot to, well, get your shot and so many of the good ones only happen if you’re really looking for them. If you miss it, the moment’s gone and there’s nothing to do but shake it off and wait for the next moment to find you.


I used to joke with friends who, when posing for photos, would cry, “Make me look good!” that a camera is just that, a camera, not a magic wand. And I think that’s true no matter what side of the viewfinder you’re on. Proud as I am of the photos I have taken and the skills I am developing as a photographer, I know my camera is not a talisman that anchors me in space and time. But I love that in working with it, I’ve inadvertently cultivated a headspace that follows me even when my hands are free or I’m not in a position where I can take photos. Even without a camera to guide my eye, I’ve found I’m better able to appreciate the unassuming beauty that infiltrates everyday moments in life that I’m sure I was blind to before. Part of it is that I’m taking the time to stop, admire, and purposefully pay tribute to the things that I see that are lovely and wondrous, whether it’s a beautiful detail, a striking interplay of color or texture or angles, a fleeting expression on a stranger’s face, or maybe just a subtle shift in the energy of a place. When we train ourselves to seek out beauty, we find ourselves more receptive to seeing it in places we never would have previously and I have found that it starts to follow us from place to place. Ironically, by picking up my camera day after day and trying to capture the magic of what I see, I have also started to learn which moments and scenes will never be accurately translated to two-dimensions. Instead, I simply languish in the moment and honor my present experience. So in that sense, photography has taught me to appreciate stillness at all times. Though I will never have a record of these moments that I can share with the world, in this way, they still make their imprint on me and in some small way, I carry them forward with me into the future.

All of the pictures featured in this post are ones that I shot over our four days in Tainan. If you compared these to most of the pictures I took while backpacking through Europe in 2005, you’d see what a long way my photography has come. There’s still more for me to learn and I still have years of shooting in order to refine my style and continue to build my confidence, but I suppose both my photography & I are works in progress. I’m ok with that and I’m excited to see where we go from here.

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24 comments Leave a comment

  1. Great post, Steph, and yes, I’ve noticed your photos popping up. But these? These are truly fantastic. I took a film photography course in college and found that aside from the actual technical aspect of taking photos, I viewed the world around me differently. My prof and I are still friends, and I often see him cup his hand around his eye to “see” a shot. I love it.

    Plus, there is nothing like developing film. It’s, more than anything I’ve experienced, magical.

    Jul. 22 2013 @ 11:28 am
    1. jenn aka the picky girl author

      Thanks for your kind words, Jenn! Tony often waxes rhapsodic about the beauty of developing your own film and how he misses those days, and I know that is definitely something I missed out on by not getting to take that course in highschool, but I am really glad that I’ve started to cultivate this skill. I never imagined it would so dramatically change my outlook on the world, but it sounds like you know exactly what I’m talking about!

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 9:24 am
  2. I’m guilty of not even noticing that some of your shots have crept into blog posts, this is a huge compliment by the way as I’ve always thought Tony’s photography is stunning. You’ve got some beautiful shots here, I love how you capture candids of people. One of the best things about long term travel is the time you have to experiment with new techniques and develop the skills you already have, looks like you didn’t need that photography course after all 🙂

    Jul. 22 2013 @ 3:10 pm
    1. Maddie author

      I really did have a lot of fun experimenting in Tainan, trying to figure out what kind of photography I like best. I never really expected to hone in on people, but for whatever reason, I really felt inspired by the people that we encountered in the city and I guess my shots reflect that! I have been finding that different locations and different lenses bring out different sides of me as a photographer, and it has definitely been exciting to explore that.

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 9:50 am
  3. I really like this perspective on photography. Often, I think what you said at the beginning of the post is true: that constantly taking pictures pulls you out of the moment. But I like the idea that photography, instead being something that distracts from the present moment, can be something that pulls you into the subtleties of the experience. I’ve been slowly learning that taking the time to take a few quality photos is much more effect than blindly snapping pictures for an entire trip.

    Jul. 23 2013 @ 5:06 am
    1. Jessica author

      I think that just by learning a few simple principles about photography—such as the basics of composition, for instance— this can dramatically change the way you approach photography and the extent to which it distracts or enhances an experience. When I was just shooting blindly, I don’t think I was really seeing anything and was just assuming my photos would help me remember the moment, but now I think more deeply on what I see and I take my time and feel like my photographs are direct responses to the situation I’m in and that has really made all the difference.

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 9:55 am
  4. We’re talking about two sides of the same coin. I love that. This is the other side of photography and why it can be so amazing and why it is considered art. It’s not just snapping a pretty picture, but really getting involved with a scene or a feeling and expressing that (somehow) through the lens. These photos are fantastic and I love seeing it through your eyes.

    I liked someone’s comment in my post about how sometimes waiting for the perfect shot can plant you in a space longer than you would have normally stayed if you were there to just see something and leave.

    I wish I had someone to give me tips on how to take better photos!

    Jul. 23 2013 @ 10:39 am
    1. Carmel author

      I love that comment you shared, because I have definitely found it to be true. When we go out specifically with the goal of doing photography walks, I find we often take better pictures and have these really fantastic encounters that we generally don’t when we are more goal-oriented and are simply focused on getting to a place and seeing it. I think that photography has definitely helped me approach the world with a greater openness to discovering things rather than looking for what I am already anticipating and that’s really changed the nature of my experiences.

      I certainly think there are times when we all get too caught up in documenting or photographing things rather than just enjoying the moment, but I definitely think that by nurturing this skill, I’ve also gotten better at recognizing which moments are destined to simply be ephemeral and exist only in the moment and I can leave the camera off at those points rather than wrestling in vain to capture something that simply won’t be caught!

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 10:00 am
  5. What a moving, meaningful post. I’m so glad that you got the opportunity to stretch your photography legs. And, I must say, those are some really, really beautiful shots. I love that you mentioned your photographic “eye” and slowing down to just look around. There are so many incredible things in the world, not all of them are big and in your face!

    Jul. 23 2013 @ 11:45 am
    1. Dana author

      Thanks for the comment, Dana! I definitely think that photography is training me to not just find beauty in unexpected places, but also to attend to the things that in our haste we often overlook. Taiwan is one of those countries where so much of the beauty is found in the details and I’m glad that by this point in our journey, I was already sufficiently skilled to take note of it!

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 10:03 am
  6. To be honest, I haven’t noticed your pictures in other posts. But these pictures are really great. You’ve got skills!

    Jul. 23 2013 @ 4:30 pm
    1. Angela author

      Maybe it’s because Tony is the one who has taught me most of what I know, but we often find we take very similar pictures and I’ve developed a similar aesthetic to him… Funny how that worked out, but I think it definitely helps my photos blend in with his (and it’s nice that my shots are frequently good enough that others haven’t noticed I’m the one taking them… definitely a step in the right direction for me! :D).

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 10:06 am
  7. Loved reading your reflections Steph! I got into photography a couple years ago (sadly, I lack a professional photographer husband to provide me instruction :p, so what I’ve learned comes from books and the internet), and it’s affected me in many of the same ways it’s affected you. Also, as someone who started telling herself very young that she had no artistic ability, photography has really been my entry into visual arts, although I didn’t realise it at first. Then last year when I said there wasn’t an artistic bone in my body, a good friend said “That’s not true. Look at your photography.” I was taken aback at first, but eventually I must’ve internalised the compliment, because now I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as unartistic.

    I absolutely love the process of composition, which is probably why my still life photography tends to be far better than any other subject I attempt! But when I’m viewing photos, I love looking at ones of people as much as still life objects, so on my upcoming Ecuador trip (t-minus 5 weeks!), I’m going to try my best to practice street & informal portrait shots. While I’ll only have 4 weeks and no helpful feedback buddy, I do think that travelling solo will help, because in the past I’ve always been w a non-photographer companion, which makes it much more difficult to linger over the process! Even if they’re not actually complaining, I start to feel self conscious and flustered knowing that they’re probably bored waiting for me. Anyway, I have high hopes at least!

    I know that you probably included your caveats re: your improvement to make sure you don’t sound cocky, but I just want to say that your photographs from the last few posts have been SO powerful. Definitely not a fluke or luck!

    And now I’ve rambled on for far too long. I’d selfishly love to see you guys start doing some posts re: tips for travel photography. Especially people & street photography, which is imho the most intimidating bit! Or you can just e-mail all the tips to me so you don’t have to worry about formatting, etc. as a post. ;D

    Jul. 23 2013 @ 6:40 pm
    1. Eva author

      I have always thought that my creative outlet was always writing and that was where all my artistic talent points had been spent, so discovering that I might have something of an eye for photography has been a pleasant surprise and I absolutely understand where you are coming from!

      It wasn’t until we reached Taiwan that I really began to feel like my street photography was any good, because like you, I had a hard enough time getting still life shots composed correctly… so that was 4 months of shooting pretty much every day! I’ve read a few posts that suggest there are ways to shortcut your way to taking better photos, and certainly reading tips can help, but I don’t think there’s any substitute for just getting out there and taking as many pictures as you can. I have also found that by looking at Tony’s photos, seeing how he approaches a scene and shoots it compared to my own photos has been really helpful as it gives me ideas that I put in my piggy bank for the future… and the more I’ve shot, the more I have come appreciate other people’s photos and begun to identify techniques or styles that I’d like to attempt in my photos. It’s definitely one of those areas where every bit of information builds on everything you’ve already learned.

      Also, thanks for your feedback on the kind of content you’d like to see featured on the site! Tony has actually been laying some groundwork and outlining a series of photography-centered posts outlining topics to help fellow photographers and your comment has confirmed this would indeed be of interest. Hopefully we can start rolling some of this out before you leave on your trip for Ecuador (so exciting!).

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 10:36 am
  8. Really great post and stunning photos! Lately, I’ve actually been thinking similarly about photography. Since taking a short photography course back when everything had to be developed in a darkroom (!) I’ve not really taken many photos more than just snap shots. I’ve loads of photos of my travels all of which are pretty awful and serve only to remind me of where I was and who I was with. But when I took these photos I wasn’t paying attention to how they’d turn out, neither paying attention to the experience; one distracted me from the other!

    Now my boyfriend, a passionate photographer, has been teaching me how to take a good photo. It’s really changed my perspective on how I view the world. I really feel that putting thought into the shot actually makes you pay more attention to the world around you. Plus it’s pretty addictive and so satisfying when a shot turns out how you wanted! Like you and Tony, when my boyfriend and I go traveling, he’ll take most of the photos and I’ll continue to write, but I’ll definitely be taking a few shots of my own too!

    Jul. 23 2013 @ 7:24 pm
    1. Charlie author

      It’s so interesting to hear that my perspective on how photography and deeply experiencing moments and places feed into one another is shared by other burgeoning photographers! Glad to hear I’m not alone, and it’s really making me think that the difference between people for whom photography may actually detract rather than enhance might be the level to which people are engaging with photography in the first place.

      When we set out on our trip, I was interested enough in photography that we made sure I had a camera so that I could take some pictures too (we figured having 2 photographers certainly wouldn’t hurt) and also so that I’d have something to do while Tony was taking photos… but you’re absolutely right that I’ve gotten more and more sucked in and it’s very rare that I’m not shooting nearly as many photos as Tony these days!

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 10:41 am
  9. Steph, congrats on the big development in your photography! Love this post, and hope to be able to write one similar one day! My husband’s a great photographer and always tries to teach me a few things but I’m terribly impatient about learning and just haven’t practised enough – and since my son was born three years ago have barely even picked up my DSLR (too many other things to juggle and carry!). But one day … and the way you described the learning process has inspired me to think that “one day” should be soon! Thank you 🙂

    Jul. 24 2013 @ 6:48 am
    1. Amanda Kendle author

      I’m fairly impatient by nature as well (understatement of the century!) and also a perfectionist, so I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve wanted to throw the camera down in frustration… but having a great teacher has definitely helped. The fact that we are also out shooting nearly every day hasn’t hurt either as it has given me ample opportunity to practice and consolidate all of those skills! I hope you find the time soon to get back into photography and that you find it is rewarding as I have!

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 10:44 am
  10. Interesting post, Steph! I can relate to Tony in that sometimes I got “tired” of taking photos. Towards the end of my trip, I often just brought my Iphone around instead and traded high quality photos for more internal memories. Your photos are beautiful!! I think Tony’s expertise and practicing will be a much better teacher than a high school photography class 🙂

    Jul. 24 2013 @ 2:06 pm
    1. Amanda author

      I definitely still have days where I just don’t feel like taking pictures, we both do, actually! Sometimes we just get tired or lazy (or both!) and we satisfy ourselves simply with what we can see in the moment and don’t worry about the best. I think that if we’re not feeling inspired by a location to take photos or just don’t want to, then there’s no point forcing it as we rarely get good shots that way. I recognize that not every city can be like Tainan for me, and I’m ok with that! 😀

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 10:48 am
  11. ” I find with a camera in my hands, I’ve actually been more capable of getting caught up in my life as I am living it.” -Oh Steph, that’s so beautiful. That’s how I am with camera, too. Photography for me is capturing the moments that capture me, which are also very meditative moments.
    Your images are beautiful. I can tell they were taken at you captured moments. Don’t you find that when you’re captured your instinct just kick in and start snapping away?
    Tony, I love your photos but more Steph photos, please!

    Jul. 29 2013 @ 11:28 pm
    1. Marisol@TravelingSolemates author

      For me I’ve definitely found that if I go a while without taking pictures, then it can take me a little while to get back in the zone and start taking ones that I’m happy with again, but once I find my rhythm, my shots definitely improve!

      Thank you so much for your supportive comment; I think from here on out, we’re going to start seeing a lot more of my own photos in our posts!

      Jul. 31 2013 @ 9:08 pm
  12. I’m trying to find the words to write for this comment but know that whatever I type will never do justice to your beautifully composed, thoughtful post. Photography for me has always been my answer to keeping a journal. Well before I started my blog, I was snapping photos of everything I saw and experienced and ate. Looking back on those albums years later, fading memories are brought back to life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve referenced them for a hotel or restaurant recommendation when a friend is traveling to the same place. When I first started dating my husband, he balked at how many pictures I took. But as the years have passed and we travel more frequently, he has become much more supportive. Sometimes he even seems downright excited about it, pointing out things for me to photograph or waiting patiently while I wait for just the right moment. On our last two trips he has even surprised me by asking to take a few shots himself. It’s fun to see the world together in that way. Your photos are stunning (especially the one of the girl with the pink wig and red coat) and make me want to run outside to see what interesting things I can capture.

    Aug. 7 2013 @ 10:36 pm
    1. Heather author

      I’ve definitely used our photos as a memory aid, even though I do keep a written journal. Still, there’s no substitute for taking photos of our meals or hotels, etc., and it’s really nice that the two can complement one another. At the start of our trip, I was definitely impatient with Tony, but now I dawdle nearly as much as he does so we make quite the pair! Thanks for sharing your own photographic journey!

      Oct. 14 2013 @ 9:48 am

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