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Flow State Photography: Elevate Your Shots with This Essential Flow Trigger

The flow state is such an underestimated and overlooked key to improving your photography, boosting your creativity, and living life to the fullest.  

My teacher Steven Kotler has a saying: 

"Motivation is what gets us into the game.  

Learning allows us to continue to play.  

Creativity is how we steer.  

And flow, which is optimal performance, is how we amplify all the results, beyond all reasonable expectations." 

Today we’re going to talk about the essential flow trigger challenge/skills balance. 

This Flow trigger is probably the most powerful and most well-known out there so we’ll begin with this one. Flow requires us to be focused on a specific task at hand in our photography, and that can be moving around to find the very best composition and angle, or searching for the best shutter speed to get just the right blur that we’re looking for, or waiting for the right circumstances of people and cars crossing in our street photography shot.  

But we are fully engaged and paying the most attention when that specific task is slightly beyond our reach, they’ve actually roughly pinpointed the area on what we call the Flow Channel.  

The flow channel sweet spot keeps us present and centered on the present moment.  

 If your photography skills don’t match the challenge in front of you, you aren’t going to be able to enter flow.  

If you’ve been doing photography for awhile and your skills are much greater than the tasks you need to accomplish, you’ll get bored with them and stop paying attention. Oppositely, if the task is too difficult, you’ll get frustrated and quit. Either way, you won’t be in an optimal position to focus your attention. To get into Flow, the activity needs to hit that middle point between boredom and anxiety. 

Another way to think of it is that the challenge should have us become more like bamboo, in that we bend but we don’t break.  

In this challenge skills balance, we need to talk for a second about what we mean by skills. It’s often debated but there are 7 factors that routinely come up: confidence, optimism, mindset, actual skills, tolerance for anxiety, ability to delay gratification, and societal values.  

Focusing on a few here; confidence, optimism, and mindset, how you feel about your skills directly impacts how easy you think a challenge is. So it’s not the exact measure of the photography skills you have, it’s the attitude you bring toward those skills as well.   

In photography, it could mean your actual technique, ability to capture the right sharpness or not blow out your highlights etc., but as research has shown with elite athletes,  it’s as important how you feel about what you’re doing as is the actual skills you bring.  

Societal values is also a tricky one, especially when we are talking about our sub-culture in the photography world, or even deeper in your particular photograpy niche. Traditionally people like Nietzsche, Freud and William James argued that we needed to free ourselves from societal limitations if we were to have any kind of self-actualization. But I’ve found that with modernization and globalization, we are now a little freer to delve into our photography sub-culture with fewer barriers than before. Actual camera technology has also lowered the barrier of entry. It’s also why I’ve felt a need to create a community of like-minded flow-seeking photographers like yourself at the Photographic Flow website.  

The last area I’d like to touch on with the Flow Channel is the magic 5% number. We pay the most attention to the task at hand when that challenge is about 4 or 5% beyond our skill set.   

If the challenge is 5% greater than our skills, that’s when we are just pushed out of our comfort zone. This can be hard to consistently regulate ourselves though so a good teacher or mentor is often the best person to keep you in that 5% difficulty range.  

In this range, we are shooting with a little anxiety, but we are simultaneously building more comfort in these slightly stressful situations. Developing comfort in the uncomfortable is a great way to build our photography stamina. I love taking pictures outdoors, when hiking, by a river, or in somewhat bad weather conditions. This type of stress is great for trying to photograph in the worst conditions, building a level of comfort outside of your comfort zone.  

But you can’t take an aggressive jump into something that’s 20% or 50% beyond your skills just for the thrill. You won’t be able to stay in that flow sweet spot, and this is the zone you need to stay in in order to one day reach those higher goals of yours.  

So I’m not saying that you can’t have those high goals, it’s just that you need to break them down into smaller clear goals. And those smaller chunks of clear goals are within that 5% range, that can eventually compound into something much larger.  

Think about something in your photography practice that seems overwhelming, then think about how you can break it down into smaller manageable chunks. If you’d like some help with that or some other tips on accessing flow consistently subscribe to my newsletter over at my website at   

While this challenge/skills balance flow trigger is essential, there is a step even before this surrounding curiosity that needs to be made in order to start developing your flow-prone life with photography. 

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