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Photography's Secret Ingredient: How Intrinsic Motivation Fuels Creativity

As a photographer for over 20 years now, I know what it’s like to fall in and out of flow. There was even a time after we moved back to Buffalo, NY from Japan when I needed to focus more on starting our Japanese restaurant business so I really limited my photography to food photography and other shots that benefitted the business. I sort of began to see photography as a business tool rather than an outlet for creative expression, the way that I had previously seen it. I didn’t realize it but there was no flow there anymore. 

Through studying flow state science though I’ve come to learn that there are a number of flow triggers, 22 to be exact, that can help to put you in a flow prone environment, where you feel your best and you perform your best.  

Sit back and grab a coffee or tea and relax for a minute. I want to talk a little about the flow trigger called intrinsic motivation so you can begin to consistently access flow on your long photography journey. 

Hi I’m Josh and welcome to Photographic Flow 

A key aspect of flow is doing something for the sake of doing it. You just enjoy doing that particular thing and you don’t need anyone telling you you have to do it. We’ve all had these kinds of activities in our lives and we often have this kind of feeling of timelessness. When you are in the moment your perception of time is altered a bit and things can feel like they are really slowing down, or oppositely like we often say, time flies when you’re having fun.  

Actively pursuing those things that we are intrinsically motivated to do (meaning that it comes from within ourselves) is a way of accessing the flow state. For both ourselves and our children, if you’re a parent, we need to continue to encourage exploration and finding those things that we may one day become interested in. Lucky for us, you’ve explored and found a way to photography somehow, and there’s something that you really can connect with and you enjoy shooting. 

Whether you are starting out on your photography journey or you’ve been doing it for awhile, you need to forget about the whole idea of a comfort zone, and whether you are in or out of your comfort zone. It’s a made-up field surrounding you and the only thing it’s keeping you in it is a limited mindset. As you get more familiar with the many layers of photography your curiosity develops, and that will also help you access flow.   


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (p.54) says that: 

“The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock and you’re glad it’s over but really wish it would go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself…. The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognizing that you are in a flow. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication.”  ―  

For me, I was first exposed to film photography back at my performing arts high school in Buffalo and was in the Visual arts program where we had a dark room. I loved the camera but I have to say that I didn’t love the chemicals and the smells, or the difficulty of accessing the room to process the photos. And really the aspect of not knowing if I was capturing the image I wanted to capture in the moment were all things getting in the way of developing an intrinsic motivation to continue down this artistic path.  

Later when I was in Japan I think I began to get closer to those feelings that Csikszentmihalyi described as “The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow.” This was when I began photographing Japanese gardens around the Kansai area where I was living. I loved to try to capture a moment of time that I was experiencing, as well as the combination of human creativity and nature. When all of these things came together the feeling was indescribable. After awhile those experiences grew and I knew that I found some photographic flow and that I wanted to keep this a part of my life forever.  

If you’re like me, it was sort of a unique subject that I was drawn to that made me want to go further and explore photography more. Now you may come from the tech side and really enjoy the details about the cameras and the lenses, and that can lead you into flow, but for me, it was really just a tool for creatively expressing myself, capturing a moment in time, and enjoying it for the love of flow.  

It can be a difficult and challenging hobby no one really starts out good at. It can take a few months of dedicated practice just to get a somewhat decent picture. But I think the challenge is also a large part of what kept me intrinsically motivated to practice and grow, and I still have a lot of room to grow.  

But I never would have really gone deeper with the camera and come to see it as my personal flow tool, if I hadn’t let my curiosity and imagination take over. I encourage all of you to let your guard down and get out there and explore your photography path. 

Flow brings more flow, I know it sounds kind of redundant but what I mean is that sometimes we continue doing an activity because we are actually attracted to the state of flow that we find ourselves in when doing that activity. And so we continue for the love of flow. 

 So let your curiosity run wild and begin to let an intrinsic motivation be your guide.  

There are so many layers to this art form so you have to let yourself be drawn to learning something new. Remember, there is no line around your comfort zone. Just do it for the Love of Flow, let your Intrinsic Motivation of taking pictures and capturing moments be your Guide. 

If you’d like a place to foster your intrinsic motivation check out our community of like-minded flow-seeking photographers like yourself at the And subscribe to the FLOW playlist on my YouTube Channel to continue finding ways of boosting your creative photographic flow.  

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