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What Does Flow State Feel Like in Photography? Recognizing Photographic Flow

Whether you are a beginning photographer or a seasoned pro, I guarantee you’ve experienced flow before. I’ve got 4 ways that we can recognize when we’re in flow, and then begin to work toward accessing flow on demand. So sit back and relax, grab your coffee or tea, and flow with me.  



At one time or another, we’ve all experienced flow, but maybe it was when you were out shooting but doing something like surfing, or hiking, or cooking. There are a number of flow activities, and the fact that you’ve been drawn to photography for some reason may be that it’s a flow-inducing activity in itself.  

When you can begin to recognize some of the attributes of flow, even if it’s after the fact, you can begin to figure out how you can recreate those flow moments when you are fully absorbed in the moment and you are feeling your best and performing your best. 

We have an easy way to remember this: S.T.E.R.  

STER = Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness 

  

  • SELFLESSNESS 

This is the feeling of when your Self vanishes.  We quiet our inner critic and the critiquing internal dialogue goes quiet. We are present but merely observing and being aware, not judging. We can hold multiple viewpoints and see them from various angles without our daily baggage affecting our decisions.    

There is no need for tips and tricks to quiet the inner criticism, biology and neuroscience do that for us in our prefrontal cortex during flow.  

I’ve realized this more times than not in my landscape photography when a state of calm awareness comes over me and there’s just a direct experience with the moment. 

  • TIMELESSNESS 

In a flow state, we have the feeling of time distorting. Sometimes it typically speeds up, or sometimes it can also slow down. When we are in this timeless “deep now” feeling, we have an enhanced awareness of the present.  

The part of our brain that keeps track of the past and the future gets temporarily shut down, allowing us to fully open ourselves to the present moment. 

 This open awareness to the moment-to-moment experience allows us to process more information accurately and faster. Sometimes when I tell my wife that I’m just going out for a morning shoot along a hiking trail, I’ll get a call pulling me back to reality, and I realize it’s past lunchtime already and time just flew by.  

  • EFFORTLESSNESS 

The feeling of effortlessness is also associated with flow. It’s not easy, oppositely it’s when your skills match the challenge at hand, but it’s just enough of a challenge that conquering it rewards you, which then motivates you to continue. 

 It becomes intrinsically rewarding, which deepens your flow. It’s an effortless and energizing exploration of the moment. In Taoism, they call this concept WuWei. 

Neurobiologically, flow creates a cocktail of pleasure chemicals that bring about these overall feelings of effortlessness.  

But this doesn’t happen if you haven’t mastered the basics of your camera first. The more you have to stop and struggle with getting the right ISO or figuring out where things are in your menu, the more you are being pulled out of flow.  

  • RICHNESS 

The fourth feeling photographers can feel in the flow state is Richness.  The flow state opens us to receive a rich and deep experience of new information. It is simultaneously a feeling of comfort and awe.  

We feel like there is this new connection to the outside world. The thing is though, we were always connected. It was our everyday filters that prevented us from fully taking in this rich and deep experience of interconnectivity.   

I would bet though that after learning what flow feels like you can relate to some of these feelings. Let me know down below in the comments if you’ve had a flow experience with photography and which feelings of STER you felt. 

 

Practice for Flow 

Now the trick is to learn how to access this state when you want to, not just by accident.  As with anything, accessing these states requires practice.  In photography, the difficulty level is pretty high so more times than not flow usually comes a little later, after you have mastered your camera or become comfortable in shooting in different settings.  

In the beginning, the challenge is too high for your skillset.  

After you’ve practiced photography for a while though and gone through the initial learning curve, you will begin to let the rules and structures go as your skills develop. You’ll begin to intuitively make decisions without really needing to think about the next step.  

This is where you will begin to find yourself in the zone more times than not.  

Until you are fully comfortable in manual, maybe setting your camera in Aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode first will allow you to only focus on composition for a session. Giving yourself a strict limitation is another way you might be able to focus enough to enter some of those micro-flow states. For example, if you’re doing street photography or in the woods, only focus on shooting images with bold shadows. Having a strict guidline will allow you to ignore all of the other distractions that will pop up along the way. And distractions kill flow.  

If you’re interested in joining a community of like-minded flow-seeking photographers come on over to photographic-flow.com.  

To start paying attention to those moments in flow try to remember the acronym STER, that’s Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness. 


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