GeoMorph: A Case Study of Flow State in Photography
In May of this year (2021 at the time of writing), I released my first ever photography gallery. Up until this point, my practice for publishing new images came as stand-alone releases without particular relation to a theme, topic or concept. GeoMorph, however, was a collection of 33 images featuring the shapes, lines, colours and textures found in rocks; more particularly, sandstone.
I had explored this subject in my images for close to two years by this point, with many of my favourite intimate/abstract photos showcasing this theme already. However they mostly had been captured more or less incidentally, stumbling across the compositions while hiking or attempting to capture another (likely wide-angle) scene. This changed on the 2nd of May, when I spent a couple of hours on a sunny Sunday afternoon capturing over 500 raw files showcasing the sandstone rocks found on the stunning south-Sydney coastline. 26 of those raw files were then selected and edited, making it into the final gallery alongside a few others that had been neglected in the hard drives and deserved to see the light. It made for the most productive 2 hours I’ve ever had in photography, restrained to a section of only a few hundred metres in the Royal National Park, concentrating on capturing only one type of subject.
Looking back on that period of two hours, I was in the strongest flow state of productive creativity I’ve experienced. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a flow state is that sense of fluidity between your body and mind; deeply focused beyond the point of distraction, creating an effortless momentum. Things you wouldn’t have seen or thought of otherwise become clear, and the gears seem to fall into place. You’ve likely experienced this before – many people call it being “in the zone”.
The term was first popularised by positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura, who stated about the concept in their 2004 Ted Talk “There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback”. The pair reached this conclusion by interviewing a variety of self-actualized, high-performing people: including mountain climbers, chess players, surgeons, and ballet dancers.
It’s been found that “flow” is not only a mental state, but rather is also accompanied by physiological changes. In a 2010 Swedish study on classical pianists, the musicians who entered flow showed deepened breathing and slowed heart rates. Even the facial muscles that allowed them to smile were activated.
Alongside this, research has also found that flow state makes itself present most when we are performing tasks we’ve already practiced. Giovanni Moneta, an academic psychologist at London Metropolitan University advises “We need to engage in activities that are meaningful to us, that we find challenging and for which we feel that we have the skills required to come out as winners.”
It’s easy to hope that flow state will simply bless you with its presence when you need it most, but in reality flow state needs a certain level of fostering to thrive. So what can we do as photographers, or other creators, that will aid inducing a flow state in our creativity?
Upon reflection of my experience, one of the key factors is this – familiarity. Let me take you through what led up to this shoot to help explain.
In the months prior to this particularly productive shoot, I had really been getting into hiking trails in the National Parks around me, mostly without my camera in tow. It first started out of necessity for fitness, as at the time I was preparing for a Tasmania winter photography trip (which was subsequently cancelled – thanks COVID-19). It then quickly developed into a love for the experience, and simply enjoying the exercise, fresh air, physical challenge and company of mates.
One certain trail I hiked several times, either in part or in full, was the Coast Track of the Royal National Park in Sydney. Spanning 26km from Bundeena to Otford, it’s popular amongst both locals and tourists for its shorter hikes that break up the trail, or the challenge of walking (or running!) the full length of the track. Beautiful ocean views lie immediately in sight for almost the entire length of the hike, along with inlets, waterfalls, towering cliffs, and - of course - sandstone.
Above: two iPhone images captured on these hikes; coastal vistas and a hidden waterfall that's perfect for a quick dip.
I was lacking motivation to pull out the camera and take photos during this time, experiencing a creative block of sorts. However, after so many years of nature photography, my brain never truly switches off to seeing potential images everywhere I go. As I hiked, I would constantly notice little patterns, textures, colours and interesting interactions between various natural elements. Though I didn’t have the inspiration to pull out the camera, what I noticed would stick in the back of my mind, and over the period of a few months these began to build up.
A particular section of the aforementioned track features some amazing multicoloured sandstone, showcasing deep reds, oranges, yellows, and even very subtle teal and purple tones. And where there wasn’t colourful stone, there were vast swathes of bone white sandstone, beautifully bright and pale. The textures and shapes of the rock shelf would ripple, swirl, intersect, mirror and even shine under the right conditions. Macro parallel ridges would turn into delicate folds of crumbling rock; a thin veneer of water would provide a glossy lacquer that reflected the blue sky; splotches of lichen provided an abstract splatter of texture and colour; sunlight bounced between the rock formations like music in a concert hall; stone imitated both liquid and fabric, seemingly melting and flowing in the breeze. Though most people walked right over these intimate scenes, they accumulated in my mind’s eye each and every time I passed them.
It was perhaps my 4th or 5th hike through this area without a camera in tow when I couldn’t bear to pass by without seeing how some of these details would look when composed. I’ve become used to resisting stopping for photos when hiking with non-photographers out of courtesy, as I’ll almost always get carried away and spend more time than they’d like to wait around for me. Pulling out my phone, intending only on getting one or two snapshots, I ended up spending several minutes crouching down, zooming in and reframing little reference photos that I would then return to recreate. I knew I had to come back to scratch the itch.
Above: iPhone reference images that were subsequently re-created for the gallery.
The next day I set back out into the Royal National Park with my girlfriend, who has all the patience in the world to let me slow down and take photos at my own pace, which I’m incredibly grateful for. We spent the 30-45 minute walk into the particular section of the ocean cliffs enjoying the sunny weather, birdlife and widely varying foliage.
Upon arriving, I got straight into taking photos. Ideas for compositions and ways of showcasing these beautiful stone textures that had been in my head for months were able to come out in full force. The conditions were perfect – rain had occurred in the previous days, meaning some water was leaking out from the bush and created interesting textures. It was a sunny day with a thin layer of high cloud covering the sun, so the colours were on full display, and there was directional light without harsh shadows or contrasts. Natural oils interplayed with the rocks in a certain small section, which I had a lot of fun with. Both new compositions and ones I’d already envisioned were coming to life, and I was having the time of my life.
At the time I had a Nikon Z7II and 24-200mm lens on loan, which I very much enjoyed using. This lightweight and versatile kit ended up being another key part of maximising my creative flow, since the stabilisation meant I didn’t need a tripod and the large zoom range meant I didn’t need to switch lenses whatsoever. The ability to capture almost any intimate composition I spotted – whether that warranted a little bit of wide distortion at 24mm or lots of compression at 200mm - without needing to clumsily set up a tripod to do so (at times I was shooting 1/100th of a second at 200mm) was amazingly helpful at helping maintain that creative flow state. Enjoying uninterrupted realisation of a photographic idea as soon as it popped into my head – which, importantly, is also something that requires a trained eye for composition and light - was pure bliss. Please note that neither myself or this article are sponsored by Nikon; these are merely my observations of how the particular gear I was using at the time was a beneficial factor.
Example image - 'Coral'
Capture settings - 200mm, 1/100 sec, f/18, ISO 500 (handheld)
It may be asked what the point is of going into such detail about spending 2 hours taking photos of rocks. The objective I’m attempting to showcase through this case study is the enormous benefit of FAMILIARITY in landscape photography. A common worldwide trend amongst landscape photographers - especially in those hunting wide angle scenes - is to travel far and wide, ticking off location boxes as quickly as possible. Usually this results in disappointing conditions at several, if not most, locations, as well as similar compositions to other images. The time isn’t spent to find a connection with the place, nor the intricacies that make each location special, or even to wait for the best conditions to showcase it in. It’s completely understandable, especially for those who perhaps do not have the luxury of either finances or time (or both) to spend a good amount of time at each location. However, for more rewarding, personal and unique photography, I highly encourage a slower, mindful approach to both photography and travel.
Think to your favourite images. Are the photographers who captured them travelling visitors, or are they local to the area? If they’re not local, how many weeks/months of their lives have they dedicated to travelling and taking photos there? When they visited, did they stay 2 hours, 2 days or 2 weeks?
To reiterate a point made earlier, achieving flow state in nature photography requires not only familiarity with your subject, but familiarity with your own gear and skills. Distractions and roadblocks are flow state killers, and can take many forms. If you have to take concentration away from capturing an image to fiddle with settings because you’re not sure which dial to turn, or if you see the frame you want to capture but can’t figure out the right settings, that sense of flow will be choked. Both action and awareness need to synchronise in order to get to this treasured state of being, and if the action isn’t up to scratch then you will struggle to achieve it. Developing confidence in your own photographic abilities, which only comes with practice, is essential.
Though we can get lucky, flow state struggles to thrive when it’s thrust into a new situation and barely given time to breathe before moving on. Practicing slow photography is one the best things you can do for your nature images, both dramatic and intimate. Don’t let the fast-paced nature of social media posting influence your travel and photography to its detriment. In older times, artists would take between several months and years to release their latest work. Nowadays, the pressure is to have a backlog as extensive as Marc Adamus to keep up. High quality in high volume is a form of value that’s been artificially created by the likes of Instagram, leaving many photographers frustrated they can’t travel as much, dissatisfied with their local options and rushing their images for the sake of staying relevant.
Another conclusion to reach from this experience is to not immediately reach for the camera and tripod. Don’t start fumbling around with gear then try to find a subject/composition after the fact. Take a wander around. Explore, soak in your surroundings. Notice the smaller details, interactions with light, features that make the location special. If conditions aren’t perfect, don’t stress that you’re not spending every waking hour capturing mind-boggling scenes. Enjoy spending time trying to find a composition that isn’t a slight variation of the last photo of a red sunset there. If it’s a relatively local area, revisit it multiple times with or without a camera to foster those ideas of how to capture it under the right conditions. Perhaps even spend some time photographing those smaller details – you may just be able to make a gallery out of them.
There are certainly other factors which play into creating a sense of mindfulness and flow into both our photography and everyday lives. These may include eliminating distractions, such as noisy environments and opportunities for interruption, or ensuring you’re performing the task at hand at a time when you are at your sharpest and most capable. Such practices could probably warrant an article of their own. However, what I hope you come away with after reading this is a new way to optimise your photography, as well as increasing your enjoyment of it at the same time.
You can find the rest of images I captured in this experience, as well as some others, in my GeoMorph gallery.