On intuition, and the courage to be an expressive and creative photographer - Part 1

Benjamin Stevens

Lessons learned from dogs, chess players, firefighters, and seasickness.

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At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself. - Alan Alda

Dogs always seem to know when it is dinner time, despite the fact that they don’t wear watches.

So how do they do it?

Perhaps they recognize the sound of a family member’s car in the evening or the way that their master smells after a long day at the office.

Or maybe it is as simple as golden evening light or their increasingly vocal stomachs.

Whatever the case, dogs are naturally in tune with the minutia of their shared existence with people.

And after 15,000 years of domestication, they’ve become quite good at it.

But dogs have no concept of words. Instead, they respond emotionally to their surroundings. They feel and then they act without question.

They console us when we are sad and share in our excitement. They sense imminent bad weather or an unfamiliar presence at the front door and take steps to protect us from danger.

Intuition is effortless for the dog. Intuitive decisions are made with speed and accuracy. There is no deliberation or self-doubt between the feeling and acting stages.

As photographers, we can also tap into this form of expression.

We can do this by responding emotionally to a scene and trusting our intuition as a valid and authentic form of self-expression.

Defining intuition in photography

Perhaps rather conveniently, the word intuition is derived from the Latin intueor, meaning “to see”.

Then, in the 15th century, the Medieval Latin intuitio expanded the definition to include “immediate cognition”.

A concise modern definition for intuition is more complex because we seem to understand more about it.

Research by Hodgkinson et al. (2008) from the British Journal of Psychology concludes that intuition is:

“The result of the way our brains store past experiences, process external cues and retrieve information on a subconscious level to make a decision. However, the reaction happens so fast that is at a non-conscious level.”

This “reaction” is sometimes called a gut reaction, or a gut feeling.

These feelings explain how, in the absence of explicit reasoning, we can solve problems or make decisions by subconsciously accessing the information we didn’t know we had.

Intuition is at the core of our being. It is where our truths and deepest values reside.

If logic and rationality come from the mind, then intuition comes from the heart.

And in choosing to act from the heart, we act with clarity, conviction, and authenticity.

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© Benjamin Stevens

Why is intuition so important in photography?

As photographers, we love to express something unique about the world.

There is a sense of pride in creation, in bringing something into existence that wasn’t there before.

But with camera in hand, we can always choose to go one of two ways.

The first is the formulaic approach. We follow the recipe for the technically perfect photograph and the ingredients must be of the highest standard.

The latest camera, the most expensive workshop, the best, most gloriously golden afternoon light.

More often than not, images resulting from the formulaic approach work on some level.

They’re nice to look at, sure.

And the corner sharpness is on point.

We may even receive praise for the work, since we have, subconsciously or otherwise, set out to take popular photographs with high technical merit.

But are we really striving for technical proficiency or adulation from our peers?

The alternate approach involves mindful intuition.

We detach ourselves from lusting over gear or process and enjoy photography as a means of self-discovery and expression.

Intuition is how the painter recognizes the moment when a work of art is complete.

Similarly, photographers can use intuition to recognize the moment when a photograph should be made.

In paying heed to that sometimes physical sensation in our gut, we create deep and considered work that aligns with our most inner motivations.

But intuition can be hard.

Why? Because it requires a leap of faith.

It’s easy to plan a trip to Olympic National Park based on what the internet tells you are the best locations and the best times of year to visit.

It’s much harder to visit the park in winter and carve your own path through the snow, metaphorically or otherwise.

To some extent, we must resist the power of logical and rational thought.

If our gut tells us that there might be a photograph to be made, then we must get the camera out of the bag. Even if our logical mind is telling us that our fingers are bordering on frostbitten and that something is stalking us in the bushes.

This is not to say that technical proficiency is unimportant, of course.

But it can only take us so far. At some point, we must let go of one branch to grasp another.

What we want to be able to do, if we are completely honest with ourselves, is respond emotionally to a scene and then translate that emotion into a photograph.

In responding to emotion, we are responding to a gut feeling.

This feeling is an extremely fast and reliable source of inspiration. It operates at a subconscious level and can appear with relative ease in the right situations.

Intuition is how we find compositions in familiar locations. It is how we work a scene or recognize its potential in the first place.

Listening to our gut is how we go from cookie-cutter photography to something profoundly unique.

Cultivating intuition in our photography

If we break it down somewhat, intuition has a few working parts:

1. Self-awareness through mindfulness.

2. Deep interest, familiarity, and emotional investment.

3. Barriers and having the courage to follow through.

Let’s look at each of the parts in more detail.

Self-awareness through mindfulness

Intuitive photography starts with mindfulness.

Indeed, mindfulness and intuition share many of the same characteristics.

They each require that you be present in your surroundings. They each require that you understand and then trust your intrinsic motivations.

What are your motivations in photography?

At some point, most photographers will go through an identity crisis where they question their motivations and their very concept of self.

They struggle to make photographs that resonate with themselves, or with others.

They struggle to come away with more than the obvious shots.

They struggle with the motivation to get out of the house and maintain the child-like wonder they once had for photography.

These problems are of course real and valid.

But the solutions to these problems are often buried under years of failure, unmet expectation, and criticism from others.

Repressed intuition is like the cat trapped in a closet.

Occasionally you think you hear a meow, but it is so muffled and faint that you disregard its desperate cries as an aberration.

In marrying our intuition to photography, we must allow our minds to take a deep breath through mindfulness.

We must step outside and mindfully smell the roses, so to speak.

Only then will the noise level drop low enough for our intuition to be heard.

In the next section, we will take a look at the second and third components of intuition. Stay tuned for that!

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Photographer and writer who is passionate about creativity, mindfulness and philosophy.

Seattle, WA
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