How do you speak through your photography? A short essay on making meaningful images - Part 2

Benjamin Stevens

Welcome to Part 2! Let's begin this part by taking a look at the role a relaxed mine in creating personally meaningful images.

2. Incubation

It’s only after we stop searching that an answer may arrive.
Jonah Lehrer

The incubation period happens while we are busy living our lives.

Some of the thoughts, beliefs or behaviours which impeded our creative ability in the preparation stage may be removed, replaced or upgraded subconsciously.

Indeed, the subconscious mind is always humming away in the background. It never gives up on finding a solution, even if your conscious mind has.

For these creative solutions to come to the surface, the mind must be relaxed.

This is why creative ideas come to us while engaged in minimally taxing mental activities, such as taking a shower or walking the dog.

Some neuroscience on creativity

In studying the brain activity of freestyle rappers, researchers found that during moments of creativity, parts of the brain controlling executive functions such as planning, decision making, and organization were largely inactive. Other parts associated with creativity were much more active.

Freestyling increased brain activity in systems controlling language production, emotion, and motor function.

This suggests that the improvisational nature of freestyle rap creates a neural network linking action, mood, language, and motivation (Liu et al. 2012).

Since these traits are important in photography, perhaps we can benefit from this study by resisting the urge to plan or organize and simply allow ourselves to go with the flow.

In a separate study, Flaherty (2005) argues that dopamine is the key ingredient in novelty seeking and creative drive.

Creative drive is simply the urge to create. So we must have the enthusiasm and passion to create before we can create something worthwhile.

This seems obvious on paper, but it bears repeating.

Dopamine is also a major driver of pleasure.

So why not prioritise photography that makes us feel good over what makes others feel good?

We must honour our interests and make a conscious effort to do the things we love.

Without the pleasurable release of dopamine and mindful attention, creative ideas will not surface.

Of course, it is too easy to bring our problems with us when we head into the landscape with our cameras.

Impending deadlines, dinner with the in-laws next week, that dentist appointment we’ve been putting off for ages.

Mindfulness helps us quiet the mind and remove these distracting thoughts, making space for creative thoughts to be heard and enjoyment to be had.

3. Illumination

Perhaps the journey towards epiphany is an unseen, steady process towards understanding. Likened to a combination safe, as you scroll the dial towards the inevitable correct combination you cannot tangibly see your progress.
Chris Matakas

Dubbed the so-called “Eureka!” moment, illumination is the metaphorical alignment of the planets.

Illumination is responsible for some of the biggest discoveries in history.

Isaac Newton formulated the laws of gravity after being hit on the head by an apple.

Greek scientist Archimedes, the guy who coined the term Eureka moment, gained clarity on the relationship between mass, volume, and density while taking a bath.

Geneticist Alec Jeffreys accidentally discovered DNA fingerprinting while researching hereditary disease in families.

During the moment of illumination, many seemingly unrelated bits of information arrange themselves in such a way that new solutions are formulated.

The fog lifts and the bigger picture comes into view.

It is this point at which photographers have an overwhelming desire to click the shutter, before the moment of clarity disappears forever.

Often, though, these moments will occur when we aren’t even thinking about photography.

Take notes if you are unlucky enough to be struck with a creative moment whilst in the bath or on the way to work.

4. Verification

In the verification stage, potential creative solutions are tested for viability.

Viability in a photographic sense may not be instantaneous.

Sometimes our creative ideas might require conditions that take years to materialise.

For example, we may have a desire to photograph a tree cutting a solitary figure on top of a hill.

But for whatever reason, the photo doesn’t work right at that very moment.

Perhaps the tree needs fog or snow to isolate it from a busy background.

Or maybe it would have a more striking silhouette in the winter without its leaves.

If the conditions are not 100% suitable on location, we may test alternative ideas by cycling through the illumination and verification stages.

If the tree cannot possibly be photographed in the way that we envisioned, we may need to abandon the idea and go back to incubation.

Verification is also about testing the strength of our message.

We may have a creative composition in mind, but how well does this composition communicate emotion?

How well does the composition distill complexity into simplicity?

Does it tell the story that you want to tell?

Communicating our message does require some degree of camera aptitude.

Ultimately, we want a piece of ourselves to be proudly emblazoned on each photograph that we take.

We want others to recognise our work as unmistakably us, understanding our message and story in the process.


In the same way that an obsession with chocolate is a barrier to weight loss, the obsession with aesthetically pleasing photography is one of the most significant barriers to creative photography.

Creativity is a much harder path to walk than aesthetic reproduction. We might not know where we are going or how long we’ll take to get there.

Divergent thinking encourages us to look outwards and consider that the most obvious answer is not always best.

We can get our creative machine rolling by simply living our lives and laying the groundwork for our future self-expression. We should put ourselves in situations where we can gather creative dots, and be persistent in collecting them.

Indeed, incubation is the mindful enjoyment of activities that make us happy. Despite how simple this seems on paper, it can be terrifyingly easy to imitate others or make photographs of things we aren’t interested in.

Provided we have laid the groundwork, we will eventually receive a bolt from the blue. The very essence of our being will be condensed into a single moment of inspiration that tells us to take a photograph.

Of course, photography is not a straightforward process at the best of times. We should always test and validate our creative insights in the field and assess whether they align with our authentic selves.


Flaherty, A. W. 2005, Frontotemporal and dopaminergic control of idea generation and creative drive, The Journal of comparative neurology, vol. 493, pp. 147–153.

Guilford, J. P. 1959, Traits of Creativity. In H. H. Anderson (ed), Creativity and its cultivation, pp. 142–161. New York: Harper.

Liu, S., Chow, H., Xu, Y. et al. 2012, Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap. Sci Rep 2, 834.

Torrance, E. P. & Myers, R. E. 1970, Creative Learning and Teaching, 350 pp. New York: Dodd, Mead Co. (1971), Gifted Child Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 81.

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

Seattle, WA

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