Updated: Oct 31, 2018
Flow is the theory of enjoyment. Developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, it's an attempt to explain why we like to do the things we like to do.
Csikszentmihalyi, a positive psychologist, has studied everyone from factory workers to rock climbers to musicians in his development of the theory of flow. He termed it "flow" because so many people described their experiences in similar ways using words like "flow" or phrases like "in the zone" to describe their feelings of enjoyment.
If you're reading this article, it probably means that you enjoy photography - at least most of the time. I'll talk about what aspects of flow theory are probably at work when you're really enjoying the experience of photography. I'll also flip things around and talk about what may not be working when you've lost the flow and photography isn't as fun as it once was.
There are some basic characteristics of the flow experience. I'll list the characteristics first and then apply them to photography. For those of you who know the theory already, I've consolidated some of the characteristics. Readers of PhotoYoga and the 9 Characteristics of Zen Photography may see some overlap!
Feeling that you have the potential to succeed
Clear goals and a sense of personal control over the situation or activity
Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that all else is forgotten including sense of self and the sense of time.
The activity is rewarding in and of itself - any outside rewards (money, attention, "likes" on social media) are forgotten
In flow, there is a general merging of action and awareness. When these characteristics come together, we experience a sense of flow.
Potential to Succeed
Photography is a popular hobby and there's a good reason. Creating a photograph is well within our abilities - take out a smart phone and snap away! We can do this. We can create beautiful photographs.
Cameras are tools that nearly everyone can learn to use. Sure, there is a wide range of abilities and complexities in our cameras, but everyone can find a home in photography. The more high end the camera, the more complicated they become, but we can always start with simple program modes and work our way up as we become more proficient photographers.
In fact, central to the theory of flow is the idea that flow happens when there is a match between a person's ability level and the complexity of the activity. If the task is too difficult the person becomes frustrated. If the task is too easy, the person becomes bored - neither state creates enjoyment.
Beginning photographers should start by using the simpler modes on a camera or even a smart phone. The camera is making most of the decisions and that's ok!
When our skill level is just starting out, make the task as easy as possible. Use the camera's program modes and focus on simple photographic techniques or one compositional technique, like using the Rule of 3rds. As skill level increases, add complexity by moving towards manual mode on the camera or using more advanced photographic techniques like shallow depth of field.
Don't rush it! Find the place where your skill level matches the difficulty of creating the photograph. You'll feel it - you'll feel happy about your photographs! Don't compare yourself with other people or their skill level. Work within yourself.
Clear Goals & Control
Flow also comes from having a sense of control - not necessarily actual control - but a sense of control over what you do. You have control over when to click the shutter button. You have control over what settings you use. You have control over what elements you include in the frame and which you exclude.
Finding flow in photography is accepting this control and enjoying it. It doesn't even matter if your photo is successful or not. It's the feeling that you have control over the situation.
Sometimes when photographing all seems crazy especially when photographing in genres such as Street or Photo Journalism. Take a deep breath and remember that you have control over how you capture the scene.
Having clear goals will focus your attention. Go out to photograph with something specific in mind whether it be a theme or a scene. It's like focusing on the color red. Once you focus your attention on the color, red is all you can see! Photo challenges like the one we host on PhotoYoga gives us a goal to shoot for.
Enjoyment is heightened when we get immediate feedback. This is easy in the digital age - just take a look at the back of your camera! We know immediately if we've nailed the shot or not. Take a moment while out shooting to review a few of your images. Not only does this let you know if you're getting good shots, it lets you know if you're not.
You have time consider what's not going right and to change what you're doing. If you notice blur in your photos, tweak the camera settings for a faster shutter speed and/or a higher ISO. You don't want to find out later that you've been cutting off everyone's heads - isn't that what used to happen to all of us when we still used film or was that just me?
Having a goal helps focus concentration on our photography. To really get into the flow experience, we must bring our full attention to the activity. No trying to multi-task!
Limit distractions when photographing and bring your full attention to what you're doing.
I like to go on photo walks with friends, but this isn't necessarily when I make my best photographs. I'm distracted by the conversations. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the day out, but photography competes with the social aspect. Maybe this is why so many photographers are often solitary in their pursuit of great photographs.
When photographing with others, try to step away for a few moments - lag behind or go around the block - take a bit of time to focus on your own photography.
Lose Self & Time
When everything is working, when we are truly experiencing flow in our photography, we lose all sense of time and of ourselves.
We stop being distracted by random thoughts or worrying about how good of a photographer we are or how many likes this photo will get on Instagram. In this way, we bring our whole being into making the photographs. Our sense of self disappears and shows up in the photographs themselves.
Our world, in this moment in time, becomes all about making photographs.
You'll know when you've entered this state of flow when people call out to you and you don't hear them or you forget dinner and don't care.
Eventually, it will be time to go home and rejoin the regular world, but while photographing, you're making a world of your own. We can literally lose our selves in our photography.
Photography is its own Reward
To truly attain enjoyment in our photography, we must do it because we love to do it not because we expect any rewards whether they be money or social media likes. We pour our full attention to making the the best photographs we can and create a safe place for the experience.
There is a lot written about the Theory of Flow and how it applies to the arts, business, sports, etc. Csikszentmihalyi's books are easy to read and you can hear him talk about Flow in this TED talk "Flow: The Secret to Happiness". If you're interested in reading more, start with Csikszentmihalyi's book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Article written by Jennifer Mishra
Jennifer Mishra is an American travel photographer born in Colorado and based in the St. Louis metro area. She has a background in classical music and academia. She is the founder of PhotoYoga. Her photos are published at Wits End Photography or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
Photos provided by Wits End Photography.