The 3 Steps To Finding Photography’s Secret Spell

These days the world is saturated with advertising. Common to all of it, is some kind of promise to make your life better.

Often this is wrapped up in such enticing and seductive language and imagery, that you’d think those offering the product or service were real life magicians, capable of conjuring up benefits for your life that you’ve never believed were possible before – and now can’t possibly live without.

This isn’t true of course, advertising isn’t really magic, but I believe there are some areas in life where a kind of magic is still possible.

One of these is photography.

So how do you make photography magical?

Of course it’s different for each of us, but essentially for me I think there are three key elements that need to come into alignment –

1. Camera

The camera you choose (and by extension, the lens, strap etc) needs to be one that works very well for the kind of photography you enjoy.

A bulky DSLR with a bazooka-esque zoom lens probably isn’t the best choice for hours of candid street photography, and similarly a consumer point and shoot compact mightn’t be the wisest gear for sweeping landscape panoramas you intend to make wall sized prints from.

Aside from this, there is huge variation within each type or class of camera, and this really is where personal preference comes in, along with the design of the equipment.

For me for example, a camera like the Ricoh GRD III I’m using for my One Month One Camera project this month is the epitome of fantastic user interface.

The physical shape and handling, along with the way you can set up the buttons and menus to work so intuitively, means the camera becomes almost invisible in use, an example of the cliche of a camera being an extension of your hand, eye and mind.

Some cameras I’ve used in the past have one or two “quirks” that I’ve found so counter intuitive, awkward or cumbersome, I never got past them so I abandoned trying.

I believe you can only start to experience the magic of photography to its full potential once you have a camera that utterly delights you, and that you connect with so well you almost forget it’s there.

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2. Place

You can have your wonderful photographic comrade ready and willing in your hands, but if you don’t have somewhere to go that inspires you to capture photographs, it’s going to be a short trip, and the magic is unlikely to manifest.

Yes, you can argue that you can make interesting photographs anywhere, and I occasionally remind myself of this with experiments like One Room, Fifty Photographs that I talked about here and here previously.

But I wouldn’t want to confine myself to one room every time I picked up a camera.

Instead there are a number of haunts I head to which nearly all have plenty of trees and open space, few or no people, and often an ancient church or two.

Being in these kinds of spaces, with one of my favourite cameras, means the magic has a much higher chance of starting to flow.

Note of course that your special places won’t be the same as mine, and perhaps bustling city streets, or epic mountain walks, or barren windswept beaches might be what works best for you.

We each need to find those places we enjoy photographing in most.

I would also add that the time of day, the season, and weather conditions are also factors in making an already favourite place even more special. Again it’s up to each of us to experiment and find what – and where – we love most.

3. Mindset

So you’re stood there in a location you find beautiful, with one of your most beloved cameras in your hand, surely that magic will now just start to flow?

Well, I believe there’s one more aspect we need to have in place before that happens, and it’s one that’s less easy to describe.

In a word, your mindset.

This includes your current level of interest and motivation in photography generally, the amount of time you’ve committed to this photo walk (enough to not feel pressured and hurried), plus your overall sense of health and frame of mind.

Perhaps it’s this third piece of the puzzle for magical photography that’s the most elusive and complex.

But it’s also the one that can’t come to fruition unless the other two aspects above are in place – the camera, and the surroundings.

Indeed once those two are aligned it can be the nudge you need to engage in the right frame of mind for magical photography.

I know for me that just the anticipation of spending time wandering and photographing in surroundings I greatly enjoy, with a camera I love using, is almost enough in itself to get me in the optimum frame of mind.

As long as I have given myself enough time and permission to immerse in and enjoy the experience, this third element usually falls into place quite willingly.

These then are the three key ingredients I feel we need to start to experience a kind of magic in our photography.

Having them all in simultaneous alignment doesn’t guarantee we’ll capture incredible photographs of course, but it does make it highly likely that the experience will be memorable and very enjoyable, and those positive feelings will radiate back into the rest of your life and world, even when the photo trip has ended.

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How about you? What do you feel are the key elements to finding an optimum, magical kind of photography? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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12 thoughts on “The 3 Steps To Finding Photography’s Secret Spell”

  1. Comfortable shoes?
    I enjoyed reading this Dan, and like you said, the right frame of mind is probably the most important thing for me when i’m out looking for magic 🙂
    I know what you mean about the right camera and yes it makes a difference. I used to shoot with a bulky Canon and then moved to a stealthy Fujifilm, however I think if you have the right mindset, you are able to find magic with whatever camera you have at hand, an iPhone, Hybrid, DSLR etc, but like you said, you just have to know your gear and be comfortable with it.
    Cheers!

    1. Thanks Yuri. Yes comfy shoes are a given, I guess I overlooked that one because I only have comfortable footwear!

      I think it is possible to have the right frame of mind and the right surroundings, and then overcome one or two minor irritations a camera throws at you, but any more than that and it just breaks the spell too much. The gear shouldn’t be interrupting the flow of the experience, whatever that gear is.

  2. Dan I think you may be on to something! I am still enjoying shooting film, and my old friend the Contax 139Q with the Planar 1.7/50 is a great companion for a photo walk. Then it is really just a matter of letting your eyes see what is around you – it can be beauty, or perhaps action and excitement, or people – whatever, we are all different, and what brings us satisfaction ultimately becomes our signature style if we keep going!

    1. Ah I still have my 139 Quartz even though I haven’t used it in perhaps three years now. It was the pinnacle of Aperture Priority film photography for me. Yes I think we each need to follow what we love, and photograph what we’re most inspired to photograph, we can’t really force it if it’s not happening.

  3. For me, the biggest challenge has always been about being in the right frame of mind. If I am not it, I can’t feel it and if I can’t feel it, I can’t see it. A recent visit to Death Valley National Park was a stark reminder of this. Great piece, and enjoyed it much.

    1. Thanks Om, I appreciate your comments. I just read your piece about “Tech’s Dual Reality” earlier today, very thought provoking. Technology is simultaneously the most enabling and terrifying tool.

  4. Hi Dan,

    i have a lot of different cams. Often i use a camera-lens combination for many days (may be i am to lazy to change the lens 🙂 ).

    So i don’t care about acutal advertisings. May be, some years later i look on the second market for a bargin of in moment actual camera equipement.

    Regards Bernhard

    1. There’s quite an appeal for me in seeking out classics cameras of their time, but a few (or 10, or 15!) years later. So I have the benefits of an excellent camera, but at a fraction of what it cost new.

  5. I am still so new into my photography journey that I only have the one good camera, Fuji X-e1 with a full-manual 35 equivalent prime lens. I chose it for the portability and the simplicity, and thankfully it has been working out very well for me. I do wonder whether I will ever try another camera and realize that I was missing some configuration that makes the process even smoother, but for now I get to enjoy the bliss of ignorance.

    Thankfully for me I also have several decent haunts that are pretty easy to get to. Maybe it is because I am in the trenches of parenting and full-time work, but finding the mindset hasn’t been an issue for me. If I am able to have the time to be out with a camera it means that I am already feeling good, since it has been relatively rare, but it is great to be reminded that it won’t always be that way. Just like life, so much of photography comes from how one approaches it mentally. Great reminder!

    1. Andrew, thanks for your thoughts. I would say if the X-E1 is working well, then go with it. How many cameras you have is no measure of photography ability, and I sometimes which I’d never tried anything than the first “proper” camera I bought myself in 2011, a Nikon Coolpix. It would have saved me plenty of money and perhaps made me a better photographer!

      I agree about the mindset, just having committed that time with camera and nature is usually enough for me to enjoy and be in the right mindset, even if I don’t take many (or any!) photographs. The experience is the main appeal for me.

  6. I’ve been struggling with this a little bit – within the last couple of years, we moved to a large cookie-cutter subdivision (my wife wanted the amenities) and my work moved to a place where everything seems to be the ugly american chain businesses… not a single old building in sight. But I have found a pond with a walking trail around it that has been my oasis. It also helps that the area is peaceful and that gets me in the right mindset. My photography has become a bit repetitive, but at least it’s still going…

    1. Chris, the pond sounds like a tranquil place, I immediately thought of Walden’s pond.

      I know some can find a kind of peace or meditation photographing in bustling city streets but for me I prefer actual peace, plus nature.

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