10 Tips to Soulful Photography. Tip #2: The Wow Factor

You can do this (well sorta) with your cell phone.

Tip #2: Find Something that Takes Your Breath Away!

When was the last time you said under your breath (or exclaimed out loud), “WOW?”

Last summer I went up to Mt. Rainier to hike under the stars. I was hoping to experiment doing some night photography, using some new techniques I had learned but not yet perfected. I remember getting set up with my tripod and beginning to compose a few shots and explore some different angles. I didn’t really know if the Milky Way would align with the mountain, creating the marvelous optical illusion of exploding out of the peak of our famous volcano. It was quiet, incredibly beautiful as we watched the orange to dark blue color spectrum emerge, provided by the sun setting in the west. We drank in the views of the rolling foothills below us that carried the streams and rivers fed by glacial melt from Mt. Rainier through lush forests.

Just near sunset I heard some noisy people coming up the trail to our spot. I was a little annoyed actually. Soon, two other photographers came bounding up to the spot where we were setting up near the fire lookout on Mt. Fremont. These guys were hootin and hollering, exclaiming the conditions were about the best they’d seen for a while. They were salivating. Their joy and excitement could not be contained. My annoyance began to dissipate as they started offering me advise, explaining where the Milky Way would appear and different camera settings. They were captured by the awesome wonder that was beginning to unfold before our eyes in the night sky as the sun sank deeper and deeper into the Pacific Ocean to the West. These guys were like kids.

When was the last time you felt wonder burst upon your emotions? Here’s tip #2. You need to Cultivate the Wow Factor. Look for it. It’s everywhere if we take time to look. Furthermore, you need to practice this. Like a healthy habit. What do you take in through the eye gate to keep you seeing the world like a little child? We all have had those moments when we stopped in our tracks. Go back in your mind to one of those moments. For many people (and landscape photographers seem to know this because of the types of photos we take) it’s a sunset, the pounding ocean waves, a majestic mountain enshrouded with snow. Maybe it’s a favorite iconic scene from a favorite National Park. But the sense of being awestruck can also come from a beautiful flower where you see the perfect symmetry of a blossoming flower bud. Or a droplet on a petal. I’m offering you an invitation to cultivate the habit of being profoundly moved by something.

I want to dismiss from your thinking that you need a high-end DSLR camera to capture the Wow. Sure, a better camera helps with some of the challenging issues of low light, or other limitations you have with a cell phone. But one of the rules of good photography in general is the best camera for capturing good photos is the one you have with you. Very few people walk around without their cell phone in their pocket these days. And these little guys are closing the gap between high end expensive cameras and that little piece of electronics you carry in your pocket. The point here is to open your eyes. Look at the world like a little child. Seek to recover your sense of wonder and awe. Btw, here’s a short gallery of photos I took just today on a walk around Green Lake with my cell phone. Look for the WOW factor close by.

The Skinny on this Photo: A tripod is necessary for this kind of shot. Strap on the camera. Open the ISO to around 4000. Open your f-stop to as wide as you can and take a few shots to see your results. Shutter speed should rest around 20-30 seconds. If you go longer you’ll start to get blurred stars. Which is another effect you can go for of course, making star trails. Experiment with the white balance function, moving to Kelvin 4800 to 5200′. I like to get something interesting in the foreground for star photography so the fire lookout is classic in my opinion and Mt. Rainier is just hard to improve upon. Look closely at the lower flank of the mountain. See two small lights? Those were climbers beginning their ascent up the big hill before midnight! Talk about AWESOME!

10 Tips to Soulful Photography. #1: Slow Down

Wait for your soul to speak before you snap a picture. See the story behind this shot below.

You can do this with your cell phone!

Tip #1. Slow Down: The Discipline of Thinking before you Snap

What do you see? Wait…..

wait for it…..

What do YOU see?

Not what does the last great picture you looked at look like. There’s a frequent knee jerk reaction when we see an eye popping photo. We think, and many ask me (because a lot of my photos catch people’s eye perhaps ;-), where did you get that picture? If the questioner is a photography geek like me and shoots a lot with a serious camera, they want to know the f-stop, focal length, shutter speed, time of day. But, you who aren’t geeks start to get this uneasy feeling come over you–“I can never do this” you say to yourself. “I don’t even have the right equipment!” Maybe you’re thinking, what’s an f-stop anyway? Looks like a four-letter word.

This first tip to soulful photography is for all of us, the geeks and those who just snap photos with their phone. I do both by the way. We need to slow down Pause long enough to connect to your own sense of what is happening around you. What new thing do you in particular see or feel about a visual canopy in front of you. This is very important. After all, its YOUR eyes, your soul, your inner voice and not someone else’s that is in your place right now. Soulful photography is an invitation to unleash your own authentic vision and to share it with others. This requires slowing down enough to think before you snap. Maybe you should just even stop now. Listen to your heart.

What moves you? An expression on an elder person that is contemplating the end of their life and how they want to be remembered? What can you detect in the wrinkles on their face or hands? Did they smile a lot through life? Did they work at a desk, or love making things with their hands? Can you see this by carefully, slowly observing the person in front of you? Alternatively, what are the places you have on your bucket list? Where do you want to travel and why? What do you want to experience? What comes to mind when you think of those places? I bet a picture has played a part in that attraction.

These questions are only a start. Famed landscape photographer, Art Wolfe, recently said in a class I took that his success comes mostly from being innately curious and having an insatiable desire to learn about the world. He studies his subjects before he leaves the front door. Your answers to some of these questions point to the necessary work for anyone wanting to add something memorable to their photos. This is the beginning process of adding soul to your photography.

I love something Parker Palmer wrote about listening to one’s soul. It applies to our topic of Soulful Photography.

“In our culture, we tend to gather information in ways that do not work very well when the source is the human soul: the soul is not responsive to subpoenas or cross-examinations. At best it will stand in the dock only long enough to plead the Fifth Amendment. At worst it will jump bail and never be heard from again. The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions. The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.” (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak)

The Skinny on this Photo:

I took this photo on Tiger Mountain several years ago of a friend, Bradley Bergfalk. We both have hiked this trail a hundred times. We’ve commented how this trail was important for both of us in times of personal crisis. The exertion of climbing 2000 feet grounded us in a deeper sense of God’s faithfulness and the goodness around us despite some of the difficult stretches we’ve experienced in life. I took this on the descent when hearts are lighter after the hard work out. This section of the forest always conveyed something mysterious to me. Walking into the presence of these trees was like an act of confronting our own demons. But we both came to a point where we felt we could look at the long shadows cast by these tall trees and say, “I’m OK.”

Look Who Shows Up for Peacemaking: Strange Bedfellows (but maybe not)

I just got off the phone after an amazing and refreshing conversation with Mark, one of my best friends from the last 5 years. Mark is in Boston now finishing his PhD in architecture at MIT. We became friends while he was in Seattle, finishing his Master’s degree in postmodern architecture. When I got off the phone I realized how much I missed Mark. I pondered, “what makes our relationship so rich? Why do I miss Mark so much?”

I reached out to Mark yesterday asking if we could talk sometime this week. Apparently, Boston is in the middle of one of those wild winter storms, maybe the last of the season. He replied this way to my message.

“Hello dear brother, today there is snow storm here in Boston; the perfect time, I think, to talk about some heartwarming projects!”

I did reach out to Mark with something in mind. And we talked about it this afternoon. But our conversation was so much more than exploring a project together. Mark and I have a kindred spirit. We share a burden for peace.

We love to talk about Jesus and other spiritual leaders, and even have meandered into deep conversations about Satre and Kiekegaard occasionally. But we generally come back to discussing how to live our lives as God would want us to live them. We also share a passion for travel and often compare stories traveling abroad and meeting different people in our journeys. We love the adventure of crossing borders–and along with that cultural boundaries–meeting the “other” and maybe even what some would call our enemy. We like to break bread together, open scripture and ask what does the text mean and how should we apply it to our lives and communities. As spiritual men, we also like to pray together. We laugh together, have attended each other’s events when one of us is a speaking, and love to support one another in the things we feel God calling us to.

But guess what? Mark is a Muslim friend. He counts back 42 generations even to the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Here’s a little caveat. Mark’s name is not Mark. I’m calling him Mark for this story, however, for the following reason. I made a video with Mark about 3 years ago talking about our relationship and what we share in common from our religious traditions. It was a great video and many found it encouraging. But several months ago, I had to take it down because some people from both of our religious communities, Christian and Muslim, took issue with our relationship and what we were saying about our respective faiths, and how we can build bridges of understanding without compromising our own faith. Some couldn’t accept our premise and disliked the idea that we could work for peace–together. I need to say that neither of us a neophytes. We know our religious traditions well and speak from a thorough knowledge of our Holy Books.

Interestingly, we chose to be wise about the video. I took it down. But oh my, we both are emboldened to do more, be bolder, push back, to open our Holy Books and teach people what the good Lord instructs about loving the “other.” Peacemaking is in both sets of scripture, in the Bible and in the Qur’an. Loving God and loving our neighbor are both there. We are not naive. We would never say we both believe the absolute same things. That doesn’t matter. Neither are we trying to forge some kind of mind-meld, and compromise important tenets of each other’s faith. But we believe we can be friends. And we believe we can work together for peace and reconciliation. In fact, we believe today demands it! So, I’ve invited Mark to join me when I speak to a group of pastors next fall for a retreat. I’m the keynote speaker. Mark hopes he can work it out to be my guest!

Discipleship & Fear: Fight or Flight

One of the things I keep running into when I speak to Christian audiences, especially when dealing with our Muslim neighbors is fear. This hearkens back to the nearly universal response to 9-11 when I was a pastor in a church.  I found people in the pew at church willing to go to war, almost as a first response to the danger and threat that seemed to be engulfing our nation. There is a danger when we allow fear to shape our response, especially as followers of Christ, to events in the news. The practical reason, apart from any discussion about Christian discipleship is that fear can cause us to respond irrationally. Our response, whether corporately or individually, can be misguided. We can miss important information that could guide us to a better response. Fear can also lock us out from any path toward peacemaking and reconciliation and add fuel to generalizations about the situation or the apparent perpetrator in conflict. Defending ourselves and security are not illegitimate needs. But when our response is predominantly guided by fear, we will often exacerbate a problem and add to a conflict. Afterall–an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth will eventually leave us all blind and toothless. I encourage readers to take some time to consider the following verses when dealing with fear.

John 14:27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. Read more

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