Your mental state is key to a successful photography career, says Canon research

Canon Beyond the Kitbag research
Top from left to right: Wanda Martin, Lucia Griggi, Helen Bartlett. Bottom from left to right: Julie Pike, Emmanuel Oyeleke, Audun Rikardsen, Finbarr O'Reilly (Image credit: Wanda Martin, Lucia Griggi, Helen Bartlett, Julie Pike, Emmanuel Oyeleke, Audun Rikardsen, Finbarr O'Reilly )

Photography has long been celebrated as a medium that captures moments, freezes time, and conveys stories. It's an art form that requires careful consideration, often a great deal of research, and – sometimes – months of planning. 

Canon recently launched a series called Beyond the Kitbag where Cecilie Harris, head of creative services at Canon EMEA spoke to 20 Canon ambassadors to find out how what motivates them to pick up their cameras and continue exploring their passion. 

Recent scientific studies emphasize the significance of storytelling and emotion in photography and how psychological events such as entering a "flow state" can be a contributing factor to a successful career. 

In this study, Cecilie Harris enlisted the help of Dr Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Keele in the UK who analyzed 20 interviews in an attempt to work out if there is something that unifies freelance photographers. 

What Stephens calls a "flow state" comes from a recurring theme through his research interviews. Participants described feeling completely in the moment, as if on autopilot where creating felt calm and peaceful, and their mind was free of stress and anxiety. But that’s only a small factor in what keeps these professional photographers going. 

Stephens was able to break down the photographic process into four psychological states, all of which contribute to a feeling of satisfaction and complete immersion in the task. They are the flow state, creativity, the eureka moment, storytelling, and emotion. Although flow state might not be possible at all times, it’s this feeling that often drives photographers to create their best work. 

Flow state

If you’ve ever experienced a feeling of pure contentment in your photographic practice, you’ll know how rewarding it is. That feeling of pure bliss and unadulterated focus is what we all strive for; your mind doesn’t wander and you’re not left with any feelings of self-doubt. With imposter syndrome not knocking at the door, you tend to feel free of stress and anxiety i.e. you have entered a flow state. According to Dr Stephens, a flow state can be defined as an experience that is "intrinsically rewarding, leading to a great sense of achievement". 

Several Canon Ambassadors mentioned times when they had experienced this without knowing what to call it. Lucia Griggi describes how she can "look the camera and nothing else matters," Julie Pike explained how when she holds the camera, things happen automatically, while Emmanuel Oyeleke uses his camera as a tool to "overcome and mask my shyness." He says it gives him a sense of boldness when it's in his hand.

To be completely lost in the moment, unaware of your senses and surroundings, and not constricted by any doubts in your ability result in a dreamy, flow state that is the epitome of creative success. You'll feel like time has been well spent and the positive effects will often carry into other parts of your day and life. 

The science of creativity

Photographers constantly strive for creativity, seeking to capture images that are authentic and engaging. The science of creativity defines it as the ability to generate ideas that are both novel and satisfying, but the pursuit of creativity can be challenging, especially when there are no clear goals at the beginning of a creative process.

Stephen Kotler, an American author, suggests science-based strategies to enhance creativity such as cultivating a good mood since it promotes a willingness to take risks and embrace unconventional ideas. 

There are several ways to coax creativity, you just have to find which suits you best. Canon ambassador Julie Pike tries to create a relaxing atmosphere on a shoot so, when she worked with the Norwegian singer Aurora and her sisters, she supplied Norwegian Bolle (sweet buns) and beer as a way of connecting with them and breaking the ice. 

You could also listen to your favorite music, set guidelines such as not shooting on sunny days, a tactic Martin Booth uses or even pass the creativity baton to your subject allowing them to be actively involved as Helen Bartlett does when shooting with children. By embracing these approaches, photographers can unlock their creative potential and continue to produce captivating work.

Eureka Moment

Eureka moments are sudden, euphoric breakthroughs that leave you and give you an instant, overwhelming feeling of victory. They often arise after a period of frustration or a creative block which is something most creatives will have to battle with at one point or another. 

For photographers, these moments are not uncommon, considering the inherent difficulty of the creative process which can lack a clear strategy from the start. These insightful breakthroughs where the solution finally emerges hold long-term motivational effects for photographers who can look back on these moments for reassurance. 

Several photographers shared their experiences of eureka moments during their creative processes. Helen Bartlett described it as a moment when you have a vision but it hasn't materialized yet while Audun Rikardsen knows immediately when a personal image would have a lasting impact on him. Lucia Griggi, one of the few female surf photographers recalls a perfect wave breaking suddenly, leaving her in awe and Julie Pike recalled a moment when the perfect frame appeared before her eyes. These eureka moments serve as powerful reminders of the magic that happens when creativity aligns with intuition and inspiration.

Storytelling and Emotion

Narratives are essential for human cognition and communication, encompassing elements such as sequential plots, dramatic moments, archetypal characters, and moral lessons. Photographers adeptly capture the tension between exposition and impending action which evoke emotions and grabs the viewers' attention. Emotional connections between photographers and subjects drive powerful images but purpose-driven storytelling required photographers to break boundaries, depict reality and often raise awareness around a topical or sensitive issue. 

Finbarr O’Reilly is a war photographer, but rather than capturing the cliché photos you often see of war, he tries to capture the people affected trying to maintain some normality in their everyday lives through his powerful image. Similarly, Wanda Martin strives to break down gender boundaries and depict the model's personalities and the backstory of fashion through her editorial portraits. 

Photography is after all storytelling through images but more often than not it isn't quite as simple as clicking the shutter and taking a nice photo. The most engaging of images that elicit emotion from the viewer requires careful planning, a lot of thought and a deep connection to the subject being photographed may that be a person, a landscape, or even a memory. By combining the four psychological states, photographers are able to push themselves further and delve deeper into the heart of who they are as creatives and what type of work they want to present. 

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Hannah Rooke
Staff Writer

Having studied Journalism and Public Relations at the University of the West of England Hannah developed a love for photography through a module on photojournalism. She specializes in Portrait, Fashion and lifestyle photography but has more recently branched out in the world of stylized product photography. For the last 3 years Hannah has worked at Wex Photo Video as a Senior Sales Assistant using her experience and knowledge of cameras to help people buy the equipment that is right for them. With 5 years experience working with studio lighting, Hannah has run many successful workshops teaching people how to use different lighting setups.