One photographer's musings on the human experience

Chasing Flow

Fuji X-T1, XF 10-24mm, ISO 200, F10, 1/40

For the last several days, right around sundown, I've been driving by fields like the one you see above, just a short distance from my home. The other night I finally made time for an attempt to capture a scene that has been blowing my mind all week - sun setting on ice.

It never ceases to amaze me how the right mix of elements can transform what is an otherwise ordinary, rural scene, into something that calls to the little kid in me and says, 'hey you, look, NOW. How cool is this?' It could be the sky after a storm, just as the sun is making it's way through the clouds; the way light breaks through the leaves at a certain time of day during the summer; or this ice at sunset.

The kind of light that creates these spectacular scenes can be a challenge to capture because it changes so fast. It's only present when the sun is low in the sky. The closer the sun gets to the horizon (or the faster it comes up) each subsequent, perfectly lit moment becomes more fleeting. And all the while, I'm in this little race, measured in minutes to find the right angle, the right distance to ground, the composition I want, shooting the entire time. Finally, when the light is almost gone and I've checked the back of the camera enough to feel sure I've got the shot, I step back and think, 'wow, that was awesome'.  

The 'awesome' I'm describing isn't the image on the back of the camera, although sometimes it might be a great image. The true awesomeness is the chase. The moment I've turned the car around, taken that detour or just headed out the door on a whim, I'm like a dog after a squirrel. It's on. And almost instantly, I'm in a flow state triggered by the chase. 

Flow states can be triggered by a number of things including psychological, social and environmental factors, as well as situations that demand a high level of creativity (e.g., pattern recognition). I'm far from being an expert on flow states, but I do know a little bit about some of the research being done to help all of us operate in these states more often. With the help of a presentation given last year by my friend and colleague Michelle Martin, here's what I've gotten about the basic psychological ingredients:

  • Intensely focused attention

  • Clear goals

  • Immediate Feedback

  • An acceptable challenge-skill ratio

I think all of these are pretty self-explanatory, with the possible exception of the last one. The challenge-skill ratio is about having something that is within reach, but that you have to work hard to get. If there is just too much in the way (e.g., not enough technical knowledge to get the shot, or we don't know our camera well), we'll stop ourselves before we begin. Knowing that what you are chasing is attainable is an important part of creating flow.

It is also the uncertainty in the challenge-skill gap that puts a pulse in the adventure. Particularly given the fact that this chase was spontaneous, I didn't know if I was going to be 'on time' for the light I had been itching to capture, several afternoons in a row. I didn't have the time to just go sit down there and wait for it.  I didn't know if the easily accessible farmer's field was going to offer the best reflection. I did know that I had driven by one that had a place to park and a lot of ice, so that was probably going to be my best bet. And then there was not knowing if that might have been my last chance to get this particular shot for a while. Was the weather going to suddenly change? Would the field be under a blanket of more snow in a day or two? 

Our fears, self-doubt and negative self-talk are often no more than a misperception of the challenge-skill ratio. If I can catch that gap in my perception in the moment I see the opportunity - be it shooting with the lens on my camera rather than the one that would be ideal, or with a different camera (my iPhone instead of my pro body) - there can be more flow. 

Often when a sunset is worth chasing, the biggest factor in the 'chase' for me is recognizing the rarity of the moment I'm going after. It's not just the sunlight that is slipping away, it's THIS MOMENT that is slipping away. This perspective. This mix of elements. I think there has to be something at stake for us to even want to approach the gaps and the uncertainties we will face chasing anything we believe is worth it.  I wanted this shot not only for the challenge of capturing it, but more so because I wanted you to soak up this rare beauty with me. If not through the image then perhaps by going to see it for yourself. Or by recognizing a rare moment in your own environment and taking a shot you're not sure you can get right.

I believe there are way more of these fleeting moments than we realize. Oh and by the way, the shot you take doesn't have to be a photograph. 

 - Brent


Brent Ross