How to be a Holistic Photographer


Today, we are going to go a little left-field and talk about taking a holistic approach to photography. Regular readers will know that I often talk about pre-planning, particularly in travel photography but what I haven’t mentioned is that I often take an entirely unscientific and entirely random approach to shooting as well. This I like to call holistic photography.

So what is holistic photography? Fans of the late author Douglas Adams will know that beyond the famous five books of his Hitchhikers Trilogy, he also wrote two books featuring Dirk Gently, a holistic detective. Dirk makes use of the the fundamental interconnectedness of all things to solve the whole crime. The slightly zany idea behind holistic photography is to use the same principle of interconnectedness to bring us to great pictures.

How Does it Work?

The basic idea is to entirely defocus your mind on trying to achieve a particular type of shot and opening your mind and senses to the world around you. Rather than plan to shoot, for example, a particular building at a particular time of day, go to a random location at a time when you feel like shooting and follow your instincts.

This might be as simple as wandering the streets with an entirely open mind, when you come to a junction, simply take the route that feels right. More often than not, you will stumble across something really interesting to shot that you might never have considered.

An example of this random interconnectedness is you might see a pretty woman in a beautiful red dress and think, she might make a great subject. Rather than approaching her to take a portrait, you discreetly follow her and end up at a street flamenco party with huge potential for lots of great shots. Your mind has been attracted by the girl in the red dress because she stands out in the crowd. She stands out because the red dress is unusual and completely different to everyone else, so there is a good chance that she is going somewhere unusual. This might seem a little bit zen and entirely unscientific but it really does work.

Random wanderings led me to this. Photo by Jason Row Photography

It's Not Just About the Visual Aspect

Taking a holistic approach to photography is not just about the visual aspect. It is about tuning all your senses to the world around you. Walking along you might touch a handrail and it feels different. You look down and there is a beautiful engraving on it and the light is perfect for a close-up. You might smell food being cooked in the open air and come across a local market or food fair. Maybe you hear the distant rumbling of V8 engines and come across street racing. The point is that by tuning our senses to look, listen, feel, touch and indeed taste, we can open entirely new photographic possibilities.

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A holistic decision at road junction led me to this shot. Photo by Jason Row Photography

Become Technically Instinctive

Another aspect of the holistic approach to photography is to become technically instinctive. By this I mean that, having “stumbled” across your amazing scene, don’t get bogged down in trying to work out the technical aspects of the shot. The first thing you should do is raise that camera to your eye and start shooting. By leaving your mind free to look for the creative possibilities in the shot, you will actually find that you will instinctively set the right aperture or shutter speed.

In a controlled situation, you might find yourself raising your shutter speed to freeze the flamenco dancers that the red dress girl led you to. In a holistic situation, you ignore the need for a fast shutter speed and find you have a number of great shots with motion blurred dancers. Very often we get bogged down by the technical requirements of a shot to the detriment of the creative aspects of it.

Early Evening view of the City of London from Tower Bridge
Use your instinct for the technical matters. Photo by Jason Row Photography

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Right time right place. Or was it? Photo by Jason Row Photography

As I said earlier, this all sounds a little bit Zen and unscientific but the irony is that, for me at least, it works. Many more times than it realistically should, to be honest. Whether this is because there is some random interconnectedness in the world or just because the world is full of interesting subjects is another debate. All I know is that whenever I go on a shoot, I devote at least one day to holistic photography and that one day often supplies a surprising number of excellent shots.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

At last! I thought I haven’t been doing it right…..could never plan a shoot, pick a location when the light will be exactly right, then have images turn out exactly as my minds eye held them! I’ve always loved street wandering and feeling the instinctive feeling of a shot! 🙂 cool !

Technically insensitive shouldn’t mean you ignore your settings. You might use a slow shutter and blur motion delightfully – or you may end up overexposing every shot, or using too shallow a depth of field and missing critical focus. You have to make a creative choice of some kind or another when surprised by an engaging scene like that, and it’ll be a better choice if your mind is engaged and not completely zenned out.

Holy cow. This is how I shoot most of the time, and always felt I wasn’t a ‘real’ photographer in spite of capturing some amazing photos. But it what makes me enjoy photography so much – the chance to find a treasure or a moment, and capture it. I didn’t know there was a name for it. Suddenly I feel validated! Thank you!

Couldn’t have said it better. This hasn’t always been my style but I didn’t even know it was a style! Nothing better than wandering the streets in a “new” place and discovering things to shoot

I love to shoot this way. Serendipity is a wonderful thing. The strange thing is that 3 days ago I bought the Illustrated Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy at a thrift store and watched the last 2 episodes of the season of Dirk Gently series on BBC America. Until it started on BBC a few months ago, I’d never heard of Dirk Gently. My son had several Hitchhikers Guide copies for years. I never looked at any of them. Your mention of both in the same article snapped my mind out of its stagnant post-election depression to remind me that I still have my camera and my imagination and a valid passport. Everything is possible when you open your mind to it.
Strange things in the universe frequently interrupt my photography. I’m not good at being in a group of photographers because while they are focusing on one thing, I’m turned in the opposite direction or walking away looking at something I find so fascinating I have to photograph it. I do the same thing with my plein aire paintings. Most people only look in one direction. At the scene everyone is painting. The iconic view. If you’re photographing a sunset, you are in the golden hour. Turn around and look behind you. The scene might be your best photograph ever. So as you walk through life with your camera ready, don’t forget to look up, down and turn around and take that detour.

Thank you for this article! This is the way I always shoot and it’s been embarrassing to admit it to others. I thought there was something wrong with me! I am so relieved to find out I’m not alone.

Thank you for this article. This is mostly how I shoot, especially when I am travelling – I go by instinct. You have really put into words my processes and I’m so glad there are others who do the same.
I love that you use the word Zen, that appeals to me 100%, as my website url includes ‘zen’.

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