self care for mental health

Therapeutic photography

In Healing by Ivory

Photography has been a passion of mine for a while, but it was only recently that I was reminded just how beneficial it has been to my wellbeing.  I have a bipolar mental health condition and the one thing that has helped me ride all the highs and lows of my condition has been photography.  It became such a part of my personal therapy my psychology sessions ended up largely discussing photography techniques.  I was lucky!  My psychologist shared my passion for photography and helped me gain the confidence to take my photography further.

I have just now stepped out of my comfort zone and started as a professional photographer.  Making that step has made me realise how much it has supported my wellbeing, providing a focus for me through my most difficult times.  This article is not meant as a technical article on advanced camera settings and techniques; moreover it is meant as a creative guide that will help you get the most out of photography and the rewards it can bring.  I hope by reading this you will receive the same benefits for your wellbeing as I have over the years, but have only just realised.

1. You don’t need expensive cameras and equipment

In an age of smartphones with perfectly good, and sometimes amazing, cameras built in, or cheap compact cameras, there is no need to spend loads on camera equipment.  There are plenty of top photographers out there who solely use smartphones on photographic projects and get paid handsomely for it.  You can have the most expensive camera equipment in the world, but if you don’t understand what makes a good picture, then all that kit is worthless.  Having an eye for a good picture is worth more than any camera equipment you can buy.

2. The Rule of Thirds

photography therapy

The rule of thirds is a general rule used by photographers and artists to compose pictures.  Using this technique the picture is divided into nine equal parts, comprising of two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally space vertical lines.  The idea is to place compositional elements of the picture along these lines or at their intersections.  In the picture above I have placed the horizon along the bottom horizontal line and the outcrop in the right-hand four squares, with the centre of the outcrop at the intersection of the right-hand vertical line.  The rule of thirds is just a rule of thumb and rules are made to be broken, but many great pictures throughout history have used this method.  Try not to worry about being precise about this; taking pictures should be fun and this is just a rough guideline.

3. Leading lines

photography therapy

Another tool photographers and artists use is leading lines.  In the above image the pathway draws the viewer into the picture and the walker further enhances this effect, while also acting as a focal point for the picture.  In this instance the leading lines are the pathway, but it can equally be a road, telegraph wires, tractor tracks, lines of crops, a river etc.  Leading lines usually start somewhere on the bottom edge of the picture.

4. Foreground and Background Interest

photography therapy

It is also good practice to have foreground and background interest.  In the above image the peak with the hiker raising her arms to the sky provides foreground interest, while the background interest is provided by the sunrays lighting up the distant hills and mountains.

5. Don’t always shoot at head height

photography therapy

If you want to express yourself as a photographer, taking pictures from viewpoints different to what we see in our daily lives helps give a unique perspective on things and makes your pictures stand out from the crowd.  In this picture I had to lie down in the grass to take the snowdrops from below and capture the sunlight shining through them.  I am not suggesting you must go to that extreme, but if you can bend down or kneel down then you will be amazed how different your pictures can look.  It is particularly a good idea to get down to the same level as the subject you are taking, e.g. if it is a child or an animal, as this gives a more natural picture.

6. Make use of reflections

photography therapy

There are some wonderful images to take if you look out for reflections.  These can be in water, glass, metal etc.  Reflections can often go unnoticed.  In the above image the sunset is actually reflected off a muddy puddle.  It was only by kneeling down and getting the camera at ground level that the reflection became apparent and I could capture this image.

7. Look at other photographers’ work

Don’t scratch around for inspiration, look at other photographers’ work and see what they are doing.  I am constantly inspired by photographers, past and present.  There are plenty of free-to-view images online or, if you prefer, you can buy a photography book to see a particular photographer’s images or visit a photographic gallery.

8. Join a photography group

You don’t have to do it alone; there are plenty of photography groups out there where you can meet likeminded people and learn from each other.  This is particularly good if you want to meet friends and, for some people, prevent loneliness and isolation, positively improving your wellbeing.  There are also photography websites that you can join and get feedback on your images, or you can enter competitions.

9. A picture a day

Try to take at least one picture a day.  By doing this you will find your photography skills improve rapidly, with seemingly little effort.  It is a good idea if you keep a photo calendar with an image that you have taken each day and maybe a description about the image and how you were feeling when you took it.  This will not only help you keep a visual diary of your photography, it will also enable you to track your wellbeing too.  The very act of doing this can be cathartic, helping release the tension inside you.  The diary can either be hardcopy, a folder in your computer or online.  Another tip is always to have your camera or phone with you, as you never know when a photographic opportunity may arise.

10. Enjoy your photography

Photography should never feel like a chore; embrace it and enjoy every picture you take!  Try not to be self-critical; there is no such thing as perfection and, what you may think is no good, others will think is brilliant.  For me photography allows me to get out and enjoy nature, but also I get to meet some great people when I take their pictures or through a shared passion in photography.  Every time I press the shutter button is a release for me; I am free from the constraints of the normal world and open to the creative opportunities photography gives me.

By David Stocks

IvoryTherapeutic photography