Serious Fun

We’ve spent the last couple months working hard training our eyes and brains, so let’s move on to something fun.  This is something that our four-legged friends can teach us about being better photographers. 

Let’s talk about play.

There’s been much research in recent years by people like Dr. Charles Limb and Dr. Stuart Brown around play and its connection to creativity.  When we play our brains open up and we’re much more creative.  We become less self-conscious and more innovative.  And we become more aware of our environment and more fully engaged in the moment.  This is a perfect state to be in for photography.  And, as an added bonus, studies suggest we learn better in this state.

Not only is play very helpful for our own creativity but it also helps us work better with our subjects. 

When we’re feeling playful we signal that to everyone around us through many cues and gestures.  These signals can help put our subjects into a happier, more playful state — be they human or animal.  The effect can be powerful.  I recommend you go online and find the photos of the husky and polar bear playing.   Or find these photos in Stuart Brown’s book entitled Play.  A musher, Brian La Doone, saw a polar bear approach one of his Huskies, Hudson.  He expected Hudson was doomed as the polar bears hadn’t eaten for months.  Instead of running away, Hudson went into a play bow and wagged his tail, signaling he wanted to play.  As it turned out, the bear was game.  The amazing photos show dog and bear rolling around, playing with joy.  The bear returned every night for a week to play with Hudson.

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If a signal to play can turn a hungry polar bear into an enthusiastic playmate, imagine what it can do for your subjects.  When playing we really connect with those we’re playing with — making for amazing photographs. 

The challenge is to enter and stay in a playful state while also being productive with your photography.  One key is to be aware of your mental state.  It’s so easy to start worrying about what others will think of our photos, or to become frustrated with ourselves, our gear, or any number of things.   And once we’re worried or frustrated our thinking becomes rigid and our brains seek the safety of known, safe approaches.  This can lead us to taking the same photo over and over, increasing our frustration even more. 

If you catch yourself in this state, find something fun and playful to do.  Engage your subject in play, maybe toss a Frisbee, do something silly… Your four-legged friends are great advisors in this area.  Watch their joyful, even silly, but focused intensity.  This is the state we’re looking to enter too.

And your “adult” brain can feel great about all this fun and play because you now know, as do some of the most creative companies like Pixar and Apple, that play can seriously increase your productivity and creativity.

This month’s assignment

One of my mantras is “the best photos happen when we’re having fun.”  And I’m known for rolling around on the floor, bouncing between playing with my subject and grabbing my camera.  Your assignment is to mix play into one of your photography sessions and send us your favorite resulting photo.  And we’d love to hear about your experience — tell us what it was like playing while photographing, and if you have any discoveries to share.  I look forward to hearing from you and seeing your photos!

Class Recap

  • Try the exercise
  • Send your photos from the assignment to: Please put “Spot Photo Class” in the subject line
  • Go to Photography 101 on Spot's website to see your photos and those of your fellow students
  • Share your great work with your friends!
  • Check out David’s tips and comments
  • Meet David here in July for your next session!
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David Childs is a professional photographer, photo journalist, instructor, and animal advocate. You can see his work or contact him at

Study with David live! His pet photography classes are offered at Oregon Humane Society. See his website for details.

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