Photography as therapy: Why taking photos can actually improve your mental health

Ros Brennan
Ros Brennan

In a media-saturated world where we are spending more and more time staring at our screens, you might think that picking up a camera to ease your mind might seem counterintuitive—but scientific research proves otherwise.

Photo by Luke Porter

In 2010, scientists analyzed and reported a summary of over 100 studies focusing on the effects of art on physical and psychological health in The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature.

Photo by Jenny Hill

The findings were unequivocal. Not only does photography allow you to express yourself, but it also helps bring focus to positive life experiences, enhances your self-worth, and even reduces the stress hormone cortisol. It turns out that being a shutter bug gives you a perspective in more ways than one.

Read on to discover how to restore your peace of mind through the subtle art of photography.

Go with the flow

Ever heard of the scientific concept of flow? Also known colloquially as being ‘in the zone,’ flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus.

Photo by Simon Migaj

Be it cooking, dancing, or taking photos, flow often occurs when you are transfixed on a creative task. Time disappears, you forget yourself, and you become a part of something larger.

Photo by Esmee Holdijk

The entire process of shooting—from choosing a subject matter to discovering new angles to manipulating light—requires absolute focus. This very process of observing, by nature, is a meditative task that draws you into a peaceful state.

Photo by Jesse Bowser

The best part? This state of mind is not only good for our mental health; it’s also often where we do our best creative work. In this sense, photography isn’t just like mindfulness, it is mindfulness.

Reframe the world 

From 1839 (when photography was first introduced by French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce) to the proliferation of high-quality smartphone cameras today, photography has always been a tool with which to interpret the world around us.

Photo by Thom Holmes

In the same way that journalists can draw a multitude of different narratives from a single event, the way a photographer captures a scene is a totally unique form of expression filled with nuance and individual perspectives. Just as the great philosopher Horace once said, “A picture is a poem without words.”

Photo by Dan Grinwis

In this sense, you can use your photography practice as a tool to curate and reframe the world around you. Photography can be a place to reflect your own values, thoughts, and desires, and to manifest the kind of world you want to see. In short, you can choose what you focus on and what you leave out of the frame.

Photo by Liam Simpson

A great example of this is Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind Humans of New York. When Brandon lost his job as a bond trader, instead of updating his resume, he threw himself into his personal passion: street photography. 

“When I lost my job... I could suddenly ask myself: What is it that I want to do?" he tells The Inquirer. "It was the complete opposite of what I was doing before—sitting in front of the computer all day. [Now] I was out in the world, exploring, meeting people, seeing so many beautiful things, having these random interactions and letting life spill into my experiences.”

Photos by Brandon Stanton

Turning to photography not only brought him a huge amount of personal joy and gratification, but also resonated with people all over the world—his Instagram account alone is followed by over 7.8 million inspired fans.

Play your way to happiness

Photography as an outlet doesn't always have to be so serious. One of the greatest joys of the act is undoubtedly in the ability to switch off from life’s more sombre issues and relish in a child-like state of play.

Photo by Linh Nguyen

A great way to “play” with your practice is to constantly change up your subject-matter: explore a new location, shoot at different times of day, try your hand at different genres of photography, or even work with different kinds of film or processing techniques. After all, trying new things is a hot-wire to happiness.

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz

When you are engaging in photography as a form of self-expression, there is no right or wrong way to do things. The most important thing is that you enjoy yourself along the way.

Photo by Nong Vang

Immersing yourself in a creative pursuit is also a scientifically-proven way to lower your stress hormone levels, which in turn lowers feelings of anxiety, improves sleep, elevates your mood, and reduces your overall likelihood of developing certain diseases down the line.

Photo by Michael Henry

So, stop saying “I’ll do it tomorrow,” and get snapping for a healthier mind, a greater sense of personal achievement, and a way to make sense of an often complicated world.