Creativity as self-care: How photography can boost your wellness practices

Girl taking a picture of a pug.

Wellness. It’s not just a trend — it’s an industry.

McKinsey estimates the wellness industry’s worth at $1.5 trillion with a projected growth of 5–10 percent year over year. This is great news if you’re in the business of selling supplements, yoga classes, or CBD-infused anything.

But for the rest of us, buying the latest self-care product isn’t a guarantee of this elusive state of “wellness” — which, loosely defined by Pfizer, is a state of thriving, not just surviving. While there is a correlation between wealth and health according to Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the pillars of wellness — such as social connection, good sleep, exercise, and mindfulness — are essentially free.

If your budget accommodates them, gadgets and gizmos can still make it easier to sink into wellness practices, especially when you’re trying something new. A comfy cushion might be just what you need to start meditating, for example. And the right running shoes are a must-have before you pick up a new jogging routine. But wellness gadgets, like wellness itself, don’t need to come with a big price tag.

In fact, you probably already own one high-tech device that can plug you straight into a more creative, balanced, and peaceful state of mind:

Your phone. Or more precisely, the camera on your phone.

Turn screen time into “me time”

Creativity, according to Forbes, can be a potent self-care and wellness practice. You’ve probably experienced this for yourself at least a handful of times — maybe you’ve lost track of time while doodling in a sketchbook or grooving with a band. Creativity can light us up, give us energy, and center us in the moment.

But life is busy, and we don’t always take the time to play, paint, or write poetry. Enter the smartphone: that magical Swiss army knife of a device that puts everything from wellness to creativity apps right in our pockets. Our phones hold tremendous creative potential — if we can go beyond the endless text messaging, game playing, and social media scrolling.

And when it comes to smartphone cameras, there are no excuses not to experiment with creativity. Just ask the 1 billion Instagram users posting pictures of everything from breakfast to breakthrough photojournalism.

Arts educator and infrared photographer Laurie Klein knows just how powerful photography can be as a wellness practice, especially for those who are new to creative pursuits. For over 30 years, she’s been teaching people from every walk of life — including doctors, lawyers, and other “left-brained” professionals — and transforming them into creators in their own right. Her classes pair photography and psychology to encourage personal growth, challenge fears, and develop a deeper, more meaningful relationship with oneself.

“Photographs are a mirror into your soul,” says Klein.

With the right mindset and a little encouragement, anyone can start using a camera — be it a smartphone, Instax, or high-end DSLR — to tap into the wellness benefits of creativity.

Start by slowing down

Focus on process, not results. This is the first piece of advice that Klein shares with new photographers. Documenting your life with quick snapshots of your pets or latest gourmet dinner is one thing, but creative photography — similar to other self-care techniques, like meditation — is a practice. There’s more to it than simply hitting your camera shutter.

In photography, getting comfortable with the photo-making process starts with slowing down. If you’ve ever tried using mindfulness to get in touch with the present moment, you already know how calming and empowering it can feel to tune into the here and now. When you cultivate presence, your perception shifts, opening your senses to information you might not have noticed otherwise, like birdsong early in the morning or the quality of light in the late afternoon.

“When we photograph, we’re only doing one thing. We’re not thinking about what to make for dinner. So we can access a still point inside ourselves. And that is a kind of meditation in and of itself,” says Klein.

If slowing down is a challenge, start by spending five minutes at a time focusing only on taking pictures. Notice how framing up shots that you find beautiful or interesting takes a little time — and helps quiet your mind as you find just the right angle and perspective.

Different types of photography can be particularly beneficial to slowing down. As you begin developing a photography practice, skip fast-paced events or high-stakes situations. Instead, get outside and try nature or travel photography. Even ten minutes in nature can reduce stress, according to Science Daily.

If you don’t want to leave your house, don’t let that stop you from getting creative with your camera — take still life photos of a blooming bouquet or experiment with self-portraits and see how quickly you can get into your creative groove.

Tune into yourself

Once you get the hang of taking intentional photos, you can go deeper with photography as a tool for self-exploration and expression. Photos, according to Klein, are a sort of Rorschach test. That’s to say, it’s less important what the photo is and more important what it means to you.

Say you’ve taken a series of self-portraits to capture an important time in your life, such as the school semester before graduation. Look back at the lighting, angles, and composition, as well as your facial expression and body language in each photo. What does the “Rorschach test” of this photo series tell you? Maybe you notice the increasingly bright, warm lighting that reflects your growing confidence about the future. Or perhaps you always leave your face out of focus and direct attention to your strong, capable hands instead.

Whatever images you end up creating, you’ll start to find that they express emotions you might not have realized you had — no matter what type of photos you take.

Express yourself, alone or with others

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, most of us aren’t totally tuned into our emotions. Even if we think we know ourselves well, creativity can help us identify and express our deepest parts. Klein has learned this through experience:

“My mom had a heart attack. And I didn’t know what to do. So I went out and shot because it helped me work through it by expressing my feelings.”

Like talking to a close friend or family member, creative expression can help us handle the emotional burdens that many of us carry alone. Photography is just one of many ways to reap the benefits of creativity, but in some ways, it’s the simplest. All you need is yourself, your camera phone, and a willingness to try something new.

As Klein says, “In the isolation of this day and age, if you can get your feelings out, that’s pretty darn good. Creativity lightens people.”

And, while photography is most often a solo practice, it can also be a good excuse to spend time with others. Connection to others is vital for overall health — whether you’re in a crowd of strangers or hanging out with a loved one. Try taking candid photos at your next family picnic or experiment with street photography during your annual county fair. Make sure to ask for permission ahead of time — you never know when you might make a new friend or connection.

Go from casual to intentional

Anyone with a camera can start an intentional photography practice — no prior creative experience required. While there’s no one way to start, Klein has seen her students go through major transformations by doing the following:

Expand your picture memory.

Spend time looking at photographs that spark excitement and touch your emotions. You’ll gradually develop an inspiration reservoir you can draw from whenever you go out to shoot.

Know your “why”.

Pick one or two elements from your life (like personal interests or challenges) that are particularly meaningful to you and use them to drive your photography practice. This will help you better understand and work through the emotions that matter most to you.

Give yourself permission to play.

Try anything and everything — and have fun. Your photos are for you alone. If you choose to share them one day, that’s okay. But, as Klein says, “Stop worrying about creating a final product that gets 3,000 likes on social media.”

Use the buddy system.

Find a trusted friend or mentor you can share your work with. But don’t critique each other’s photos. Simply see how your friend reacts to your work and ask how it makes them feel. You might uncover valuable insights.

Learn to love the editing process.

Make photo editing a meditation on the story your images are telling. Experiment with different editing styles to see how they change what you’re communicating.

Print and hang your photos.

Surround yourself with actual prints of your favorite shots so you have plenty of time to contemplate them off-screen. Over time, you may notice new patterns or meanings behind your photos, which will help deepen your self-understanding.

Listen to what your photos are saying

Creativity isn’t reserved for people with experience, training, or even artistic talent. And wellness isn’t just for those who have an excess of time and resources. All you really need is your imagination. But a camera — especially one you carry with you all the time — is a convenient tool to help you tap into your imagination and learn from whatever you happen to find there.

As Klein says, “Images talk to us, but we don’t always listen. When we take photographs, they’re coming from our subconscious. We don’t edit as we capture. So in terms of learning about yourself, photography is pure gold.”

We would like to thank Laurie Klein for her contributions to this article.