What is photography for you?

Breaking wave, Papohaku Beach, Molokai, Hawaii

The sound of my footsteps in the dry grass. Another adventure. A short one this time, just walking out to Papohaku Beach here on Molokai to watch the sunset. I’ve done this a hundred times and, hopefully, will do it a hundred more. I kick off my shoes when I reach the sand; start to reach for my cameras, but end up just sitting down and turning my eyes to the sea.

I’m forever overwhelmed by the beauty of this place. Before me, a line of shimmering backlit waves rolls joyously toward the beach. Repeatable miracles, always here when I arrive. I let their beauty sink deep into me.

I hear the words of philosopher Lewis Mumford: “Adventure is humdrum and routine unless one assimilates it, unless one relates it to a central core which grows within and gives it contour and significance. Raw experience is empty, just as empty in the forecastle of a whaler as in a chamber of a counting house; for it is not what one does, but in a manifold sense, what one realizes that keeps existence from being vain and trivial.”

“What one realizes…” From all the great photographic adventures I’ve had in my life, what have I realized? What lessons, touchstones, runes have I found? A good thought to ponder looking out to sea, my cameras still comfortably in their bag. I watched and mused for a long time.

The first realization that bubbled up was that, in the end, photography for me is not a vocation or an avocation, not a hobby or an amusement or a skill. Photography for me is a spiritual practice. It’s a discipline that connects me more closely to the core of the universe and the core of my own being. It opens my eyes and, in doing so, allows my heart and my soul to open, as well. At some level, I’ve known this truth for years, but it was nice to see it so clearly.

Another realization followed close on its heels. If photography is my spiritual practice, then the experience is always more important than the photograph. For me, the photograph isn’t an end in itself, but the residue (beautiful residue, to be sure) of my connection with the scene before me. The experience must always come first. Does it? No, far too often I get too lost in the process of “making” the image and realize at the end that I’ve missed being fully present to the experience. In the arc of my life, photographs collected in this way will never make up for the connections I missed.

Photography as a spiritual practice: a discipline that allows me a thousand new perspectives on the world. A discipline that takes me to a place of reverence. To a place where I can be the watcher, the appreciator, the celebrator and, ultimately, just the lover of the incredible beauty it allows me to witness.

The waves continued their joyous, unending march toward the shore. Each breathtaking curl serving as an exclamation point to the truth of my musings. I sat there fully connected, totally in the experience.

And now, fully connected, it was the time to take out my Canon EOS 7D and set it up for sharp wave photography. Continuous shooting (H), 7 frames per second. Auto follow-focus. Shutter priority at 1⁄2000 sec. to completely stop the action. ISO on—believe it or not—Auto to assure that I always have a 1⁄2000 sec. even if the light changes. If the light goes dark and the ISO rises to compensate, I’d rather have a little more noise and get the shot than have the ISO hit its limit and the shot be underexposed.

My zoom lens took me out and almost inside the waves. Time after time (actually around 700 shots that day), the shutter clicked away. I wasn’t looking for the perfect wave as surfer photographers might; I was just looking for each wave’s perfect moment. Each wave’s consummate moment of pattern, line and color.

With the backlight, there was a split second as a wave broke where its crest thinned out and evening’s light pierced through. It happened so fast that if you blinked, you’d miss it. But I wasn’t blinking, and neither was my 7D. I’d gasp and shoot, and my camera froze those moments as if the waves were made of ice, not water.

Finally, exhausted and happy, I screamed, “Thank You!” at the top of my lungs and headed back to the car. Mother Nature assured me that it was all right to leave. She would have plenty more waves for me whenever I returned. Truly great lady, Mom Nature.

That night, in front of the computer, I relived the whole experience. Equally connected, I took one of my favorite images and spent a long time dodging, burning and sculpting it till its two-dimensional, one-sensory form—the photograph—gave me the same feeling that my three-dimensional, five-sensory experience had given me earlier that evening. When I was done, I stared at the image on the screen and one more realization:

That God gave me photography so that I could pray with my eyes!

Dewitt Jones posts daily photographic images on his Facebook page. Go to You also can sign up for Jones’ weekly Photos of Celebration at

Dewitt Jones is one of America’s top professional photographers. Twenty years with National Geographic photographing stories around the globe has earned him the reputation as a world-class photojournalist. As a motion picture director, he had two documentary films nominated for Academy Awards before he was thirty. Dewitt has published nine books including California! and John Muir’s High Sierra. His most recent book, The Nature of Leadership, was created in collaboration with Stephen R. Covey.