How to practice noticing

I used to teach digital photography workshops and classes at St. Louis’ Center of Creative Arts. For one of them, the first assignment I gave was simply to go out and take pictures of yellow things. Just go outside and use whatever camera you have—and don’t worry about the technical stuff yet. The theme was all that mattered. Just use your eye(s).

Find yellow things.

I did it too, and these were my photos. I walked around the neighborhood outside COCA, never more than a block away from the building, for less than an hour.

Yellow things #1

yellow name 1

Everyone did a fine job. After all, there were yellow things all around. The students successfully focused their noticing on details they probably hadn’t paid attention to on the way in, or when out and about in general.

Chances are, like many of us, they were usually lost in their thoughts or distracted or had bigger things on their minds.

And with all the potential benefits of mindfulness being discovered these days—both at work and at home—I thought of this little project and wanted to share it. Because, like you, I don’t always want to be thinking about work, or bills, or politics, or any of the million everyday hassles we have to deal with on a daily basis. Sure, sometimes a little break or a walk leads to a breakthrough on something we’ve been working on. But sometimes you just need to be present, to be open, and to be creative. 

Yellow things #2

yellow name 2

These are the same photos, but I’ve rearranged them. Can you see why?

Here’s why: I spelled my name with the found yellow scenes. The actual letters are sort of a cheat, but you get the idea.


The yellow part was easy, adding another level of meaning makes it a bit harder. But that’s the fun part of working on your noticing skills: you can set up any challenge you want. Over the years I’ve given myself dozens of different challenges that combine my love for a good walk with fun (and often weird) photography projects.

Of course, if you try this particular challenge you can spell anything you choose to… or not. Maybe instead you could take pictures of any collection of things: colors, textures, shapes, objects… Doors, signs, trash, cracks in walls… It’s up to you.

Yellow things #2 (annotated)

yellow name 3

The point is to look at your surroundings more closely, to be present, to see things and shapes as more than they might appear at first. Doing so will help you get more intimate and more creative with your living spaces, neighborhoods, and the places you visit. The only point is to notice.

Ultimately, it’s all about practice and presence. And I think simple, self-assigned projects like this are the best practice you can get, especially if you’re just starting out.

Because not only will you 1) Take a lot of pictures and learn what works technically and formally; 2) You’ll also train your brain to be present as you spot fun little details in places you used to ignore—and that’s a great way to get to know your hometown (and yourself).

Main photo by Daniel van den Berg on Unsplash. Yellow photos by Bill Keaggy.