The Health Benefits of Nature and a Surprising Business Opportunity

photo of a red maple lea on a tan rock that's criss-crossed with veins of white. © Frank Gallagher
© Frank Gallagher

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

Getting out in nature is good for the soul, good for our photography, and maybe even good for business. As nature photographers, we intuitively know that being outside, immersed in nature, is good for us. It fills our creative and artistic needs, but it also makes us feel better, physically and mentally. A variety of scientific studies prove these truths we’ve known all along. As health care systems realize the healing power of nature, more are placing nature photos in hospitals, clinics, and doctor’s offices. I was reminded of how important those health benefits are and how they impact nature photography by a couple of recent stories.

An Rx for nature

In the first story, from the Greater Good Science Center, a doctor wrote about “prescribing outdoor time” for his patients. Over the past twenty years or so, an increasing body of research has shown that getting outside and into nature has positive effects on stress hormones and blood pressure, lowers heart rate, leads to better-quality sleep, improves mood, and boosts immune function. A 2018 study from the UK looked at a variety of research studies involving more than 290 million people in more than 20 countries and found that exposure to nature reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted said that nature tranquilizes and enlivens the mind, refreshing and reinvigorating it. Whether being in nature puts us in our “evolutionary happy place,” as E.O. Wilson posited, or elicits a feeling of awe, or simply lets the executive function areas of the brain relax, something good is happening.

Even simply looking at nature has positive effects. Data from Vanderbilt University Hospital showed that patients whose windows “faced the forest healed faster than those whose rooms faced a parking garage.” Hospitals are increasingly adding nature photos and paintings to their walls and décor. Italian photographer Elaine Poggi even set up Healing Photo Art to “humanize hospitals with healing photo art.”

A nature photographer who spoke to my local camera club had a contract to provide large-scale nature photos to a chain of West Virginia hospitals, so there are business opportunities here, too.

Seeing the world through a soda straw

I heard about the next article from photographer Joe Brady’s FotoFriday newsletter. Brady mentioned a Scientific American piece on how our vision and breathing changes in response to stress. When stressed, we develop a sort of tunnel vision. By controlling our breathing and vision we can lower our level of stress which, in turn, makes us open to seeing more.

In the Scientific American article, Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman described how, when stressed, your pupils dilate and the position of each eye’s lens changes. “Your visual system goes into the equivalent of portrait mode on a smartphone. Your field of vision narrows. You see one thing in sharper relief, and everything else becomes blurry. Your eyeballs rotate just slightly toward your nose, which sets your depth of field and focus on a single location. This is a primitive and ancient mechanism by which stress controls the visual field.” Brady likened it to looking at the world through a soda straw.

By contrast, when calm we enjoy “panoramic vision” in which can see clearly more broadly. We don’t lock in on one area, and are open to looking at the many individual things in our field of vision. If you keep your head still, and look far into the distance, then above, below and to the sides, you can reduce stress and change the way you’re viewing your environment. And what photographer wouldn’t want to see and explore their environment without wearing stress-induced blinders?

When composing your shot, you can hone in on this “panoramic vision” by taking a moment to look closely at the top, bottom, and sides of your composition and repeating that process in your camera’s viewfinder. You may be surprised at how much more you notice.

Take a breath

The same effect can be attained by deep, slow, controlled breathing, as in mindful breathing exercises. In both the visual and breathing exercises, the actions short circuit the brain’s stress response and calm the body. You see better, think better and, in turn, can photograph better.

I previously wrote about how the practice of mindfulness makes me a better photographer, in part because it relaxes me and opens me up to noticing more of what’s in front of me. I use mindfulness is a way of slowing down, relaxing, using controlled breathing exercises to envelop myself in the moment. It give me a sort of reset, after which I’m more able to see, experience, and appreciate the world around me.

Nice to know the science behind it. Maybe I should carry a soda straw in my camera bag to remind me?

 Frank Gallagher headshotFrank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photograph services to nonprofit organizations. He manages NANPA’s blog.