I found myself giving a talk at a camera club this week about something completely central to my work, yet almost impossible to define. Creativity. It was one of those moments that pushes you to step back from what you do, and contemplate exactly how it is that you do it. Or even challenge yourself as whether you are doing what you think you do.
Teaching people to be more creative is one of the hardest challenges I have when I’m wearing my hat as an instructor. Learning how to drive your camera, why you might want to swap to a different lens, or mastering some of the advanced features of processing RAW files are unambiguous tasks. Setting forward on your own creative path, however, is a daunting task that typically only makes sense *after* you have found that path.
There’s a lovely school of thought that creativity is what you’re left with once you manage to “un-teach” yourself everything you have learned. There is wisdom to this, because typically we follow a recipe for our photography based on our influences and experiences, and sometimes this can lead to a creative dead end. In this article I want to share some of my practical ideas on where you might find your own creativity and why it’s so important.
Expression vs Documentary
The heart of creativity is the act of expression. This is a recurring theme for this website but it’s worth restating as a foundation for this discussion. When you capture an image you are attempting to express something with it. The camera is your voice, it carries intent when held in your hands. Eventually you share that image with an audience, be it online or on a wall, and you are expressing your perspective in that process.
Because photography is an act of expression, I follow through to a logical conclusion that the notion of “documentary photography” is an illusion.
There is no such thing as an impartial camera, there is no absolute in photography, there is no such thing as an accurate image. Every step of a photographs life is open to interpretation by the photographer. Where you stand to shoot the image, when you choose to capture a scene, which elements you include or exclude, what kind of editing you apply to the image or even the curation of frames for presentation. Each of these moments presents choices for the photographer that can change the content of the image and the message it conveys.
Every image is a representation of the original reality, subject to choices made by the photographer. How that person sees the world is a filter that is applied to the image, whether they are conscious of it or not. So there is no absolute truth in a photograph, even though it may contain in immense amount of truth from the photographers perspective. This is the flip side of what I mean when I say, “The camera looks both ways”. The photographer is always present in the photo, and a good photographer is typically very conscious of this.
Unique vs Original
I have an entire article on the idea that there is almost nothing truly original in this world, we are all a product of external influences, but that doesn’t mean we cannot create something truly unique. The question is to what extent we can follow our influences and still regard our work as creative. Here is a paradox at work.
One of my favourite processing styles is to drop my RAW files into B+W, tinker with the contrast a little and warm up the split tones so I get a bit of dusty warmth in the mid-tones. Hardly original and completely derivative of over a century of film based B+W photography that came before me. It’s a lazy way for me to bring some treatment to a set of images and have them work together as a set. Presenting an exhibition in B+W is much much easier than colour because the consistency across images gives a sense of flow and connection *between* them.
Dropping into B+W is hardly an original act, but does that mean it’s not creative? If my final result is a unique collection of images that pull together harmoniously to make a unique and powerful presentation, then surely that qualifies as creative. There is a sense here that the impact of an image tells us something about the creative quality it posses. After all an image can be unique yet plain awful, when really we want something of beauty to emerge from our creativity. I would describe this ability of an image to have impact as the “depth” of the image, or it’s ability to evoke an emotional response based on layered information within in.
Anytime you build layers into your composition you are heading in a direction that can lead to something unique. Layers can be literal or abstract. But layers of content within an image give it depth, and if the expression is strong then it will likely achieve some impact.
Conforming vs Creating
The trouble with most commercial photography is that it leaves very little scope for being truly creative. Some commissions are built around a good concept to produce high impact content, but the concept and creative flow usually belongs to an agency rather than the photographer. That’s just the nature of the beast. You can’t expect to get paid buckets of money and still indulge in whatever creative fantasies take your fancy.
This is one reason I love running photo tours and workshops, because I don’t have to shoot anything for a client and I can indulge myself in any artistic direction that pleases me. And I usually do just that.
For many photographers who enjoy their craft with camera clubs, my photo tours offer a similar opportunity to step away from constraints and “be themselves”. Camera clubs are great environments to learn skills in a structured way and progress with those skills, but the flip-side to standardisation of photography can be to stifle some creative expression. If you shoot to please the judges then you may not be shooting to please yourself. It’s very similar to the constraints I have with my commercial clients.
Any opportunity to step away from these constraints is an opportunity to grow your creativity. They key here is to pick strong and varied influences to take your photography into directions that would not otherwise present themselves in your current environment. Anything that takes you outside your comfort zone is a good thing.
You don’t need to know everything about your camera to be a creative photographer, anymore than you need to know everything about how your engine works to drive a car. Learning the technical aspects of your camera for the sake of knowledge is not a path to creativity. However, each time you learn a new technique you are adding a tool that may prove useful on your creative path.
This is why technical knowledge and creative ability are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they dependant. If you worry that you’re not technical enough with your skills, then stop worrying. There is always potential to learn something useful, but don’t feel you need to learn everything to achieve something.
There are a handful of technical skills that underpin my photography style, and creativity. I like to shoot with a wide lens, and a wide aperture. I have written literally dozens of articles about why wide is wonderful. I won’t repeat all that here. What I will emphasise is the day I bought myself a 24mm f/1.4 prime lens was the day I turned a corner with my photographic style. That lens became a creative tool for me to experiment with and took me down a path which resonated perfectly with my creative expression. I love shooting shallow depth of field to highlight my subject, and love shooting wide angle to embrace the maximum supporting context.
Learning the right technique, skill or tool to match your style will give you the best opportunity to express your creative voice. Because it’s all about the expression.
Telling The Story
This may seem a tired and worn out expression when it comes to photography, but it holds truth and the words have become shorthand for a great many truths. If photography is an act of expression, then you will want to have a story to express. Shooting images for the sake of an image is a hollow process and it quickly shows. Without a depth of story behind the image there is rarely any depth within in either. And the creative power of an image comes down to the depth of impact it makes.
I had one chap on a photo tour about ten years ago who was a lovely person but totally lost with his compositions. Whenever he would show me a photo and ask for some critique I would stare into the chaos, confused and reluctant to speak, because I never knew what the subject of the photo was. He would point his lens down a street and just capture everything and anything. I had a devil of a time trying to help him, until he grasped the idea of “telling a story”. For him that was the right framework to bring focus to his focus.
Telling a story means the subject of the photo is the hero, around which you try to bring a little extra context and build layers into the composition. The foundation here is having a story to tell about your subject, which puts you on the path of exploring your creative tools to express that story.
All of which comes back to the idea that you need to put “experience before exposures”. I’ve written entire articles on this theme too, it’s a corner stone of my philosophy when shooting. When you put down the camera and let yourself experience a place first it gives you a chance to connect with your subject (location or people) and identify what is special. You need to know the story to express the story, so you have to give space for real experiences to happen before pursuing the image.
It seems obvious to most of us, but in practice it requires a little dedication to achieve. It requires you commit to slowing down your travels, slowing down your moment and letting yourself be generous with your time. If you walk into a market in Bangkok with only ten minutes to shoot and run then don’t expect a prize winning photo from the experience. It takes time to build depth to your experience, to talk to market holders, to observe the ebb and flow of a place and work out where the stories are happening. They’re not always blindingly obvious, especially the best ones.
Which is where I come back to my mantra: “Go Slow. Get Closer. Look for the Light."
When you take it slow you have time to engage with your subject, time to get close to them and learn something. Taking time gives you a chance to earn a little intimacy which will be evident in the photos. Time spent understanding your subject leads to better expression. And the creative path is all about expression, your expression. You may not be the first person in the world to hang a B+W picture on the wall, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it a unique offering that is full of creative expression.