As a photographer, if you have been doing it long enough, you should be seeing things differently than most people. If you are new as a photographer, you need to learn to see things differently every day, ordinary things differently every day. How do you do that? By learning that the ordinary things in your life all have different artistic things that you are taking for granted.
There is something about taking photos that is so enriching to our lives. Connecting us more closely to our surroundings, showing us how to observe the world in a deep and meaningful way.
And yet, it is so easy to be pulled away from the things that we love to do, and which are most likely listed in our minds as ‘not essential.’
Our explorations with our cameras aren’t our jobs, nor is looking after our children or cleaning our houses.
As a father to two young kids and running a more than full-time photography business, it can feel almost decadent to spend an afternoon on my own just wandering around, exploring and taking photos. After all, there are always more important things to do, right?
But I counter that, actually, taking photos is essential for our lives. It is what we are called to do.
Making something, whatever it is that you are passionate about, is what we are alive for, surely?
So with our busy lives, how do we become more creative?
Taking photos isn’t just about taking photos – it’s about taking all of the experiences we have on a daily basis and turning them into an expression of how we think and feel about the world.
As photographers, we want to observe the world by looking at the moments of life. Even if it’s just for that one moment. After all, if we are not seeing the moments of our lives, you could say we are not seeing our lives at all.
When we wake early in the morning and see the light eagerly streaming into our room, between all the little gaps between the curtains and the wall, we stop and we watch. We pay attention, we don’t always rush off.
And when are driving home late from work. The night is so dark, so enveloping, as we meander through the city, with bursts of light and activity every now and again, around stop lights, or rows of shops or outside restaurants.
Beyond that, it’s just meditative darkness, with tiny flares of soft light along the road. The darkness is closing us into our car.
We don’t allow our minds to race off into thoughts of the day. We pay attention. Looking at the darkness, we feel it. We notice.
These are all sensations in our daily life that we can pay attention to. This all helps with the art of seeing, or as it could also be called, the art of paying attention to our environment.
It sounds very strange to say this, but unless you are consciously cultivating being present – or are naturally good at it – then it’s likely you spend most of your day totally lost in busyness.
There is nothing wrong with that. However, in order to create something you need to carve out time and space.
Don’t just wait until you have time. Because either it won’t come – there are always more things to do – or when you get time, the pressure to instantly create will be too great.
Spend time every day developing a practice of being present, of looking around you, of seeing what is really there. Then, when you actually pick up your camera, it will be easier to cultivate the mood within you of a creative, relaxed, present flow state.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” Anne Lamott
One of the major barriers to being creative is the most insidious, painful and stressful emotion – perfectionism.
I call it an emotion because it envelops and paralyzes us when getting started with a project. It’s very hard to get up, push past perfectionism and get out the door.
For me, perfectionism can take many forms that seem logical, until I consciously pierce a hole in the flimsy argument. It used to be that I would become obsessed with having new gear. I couldn’t start a project until I had a new camera or lens, or the help of an assistant.
Then I realized this was the ultimate in procrastination. Either I did the project with the kit I had, or if that didn’t work, I found another project. I don’t mind buying new kit, in fact, I love it. However, I never buy a new kit because I am in a fit of perfectionism anymore.
Now perfectionism often comes to me in the form of: I have nothing unique to say about this place I want to photograph. It has been photographed so many times before by better photographers. What can I say that is new?
When I get emails from my students they often say: I don’t know enough about my camera/composition/ technique to take any good photos!
Even with very experienced amateurs, I see people who don’t believe in their skills and abilities with photography. They want just that little bit more advice or feedback. When really, they just need to keep taking photos.
As humans, we seem to have an innate ability not to recognize what we are doing well, and instead focus attention on the negative aspects of our skills.
Well, focusing on the negative is not going to get you very far. Like the writer, Anne Lamott says in the quote above, it will keep you oppressed your whole life.
It’s time to throw off the shackles of all that you are not and instead try to live with the ideas of imperfection instead.
If we are not trying to be perfect, we can just get started and not worry about being amazing.
We can go out and have some fun with our photography. We won’t worry if our shots are great – we’ll just practice, shoot, and have a good time.
The new mantra here is accepting imperfection. Celebrate it even. We are all on a journey, are all developing, and will never arrive at total perfection. It doesn’t exist.
So unhook yourself from the idea of perfection and do what every major artist, entrepreneur and anyone who creates anything for a living says: just go create.
Think about nurturing your photography as it needs to be nurtured. Think about your creativity as a journey, one in which you will keep persevering, weaving it into your life for as long as it engages you.
And if you’re like me, that’s probably your whole life.
We take so many photos now with digital that I think our expectations of the number of fantastic photos we should be getting is way higher than if we were shooting film.
When Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop” he was talking obviously in the time of film when we were so much more careful with our shots. Making sure that we didn’t waste them unnecessarily.
The idea of expecting a small number of excellent shots is both realistic and freeing.
I spend a lot of time editing down hundreds, and sometimes thousands of photos after a shoot. To make sure that I get the few that are my very, very best.
When you lower your expectations about how many shots you should be getting, it means you can experiment and do things you might not normally do because the end result is unknown.
You can chase that strange light and see what your camera does with it. You can try lots of different subjects and shoot people/things/places that totally fascinate you – without thinking just about results.
It means you can practice perfecting your technique. Remember, when you are improving your technique – starting to shoot on manual for example – it is vitally important to constantly practice.
Practice takes time. Practice is about making mistakes and missing shots. But the more you do it, the better your understanding of your camera will get.
We all know the spiel that technology is ruining our lives, right? Well, I don’t totally agree. Technology has brought incredible things to my life. It has allowed my wife and me to become digital nomads. It has made photography truly accessible – no longer do you need a $3000 camera to get you started in photography.
Like everything fun and absorbing. However, moderation is key. When we check our emails 134 times per day (a statistic I read recently) instead of enjoying a beautiful sunrise, a great concert or a beautiful moment with our child, we rush to capture it instead of being in the moment. In that case, technology has become out of hand in our lives.
The downside to so much tech activity is you start to get lost in the constant stimulation of the world. You are so busy thinking and responding to that world that you leave your brain no space to…create anything new.
You will continue with the same habits, the same thoughts, and routines unless you consciously create space in your life.
Focusing on bringing more silence into your life is a beautiful way to allow new ideas in. It also helps to ‘clear the clutter’ of excessive thoughts in your mind. It cleanses your thinking a little, so you can turn your attention away from doing to creating.
What I like to ask my students sometimes is when they last listened to, and were totally absorbed, by silence.
And when I say absorbed, I mean totally aware and present for the silence. They weren’t thinking about what they were making for dinner, or their annoying work colleague or how much money they spent last night.
So it’s not just being surrounded by silence – it’s being actively absorbed by it. Listen to it and feel how the absence of noise affects your body.
For me, taking photographs is a total sensory experience. It’s not just about what I see, because all of my senses are heightened. Entering into silence is a way to connect more with my senses.
It’s feeling the different way that silence stimulates your senses, such as the feeling of melancholy on an empty high street on a grey winter’s day. Or the comforting nostalgia of a clear, cold autumn evening, with the smell of wood smoke wafting in the air.
Or the heady beauty of a spring morning full of the opulent perfume of flowers and the feeling of scorching, rich sunshine on your skin.
I know that it’s hard to pull your mind away from its busy thinking and doing. I get that being human means that thoughts endlessly appear in our mind, taking our attention and energy.
When this happens and you become conscious of it happening, take your attention gently back to the moment. Wrestle control from the thoughts and bring your mind back to what’s here in front of you. I like to say to myself – I’ll think about that later.
That way you can actually appreciate the life that you have in the moment, and you will develop seeing and awareness in your photography, regardless of where you are. Whether it be on your way to work, at the playground with your kids or even doing your shopping.
This awareness is a powerful catalyst for your creativity and will find you reaching for your camera more and more often because you have learned to listen to the silence and connect to the world around you.
Fear is certainly in the category of things that inhibit creativity in our lives. But if you can learn to work with fear, then you’ll automatically feel more inspired and confident to create and take photos.
There are two major fears I see in photographers at my workshops.
Firstly, fear of photographing their subject. This applies to street photography a lot. You very much want to take a photo of that magnetic looking stranger, or that strange event unfolding before your eyes, but you are gripped by fear.
You know you want to bring your camera up, you want to move closer to your subject but something stops you. You end up walking away without the shot and feel annoyed with yourself.
The second type of fear response I see in my students is a deep self-consciousness about shooting for too long in front of strangers.
Think about this scenario. You are walking along a busy city street on a rainy day when all of sudden a ray of golden sunshine bursts through the grey clouds, creating stunning reflections and patterns around you.
It’s mesmerizing! You want to shoot everything that this beautiful light is reflecting off. You start to shoot, but after a few minutes, you are hit by a wave of self-consciousness.
There are people everywhere. People shopping, coming home from work, tourists chatting, kids running. And here you are crouching down on the ground photographing puddles!
I’ve noticed that when this wave of self-consciousness hits, most people stop shooting and move on because it feels weird to be doing something that no one else is.
Now fear is normal in these situations. I think most photographers experience fear in certain situations. We know that our bodies produce a chemical response to new situations, which can make us want to run away.
Instead, we need to examine how to deal with this situation so that fear doesn’t overpower us. So how can I dispel my fear and get those great shots?
First, accept that like clouds, fear comes and goes. You will never live a life where fear disappears. You wouldn’t be human otherwise.
Even if you are a super-experienced photographer, there will always be times when you will be dogged by fear.
Secondly – allow it! This might seem counterintuitive, but I have found that if I try to run away from fear, or suppress or ignore it, it starts to get bigger and bigger until I am almost paralyzed by dread.
So I allow the fear. I just say – Ok, here is some fear. Welcome. OK, I don’t say welcome. I’m not that zen. But you get what I mean? I don’t fight it.
Carry on taking the photograph – and just let the fear be there. Eventually, like a cloud in the sky, it will leave. Fear always leaves! Maybe it will take a few seconds or a few minutes. Maybe longer.
Yet, the more you allow fear to be there, the quicker it seems to evaporate.
The good thing to understand is that the more you practice being in such situations as photographers, the more you will get used to these fear responses. They won’t overpower you and stop you from shooting.
If you suffer greatly from fear, then I suggest you practice getting comfortable being with your camera, so you can focus on the actual photography!
I don’t know why, but a day spent creating is a day that feels much more satisfying to me than a day spent consuming.
When I think about consuming, it’s not just buying things – it’s the endless stream of social media, checking Facebook, 24/7 news, and endless discussions about the politics of the day.
When we are just consuming, we definitely aren’t making anything.
To stop mindlessly consuming was an important realization for me to make in my life. Instead, I think to myself – what can I accomplish today?
With something as enjoyable and satisfying as taking photos, you should never be in a state of I should be doing my photography!
You don’t want to create a situation where photography is one of many things you should be doing – like going to the gym or eating less of your kids’ candy.
And yet, sometimes we need a push to get us out the door. We are all responsible humans beings and we are all keeping various plates spinning. And so taking time out can induce guilt.
But think about it: every single day of our lives is a day we will never experience again. And in every single day of our lives, we are given a choice of how to spend our time. We do the things we have to do but then we weave in the time to do the things we are passionate about.
If we don’t do it now, then when?
Taking time to cultivate our photography practice pays dividends across our lives too. Great by-products of a strong photo practice are that we are more present when we are in other spheres of our lives, we are more engaged and excited in life because of our inspirational photo practices.
I have to say I am a more interesting, inspired and happier person to be around when I have taken time out to do my personal photography. And in that, everyone in my life benefits!
I really hope you enjoyed those ideas about how to be more creative every day. They are ideas I feel passionate about and hope that you will too.