The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book “The Inner Landscape of Making Images” which I hope to release in early 2015.
I’ve always believed that the best way to improve as a photographer is to integrate creativity into your life. That means you consciously seek out and surround yourself those things that inspire you to think, feel, and ask questions about the world we live in. I don’t think this is given nearly as much value as the other things we are often encouraged to pursue; more equipment, better software, better editing and post processing techniques, and especially better subject matter. You might find yourself constantly looking for new locations, or trying to keep up to date with every new fad, or upgrading to the latest cameras. This can and often become a vicious cycle that never ends, or ends when you lose the motivation to go out and shoot.
At the same time all of these are useful and valuable things to do, since creativity alone can not help you express your ideas and share them with the world. How do you find the balance that takes advantage of the incredible resources available today, yet honors and protects your creative identity? In other words, how can you use the same tools everyone else uses yet maintain a unique perspective, vision, and voice?
“Creativity is a lifestyle, and ideas are the product and lifeblood of that lifestyle.” Miles G. Batt
Cultivating the Creative Mindset
I believe the answer starts with cultivating creativity on a daily basis. Instead of waiting for the next photo trip, or vacation, or perfect weather forecast to get you out with your camera, you plant the seeds every day that sprout into ideas you never might have had otherwise. So often we think that we need to wait for creativity to suddenly appear, like the mythological muses. But like a garden that is not tended, we’ll grow weeds with the occasional flower or rose at best. But when cultivated, a garden becomes a reliable source of food. The more you tend to it daily, the better the crop.
Here are some ways to cultivate creativity.
- Take pictures every day, regardless of whether you feel inspired or not. Just putting your eye to the viewfinder changes your perspective and often sparks more interest.
- Read something worthwhile everyday.
- Write in a journal everyday. This is one of the best ways to clarify your thoughts and ideas, especially in the morning when your mind is free of the worries that come later in the day.
- Look at other artwork and notice what makes you stop and look deeper. Visit the Google Art Project for an amazing resource of visual inspiration.
- Try seeing the world photographically on a daily basis. Notice light, color, shapes, forms, and the relationships between these things. I do this all the time, regardless of where I am.
“In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.”
“Every day you don’t practice you’re one day further from being good.” If it’s something you want to do, make the time.”
– Twyla Tharp
All of this will help you adopt the creative mindset that is so important to creative photography. Then you can ask the broader question—“what do I want to accomplish?” And to many this is a scary proposition. It means committing to the hard work of finding things to express versus things to photograph. Being objective is rather easy when using a camera, just point and shoot. But being expressive means sharing what you feel, what you think, and what your subject matter means to you. That approach takes the focus off of the subject, and places it on the photographer. It means you can’t hide behind the subject, or location, or technology. What’s left at that point is your ability to be creative, to find the interesting thing to say that has not been said before. And that requires you to invest your life, your experiences, your ideas and thoughts into each picture.
Will every photograph you make capture this approach? Of course not. In fact most will not. But in order to make the images that do resonate, all the preceding ones have to be made first. And if you don’t give up, or let the individual photographs become more important that they should be, then the process reveals a path that you can follow with confidence.
Adopting New Creative Tools
Adopting new tools becomes easier when you have a clearer idea of what you want to share, and helps prevent getting creatively sidetracked. In fact, creativity blossoms because you can apply the tools to the vision you start with. I talk about this at length in my Lightroom workflow tutorials, but it applies to all aspects of photography.
For example, I’m currently working on a coffee table book of my work in the Hudson Valley. Yet over the past few years, and even the past few months, I’ve adopted new tools to help me complete the book. Everything from new software, new cameras, and even learning to fly and use aerial helicopters (drones) to capture unique perspectives I would never have had access to in the past. I’ll be discussing all of these over the coming weeks and months as the book comes together. But the point is that I have not been deterred from my original creative vision for the project. By starting out with a goal, and understanding how I wanted to express the beauty and deep emotional connection I feel for the Hudson Valley, I can take advantage of the resources available.
A broader way to think about this is the difference between waiting for creativity to happen versus goal oriented creativity. If you just wander into the field every day to search for an interesting subject, or wait for perfect light, you may get frustrated when luck never comes your way. But when you start with a goal, a creative environment (your mindset), and a clear idea about why you photograph, then you stand a much better chance of sprouting flowers from the seeds you planted along the way.