Maintaining your creative edge

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The obvious question would be, why? If you’re already happy shooting in whatever style it is you’re shooting, why bother to push or do something different? Why not just continue to refine within your niche? Actually, the more I think about it, the more I don’t think it’s an obvious or trivial consideration. There is definitely value to be the best in your chosen field at any one particular task or technique; perhaps you specialize palladium contact prints, or gigapixel HDR, or cameraphone photography. After a while of doing this, and only this, you will almost certainly know all there is to know, and keep up with any current developments in the field – assuming you don’t get bored of it after several years.

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For example, I shoot watches – both for personal pleasure, and for a living. I’ve done literally hundreds, if not thousands, of the things – and each watch from multiple angles. Sometimes I’ll do an extended study of one particular piece and land up with hundreds of images. I’ve tried a lot of different formats and techniques, and hell, even put them inside X-ray machines. I suppose you could say I’m a bit of an expert at it. But if I do the same thing again and again, even with slight variations on a theme, my photographs will become formulaic and boring* – regardless of the subject. Clearly, some experimentation and variety is needed – this continual evolution and difference is what I like to think of as the creative edge.

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*Ironically, if you’re shooting for a large client that already has a pre-determined corporate style or look, variation is the last thing they generally want. Hence we reach a dilemma: most pros will shoot in a particular style which is either demanded by the client or what they’re known for; as a result, they creatively stagnate, and when the agency suddenly decides that it wants something fresh, the poor incumbent photographer is unable to delivery simply because he or she has been doing the same thing for the last ten years and doesn’t know how to restart that creative machinery anymore. It is therefore very important for pros especially to keep pushing, even if only for their personal work – the ability to access this process of experimentation will almost certainly come in useful in future.

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I think we need to decouple creativity from expertise. Expertise is the ability to handle any given situation and execute the desired result; creativity is the process required to conceptualize and visualize that result in the first place. The two are not the same; they can be linked or not. You can have a creative eye but not know how to capture the angle you see, or you can know all there is to know about camera operation, but be unable to see compositions even if they came pre-framed. It is therefore of paramount importance to nurture both.

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So far, my articles on this site have dealt almost exclusively with the technical expertise portion; we did dip occasionally into the hows and whys and philosophies of composition, but these forays still ultimately boil down to trying to shoehorn the process into a set of repeatable, consistent rules. Creativity is far more nebulous than that. It relies on seeing something different in the ordinary, which in turn relies on the observer/ photographer having that different point of view in the first place; this can be physical or interpretative. The former is fairly straightforward – get a ladder, or a wider lens, for example. The latter is far more complex, and a product of one’s personal biases, which are created as a result of one’s life experience and everything else you might have gone through in the course of your life.

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There are therefore two obvious ways to push one’s creativity: change your physical perspective, or change your personal biases. The former is easy – go out and shoot with an unfamiliar focal length, or with the camera on a pole, or on the ground, or perhaps a different aspect ratio. It’s one of the reasons why people like new gear so much: it gives you a different perspective, and in turn inspires you to get out and shoot something different. But of course, this wears off after a while, and you go back to being bored or shooting in your usual style. Hopefully though, the burst of inspiration lasts long enough for you to incorporate some of what you tried – and liked – into your instinctive ‘baseline’ style. I admit I do this a lot: half of the gear I buy, I buy because I need its particular function for an assignment; the other half I buy because it looks interesting and makes me want to go out and shoot with it – film falls squarely into this category.

Does it work? For the most part, I’d say yes; sometimes the effects last longer than others, though. Sometimes you’re stymied by lack of new material, which really forces you to either take a long, hard look at the things you’ve perhaps already shot to find a new angle, or just get out of your comfort zone geographically.

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The second, and much more difficult method of stimulating one’s inspirational juices involves changing your point of view, and altering your biases. The easiest way to do this is look at other people’s images – photographs, after all, are a representation of the way the photographer sees the world; the more different viewpoints you can amass, the more ideas you can get for different perspectives of your own. The internet has made this easy; I’m suggesting looking at serious work on flickr or 1x or whatever your favorite social media site is; avoid Facebook, Instagram and the like because firstly there tends to be a huge amount of thoughtless crap posted, and even if it’s not thoughtless crap, then the presentation method compresses the hell out of the image and generally kills any subtlety deliberately put there by the photographer. The portfolios of other pros are a mixed bag – some are good, some are cliched, some are formulaic. And some are old work – which reminds me, I need to update mine at some point.

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Books and exhibitions are the other good method – you can see examples of why the greats were great, and take your time to understand and decompose their vision. Exhibitions can be hit and miss. During the Tokyo workshop, I took my students though a couple of shows at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; both to show them what was out there and hopefully stimulate a little creativity, as much as to instil a sense of how to assess an image and figure out what works and what doesn’t. The latter is important: feedback is the only way you’re going to know if your creative experiments are going in the right direction or not.

Since for most of you photography is a hobby rather than a profession, you need to be happy with your own output. Be honest with yourself: do you like the new direction the experiments are taking? Why? Why not? What specifically is different to your old style of shooting, and how can you incorporate these elements into future compositions? Of course, you need some sort of framework to assess relative merit in the first place – I recommend starting with this article on what makes an outstanding image.

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The second part of feedback is having some sort of peer group – one that’s at a similar level to you skill-wise, and has no hidden agenda or incentive to see your work stagnate – a wedding pro should probably not seek the advice of other wedding pros in his area and price bracket, for instance. Watch for reactions and body language rather than what they’re actually saying: a lot of the time, the English language simply lacks the vocabulary to describe some of what we’re seeing. Body language, on the other hand, is much harder to disguise and conveys quite succinctly whether first impressions are of liking or revulsion.

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Finally, if you can, seek the opinion of a ‘mentor’ – I use that term loosely because it doesn’t have to be a formal teaching relationship (though if you’re serious about learning, I highly recommend my Email School of Photography) – but it should be somebody who’s both at a higher skill level, and has the ability to communicate in about images in a way that’s both easily understandable, and hopefully gives you some sort of constructive, actionable feedback. Even more ideally, they should shoot similar subjects to you so you can use their work as a point of reference.

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The higher up the skill chain you go, the higher the expectations: experimentation can be daunting because it may produce some very visible failures. (I admit, this was one of my main initial hangups about revisiting film; simply, what if the images looked like crap and didn’t match the standards I’d already set both here and professionally?) You can either take things in small steps – like say shooting an aperture-priority film M alongside your M9 – or dive in the deep end and make the learning curve as steep as possible (go medium format without a meter and develop your own). The latter may not give you the creative kick you need, the former may put you off because there are simply too many variables to control – I distinctly remember my first experience with a V-series Hasselblad was not a pleasant one; everything simply felt ‘off’.

Bottom line: you have to want to do it. Sometimes overcoming that mental block can be the hardest step of all.

In the course of thinking and researching this article, I spent some time talking to and corresponding with people in other various art disciplines – music, painting, writing – all creatives face similar challenges, I think. As a photographer, my instinctive reaction to the need to find inspiration was to look within my own discipline; for the others, they go outside: the musicians also paint, the painters also write poetry, and the writers are also photographers**. Of course, what they’re doing is merely creating a different point of view – albeit a very different one, which may or may not pay creative dividends later. I suppose the greatest inspirations come from going ever wider outside your field, as the field gets more and more populated.

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**To some extent, I’ve already done this with painting, but perhaps I haven’t gone far enough. Here I was thinking that shooting architecture and still lifes would help my watch photography – perhaps I should be drawing buildings instead.

I think I’m going to have to explore this concept more. I’ve always had a particularly odd feeling when listening to a song, on my own, which I’d previously listened to a lot in another period of my life; it’s vaguely melancholic and reminiscent, but at the same time, not; there’s this strange temporal disconnect you experience because your surroundings clearly put you in the here and now, yet your mind feels as though it’s elsewhere^. It invariably happens when I’m driving, almost always at night. Now – here’s the inspiration part – what if I could somehow translate that into a photograph? MT

^Discourse on the nonlinearity of time should probably be left for another essay.

Note: the images used to illustrate this essay are representative of various creative ‘breaks’ I’ve had in my photographic career – experimentations with other styles or inspirations that have caused fundamental shifts in the way I see, and the way I shoot.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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