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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  1. Loved this, Ming. You’re stirring up so many thoughts and possibilities. Yes, you should draw some buildings! You’re a Fountain Head fan, right? I think we discussed this. 🙂

  2. I’m not much into gear personally so I love when you post this kind of thought. Thank YOu !

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in such a clear and understandable language, Ming!
    I second you suggestion to seek inspiration outside your own – I kept nodding my head while I read the last two paragraphs: “What if I could somehow translate that into a photograph,” you wrote. I think that is a very good question!
    I sometimes try to make a mental list of my influences in photography – and the names on top of it are mostly painters. As an amateur, I often feel that I understand their work better since I photogtraph, and I think they help me understand many aspects of what a picture can be about. Exploring beyond your own field can be fruitful. Speaking for myself, I can say that it “keeps me on edge.”
    I certainly hope to read more of the kind.

  4. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Another good – and important – article!
    – –
    One of the hard lessons for an amateur to learn is that one can not really judge ones own work until some (sometimes a long) time has past, one is too intimately involved with it. So, no matter how selfcritical one is, one needs good feedback. As one gets (a lot) more experience one may get better at critisizing (some of) ones own work.
    In the world of theatre even the best actor, or group of actors, needs a director, if only for feedback.
    – – – –
    I like your choice of photos, apart from being – to use your word – outstanding, they are all very personal (even the birches, although it is a traditional motif).
    – – –
    And they remind me one of your articles I partly disagree with, “Aspect ratios and compositional theory”: I would have liked a bit more about the other side of the coin, when the subject you find – or which has grown in your mind – requires its very own aspect ratio.
    And in today`s article some of your photos clearly illustrate just that! E.g. the Woman walking along the beach, the Plate of food and the Motorcycles.
    – –
    And the portrait of the sitting woman illustrates, so to speak, a third side of the coin!
    The square (and formal) format allows the photo to include the necessary surroundings without emphasizing them. Even a moderate “landscape mode” would have made many viewers wonder why “portrait mode” was not choosen, and so made the surroundings distract; and “portrait mode” would have made the photo tell a different story.
    – –
    ( My first impression of this portrait was that her repose / calm / serenity needed a simpler background, but I quickly found out that cropping totally changed the story it tells. E.g. cutting away the walls in shadow on both sides gives a stricter background with vertical lines but also emphasizes her dignity. And leaving only the door (including the handle) makes me think of her waiting for someone.
    I believe the strength of this portrait comes partly from the different “stories” it tells as the eye of the viewer moves around it.)
    – –
    A thought experiment:
    If square format cameras had never existed, what impression would this photo make?
    Would the format seem strange, and so distract?
    Probably not too much, many photografers would still have made many square pictures.
    – – – –
    F.Y.I., according to your article “The four stages of creative evolution of a photographer”, I think I fall into stage 2 B (I borrow the “B” from stage 3).
    – –
    I certainly hope you will have time to continue your blog, consistently excellent photografs and interesting text is indeed a rare thing.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts – whilst photography is art and art is subjective, there’s no problem if we disagree in places: if we didn’t, then all photographs would land up looking the same. The philosophy of why and the framing choices one makes tend to be more instinctive than forced by the subject or camera; or perhaps this is ultimately forced by the subject. All I know is that when I look at a scene, I know what aspect ratio or orientation I want before shooting. The only exception to this is the Hasselblad, which oddly enforces its squares onto the world…

  5. Jamie Zartman says:

    Ming, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and talents with so many. It takes much more time than a quick tweet on a topic. I enjoy my photographer friends on G+ and 500px where the quality of the photos is often excellent. Have you ever considered how many people own chronometer style watches, but seldom use the stop watch function. Have you ever considered photographing a watch and accompanying photo of something happening at 0 seconds, 1 second, 5 seconds etc.? I thought this might be interesting.

    • I think you mean chronographs. Chronometers are a term used to denote watches of a certain level of precision; chronographs are stopwatches. I don’t really see how that series would work, to be honest…

      • Jamie Zartman says:

        Thanks Ming for explaining. I do of course mean chronograph wrist watches, The idea was to have for example an Rolex Daytona at zero, than a circular photos of the watch with the second hand advanced to say, five seconds and a circular photo of a sports car approaching a turn, then another set at 10 seconds in mid-turn, then exiting or whatever series would show the time elapsing on the watch coupled to the photo of the action progressing.

        Sent from my iPad by Jamie Z

  6. I do enjoy your articles when they force me to think! Life experience does develop biases or at least preffered ways of doing things. After a lifetime of engineering I tend to plan carefuly and then execute; this is death to creativity. Overcoming this conditioning and striving for technical perfection has been a huge struggle. I try hard now to walk around and just look, and as a result get completely different results. Even revisiting the same location repeatedly yields incremental changes in vision. Having no fixed objective makes for a happier photographer.

    • I’m not sure being systematic is the end of creativity – I’m fact, I think it works betters for perfection and development of something in the long run. If you don’t approach things in a logical fashion, then how will you know if you’ve missed something that could result in a possibly large creative breakthrough?

  7. Henrik S Tangen says:

    Oh, I’ve got plenty of them yet to read! It’s a lot to digest as well, and I’m sure that reading through them several times over is a good idea. 🙂

  8. Henrik S Tangen says:

    Another great article about the creative aspects of photography! I discovered your website a couple of weeks ago while looking for Olympus gear reviews. I must say that even though your reviews are very good (especially as they are all about practical and creative use and not about test charts), the content that really sets this website apart from all the other photography websites I frequent are articles like these. I’ve been digging in your archives for the last couple of days, and this is by far the best photography related website I’ve visited. Looking forward to more of your updates in the future!

  9. “Discourse on the nonlinearity of time should probably be left for another essay.”

    Looking very much forward to this as what ever you may have to say in the future is entirely evident in your photography. The truth is… there is no time; only moments, and even that is debatable once one leaves the finite nature of the human mind. Sure, there are watches and schedules, periods of rain, snow, whatever… Non-linear thinking (Being) and multidimensionality (Is-Ness) have a very special place in my heart and concept of existence. Can’t wait. (or, can I?)

    • I hope you’re not holding me to the technicalities of that one, it’s been over ten years since I last did relativistic physics…

      Then again, it could be very interesting from a philosophical/ metaphysical point of view. Photographs are timed and yet timeless: time is but an arbitrary measure enforced by us humans; it’s continuous and finite, we freeze some of it in a frame and can then appreciate it for all eternity. Maybe I will write a piece on this…

  10. You describe the problem of creative stagnation and approaches to addressing it that make a great deal of sense to me. I rediscovered B&W a couple of months ago using a Micro 4/3 and Silver Efex Pro and I post an image a day to turn the heat up on my creative process. That is, narrow the focus and shoot a lot. I’m 70 so I have all this pre visualization of B&W imagery circuitry in my brain going back to the 50s and it is an amazing experience to view the image directly in the EVF in B&W on my Olympus and then a few minutes later tweak it with, say a high structure preset, in Silver Efex Pro and post it. I also use the technique of going back and reshooting images that just don’t satisfy me. Recently I’ve found a disused church with awkward additions and blanked out windows. After 3 tries I have yet to get an image that catches it’s peculiar quality in a way I’d be happy to present. Thank you for taking the time to do this blog., I found it a couple of week ago but have read well back in the archives and found it rewarding.

    • Do the filter packages match your memory of film? They certainly don’t look anything like the negatives I’ve got hanging up to dry here. There’s plenty more potential with digital – ease, consistency and control is the name of the game – than we had with film, but you have to start attacking images individually to unlock it.

      As for the church: often we find there are subjects that draw us in and make us keep wanting to shoot them, even though we never quite seem to capture their essence. These are muses. The continuous urge/ drive to shoot is a good thing; enjoy it.

      • If I take your meaning, the Silver Rfex Pro filters are different than the controls I was used to in the film darkroom, but the experience is much like being able to quickly do a generous series of test prints to explore the possibilities of the image. Taking the time and materials to do that was relatively rare because of time and material constraints. I’m still getting a feel for the Silver Efex Pro system and making relatively modest tweaks beyond the preset filters. . I have film cameras – a Nikkormat EL with a 28 f.28 and a Bronica 4.5×6 with an array lenses. I have some film hanging from both and will be scanning it in to better understand the difference between the two mediums. Put another way it has been most of 30 years since I regularly had a darkroom so my memory of exactly how prints looked has faded. Hope that answered your question. Had another go at my Muse today and made a bit of progress.

        • My problem here is that you should really know what you want your output to look like and not need to make a series of ‘test prints’ – thus the filters are redundant…

      • To reply to your reply, I think i appreciate the importance of pre visualization and getting tight control of of the medium, having taken Ansel Adams The Negative and taught myself to control the gray scale in the negative with a densitometer. I think that level of control is what needs to be strived for in commercial work and it is clear that you have gotten well beyond what I achieved doing 4×5 small object photography professionally in NY in the 60s. I recently had to photograph a fancy fretwork box for a friend with my 600D and learned how poor my control of a digital camera was compared to what I knew from my 4×5 days. I wanted maximum control, not serendipity! But in my personal work I always used post visualization in the darkroom and often made a series test prints to find out what the negative had to offer as opposed to what I previsualized, or hoped or fantasized. Just like I let the grain and tone of a piece of wood on a lathe tell me how it wants to be formed. So the Silver Efex Pro filters have given me quick access to the possibilities of the range of variation that can be gotten out of a digital file. In this I am a happy beginner, but with a lot of experience wrestling with the possibilities and limits of B&W film. I notice, for example, that the ‘High Structure High Contrast’ filter does something I like to many of my images, just as I noticed that Agfa contrast 6 paper often lifted images into a different realm. I don’t understand how and why yet, but I intend to learn, and not just go on jazzing up my images with filters. As you can see, your comment challenged me to think. Thanks.

  11. Thanks for another thought provoking post. I have one question, how do you find good work on Flckr? You describe Facebook and it ilk as crap but, for the most part, that’s what I’ve found on Flickr. Lots of HDR, Wow comments and 11 on the saturation slider but very little of worth?

    • Haha, good question: at first, I’d surf the various group pools, explore and contact uploads – I’ve since found that there’s a real dearth of properly curated work out there. Fortunately, the large readership of this site – and large number of flickr users – makes a reader portfolio pool a viable option, which you can find here. It’s full of images of every genre, but all submissions are moderated by me before they appear, and must reach a certain level of artistic and technical quality. It seems that there’s a demand for it too, because there are literally thousands of images in the pool…and this is out of the several hundred I moderate every day. There’s also the B&W Challenge pool, which I have to admit is one of the best collections of modern monochrome work I’ve seen.


  1. […] Photography News: Maintaining your creative edge 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. Read full story => Ming Thein […]

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