Feast, famine and creativity

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On reflection. Hasselblad 501C, 50/4 CF FLE

I’ve noticed that my periods of creative productivity tend to come and go in cycles. I’m going to use as a gauge the number of folders of portfolio grade images I produced in a year. It’s a reasonably proxy given that my ‘hit rate’ has remained relatively consistent – about 1/5 to 1/10th of the images that survive the multiple editing cuts and make it through post processing, and that I keep folders to approximately 40 images so as to be able to find things easily (the number must be some psychological holdover from the earlier film days to do with the length of a roll).

2002 – I didn’t know what a portfolio was and was just pleased to have images vaguely resembling the things I saw at the time of capture
2003 – I knew what a portfolio was, but didn’t think any of my images qualified
2004 – 13
2005 – 21
2006 – 21
2007 – 31 – a peak year for camera testing during my editorship of CLICK! – I had to get out and shoot
2008 – 20
2009 – 26
2010 – 22 – a very, very busy year at work
2011 – 29
2012 – 30
2013 – 6, (and it’s only early Feb; if I keep going at this rate, I’m looking at a whopping 52 this year)

However, this isn’t really a full picture, because creativity spans a large range of pursuits. In 2010 I also directed two short corporate videos; in 2007 and 2011 I designed a number of watch calibers; last year and this year, there were 508 articles posted to this site, spanning about a million words of content and the dictionary and camerapedia, each of which are upwards of 40,000 words alone – all in all, that’s about ten paperback novels. (And this isn’t even my primary job!) By comparison, 2004-6 and 2008 were relative creative deserts; I know know for a fact that this was due to having a very high workload in my day job – I was either in audit or management consulting* at the time, which left almost no time for photography.

*A land where ‘weekend’ is a word without definition or enthusiasm, and the concept of ‘work life balance’ had to be invented to describe something that really didn’t exist. I got a call from another project team from my ex-company late on Chinese New Year Eve – a time when most people in this part of the world are having a reunion dinner with their extended families – begging me to help them with a case.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think periods of prolific productivity coincide with lulls in other things. That’s to say that my overall workload doesn’t remain constant. At a more macro level – on a weekly or monthly basis – I definitely go through stages where I don’t produce anything at all, and don’t even feel inspired to; I also go through stages where I’ll have five or six shoots in a week, and create work that I feel moves the bar for me. Late January was a good example of both: to be honest, I didn’t feel very inspired or much like shooting in Myanmar; issues with Paypal and wonky internet services as well as dealing with the restrictions of shooting a prototype meant that my mind really wasn’t tuned into the creative process; sure, I shot a lot over those five days – somewhere around 4,500 images – but partially that was to test the extremes of the shooting envelope in the course of evaluating the camera, and partially because I didn’t really feel like I was nailing things first time around. (I suppose I could blame the camera, but that would be unprofessional; in the end I still got there, but with a bit more fiddling than I would have otherwise liked.)

Conversely, I shot a one-day job at the end of January where I went through six rolls of various types of MF film with the Hasselblad – about 60 shots in total because some of the rolls had other things on them from previous occasions; my hit rate here was perhaps as high as 80-90%. This is very, very high for me – digital yields are normally 1-5% because I chase perfection – and high even for my film work, which is usually closer to 50-60%. I don’t think it was because of the way I was shooting – nothing much changes there – but I do think it was because of the environment in which I was working; it was inspiring and I was seeing absolutely no end of possible subjects. I spent an entire day inside one building of industrial/ heavy engineering processes covering perhaps half an acre – and felt like I didn’t even remotely begin to cover everything.

Even within the same location, job or trip – I see similar patterns. Take my two-week trip in late 2011 to Vienna and Prague, for instance – I wasn’t really seeing it in Vienna, and felt so-so about the product. Prague improved dramatically; on the last two days of the trip – one in Prague, one in Vienna before flying home – I think I probably made 3/4 or more of my portfolio grade images. I think something changed for me in those two days: whether it was because I had a better feel of the place, and thus had some idea or expectation of what to look for, or whether it was because the light/ weather was simply better – it was – I don’t know. Quite possibly a combination of both.

During these periods of prolificacy, it feels as though the world is throwing images at you so fast that you can’t seem to get everything; you’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of shooting opportunities and potential frames. The photographic process almost becomes a stream-of-consciousness exercise. The curious thing is that while you keep shooting, there are definitive frames you remember taking, and those you don’t; I personally find it’s those I don’t that seem to stand the test of time and rigors of the editing/ culling process better. Perhaps it’s because that bias of favouritism has been removed – my theory is the longer you spend trying to execute an image, the harder it is for you to walk away from it afterwards if it doesn’t meet quality control or compositional standards. If you don’t remember shooting an image – i.e. not have any bias of favouritism – then it’s easier for you to assess it objectively (or as objectively as you can when it comes to a subjective art) later on.

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This shot was a spontaneous grab, and has endured as one of my favorites from that trip…

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…but this one, I waited a good 15min for a person to pass through the gap – and in hindsight, I probably should have deleted it.

I actually don’t know if it’s a good thing or not; most of the time, photographically, I feel like I’m either walking in a desert or trying to drink from a fire hose – there really is no balance. It’s the difference between having to actively search for a shot, and just seeing it in front of you. You feel pressured in a good way – not like I’ve-got-silly-deadlines-and-I’m-going-to-die, but more akin to Neo-mowing-down-the-hoarde-of-Agent-Smiths-in-the-Matrix-Returns way. I’m pretty sure long term exposure to this kind of thing is likely to induce some kind of manic behaviour; I sometimes find myself torn with restlessness when I’m uninspired, and worn out after being unable to do anything but shoot, and even more so – adding frustration to the list – when you have to produce images of something that doesn’t inspire you at all. (Though I suppose it’s a good thing I don’t have to explain this to my boss.)

The point of this rather meandering series of thoughts is that I frequently wonder if this kind of behaviour is something all photographers experience, or whether it’s just me; most sites and fora are too busy discussing equipment to actually think about why and how we shoot. Producing outstanding images is an ongoing and holistic process that involves light, subject, photographer, camera and audience; if we restrict ourselves to the common two or three – light, camera, subject – and ignore the others, we’ll never fully master the outcome. Personally, understanding how I shoot and under which conditions I produce my best work is important so that I can consistently achieve this.

The troubling thing is that it seems my best work is generally produced when I’m in a semi-autopilot state and don’t consciously think about all aspects of the photographic process; or perhaps this is when everything falls into place without having to force it. Now, I either need to figure out what combination of external factors triggers this state – and either look for it, or learn to engineer it – and/ or try to work out exactly what it is I do differently, and consciously replicate it. Or perhaps it’s something that you simply can’t fully control, and this is what adds that extra something. MT

It would be interesting to hear your thoughts in the comments: what conditions make you produce the work your most proud of? What conditions do you like to shoot under?


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  1. It is appropriate time to make a few plans for the longer term and it is time to be happy.
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  2. In one interview Stevie Ray Vaughan (RIP) said “I mostly just let my fingers play. If I start thinking about the right way to play something, I usually get it wrong.” And play he could, omg.

    • Stream of consciousness. If you get the technical bits down pat – to the level of being subconscious – then you can just focus on seeing.

  3. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “Prints are even better…”
    “Images really need a larger medium…”

    Right!! I can’t agree more.

    20 years ago I sometimes found myself printing b/w ever larger, up to A1.

    Of course, A3 was needed (1440 dpi b/w Epson) to get good enough resolution,
    but I sometimes pasted 4 A3 to get an A1 to put on the wall.

    ( Now looking for a printer with decent printing costs..)

    Historical note:
    Photo stores could deliver CDs with your film scanned.
    Computing an A3 print file at the highest quality took about 20 min. (Acorn computer comparable to a PC with a 386), and printing it another 20 min. …

    • The other problem I have is one of display and storage – I need to get one of those old-fashioned map cabinets to store my large prints in…not enough walls.

  4. I can find myself in many of your thoughts. different from you, I am not depending on photography economocally, but my ‘photographic eye’ is meandering through almost everything I do. mainly I shoot out of the situation, intuitively. It’s true, as long as you’re concerned with equipment, technique and choice of your motives, you won’t get the best out of you. for me it was essential to get a feedback from others, strangers and people knowing me, but not as a photographer. it was feedback, helping me to develop a recognizable ‘language’ of my photos, helping me to gain the self-consciousness to stand both, admiration and criticism. I’m always looking for improvement of myself and – although this may sound strange – I enjoy developing myself by refining my photographic capabilities. this is maybe the true motor of my photographic enthusiasm.
    something else seems to be worth mentioning: there may be a great gap between digital reception and the reception by viewing a printed and well presented photo. I often realize, the multitude of pics, the flooding of impressions you get via flickr or any other digital forum makes it hard to get the information of a photo, as long as the information is not received on the first view, my ‘best’ photos, being sold, being part of exhibitions are rarely recognized and appreciated in our digital world.

    • It makes perfect sense to me. I think in the film heydays individual images had more prominence as fewer were presented simply due to fewer being shot and printing being a task. Images really need a larger medium to be fully appreciated – even going to a 27″ monitor makes a huge difference. Prints are even better – and I find myself printing more now just to see how the images breathe.

  5. Kristian Wannebo says:

    There is, of course, a wide difference between the ways of a professional and an amateur.
    However, as an amateur, I have found that…

    Write poetry?
    Poetry can’t be Written.

    It can be dreamt,
    or it just comes to you,
    and may be written down, before it leaves –
    if you become aware of it.

    Attempts to Write it
    give rows of words –
    They can
    with toil
    be given form;
    and perhaps poetry
    finds it’s way

    To say something
    you sense,
    you should wait.

    There is a kind of waiting, without a name –
    intense expectancy is there
    and goodnatured patience;
    impatience obscures the view –
    if you search, it is hidden.


    ( Or photography, or any art.)

    As has been pointed out by you, Ming Thein, and in several of the comments.

  6. It’s not to long that I started again to photograph, but I already made the experience that most of the photos I like best are created when I’m by myself and I’m resting in myself. I could argue spiritually but quantum physics could also be an argument, that their could be a kind of synchronity or synchronizing dependent on time/moment/place, and an interdependency between subject and seer. You might also know the rare occasions where there is a perceivable flow, .. without much thinking it makes click,click … and you feel a certain peace and contentment or shall I call it happiness? Back home and editing the results can be so and so…. but usually the results are better than normal, identical with what I felt during the process of taking the images. Still there is the question for me wether the process of taking pictures and the result are separate quiddities?! I think there are many and different, all legitimate, approaches to photography. One of the dangers can be that a passion (like everything else) can turn into an addiction. A passion can be inspiring, but on a certain level also a hinderance I think. A nice experiment could be something like an intentional fasting. Not to photograph for two or three weeks (difficult if its ones profession of cause) and stop looking with the photographic eye. It would be interesting to know what you’ll experience in this time and wether your view on the world around you changes, because your focus and intentionality of looking (not seeing) will have changed. I think in life we have to find a certain middle way. Everything has its time and place and we have to put everything in its place and give everyone and everything (work, family, friends and of cause oneself) its due, what is its/his/her right. Again as I said in another comment, without having thought this idea to a final level, the quality of one’s work can/does depend also on one’s personal development and there are several aspects to this: you have to reach and overcome certain limits and be ready to give up obsolete convictions. If you don’t do it it might happen that you reach a limit which you can’t overcome and it could make you desperate and you’ll stop and there will be no inspiration. In a certain sense one should also not forget another aspect or approach to art which was common to many artists. A certain humbleness to see oneself less as the creator of something extraordinary and more as the place and medium for the manifestation of some higher inspiration. Since (unfortunately?) photography isn’t my main focus in life I have to walk with these questions through other pictures of my life. The positive and negative thing about photography as a “way” is similar to eating and drinking. The human being can’t stop seeing, because we are highly visual creatures, as well as he can’t stop eating and drinking….. However I think that’s enough for the moment. Just my two cents. Thanks Ming for sharing your inspiring words!

    • Your point about obsession hit home. I find myself coming up against that barrier more and more frequently: you feel desperate to capture something and as a result, it’s all forced and nothing quite works right. The creative juices only flow again when you remove that mental block and stop being so focused/ intense. It’s almost as though the desperation to see removes your ability to do so…what we need is to find that state where we are observant and reflective, but happen to be carrying a capable enough camera to capture whatever it is that we might happen to observe 🙂

  7. David Babsky says:

    I’m getting older, and my memory’s not so good, and when we’ve come back from a holiday I can’t remember what we’ve done, or where we’ve been, unless I’ve taken photos: photos ARE my memories ..but on a chip, on a hard drive, instead of in the “wetware” of my brain.

    But when I SEE again a photo which I shot, all the memories of that instant come flooding back; the concentration of framing, aligning, waiting for the moment – they’ve burned-in that moment into my mind ..so maybe it’s just the indexing which goes awry, and prevents me remembering the moment until I get the visual cue to “bring it all back”, after I see my frozen moments onscreen, or in a print in my hand.

    I used to shoot for a living, and I still do teach photography a few times a year, and I used to sell cameras in shops, and write for a photo magazine, but now – apart from that occasional teaching – I take photos just for myself: I don’t have anyone else to please, so I’m not that bothered about ultimate sharpness, or greatest dynamic range, or colour fidelity (I’m rather colour-blind anyway), or some distortion, or about squeezing the last half pixel of micro-contrast from a scene. I’m keen on capturing “the moment” ..the laugh, the attitude, the light and – to me – perceptible colours, the SHAPES and contrast of a moment, the textures, and the FEELING of a moment.

    The day before yesterday we went to visit our niece in her new flat. I always carry a camera in my pocket, usually a little Fuji F550 compact for its wide-to-long zoom range and great capability in low light, but I took an OM-D and a couple of very wide lenses for shooting indoors.

    These are pictures almost straight out of the camera – most not yet processed to remove the curvature or the stretching at the edges. I see a moment, and I want to keep it. I’m not shooting to create “Art” or to win prizes, or to satisfy a client or someone who’s commissioned pictures (though I do sometimes still do that) ..but these are purely for me, just preserving moments of my life: snapshots of my life.

    Then, once a year, I make an 80-page ‘Blurb’ book for my Beloved, full of these memories of our lives and travels.

    So; I’m sorry, Ming, for not buying a critique of my pics, but I’m not interested in what anybody else thinks of them. That’s the great thing about photography: everyone can capture their own moments, and we don’t need to live up to anyone else’s expectations of what our pictures “ought” to look like.

    It helps to know WHAT one can do with a camera – or with different cameras and lenses – and HOW to make that knowledge give you what you want ..but in my opinion there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ..there’s just what pleases you – or the person you’re shooting for.

    I’m not going out of my way to shoot black and white moody coastal seascapes, or hi-def portraits with ultimate bokeh, or any other “genre” ..I’m simply holding onto memories.

    Here are some pics, too, of a family brunch the other day, and the things around the room, and – last night – going to bed, I just HAD to take a picture of our room, with its different colours, and sources of light ..and I haven’t even bothered (yet; and I don’t know if I shall) to correct the outward-leaning angles at the edges (the camera was perched on a chair back, and pointing downwards just a touch).

    You wanted to know why people take photos – that’s why I do! They preserve my personal memories.

    • I think that’s the reason why most people shoot: because otherwise, they’d forget. For some, it’s the image that jogs the memory, for others, it’s the act of observing that’s forced by the image making process that does it. Either way, we remember.

      That’s one enormous flat! 😉

      I do the book thing too, but this year has been crazy. Haven’t had a chance…and the birthday deadline is coming up. I hope she’ll forgive a bit of lateness.

      No need to apologise – whatever for? You are happy with your work, which is perhaps the best place any photographer can be. Count yourself lucky you’re not a malcontent like me who needs the moment and everything else.

  8. To commission one self with whatever is – to my humble opinion – one of the biggest challenges for an artist. I do some photographic jobs for clients, besides this I need to think over concepts for my work. Just leaving the house with a camera leads to nothing in my case. When I have a plan, know exactly what I want to research, I will have results. They are often very different from what I had expected, but always bring me forward. In some cases I had needed months to formulate the concept for a new series precisely.
    The mental process is always hard, because I love to work practically. But when I’m finally realizing things – either in a landscape, under water or in my tiny studio, I know it was worth thinking and waiting.

  9. At times, I find my perfectionist personality gets in the way of what could otherwise be a spontaneous and creative moment. I think this is true not for just photography but any creative process. I also am a musician, and experience this struggle when writing. In photogrpahy, trying to create from you environment versus *allowing* your environment to speak to you can be challenging to separate–especially in the moment. Often, we just have to acknowledge that we aren’t listening to our senses quite closesly enough. I enjoy your writing. Thanks for sharing with us all.

  10. Thank you very much
    allowing me to learn
    from your humble-self in writing
    expressing with an aim to guide and share with me (the reader)
    an educator in heart hiding behind words
    so what did I learned from the above?
    …Just be there with bare awareness
    …without taking any action or extra involvement
    …just knowing the unfolding scene
    …without any thinking mind and expectation
    …without adding ,reducing or modifying any scene
    …just listen to the photographic knowing mind and heart
    …to allow it to capture and immortalize the scene if need so
    …then leave the scene with a heart full of content
    …what a beautiful moment and the wholesomeness of a photographic gear handy-in-hand

  11. I find my best photos are taken when I’m by myself – no distractions or worrying about frustrating my partner or holding up a group of friends when travelling. A bit of inspiration and photo envy looking at photos from other photographers I admire never goes amiss either. But my best hit rate has always been when using 120 film on an old Rolleiflex with no meter as opposed to digital – why this is I’m unsure – maybe it’s being forced to slow down and think about every aspect of the camera for fear of wasting film, and maybe it’s something to do with holding an aesthetically beautiful object at the time of shooting.

  12. Ron Carroll says:

    Ming, this is terrific. I’ve been preparing a 5-year retrospective of my own work — as a gift to my father — and have been giving a lot of thought to these very issues, beginning with my own ‘hit rate’ (a very sobering place to start, btw). I’ve also spent my entire career in creative endeavors of one sort or another and after a (much longer) retrospective on all those creative efforts, here’s what I’ve come up with…

    It has less to do with ‘external factors’ triggering the state than is does with accessing the internal factors. Truly creative work isn’t done consciously; it comes from a different part of the brain, and it’s what allows us to get into the ‘semi-automatic pilot’ mode that you mention. This is why creativity itself can’t be taught. But we can learn how to get into that creative state and it begins by turning off the thinking brain so we can tap into the unconscious part, where the good stuff resides. ‘Thinking’ and ‘planning’ don’t directly result in anything innovative. But to answer your questions…

    My best work has come when I’m tapped into my emotions. And I’m pleased to report most all of it’s happened when I’ve been happy, but I’ve also done good work when I’ve been very sad. Just another way of saying, when I’m in the ‘feeling mode’ rather than the thinking mode. Thanks for asking. Oh… Eat well and get plenty of rest, just like Mom said. And plenty of exercise, just like Dad does.

    • Thanks Ron. Internal factors…now there’s an interesting thought, and one that makes me realize I have absolutely no idea what it is that triggers ‘the zone’. Sometimes it happens…sometimes it doesn’t. There are times when I have the urge to create and do; other times when I have the urge but can’t; and yet others where I’m just grabbing something serendipitous.

      No rest for the wicked and/or self-employed. (Can’t remember who said that. 😉

  13. I write and shoot, or let’s say, I’m trying to get into shooting from writing. My process is usually like this: I do the legwork, get the facts, visualize the end result and usually figure out a point of view. All the usual stuff of pre-production. Then it all just happens. Don’t ask me how. Looking back on the thousands of pages of critique and a few books that I made, I still wonder: How did I do that?

  14. I write as much as I shoot, propably even more so, and in pre-writing (or shooting) process I consider the facts. Check the sources, gather the resources and draw a general outline in my head on what I’m doin. And when I pick up my camera or set my fingers on keyboard, it just somehow happens. Tho body becomes visible very easily, then it’s just the conscious work of editing it out. I’m told it has something to do with the left part of the brain.

    • I think you need both left and right to be a good photographer and writer: the creative part to put the logic together, and the structured thinking part to deal with the technicalities (as photographer) and keep the piece in line (as a writer).

  15. I Love the on reflection Picture!

  16. Last night I shot for an hour around town at night in the rain. Got home and took a picture of my porch light. The porch light was the only keeper of the night… http://flic.kr/p/e2CMUo

    Best Wishes – Eric

  17. I find that photography, like most other fields of endeavor, has moments whee you just get in the zone, everything you see is a great picture and you can’t do a thing wrong. Then there’s the remaining 90 per cent of the time 🙂

  18. I mostly do landscape, and most of the time I have to pre-visualised the scene, I have to look for the light, and then compose. A good shot can take more than 10 minutes or sometimes it can take less than 2 seconds. There will be time when I went for a short stroll and managed to get a great shot. And sometimes when I planned everything to the minute details, tracked up a hill for an hour or two, and when I reached the location I want to shoot….I got nothing….Tough!

  19. Forgot to answer your other question. I don’t like it when I’m forcing myself to think. I prefer the conditions where my mind is free of obligation, I guess that’s when I’m most relaxed and I’m able to execute my best.

  20. When I’m excited, inspired and oddly the spontaneous ones where I simply thought of picking up the camera and do something out of the ordinary.

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