Part two: get creative (continued from part one)
The camera companies and retailers are going to hate me for writing this, because it’s not going to sell any more equipment. If you were hoping for a quick solution that involves a credit card, I’m sorry too – there is no substitute to better photographs other than hard work. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be fun or creatively liberating – after all, isn’t that one of the key reasons we shoot at all?
6. Use something really basic.
This isn’t to punish you or a sign of inner sadistic tendencies, but rather it’s to force you to focus on the parameters you can control: light, timing, composition. Notice how none of those are hardware-dependant. I like to use my phone or a basic point and shoot for this exercise. It’s also to make you forget about the execution/technical part and concentrate on honing your own abilities. If you’re thinking too much about which AF mode you should be in, I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be thinking about what difference the position of the man in the red shirt in the background makes to the overall composition. Beyond shifting attention away from the hardware, limitations paired with objectives (i.e. producing an interesting image in this case) have always resulted in one of two outcomes: failure, or a creative solution. The former forces you to try harder, and the latter is the outcome we want. Really interesting images come out of situations where you want to get the shot, but aren’t able to make it in the way you usually</em would – the only way to do it is walk away with that gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction, or try something else. Work around the limitations – or use them to your advantage; if your camera has terrible dynamic range, make a creative choice for exposure towards high key or low key. If focusing is slow, prefocus or try still life. Sometimes having too much freedom can also result in decision paralysis: ask yourself, what would you order if you were at a restaurant that could serve anything, at the same price?
7. Shoot even more than usual
Gotta get out of the comfort zone. Force yourself to consider just subjects you wouldn’t have considered previously, but do it regularly so anything and everything becomes a subject. If you normally average a handful a day, double it. Keep increasing the daily quota for the duration of the exercise. Whatever the case, you’ll be more productive than if you don’t do it. And in the process, some experimentation will undoubtedly take place. Even if this is just a small percentage of the total output – sometimes a small shift of perspective or experiment is all it takes. If you run out of ideas, you can try cross-shopping technique and preconceptions of style or methodology: try to shoot street like you’d shoot architecture, or still life with a dynamic wide perspective and available light, for example. In my experience, being multidisciplinary and asking the creative ‘what if’ questions are a good way to come across pleasant surprises.
8. Repeat, repeat, repeat
The easy way out would be to set motor drive to CH and blaze away, but that defeats the point. It might sound cool, but will accomplish nothing other than wearing out your shutter and producing hundreds of identical images. The point of shooting a lot is to experiment, not to repeat. So why have I just stressed repetition? Because there’s repeating something for the sake of repeating it, and repeating something to refine the outcome. It is of course the latter we’re aiming for here: holding the shutter down for 20 seconds produces a very different outcome to taking a shot, assessing it deliberately (now, you may use The Four Things), consciously fixing the mistakes you see, and then iterating. It results in an incrementally improved result every time. Even with enforced restrictions, there’s still a huge range of outcomes possible: the same subject can be lit a dozen different ways. The same viewpoint can be shot with different perspectives or balance biased in different ways. Even if the fundamental composition or angle of view does not change, the edges matter – conscious exclusion and examination of those edges removes distraction and results in a much cleaner image. But you wouldn’t know that without trying it, of course.
9. There should be no difference between ‘shooting seriously’ and ‘shooting casually’
Being a good photographer is really a mindset, not about your purpose or how much you happen to be carrying on the day. At the core, it is about going through life with your conscious observer hat over a head that isn’t so much skeptical as curious: notice things that are normal, ask why; notice things that aren’t normal, ask why. And then capture them. Being able to switch in and out of this mindset at will is the ideal goal: you can focus on whatever you need to focus on, but notice if an opportunity shows itself – and then make the most of it. When in that mindset, then be fully there: sloppy composition and sloppy shot discipline and settling for something you wouldn’t normally deem good enough simply because you are not carrying ‘serious’ gear is a barrier that has to be taken down. Compose, expose and release with care and it will show in the results. The opposite is also true, of course. Erosion at the edge cases comes where that sloppiness starts to spill over into times when you’re trying to ‘be serious’ – that might be too late.
10. Curation is the final gatekeeper
The story I always tell here is one of two photographers: the one who shoots a million images but only shows his ten best; and the one who shoots ‘just’ a thousand and shows all of them. You can bet that the former will be remembered, even if the average level of their work is much lower than Mr. 1000. Unfortunately, it isn’t good to be too prolific, either – your audience may not be able to keep up. But fundamentally, your viewers can only see what you choose to show them, and this should be used as the final filter. It’s also the best way to improve your work: if you shoot average and only keep good, eventually you’ll know the result will be average before capturing; you’ll only shoot good. Curate to excellent, and the same thing will happen. Note that it’s also very important to take into account the output objective when curating, too: photographs of butterflies probably wouldn’t work for a street photography exhibition, no matter how good they are; what works in print may not work on screen due to the difference in quantity of information presented.
Printing is actually one of the best ways to curate: in trying to decide what to print, you will find even the most difficult digital curation deadlocks broken. For whatever reason, deciding what to print pushes you to another level of consideration. Images that were good enough on screen get thrown out, and images that may have been dismissed before get reconsidered. Perhaps it’s because we’re now thinking about committing to those images irreversibly; they last in a much more immediately tangible and permanent form than just on a hard drive. Or perhaps it’s just because we know there will be a bill and a real cost at the end of it – I suspect saying ‘print at 6×4″ postcard size’ will result in a very different set to ‘print at 20×30″‘. Even with relatively small or low quality files, I find that printing completes the output: image quality issues such as noise or resolution that are obvious and distracting on screen frequently disappear because of the dithering process involved in inkjet printing; somehow it puts all images on a much more equal footing of pure aesthetic/artistic considerations rather than technical ones. It will also tell you very quickly which images really don’t work, too.
The images used to illustrate these two articles actually came from a tight curation of my own experience with this exercise; I consciously shot with my phone for several months during times when I didn’t feel like photographing ‘conventionally’; there are twelve images here from a thousand or so. I usually start the moment I start to feel uninspired or jaded. I usually don’t consciously carry a camera and just use my phone (as I’ve done here). It’s a limited yet liberating device, and I have to say I am personally pleased with the results. Could I print them larger if I’d used something else? Sure, but given my personal state of mind at the time, I don’t think I’d have the image at all simply because I’d either have not felt like ‘shooting seriously’ or felt under pressure to produce a sure thing and not experiment. And I think that lets me safely say ‘objective achieved’. MT
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