A creative frame of mind, redux

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Things are not as they seem: experimentation, in capture and post

This is an alternative take on an earlier piece I wrote, also on a creative frame of mind: from a different frame of mind, no less. There are some professions where you don’t have to be in the right mood to do your job well. You can be an effective consultant, accountant or middle management without having to be particularly inspired; in fact, imagination is generally not a good thing when it comes to accounting and finance anyway. (At least that’s what Inland Revenue said; if you’re Prime Minister, that’s another thing entirely). However, for creative professions – photography, videography, design, writing, music etc. – there’s no question that your state of mind has a direct and very tangible impact on the outcome of the work. As a photographer, professionalism – the ability to deliver at a minimum standard that’s above your client’s expectations under effectively all circumstances – is the bare minimum. But inspiration is what really make the difference between workaday and brilliant. Realistically, I think there’s no question one has to really love their job – at least be passionate about it – if you choose to make your living as a photographer. There are far easier and less stressful ways to make a better income. Gone are the days when one can be what I like to think of as a ‘craftsman professional’ – shooting is your day job and nothing more – there are simply too few jobs to survive comfortably. The marketplace is almost binary: sink or swim, feast or famine, prosperity or poverty – with very few people sitting on the thin divider in the middle (unfortunately, or fortunately, I seem to be one of them). To push yourself over the edge, it’s therefore necessary to be different – and better – and one has to be willing to go the extra mile, take that extra risk, do that additional experiment, hike that bit further, stay out just a little longer – whatever it may be.


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But here’s the rub: you have to be inspired enough to make that work. And that’s not always easy.

There are of course things that can provoke or aid a creative state of mind – the more I think about it, the more I think it comes down to stimulation of one’s imagination. That of course varies from individual to individual since we are all moved by different things; there are very few universal themes that will affect everybody. Birth, death, love, suffering are perhaps the only few I can think of that elicit emotional responses in almost all viewers – and even then they aren’t the same response. An emotional response might not necessarily be enough – you can of course be put off by something extremely disgusting, and that won’t make your imagination fire. I suppose it has to be a positive emotional response plus some element of the unknown to goad our brains into wondering what else might be possible, or left unspecified.

We also need a few other photography-specific things to complete the set: suitable light (note that I haven’t said ‘good’ or ‘directional’ etc.; that depends on the subject), an environment in which we have space to work and feel safe/unthreatened to do so; and lastly tools whose result we find commensurately rewarding to effort and cost. I think no explanations are required for the first or second items, though I will say that even if a scene is inspiring or photographically interesting and makes you want to stop and capture it, if you’re constantly being hassled by touts or management or beggars or police there’s no way you’re going to be able to devote much concentration to composition. If your equipment frustrates you, you’ll be giving up mental bandwidth to remember workarounds or just feel frustrated at the disconnect between what you are seeing/imagining and what’s being captured.

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Push off

I find the more I shoot, the harder it is to get inspired because on one hand, though it becomes easier to make a composition in any given place with the elements to hand, it’s more difficult to make one that stands out from your existing body of work; in short, standards get higher and as a result so does one’s personal ‘activation energy’. It can get to the point where one doesn’t shoot much unless the conditions are right because you know that the result is going to be a compromise – I shoot very little in my home city for similar reasons. It is very easy to have one’s concentration broken and to fall out of the most productive mental state; if you are distracted in any way, our brains are wired such that there’s really no bandwidth left over to think about experimentation, innovation or objective assessment of whether something creative ‘works’ or not: we’re going to be too busy worrying about the dent in the car left by the hit and run motorbike, or the wobbly lens mount, or the AF that’s slightly off and making you bin half your images. As with composition, there is a degree to which achieving the right mental state is also dependent on conscious exclusion – of distractions and everything else.

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The illustrative images in this post were chosen because they are representative of situations where a) there was no pressure to produce images; b) I had time and light to experiment; c) gear that didn’t get in the way or distract from the process of making the image; d) was receptive to something in my environment that made my imagination see both something immediate and an idea that might be achieved with a little creative capture and post. It’s also important to note that one has to have enough control over technique and post to know how to achieve the desired results if you can previsualize the output.

I’v always thought that photography when in the zone is one of those sublime pursuits where you are entirely absorbed in the creation of that given image in that instant and nothing else; it’s both meditative and extremely intense. You are not aware of time passing – both if you have to wait for a shot, or if there are many moving parts you have to be aware to make a shot come together in a very short space of time. The execution part works solely on subconscious muscle memory, and you are only consciously thinking about timing and composition. Most of all, you can take away a very definite sense of satisfaction; somehow you know when you’ve captured the frame intended. Such situations are extremely rare, and clearly impossible if there are any distracting externalities.

This is the main reason I am so bothered about the haptics and other issues with my equipment most readers would consider relatively minor: if they get in the way I’m going to miss my shot, and that’s going to throw me out of the creative mood very quickly. Small annoyances if you’re shooting for an hour or so a week become big ones if you’re shooting for fourteen hours a day, for weeks. On the flipside, if everything works like it should – I can have an extremely productive single hour in which I complete an entire two or three day assignment. But those moments are rare, and especially so when you have a preset shot list and can’t just work spontaneously with whatever your environment provides. The best we can do is try to make all of the things under our control transparent and non-invasive. The contingencies are eliminated if possible, or otherwise prepared for and agonised over beforehand. I personally run through and entire shoot in my head a day or two before to ensure that I am prepared and everything goes as planned on the day; the higher the stakes, the higher the anxiety – to the point that I sometimes have nightmares abut things not working the night before – but I’d much rather work out the anxiety beforehand than on the actual day. Pressure can be a good thing, but not if the expectations and situation are both beyond your control. (Never mind what that says about my psyche.)

The point I’m trying to make is that there are situations, circumstances and hardware that are conducive to the creative process – and ones that aren’t. Having experienced really ‘being in the zone’ and seeing the images that result – you know that anything less is going to land up being a compromise, and you’re probably not going to be happy with any of it. This really means we have to do everything we can to get ourselves there if we are serious about creative development. By the same token, I’d highly recommend to those who haven’t experienced it to try and remove all distractions and negative thought provokers (phones and spouses included) to try and put yourself into a 100% creative frame of mind if only for an hour or two. It is as much about being receptive to and observant of your environment as anything else – I am pretty sure that a lot of the challenges that existed before may either disappear, or you at least can clearly define what’s missing from your images. MT


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  1. John Joyce says:

    “If you’re Prime Minister…”

    Of course your secret is safe with us, Ming!

  2. Love what you said and the images that support your thoughts.

  3. Dear Ming,
    A few years ago a German musician, Wolfgang Erharter, published a book called “Kreativität gibt es nicht” [Creativity doesn’t exist]. For the book, he looked at a wide range of people whom we all regard as creative – Picasso, Einstein, Dali, Mozart and many others – to discover their secrets for developing their creativity. He found nothing. Not a one wrote about trying to stimulate creativity. But, all of them had tricks and techniques for keeping themselves productive. So, his book is about how to be disciplined, systematic and focussed on one’s chosen craft/art/trade, and then practice, practice, practice. From that, he posits, innovation will follow in due time.

    As mentioned by another commentator, Bach comes to mind. Or, among photographers, Adams is a model of discipline and systematic work. And yet, he repeated refers to the photographer capturing what he “feels” about the scene. The inspiration comes from the passion for one’s preferred subjects and for the act of making art. But, a beautiful, fresh image is borne of the combination of that passion and the systematic, focussed, hard work.

    By the way, your site and video courses play a role in keeping my passion kindled, as I am constantly learning and being provoked to try something new. So, thanks!


    • That makes sense. Productivity and creativity can’t be independent since one cannot be creative without being experimental and prolific. There’s no way you can suddenly expect to make something the way one expects/envisions without the practice that is required to make the process of making intuitive…

  4. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Ming, I don’t think this could be said better!

    And I do like seeing photos so far outside your “usual” “shooting envelope”!

    Nr. 2 fascinates me and “Push off” – apart from being good photography – sets my imagination exploring.

  5. Richard Southgate says:

    An excellent post Ming – very well written and thought provoking. I absolutely agree that negative distractions (whatever form they take) not only get in the way of taking good pictures, but they can also induce a negative state of mind in the photographer that prevents him or her from reaching their creative high-point – i.e. being ‘in the zone’. I don’t always have to be in the zone to produce my best work, but almost always. I certainly produce more good work, more quickly, when I am. Your post expressed very clearly what I’ve always felt. Many thanks, as always.

    • Thank you. I actually find that there are far more negative distractions when you’re doing this as a business compared to when you’re not; ironically it’s harder to stay creative in any field when it’s also your career…

  6. Enter children, the mother of all distractions and interruptions. I’ve been in Seoul for a week with probably just 2-3 keepers to show for it, even though I carried a camera most of the time. Almost gave up and sold all my gear some weeks ago, but eventually decided against it. I wonder if I’ll change my mind when I get back home to look at the results from this trip. I can definitely feel the “activation energy” thing, though often it’s not about being repetitive or raising the bar, but rather knowing that I don’t have experience with a particular scene and won’t have the time to work it and learn my way. A quick attempt will only result in failure and frustration, and after a number of those you just give up trying.

    So… what I’m facing is perhaps an amateur’s dilemma: at some point improving gets so difficult that it doesn’t feel like it’s worth the time or effort. The solution is of course outlined in your post here: just eliminate all distractions and take time to focus on what you’re doing. I’m not ready to eliminate the child just yet, so perhaps I need to try and make time for a shooting trip 🙂

    • The alternative to a continuous approach would be to have a bit of concentrated, intense time every week or so – but yes, eliminating the child might not work for many reasons. 😛

  7. Richard P. says:

    Hi Ming, thanks for the interesting article. I think your last paragraph is the most important (focused application) – the one most folks should try first. I suspect that instead some of these folks would rather get the sugar-rush of a new gear purchase to temporarily stimulate their interest or creative juices.

    Cheers, Richard P.

    • I’ve always said this, but sadly I was reminded by a long time reader I met today that most people find education too much work and would rather ‘invest’ in new gear…sigh.

  8. A revelry…………

  9. Great article, even better supporting images 🙂

  10. peterwgallagher says:

    Dear Ming,
    When creativity comes up, I think about Bach who spent his most productive years living in the school that his pupils and choir members attended: composing monuments of western music in the room next door to a classroom full of 11-12 year-olds (!) His schedule was weekly; he was always short of time and he was often short of resources (even paper). But the resource that mattered most was one he had made for himself. He managed to focus on his ‘trade’ (that’s what he said of it); to be endlessly prolific in a demanding technical occupation and astonishingly creative even when he ‘borrowed’ from himself, as he often did.
    Your high output and high standards show evidence of the same polished craftsmanship that must owe something to talent but comes chiefly, I suspect, from application.
    The ‘zone’ must be a reward, I think. A gift, not a precondition.

    • Thanks Peter – practice and discipline, for sure, but I think the ‘need’ or ‘desire’ or simple ‘want’ to do it cannot be underestimated either…

  11. Love the Escher-like quality of the first image – very disorienting on first viewing

  12. Superb work!

  13. Very cool series and great post!

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