Finding inspiration, redux

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Following on from the earlier thoughts on making ‘good enough’ images getting ever harder with increased productivity – the flip side of the coin becomes a question of how we find sufficient inspiration to get over that activation energy threshold*. How do we firstly get inspired enough to get out the camera and attempt to produce something at all, and furthermore – produce something that will satisfy us. In reality, what needs to happen is we must find sufficient motivation to make us want to answer the question of ‘how will the finished image look?’ There are several ways of doing this, I think. And hopefully – if you’ve been on hiatus or feeling photographically jaded, this might help get the camera out again.

*I promise one day I’ll write that long-delayed article on physics and photography.

What I’m not going to give you is a set of steps to follow to find a muse and make the best images of your life; there’s no set formula to that both because great images cannot be the result of a formulaic process by definition, and each individual has different motivations for shooting. (If one could churn out masterpieces on demand, then they’d no longer be masterpieces.) But perhaps today’s thoughts might help you understand how to get that process started – on the basis that despite appearances, actively finding motivation for my personal work is something I have to do myself on a fairly regular basis – especially when you’re in your home base.

We tend not to shoot anywhere near as much in familiar territory for precisely the reason that it’s all familiar: you know what to expect, what to find where, and consequently there is no sense of newness, or of discovering something and then feeling the urge to capture or document it. We assume ‘it’ will always be there and relatively easily accessible to us. Consequently, there is no feeling of urgency to photograph ‘it’, because we can ‘always go back’. By the time we get around to going back – if that ever happens – ‘it’ may no longer be there, or worse, we never get the urge to go back at all; that unique observation long having faded into something taken for granted and just another part of the background noise.

Human visual physiology is almost hardwired by default to notice differences – presumably as a holdover from early days when we as a species still had natural predators (apart from fellow man). Being able to note differences to a normal, ‘safe’, defined, already-explored environment is precisely what might make the difference between being alive or not. The world today has however grown to a point where there’s so many differences at the micro-level that we tend to simply ignore anything that isn’t either related to something of interest to us, or act like gawking tourists. It’s almost necessary to survive and not get overwhelmed by stimuli – visual and otherwise; a good example is eventually how one tunes out advertising to the point you only really notice when there isn’t any (in Cuba or Myanmar a few years back, for example). Bottom line: we feel stimulated only when we notice something different. And we only notice what we have some personal interest in.

Fundamentally, this boils down to motivations for conscious observation being driven by the addition or removal or change of something in the visual landscape that passes our attention threshold. And what is photography if nothing but conscious observation, and feeling the need to preserve that observation? This is still the fundamental driver of the photographic process, regardless of other motivations (attention, money, art etc.) – we see something, and we want to record it. But note how the seeing process must still come first**. We need a difference, or a perturbation, or a change of some sort to make us sit up, take notice, make an observation, and then want to get the camera out.

**Sidebar observation: it’s for this reason I think the majority of commercial photography can never be art; we can still capture something because we’re told to because somebody else does the seeing, but we may not really, truly see something there for ourselves – so the motivations are not fundamental or deep enough to produce some unique observations or visual statements.

By the time we’ve gotten the camera out, the motivation hump is mostly crossed; at this point we’re probably mentally invested enough that either we must see how the photographed result looks, or we have a strong idea of what we’d like to say. Hopefully, the result of that work is something visually interesting and something we find was worth the effort; the whole process of translating idea to image is of course something else entirely.

Of course, the longer you stay in a place – and thus more completely observe it, and eventually, more completely are able to ignore your surroundings because you already have a mental expectation of what you’ll find there – the harder it is to find motivation, and the higher the activation energy becomes. You will need greater and greater ‘deviations from normal’ in order to want to firstly notice something, and secondly, photograph it. Even if you manage to avoid the trap of getting jaded and no longer observing your environment – I think it’s still not easy to find enough motivation to photograph a subject as your time spent with it increases, because inevitably that subject will change at a much slower rate than the attention span of the observer.

When my daughter was born last year, I did what every new and photographically-inclined parent does: make thousands of possible images of her doing everything and anything. But as she does more of the same things – even if slightly differently – and we get used to her routine and having her around, the volume of images has dropped off dramatically. It’s probably the same of a new partner, a new car, a new camera. To be motivated to record her requires her to be doing something very different from normal, which is usually in turn triggered by a new environment.

I can say the same of the title image: the subject and I have known each other and been close friends for the better part of 12 years now, and whilst he’s extremely accommodating as a portrait subject since he’s also an extremely talented photographer – I feel the degree of familiarity means that something different has to happen for us to want to make portraits of each other. We meet every year or so; this time, he’d taken up vaping since we last met. My observation of the interaction between subject and vape device was of course something new, and under certain lighting conditions – somewhat surreal as the visual quality of vape isn’t the same as cigarette smoke (it appears to be of much finer particulate size, and dissipates faster towards the edges of the cloud – not surprising since it is really water vapour, and the same as a regular raincloud).

My motivations were both to make a portrait because it’s something I’d been slowly inclining towards as subject matter in the last year or so, and to capture some of this uniqueness: the textural qualities of the cloud, the subject’s fascination with the device, the surrealism of the way the whole activity appears to an external observer, and something of the sort of relaxation or tuning out that accompanies the activity. We started out with available light, which I wasn’t happy with, and moved swiftly on to a single speedlight – eventually gaining a stand for better positioning and directionality. It was spontaneous and aided by having the hardware handy (at my home). After several attempts to control the vapour output, direction and quantity, we quickly managed to get an image in which all of the elements came together: the cloud, the hand position, the directionality of light, and the slight illumination on the eyes to give a clue to the emotions and feelings of the subject at the time of the portrait.

Breaking this down, we have a few things that had to coincide for the image to happen: some underlying desire to make an image (in general); a new observation/motivation; an environment conducive to experimentation and of course, a willing subject. I certainly did not have a strong desire to produce an image I’d already seen or made or had imagined previously; but at the same time, producing something new (in my view, without having exhaustively viewed every single image of course) isn’t an activity with guaranteed results: there’s always a risk with experimentation that it simply does not turn out the way you’d expect. But, at the same time, if we never try, we’ll never know…MT


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  1. Thanks for sharing this Ming! The tile image is amazing! I do believe it’s a daily struggle to keep inspired to shoot.

    • Thanks! Yes – it requires motivation and dedication…but also knowing when not to push it too hard and thus avoid feeling despondent when you’re not making masterpieces…

  2. Very impressive image that reminds me of both my appreciate for photography and your work.

  3. Larry Kincaid says:

    Great image. I’ve never seen a photo of the vapor from “vape smoke,” except perhaps in passing or fleeting moment on TV (which makes the point: neither salient nor meaningful at the time). I enjoy you site, but especially when you post something that has suddenly or recently occurs or happens to you, that’s succinct and to the point like this one. Lesson shared. Now I will certainly not try to produce another image just like this one, as if I could. The “. . . the volume of images [of your daughter] has dropped off dramatically” struck a chord. You’ll find that this continues with your second child as well. You don’t start over, in other words. And when they get old enough to see them, the second child will say, “where are all my photos?!” “Oh, we just kept the best ones of you.”

    I know for sure that “If one could churn out masterpieces on demand, then they’d no longer be masterpieces,” but I still struggle trying to turn one out every time I make photographs. If you look at actual masterpieces you can see that one a year would be a large volume for anyone who ever lived and tried. Ironically, they too may not have turned out any masterpieces if they had not raised the volume of “tries” high enough to succeed finally. With just one. That’s the one we see.

    • There’s one more piece to the puzzle: I suspect we don’t know what stands the test of time as a masterpiece (or not) until way after the dust has settled…so you can’t stop even if you think you might have produced one.

  4. Loved the article. The observation and “newness” idea completely makes sense. I recently visited NYC for a week, for the first time in 27 years since I moved away — and took 1600 photos (about 1.3 of which were bracketed shots, but still) — I’d be lucky if I took that many photos in a month, not counting work/jobs.

  5. Love the pic, and the article. Thank you.
    Noticed today a write-up about the hard-wiredness of human vision.

  6. Familiarity: how very true, I live in a very pretty tourist village in Snowdonia in North Wales.UK where people come from all the world to enjoy the scenery and the many attractions in the area. 50 yds from my home is an ancient old bridge and waterfall where photographers can be seen daily capturing the scene. I have yet to set up a camera and tripod and shoot it myself in a organised manner, sure i have fired off the odd handheld snap whilst passing, but as it so familiar it is difficult finding the motivation to shoot it properly.
    Having read your article must now make the effort :o)
    Thanks Ming.

  7. Great photo… for me it improves on what the eye might have seen, or at least sees it in a completely different way. That’s where photography does something nothing else can do (except if you paint from photographs!)… I really balk when people say they do photography because they were no good at drawing.

    • Thanks – good photography has to simply show you something you might otherwise not be able to appreciate, either because the event is too fast for us to fully process, or because the camera and perspective add something that isn’t otherwise possible with the naked eye…

  8. There’s nothing like a speed light to get the best from a sensor but that has to be a Zeiss lens? Phenomenal capture.

  9. Smoke get`s in my eyes. Cool pict. Smoke does it.


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