In the eternal quest for better photographs (and you can define that however you’d like), we all tend to spend a great deal of money. You probably already know how I feel about this. When I look back at the money I spent on gear that made promises that were never kept (and yes, I know, I heard what I wanted to hear), I’d sure like a chance to get some of that cash back. I kept thinking if I wanted different photographs, I needed different (read: better) gear.
I knew that wasn’t all there was to it. But it seemed like the easiest step to take. I was pretty sure the other pieces would fall into place after that—and you know how that went.
If you want more creative photographs, you need to learn to think more creatively: not different gear, but different thoughts. Here are three ideas for how you might do that.
First, you’ve got to learn your craft and know your gear. Didn’t expect that one from me, did you? I’m not saying become a gear nerd. But I am saying this: in whatever way makes sense for you, the more you understand how your gear works—and the more comfortable you become with it—the more creative possibilities will present themselves as you photograph. After all, you can’t pre-visualize something you don’t know is possible. But if you know how to use a flash in combination with rear-curtain sync and a slow shutter speed, you’ll have more possibilities to consider than if you don’t.
Whoa! Slow down, duChemin! Strobes? Curtains? Rear what?
Ok, it doesn’t have to be that, though it sounds harder than it is. Have you mastered the use of slower shutter speeds? Multiple exposures? Are you no longer afraid of that 24mm lens? Are you comfortable with different aperture and depth of field? Are you good with exposing for highlights and letting your shadows go dark? These are all techniques you’ll only be able to think about employing, especially in combination with others, if you learn them first. Don’t mistake mastery of craft for snobbery or elitism; the more you know your gear, the more creatively you’ll be able to think about what that gear can do.
Was that last paragraph overwhelming? Don’t let it be. Pick one thing. Learn it well. Then pick another. One at a time. This is not a sprint to the finish, my friend.
Second, it’ll help if you think in combinations; rarely does one technique or element make or break a photograph. Think in terms of layers of impact. Sure, you’ve got a great subject, but can you add to that with powerful composition, and on top of that, show me some motion, tell me a story, and give me depth and an intentionally-chosen colour palette?
Back off, duChemin; I’m still working on the exposure triangle!
I know. And this stuff takes time, but even there, I’d encourage you to think not only about getting your settings correct but making them creative. Forget about “getting the right exposure” and think about how you get there. Can you combine a slower shutter speed to gain some feeling of motion with a wider aperture to isolate the foreground and then let the ISO go wherever it has to? That’d be more creative than just jamming it on Program mode, wouldn’t it? But if that’s all you can manage, then rock that Program mode and think more creatively about other things, like the use of different focal lengths combined with different points of view. You’re good at using that longer lens from far away; could you play with a wider lens much closer to your subject? Or experiment with adding new compositional elements?
However it makes sense to you to apply this, try thinking in layers. Once you’ve got the basics down and you’ve “got the shot,” could you try adding one more thing? Maybe backlight instead? A different point of view? Keep adding layers.
Third, consider identifying your rut. I know, it was a groove once, but if you’ve been shooting front-lit subjects using your 70-200mm lens and it would never occur to you to find a different perspective, then you might be in a rut. I was in an 85mm f/1.2 rut once that lasted for a couple of years. My pictures didn’t have a chance to look different than the photographs of others. Hell, they didn’t even look different from my own photographs.
Take some time to look at your work and don’t think in terms of good or bad, but look at the commonalities. Do you favour one particular lens? Is a faster shutter safer for you? Do you camp out at wider apertures because it’s easier to control the composition when most of the frame is just pretty bokeh? Do you only have pictures of smiling people because you’re not comfortable with other emotions? Only you know the answers to these and many more possible questions. I just encourage you to stretch, to move beyond what’s comfortable. You’ve learned those skills and you’re good with those particular tools—great! Now learn others. Then add layers. And when those become comfortable, add more. Lean into what’s missing. If you need to learn to tell stronger stories, learn that. If it’s some element of darkroom work, like dodging and burning, learn that. Keep going, follow that curiosity. Keep asking, “what if?”
Creative thinking isn’t commonly taught. Even when I talk about creativity with photographers, I see the fear in their eyes, so worried I might ask them to spin their camera in the air or go all-in on intentional camera movement and multiple exposures. I just mean learn to think from other angles, beyond the blind spots we all have. You don’t think creatively because you’re a born artist or “a creative”; you become an artist or creative person by thinking creatively, and that’s something you can learn and hone.
Forget the new or different gear—I’ll take different ways of thinking any day.
Got a question? Something to add? I’d love to hear from you. I’ll do my best to reply.
For the Love of the Photograph,