Are you a creative photographer? If so, there are pitfalls we can avoid. Some are of our own making, while others are created by others to deliberately trick us.
One of the big obstacles we have in photography as an art is that we create interpretations of the ordinary. Although there are many counter-arguments to the adage that the camera never lies, to some extent it’s true. Unlike other artists who can invent whatever they create, photography, with few exceptions, is primarily an art of observation, not interpretation. Therefore, in making our images compelling, we have to show the ordinary world in an extraordinary way.
This extraordinary is made even more difficult by the prolific nature of photography. An unimaginable 1.4 trillion photos were taken last year. Granted, the vast majority of them weren’t created as art – although whether pulp photography is art is a matter of debate – how many people take their cameras and trying to create something worth watching is always amazing. Therefore, originality is difficult to achieve.
Much of the photography we see is derived from the work of another photographer. There are a lot of clones of Ansel Adams, for example, and the one thing they all have in common is that their work isn’t as good as Adams’. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with emulating your favorite photographer’s style; it’s a great way to learn. However, we can be trapped by this. A creative photographer will be inspired by their heroes and then escape that style, pushing their creativity at least a little further.
This of course does not only apply to photography, but to all other forms of creative art, from painting to writing. For example, when we at Fstoppers write an article, it’s not uncommon for other writers online to pick it up and rewrite the information as their work. Sometimes it’s obvious that they took the article because they only partially rephrased each paragraph. Of course, the copy never quite lives up to the original. This also happens in painting. I wonder how many Bob Ross clone paintings hang on the living room walls, all slightly worse than the real thing.
Likewise, with each new musical genre comes a multitude of imitative artists who are not quite Mozart, Bob Dylan, the Beatles or David Bowie. I chose these musical geniuses for a particular reason. All took other musical styles that came before them and then improved upon them. How did they do this? Not by directly copying what came before, but by mixing two or more styles to create something new and exciting. This is how creativity works. With very few exceptions, it is a progression resulting from the combination of existing elements. Understanding this can help us get out of the traps that hold us back.
All art evolves from what has gone before. Yet in photography, it seems to be acceptable for many photographers to be trapped in following their favorite photographer and not evolving from that, not defying the norm. Consequently, many photographs are boringly similar and never as good as the ones they copy.
Creativity is not easy. It’s certainly not a process that comes naturally to many, but it’s a skill that can be learned and, with dedication and practice, improved.
If we try to escape the conventions of photography, we are likely to encounter resistance. Photos that exceed the limits are unlikely to win the most likes on Instagram. But in fact, pandering to popular opinion probably won’t make you a better photographer.
So how do you approach photography differently? We can start by learning from other arts that have always challenged convention and encouraged experimentation.
Painting is a science and should be pursued as an investigation into the laws of nature. Why, then, can landscape painting not be considered a branch of natural philosophy [physics]whose images are only experiences?
Just as the great 19th century landscape painter John Constable said of painting, early photographers also saw science as an important part of photographic art. The photographs were experiences. It’s something that many have lost and should bring back into photography. So, in addition to taking the same photos we always take, based on the work of photographers before us, we should push the boundaries and find out what we and our cameras are capable of.
Experimentation is important in developing photography beyond the constraints of the ordinary. All the great photographers have experimented, whether it be Henri Cartier-Bresson with his permanent quest for the golden ratio and the decisive moment, Ansel Adams with his research on tone or David Bailey repelling the limits of fashion photography.
So what do I mean by experimentation? It takes aspects of photography in directions you’ve never tried before. For example, treat street photography like wildlife photography; integrate your fashion shoot into a landscape shot; if you are an architectural photographer, introduce a dynamic and lively element to the images; try a camera from a different system than the one you’re using: if you’re shooting full frame, try a Micro Four Thirds camera, or vice versa; instead of using premium glass, get a poor quality adapter and vintage lens.
It doesn’t stop at the camera. Doing research to discover different creative processing and editing techniques and then combining them in new and inventive ways can also take your creative photography to another level.
Accept that experiences are less likely to bring you online accolades in the form of disposable likes. Most people only appreciate what is familiar to them. The ordinary simplicity of pulp photography requires little effort or intelligence to process. Moreover, you may even face direct criticism from those who are limited in their ability to see beyond the mundane. For example, I built the website and took the images for a vacation rental cabin, and the client wanted to emphasize that the property was pet-friendly. Therefore, I included images of a dog in some shots and uploaded one. Later, I was criticized by another photographer for including a dog in a real estate photo.
Challenging the conventions of photography takes courage. But those who denigrate creative work say more about themselves and their limited ability to understand it than about your skills. Moreover, we must avoid falling into the trap of negativity and always encourage others in their work, even if their results are not to our liking.
Do you experiment with photography? Are you pushing the limits? It would be great to hear your thoughts on the challenges you face with creativity and originality, and maybe also see some of your photos in the comments.