It’s getting harder and harder to stand out in the photography world. There’s just too many people with incredible talent out there. It’s more important than ever that you harness the most creative side of yourself and get the very best images out of every shoot you do. Here’s four things you can do to boost that creative juice, next time you pick up your camera:
Think Beyond Composition and Shallow Depth of Field.
It’s easy to get into the mindset that your job is to compose and shoot. And there is, of course, something sublime about an incredibly composed shot. But photography is really so much more than that. Photography provides an emotion to the viewer, and only secondarily does an audience marvel at your composition — if ever. A nice frame is the cost of entry, but can get lost in thousands of other nicely framed images of the same thing.
On the other side of that equation, is shallow depth of field, where everything but the one thing you’re focused on falls out of focus. It has a visceral beauty to it, but it severely limits the range of the photographer to rely on it too much.
Creative photography is all about finding something new and interesting to do with your camera. So, break these standards of photography and find a playground out beyond them. Here’s some of the most tried and true ways to get out of your comfort zone and push your photography to new levels.
Slow Down Your Shutter
There’s a whole world of photography to be had under the 1/125 shutter speed mark, but few photographers dare tread in there. In art school I took a crazy amount of drawing courses — I actually preferred to be in a drawing studio to a darkroom, though I was clearly more talented at photography. But the biggest lesson I learned in drawing was the importance of loosening up. And I made the biggest breakthrough in that regard when I was forced to work with charcoal. Charcoal is a messier, less precise instrument that demands larger, quicker gestures to get across forms that you could spend hours on with a 2B pencil. Learning it pushed the creativity of my drawings — out of precise depictions and into more expressive renderings. Which made the whole thing have more of a cohesive feel.
This is the same with slow shutter speeds. At slower speeds, people blur and details are lost. You can paint with light and get looser depictions of movement that bring a new kind of emotion to your work. It’s also more physical. Try tracking along with a runner at 1/4 of a second and see a completely new way of isolating your subject. Try zooming in while your your camera is slow-clicking away. Do that at night, with a flash. All these things will create images that are nearly impossible to reproduce and while many of them will be unusable because of it, you’ll also find some that just capture that mood better than you ever could have with a perfect composition and precise focus.
Think in Layers
The standard composition sits on a grid that we divide up into squares, but that grid is two-dimensional. Break out of that flat world by thinking about objects as they lay out from near to far. This is an entirely different way of composing that can lead to much more inventive images than your usual fare.
Start With The Image, Don’t End With It
It’s common to think of your image as the end result of photography, but what if you changed that mindset and thought of it as the beginning? Look at artists like John Baldessari or David Hockney, for example, where images are more a means to an end — artists who do things to images that make them unique and personal. Let go of the preciousness of the photograph and a world of possibility can open up here, too:
You can draw on, cut up, mash up, glue onto or in any way you like distort, mess with or alter your image. It’s your image! When I’m stuck creatively, I’ll often go back to images of mine and think about things I can do to them beyond just having them sit there in a folder. And this has lead to some of my most creative work, including the Metamorphoses series that turned buildings into bugs. Which made it into a gallery show in Downtown LA last year. One of the highlights of my whole year.
Spend some time messing with your images and see where it takes you. Some highly conceptual art out there has started in exactly this way.
Listen To Music
This one is such an easy one that it’s practically a “hack.” However, I care about music too much to categorize it as such. But, for some instant creative firepower at your next shoot, try putting headphones on. Or, if you do portraits, have a stereo on set with you. It’s a trick we do in the commercial world, too. Music is a great mood setter and it puts everyone at ease. But even if you’re solo, music will remove the clutter of your brain and put you into your flow faster than anything else.
One other extreme benefit of having earphones in while you shoot is to drown out non-visual influence — that is, any sound that takes your attention off of the job of being a photographer. If you’re on a street and a couple is having an argument, you’re going to be affected by it. And if you’re like me, all street noises draw my attention away, like a grazing deer, startled by every rustling bush.
So, keep your focus and find your composition faster by keeping yourself tuned in to some inspirational tracks while you’re shooting. Sometimes, like this shot here, I actually let music help me figure out how to compose a difficult subject. As everyone knows, music is transportive. It adds a dreamy, moody element to your shoot days that just gets you to look at things in an elevated way.
Not for everyone, of course. There are those who are inspired by the sounds of the city and enjoy feeling at one with it by having all senses open. Personally, my sensitivity level is way too high for that. It can’t hurt to try different things and see what gets you results. Who knows, music might just might be the muse you were looking for.
Go Back To Your Watering Hole
This one is counterintuitive, but we often think that once we’ve shot in a location that we’ve conquered it. Many great photographers, like many great painters, are finding that their creativity flourishes by honing in on an area to shoot and sticking to it. Indeed, some great street photographers have made a name for themselves simply within a small radius of space, even one city block.
If you’ve seen my work, you know I hit the skatepark in Venice Beach pretty regularly. But that wasn’t always the case. I took a single shot there many years back that I thought just perfectly captured it. And I thought, “well, that’s done.” And I moved on to downtown LA and beyond. It took me well over a year to get back to the skatepark, but when I did, I discovered that not only was there more to shoot there, but with the shapes, figures and light that convene on that location, that there was an infinite amount more to shoot there. A good location is like that — it’s a watering hole. And I’ll say, many of my best shots are ones captured at that location, years after I’d gotten what I’d thought was its quintessential image. Including the one above.
Perhaps take a look through your images and find a location among them that just seems to have all the elements needed for ongoing great images and go spend some more time there. Great locations where light, people and shapes all come together are rare — if you know one, go claim it and let it bring you many fish.
A director of a movie gets everything in order first: the lighting is right, the set is perfect, the sound and film are rolling… and only then does she yell, “Action!” Most photographers do everything up to the action point and their images look like beautiful movie stills. But what about the action?
In the header shot of this article are two people running on the beach with birds all around them. The two people are athlete/models we were shooting for a brand at the beach. During a break, I noticed the gathering of seagulls and thought it would be fun to have them run through them. It took only a little bit of planning — I positioned myself on one side, them on the other and on my cue, they ran toward me, causing the stir.
And in the image with the boy and the balloon here, I was traveling with family through Budapest. I saw the beautiful Brutalist architecture and light and then had my lady send our little boy through it with his balloon a few times. Action!
Be the director of your shoot. Frame it, make sure it’s right and then set something in motion. It’s okay to rely on the talent of others to make your shot even better and more interesting. Remember, creativity is the bringing together of two distinct things. You’re a photographer, that’s one. Force a second thing in there that will push you beyond your normal shot.
Change Your Perspective
I guess in some ways this is the obvious one, but it’s remarkable how many times I forget to do it. As photographers, we get so zeroed in on the subject and idea that once we make our decision, it seems to take all our attention to nail it the way we see it. The idea of then trying to see it yet again from a different perspective — it’s a lot to ask from any shoot. Still, taking the time to say, “what if I looked at this differently?” is a sure-fired way to break away from the expected.
In a typical example of this, I was recently going to shoot Pacific Coast Highway right at sunset — an image I’d always wanted to grab. I walked up to three different bridges that hover over the famous highway to see which one I liked best. I finally landed on one and got my shot, but as I was walking down off the bridge I had that notion that I could probably be looking at this slightly differently. At that moment, I turned back and simply looked at the bridge I’d been standing on as its own thing, which lead to what I think became a much more interesting image than I had originally gone to get.
The lesson is, go shoot what you plan on shooting, but then don’t stop there. Move, reposition, reframe and reset yourself when you’re out there to push yourself into territories you weren’t expecting.
I hope that was a helpful read. Feel free to leave comments, or other ideas, down below. And, as always, follow along with the daily images at Instagram.com/joshsrose