Mostly, photographers learn the camera settings and compositional techniques first. Those basics of photography are essential. But when we have mastered those, what do we do next?
Let's travel back in time to the International Museum of Photography & Film in the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. It's 1975, and they put on a display of work called New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape. It was curated by William Jenkins, who described the theme as "stylistic anonymity." Unlike the photographic art that preceded it, it concentrated on the content of the photo instead of the artistry. The photos had huge amounts of information but abandoned the idea of having beauty, emotion, or opinion contained within them.
This approach went against photography's traditions, where a photo's artistic merits were previously considered all important. During the 1970s and 1980s, those standards of photography were questioned, and the boundaries around what was acceptable were pushed, which had a big impact on the art.
That was long before every other university offered a graduate photography course, where tutors encourage students to break free of the accepted constraints. Sadly, many undergraduate courses have become tick-box exercises aimed at doing little more than providing students with a graduation certificate instead of them exploring and pushing the boundaries of their imaginations and creativity. Of course, better universities still run courses that do more than teach a fixed syllabus, and luckily, art-based courses, like photography, are more likely to allow idiosyncrasy.
A big problem that photographers face is that the norms are popular. A photograph is less likely to be widely appreciated if it breaks away from what the majority is used to. Most of us want our photos to be accepted. That approval may come in the form of prizes at the local camera club, likes on Instagram, or sales on our website. Leaving behind what is widely acknowledged as acceptable can bring failure. However, we can learn from failure, and it can lead us to something better. Occasionally, it can bring a paradigm shift, as we saw in the 1970s and 80s.
To illustrate that, let's look at something that happened long before the invention of photography. It is believed that René Descartes had a difficult childhood. He was a poor student. It's said he failed his entrance exams to the University of Poitiers in France in 1615, aged 19. Subsequently, he joined the army and undertook a more independent study path. That independent thinking, without the influence of traditional academic institutions, allowed him to develop his own ideas and theories. Ultimately, this led to him to ground-breaking work in mathematics and physics, and today he is known as the father of western philosophy. Similarly, Friedrich Nietzsche is said to have failed his university entrance exam, as did Albert Einstein.
Each of those individuals changed the way we think about the world. In the field of photography, it's happened too; Cartier Bresson failed the baccalaureate several times before finally being accepted at the art academy set up by the Cubist painter André Lohte.
How can we take to challenge the mundane? The answer is to think creatively. The mistake many people make is to think creativity is inventing something out of the blue; it isn't. Creativity is taking what already exists and reinventing it by combining it with other things in new and, hopefully, interesting ways. That could start by mixing genres.
Pick two genres from this non-exhaustive list and think of ways you could combine them:
8. Fine art
14. Black and white
21. Still life.
Then, you can add one or two of the following techniques:
A. Long exposure
B. High-speed photography
D. HDR (High Dynamic Range)
F. Macro photography
H. Black and white
J. Infrared photography
K. Double exposure
L. Light painting
N. Motion blur
O. Selective focus
P. Shallow depth of field
S. Multiple exposures
T. Pinhole photography
U. High Speed
W. Intentional camera movement
Now, apply any of the following styles:
vii. Fine art
x. Cross processing
xi. Push processing
xii. Pull processing
xiii. Bleach bypass
xiv. Hand coloring
xv. Lith printing
xvii. Gum bichromatex
viii. Platinum printing
xx. Van Dyke brown
Just taking one from each list, there are over 9,200 combinations. If you allow up to two from each list, there are over ten million combinations.
It doesn't stop there. You can add the styles of different nations, emulate different film types, obstruct the lens using prisms, use the "wrong" focal length, try different editing techniques, layer blending modes, and so on. Then think about the vast number of separate subjects there are to photograph, plus using unusual camera settings, and out-of-the-ordinary lighting. Even using different cameras from the majority can help you remove a layer of commonality from your images. The possibilities seem infinite.
Experiment! There is a good chance that some of your experiments fail. But as Descartes, Nietzsche, and Einstein discovered, that failure is a good thing.
That isn't prescriptive. There's nothing wrong with producing photos that don't push the boundaries of what is accepted. It's okay producing prints influenced by what has come before. A lot of the time, we just want to enjoy taking photos and putting our hard-earned camera and compositional skills to work. For me, there is nothing more enjoyable than the experience of standing on a cold, windswept beach at dawn and photographing the sun as it comes up behind the island that sits a mile off the shore. I've done it dozens of times, and I am sure others have too, and I will come away with crowd-pleasing images. Nevertheless, sometimes, I also want to push the boundaries and shoot differently. Even when the photos are disappointing, I can learn from them and try again.
Do you experiment? Do you intend to? It would be great to hear about that in the comments and perhaps see your results in the comments.
I play with my camera more than shooting traditional images, trying to learn and mix things up.I joined a camera club and have to say when I submitted my photo knowing full well they would not like it.Did not care because their's were all boring.What I learned was enjoy the evening talking to them and do what I like.They are all very nice people but we are on different wavelengths.
The most important thing for many photographers is creating what they want to and not give two hoots about what others think. I am glad I am not the only one who thinks that way. Thanks for the great comment.
Great article and great ideas for those who love photography, but often don't know what to shoot.
But as for me .....
I have so many thousands of images in my mind's eye - scenes and subjects and poses and points of view and backgrounds and supporting elements, in various combinations. The real challenge is spending so much time afield that I will actually find the subject in the conditions that enable me to actually make some of these pre-envisioned images.
It's not that I can't think of what to do to be creative ..... rather, it is that finding subjects to shoot is so difficult, and then getting close enough to them to take the kinds of photos I want to take is so difficult, that actually having the opportunity to take a pleasing photo is a rather rare occurrence.
For instance, I drove 5 hours and hiked for another hour and a half to photograph sea ducks yesterday, but the ducks were hanging a bit further out than usual, probably due to the combination of wind direction and tide, so despite great effort and lots of time spent, I never had an opportunity to take a pleasing image. Yes, I took some dozens of images of the further-than-ideal ducks, but there were no such images that were pleasing to my eye. Most of us serious waterfowl photographers already have tens of thousands of those small-in-the-frame duck photos, and they are honestly not inspiring at all unless there is some striking anomaly in the scene or in the light, and yesterday there simply wasn't.
I feel like all the creativity and originality that I could ever want is already living inside my head, but that opportunities to actually bring some of that to fruition are quite limited.
I'm not going to start photographing things I am not passionately interested in just to exercise creativity and make different looking photos. I am only passionately interested in wildlife in natural settings - no zoos or captive situations at all, ever. So if it isn't a wild animal, I pretty much have no interest and no passion in photographing it.
That's absolutely fair, Tom. Doing your own thing is what matters the most.
I made a conscience decision to combine street photography techniques with low-level (20-30m) drone photography in the Sonoran Desert. I am documenting the Desert Rat lifestyle from above, something I don't think has been done before.
Curious ,what State is the Sonoran desert?
In the U.S., the Sonoran Desert lies across the western 2/3 of southern Arizona. And then it occupies much of the state of Sonora, Mexico. It also occupies parts of extreme southeastern California, Baja California, and Baja California Sur.
Cool fact - the Sonoran Desert is the only place in the world where Saguaro Cacti grow naturally.
I believe it is also the only area in the world that has Ironwood trees and coincidentally they also bloom in May with thousands of purple flowers. It is every local photographer's goal to get a shot of a blossoming Ironwood tree & blossoming saguaro in the same frame. Just don't mind the 110F-115F heat!
I do not mind the heat at all. I spent 3 weeks in Phoenix last July, and absolutely loved everything about it, including the deliciously hot weather!
May & June are considered to be 'dry summer' it's not unusual for temps to be 110f-115f at 5% humidity for days at a time. Once the monsoon season starts in early July, the humidity goes up & temps moderate to 100f-110f.
Arizona. I'm specifically referring to Tonto National Forest just east of the PHX Valley of the Sun. Best time to go is Oct-March. They allow camping and off-road vehicles and allow launching of recreational drones as long as you don't harrass the local wildlife.
October thru March??? For me, that's the very worst time to visit the Sonoran Desert. Not gonna find what I'm looking for until it's hot out. May thru September is when the desert quite literally comes to life.
When you say "Desert Rat", are you referring to the Kangaroo Rats which are quite populous in the Sonoran Desert, or is that a term used for certain types of people?
It is an affectionate term for people that camp and drive off-road vehicles and mountain bikes in our precious public lands of the Sonoran Desert. It really IS a lifestyle.
Cool! Could it also include those like me who hike the desert in search of little desert critters such as geckos, snakes, and scorpions? I mean, I don't often camp overnight in the Sonoran Desert, but I sure do spend a lot of time out there afoot.
Most of the Maricopa Regional parks have free park ranger guided scorpion tours at night in the summer. Scorpions come out at night when it stays above 72f. Everybody brings blacklight flashlights to look for the little green-glowing arachnids. They also have free park ranger guided full-moon hikes. Hiking through a moon-lit saguaro forest without a flashlight is like being on another planet!
That's so cool that you mention scorpions and hiking at night!
Much of my time there is spent hiking open desert and desert washes at night. But of course I use a headlamp most of the time because I am trying to see small ground-dwelling critters. But every now and then I stop for a 10 or 15 minute rest and turn the headlamp off and just enjoy the magical nighttime mood of the desert.
Last summer I was fortunate to find a scorpion with dozens of tiny little offspring riding on her back! I got some photos and while they may not be the most aesthetically pleasing images from the trip, they sure are some of the most interesting!
Ivor Rackham wrote,
"The most important thing for many photographers is creating what they want to and not give two hoots about what others think."
I love your mindset, Ivor!
I read so many articles that tell me how the author thinks I should be shooting, or that tell me to shoot what the author thinks I should shoot.
This is quite offensive and exposes a shallow-mindedness on the part of the authors who write this way. How can they possibly know what someone else is interested in photographing? And how can they possibly know what photographic style will come naturally and unforced to any particular individual?
"This is quite offensive and exposes a shallow-mindedness on the part of the authors who write this way" - I'm going to play Devil's Advocate here and suggest that perhaps they're writing an article that has a good probability of getting the clicks.
Which also annoys me. I hate click-bait articles written to "engage" with the readers at all cost, even if only to manufacture controversy.
I actually think there is room for all types of articles.
I often scroll through the news feed on my phone and can usually tell which articles are going to be worth reading and which ones won't. Clearly, some like reading articles like "You won't believe what [insert film star's name here] looks like today." or "Were the Nazis developing weapons based on Ancient Egyptian UFO Technology." It's easy to skip those if you don't want to read them. But plenty of people do want to read them because, otherwise, they would not get published. Who are we to argue with that?
Similarly, not everyone wants to read in-depth articles on photography topics. Some just want to be entertained, and sometimes controversy is entertaining. I think it is okay to be controversial in an article and not only for entertainment value. If we don't challenge popularly held beliefs, then nothing changes. Also, an opposing view can help reinforce one's own belief structure because it gives the opportunity to generate counterarguments.
If someone is offended, then that is down to them and their own belief structure and not the fault of the writer. There are plenty of issues in the world today where one cannot hold a particular point of view without being told it's offensive and be "canceled." If this extends to creativity, such as writing an article, then it is a poor reflection of the world we live in. I've even written what I hoped were balanced pieces on controversial topics and have been told by both sides of the argument that what I have written is offensive.
Instead of just disagreeing and trying to find a middle ground with discussion, you will often see people saying they are offended by the other person's opinion and try to discredit or silence them. If I write a glowing or damning article about something innocuous like a camera, there are those who will scream and shout about it and say I am wrong, as if their opinion is the only one that matters and it's the end of the world that I disagree with them. It's not as if I am rolling tanks into another country or destroying people's homes.