The Journey from Technical Perfection to Creative Freedom in Photography

Understanding the mechanics of a camera can be comforting. You set things up, press a button, and voilà, you get a photograph. However, there’s more to it than just pressing a button.

Coming to you from Alex Kilbee of The Photographic Eye, this thought-provoking video explores why pressing the shutter can cause so much anxiety. Kilbee starts by reminiscing about his first camera, a toy model. As a kid, he didn’t care about the technicalities. He just snapped pictures of friends without a second thought. This carefree approach changed as he learned more about photography. The more he learned, the more anxious he became.

Kilbee highlights the technical focus during his first year at photo school. It was all about film processing, image printing, and understanding apertures and shutter speeds. This technical knowledge felt safe and replicable. You follow steps and get predictable results, much like building a LEGO set with instructions. But this safety net of technicality also brought anxiety. Straying from the formula meant opening up to criticism.

Ansel Adams once said you don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring all your life experiences into it. Kilbee struggled with this idea. He wanted his photos to be edgy and cool but lacked the confidence to explore creatively. A specific assignment at photo school, shooting a still life, highlighted this struggle. His technically perfect photo was likened to a picture from a mundane magazine, which he found disheartening. This incident made him realize that technical proficiency alone wasn’t enough.

Kilbee’s journey toward embracing creativity took a turn when he discovered the Holga camera. A friend introduced him to this simple, plastic camera that stripped away all the technical concerns. It had basic settings and was all about capturing the essence of a moment. This experience was liberating, allowing him to focus on seeing the world differently and creating unique images.

Reflecting on his experiences, Kilbee found that overthinking technical perfection often overshadowed creativity. This realization was a turning point. He started incorporating his personal experiences and interests into his photography. This blend of technical skills and creative expression led to more fulfilling work.

Kilbee advises embracing both technical and creative aspects. Some of his photography, like portrait work, leans on technical precision. Other times, he lets go of technicalities to explore creativity, such as with his iPhone photography. This balance helps quiet the anxiety that comes with pressing the shutter and allows for a richer photographic journey. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Kilbee.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Alex likes making a neighborly social visit out of an educational video. I suppose that's okay – maybe the folksy style connects with people – but the rambling manner makes it a little hard to understand the point of it all. That tends to happen when I start thinking out loud among my friends. At first glance, he appears to be minimizing the importance of technical components in photography. The camera of his childhood with a single button to snap a picture feels comforting, and that translates to a freedom which allows us to be more creative. But does it really? Somewhere in the middle of the video, though, he's saying that it's not a binary issue. In other words, it doesn't have to be one extreme or the other. By the end of the video, he's espousing the merits of both technical skill and creativity. That makes more sense.

After all, since he cites the words of Ansel Adams, Adams was probably the biggest stickler for technical issues of anyone at that time. Reading his book "The Making of 40 Photographs" describes enough technical background to make you dizzy. Edward Weston believed that decisions regarding camera settings (and there was nothing automatic in those days) should be so well learned that the photographer's time and attention would be nearly entirely devoted to compositional creativity. It's only when we're fumbling around with camera settings that technical issues interfere with creativity. As far as making a picture is concerned, I don't think you can separate technical from creative thought. Choices of aperture, shutter speed, and focal length (and a thorough awareness of how they all combine to make a picture) routinely impact creative fine-art photography. I don't see how you can sugar coat it any other way.

I also believe that anxious people are anxious regardless of the tools or process in which we make our photographs. Simplifying the process doesn't relieve anxiety... disconnecting our emotions from how people respond to our images reduces anxiety. How many of us sit by the computer or phone or whatever waiting for the "likes" to add up in response to one of our pictures? In Alex's time as a student, he describes becoming distraught over a critique of his picture in photography school. That's the root of anxiety... not whether we're using the latest technologically advanced camera or an iPhone. Putting undue stress on what other people think is the problem.

Most creative people suffer from periods of time when nothing creative is happening, especially if you work at it long enough. But the technical foundation is always important in manifesting good work. Unless you're happy with family snapshots around the dining room table, anything less than technically competent work is just a diversion. Ansel Adams was an accomplished pianist and was heading down that career path until photography got in the way. He often credited his background in music, where details were critically important, for his superior work in photography. I think he used the description "sloppy joe" as something to be avoided in regard to work habits.

Nice to have photography channels like Alex's in amongst the sea of gear reviews though.

Oh, I agree 100%. Otherwise I wouldn't bother writing my own thoughts in response. The subject begs for more community discussion as I get the impression that he, like most of us, are trying to find our way with who we are or want to be. Photography sort of mirrors life.