Photography requires repetitive tasks that can often become habit forming. When we find a way of doing something that works, we repeat those steps to get the desired result. We get locked into certain styles and certain ways of thinking. This can be valuable because it makes us dependable, but these habits can also have an undesired effect: they can make us predictable, bland, and stifle our creativity. What can a photographer do when their creativity starts to atrophy? The answer is play.
Creativity requires risk, so it's often hard to try new things when someone else's interests are at stake in addition to our own. I know I wouldn't want a photographer experimenting in the middle of my wedding or when I had an advertising campaign to release, and the last thing I'd want to do as a photographer is hand over a photo where I tried something unexpected only to have my client hate the results. At the same time, I don't want my work to become stale, or for my creativity to plateau. I want to grow.
If you want to break out of a rut, strengthen your problem-solving skills, and flex your creative muscle, setting aside some time to experiment is the answer you need. Taking time to play can become your best line of defense against stagnation. It flexes your creative muscles and provides an environment where failure becomes an option and a low-stakes teacher.
Just like willpower, creativity is a muscle that needs exercise. When we don't use it, it begins to wither. Some synonyms for creativity are inventiveness, imagination, individuality, and originality. While repeatable results do pay the bills, it's originality that distinguishes, sets prices, and catches the eye. Because originality is ultimately self-expression, and it's vision that connects viewers to our work, creativity needs to be exercised. The more often, the better.
I'm all for planning, particularly when money and memories are on the line, but play time means throwing your intricate plans out the window. Instead of coming up with a concept, planning a lighting diagram, storyboarding, and setting everything in stone, just walk on set with a general idea and use what you've got to create something. Don't let your usual habits box you in or stop you from trying something different. Grab props and try them in ways you wouldn't have thought to use them. Try things with your lights you haven't had the courage to try. Shoot through a scarf or a piece of plastic, or glass beads. Experiment with gels and strobing and slow shutter speeds. Try a genre outside your own, or a style wildly different from your normal approach. If an idea doesn't work, there is no one to disappoint and a whole lot to learn.
The best thing about this kind of experimentation, for me, is freeing myself up to fail. Sometimes, the idea didn't pan out, but I learned how I might approach the same thing next time to make it work. Sometimes the final image didn't work, but I learned something new about lighting that I can bring in to my next shoot. If you have a team that is willing to play with you, that takes experimenting to a whole new level, and other artists that you trust are the perfect people to bounce ideas off of and push you in your own thinking.
Every now and then, while playing, you get more than just new ideas and the chance to strengthen your active creativity. Sometimes, because of the freedom and the challenge, those experiments can lead to images that surprise you, that remind you why you love photography, and that point you in the direction you want to go.