Do you struggle with creativity? In the first of this two-part series, we will look at what science and psychology have discovered about people who are creative. The good news is that they are habits that you can learn. Here are some exercises to help you with that.
Creativity is an elusive thing. It's so easy to take a photo that is nothing more than a recording of what we see. However, research has discovered creative people's common traits and behaviors and, with learning, practice, and exercise, we can become more creative with our photography.
1. Challenge Commonly Held Beliefs
I am a great believer that commonly held beliefs should be challenged. If we don’t challenge them, we don’t think for ourselves. Unless you live in an autocratic and oppressive society, thinking for yourself is generally considered a good thing. Challenging the world around us is an important aspect of creativity. Every human progression has resulted from people thinking differently.
Dean Keith Simonton, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Department of Psychology, University of California, found that the quality of creative ideas is directly related to quantity. In other words, the more ideas a creator generates, the higher the probability that they will eventually produce a masterpiece.
Those that think differently take risks and are not scared of failing. Failure is important because it means we will try repeatedly until we get it right. The more attempts we make, the more chance there is of creating something incredible.
Experimenting with different ways of photographing means you will probably make mistakes. If you expect that to happen, then it allows you not to let caution get in the way of your creativity.
Creative Practice Exercise
Go out and take the photos that you usually shoot, but change everything about the way you do it. You could experiment with different camera positions and settings. Or, maybe, try a different lens that you would otherwise consider to be inappropriate for your subject or genre. You will be forced to approach your subject differently. Remember, if it fails, it doesn’t matter. But ask yourself, why did it fail? What are the good points? What could you do differently again?
2. Be Compassionate
Someone recently commented I was the most contentious writer at Fstoppers. I happily accepted that as a badge of honor. It meant that I was thinking differently. Moreover, writing is a form of art and if art doesn’t provoke an emotional response and debate, it becomes worthless.
However, in the comments of another article, someone referred to my response to that and said I had admitted to being a troll. That demonstrates a misunderstanding of what I said and what a troll is.
The Collins Dictionary says this about trolling:
If you troll someone, you deliberately try to upset them or start an argument with them, especially by posting offensive or unkind things on the internet.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes trolling as writing false or offensive messages on the internet to make other people angry. That is very different from offering up a point of view and challenging commonly held beliefs, especially about an inanimate object like a camera.
I’ve met hundreds of successful talented artists and musicians. The vast majority always challenge the status quo, but at the same time, are supportive of others. They exhibit compassionate behavior. That is the opposite of trolling. Compassion toward others is central to becoming creative. It is one form of sensitivity, a heightened awareness of the world around us and the people within it, something that is essential for creativity.
We’ve all met people who lack compassion and are forever trying to pick holes in others. I have yet to meet any of them that fall under the heading of talented creators. They seemed to have lost the art of conversation and debate and that it is okay to disagree with others' opinions. Instead, they accuse anyone who has a different point of view of offending them. Absurdly, at the same time, they will not debate but abuse others and claim freedom of speech when their abusive words are challenged. Creative people are the opposite of that. They show respect for each other’s points of view and opinions, even if they disagree.
Creative Practice Exercise
Find some photography online from an unknown photographer that isn’t to your taste; you will find plenty on Instagram, Flickr, and in the galleries at Fstoppers. Ask yourself why that photo appeals to the photographer and not to you. Get in contact with the photographer and ask them to tell you about the photograph and what it means to them. Tell them you have difficulty understanding why they chose to shoot it that way, and ask them to explain. Learn to see it through their eyes.
3. The Subconscious Mind and Creativity
Although the story of Newton being hit on the head by an apple is a myth, his theory of gravity is said to have come to him by daydreaming and seeing an apple fall from a tree. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books occurred to her when she was staring out of the window when stuck on a train. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer came to him in a daydream too, and Paul McCartney woke from sleep with the song Yesterday in his head. Einstein is said to have allowed his mind to wander, and he came up with his Theory of Relativity.
I think people are losing the ability to daydream. So, many people I know are continuously tied to their phones, watching YouTube videos, or listening to podcasts that they don’t allow their minds to drift.
As photographers, new projects or ideas of approaching how to carry out a photo shoot can occur to us in a daydream. An ongoing project of mine is about capturing the shape of birds’ movements using longer exposures. That idea first came to me some 10 years ago. One afternoon when I had a post-lunch nap. I had previously been thinking of the two genres of artistic photography I really enjoy: long-exposure seascapes and wildlife. Sitting in my office chair, with my head starting to nod, it suddenly occurred to me that I could use an ND filter and take longer exposures of the seabirds here to examine their shapes.
I'm sure others have also done this, but it's something I still enjoy doing once in a while. It's especially easy now there is the Live ND filter on my OM-1, so I don't have to screw a filter in front of the lens. I've also started to add other creative techniques to the images.
Creative Practice Exercise
Next time you are trying to start a creative project, put aside some time to daydream. Keep a pen and paper to hand, and if anything comes to mind, jot it down. Daydreams can be as fleeting as those we have when we are asleep.
4. Turning Good and Bad Situations to Your Advantage
All of us have experienced loss or suffering at some point in our lives. Somehow, we find a way to grow past it, which changes us.
Suffering and loss make us re-examine our lives and think about what is important. That can be a great source of inspiration for creative thinking. Paradoxically, so can enormously happy events.
If you think of the greatest songs, poems, stories, and works of art, they are all built around emotionally charged human experiences, either good or bad. The same can be true of photography. Moments of intense feelings can motivate and inspire us to take photos. Here’s an example. I’ve recently had two major losses. One of the things that upset me was the meaningless platitudes uttered by others. “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “My thoughts and prayers are with you,” seemed crass clichés when uttered by people whom I believed couldn't give a flying fruit bat. I’ve since taken that thought and it’s become a foundation of a personal photography project I am starting.
Creative Practice Exercise
Whether you are grieving or just met the love of your life, think about how that experience has made you notice things you didn’t before. Even if it’s painful and your life is turbulent, try to let the experience inspire you to start a short photographic project of twelve pictures.
5. Playing Imaginatively
As we become adults, we often forget to play. Children do it all the time and they are far more creative than we are. Our jobs and our responsibilities are serious. We are told we are grown up. So, it’s easy to believe that we adults have lost that ability to play.
Yet we still watch movies and read fiction, and enjoy experiencing the excitement, suspense, fright, love, and a myriad of other emotions that we feel when we do that. We put ourselves in the minds of the main characters and sympathize with them.
Even as adults, imaginative play brings joy, and that, in turn, sets our creative juices flowing. Being childlike in our imagination leads us to explore and discover new ways of doing things. We question why things are the way they are and consider different approaches. We imagine ourselves walking in the shoes of other people and thinking about how they would approach a subject.
Creative Practice Exercise
Imagine you are a character from your favorite work of fiction, as you might have done when you were a child. This could be anyone from Jane Bennet to James Bond. Think about how that character would approach your next photoshoot. I’m not suggesting you dress in clothing from the turn of the nineteenth century or a tux, nor that you should do this for a commercial shoot. Next, try a very different character. Would they do it differently?
Let Me Know How You Get On
Those are just the first five traits that top creators have in common.
What do you do to increase your creativity? Have you tried any of these techniques before? Are you going to give any of them a go? Please let me know how you get on and whether you find your creativity improving.
The following article will look at five more attributes common to creatives, including the most important one of all.
Great article Ivor. I had a creative block recently and it's always great to have some new advice on pushing through that
Thank you, Greg.
Writing for Fstoppers, well we are all camera addicts happy your are with the cult camera crowd. lol. someone told me, "when you don't know you know, then you know"- Etymology trolls - Originally conceived as a race of malevolent giants, they have suffered the same fate as the Celtic Danann and by 19c. were regarded by peasants in in Denmark and Sweden as dwarfs and imps supposed to live in caves or under the ground.
Trolling in the context of internet bullies comes from the verb to troll, a form of fishing.
Yes, I often see people with a mistaken view that the term has to do with the noun "troll", meaning an ugly dwarf or giant. I do wish that everyone would be more particular in their understanding of words and their origins before they use the words.
Yes. It was originally used by experienced chat group members posting contentious comments or simple questions that other experienced members would recognize as tongue-in-cheek, whereas newbies would take the bait and respond. Hence "trolling for newbies." The wider meaning has been adopted to include a mean-spirited bully on the internet who, usually, hides behind a false name, behaving like the trolls of myth, such as the troll in the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. The homonym is generally accepted now. I prefer the earlier usage, but the English language evolves!
I was the target of a troll recently who thought they could hide behind a fake ID, but it was easy to see where they were (Adelaide, Australia). So, I reported them to the police there. Recently, a British journalist was trolled on Twitter. He used a forensic investigator to identify the troll and was awarded a six-figure sum in compensation. It's naive to think it is possible to hide internet activity from law enforcement agencies.
The psychology behind the people who do that is that they are usually those who try to take people who are more successful than them, and it is a behavior fuelled by jealousy. You'll sometimes see them in the comments here and I have yet to see one with a portfolio to write home about. They cannot accept their own failure and inadequacy and they attempt to hide their true identity out of cowardice because they know how their behavior is viewed by their peers.
You say that you don't suggest people dress up as their favourite person from fiction. Why not? By doing so you would get a different reaction from other people, which could lead to interesting and unexpected photos.
Thanks for signing up to comment. Of course, if you want to, you are more than welcome. It just isn't necessary for that exercise.
I loved this article. I liked the point of "play imaginatively". I have a practice of "following my curiosity". If I find myself thinking "I wonder what it would look like if I..." I try to always just stop whatever client checklist I'm on and follow the idea. Often, it leads to some of my most creative work and then I get hired by others based on that piece. It's a great practice to follow your imagination with curiosity. Great article as always.
Thank you, Michelle. I'm a great believer in experimenting. Sometimes it works, and often it doesn't, but there is a joy to be had from discovering different approaches. I'm glad you enjoyed the article.
I await part two to understand all.
Part 2 is published!