Photographers often love to throw money at problems. We think if we are not getting the photos we want, that new lens or body will do the trick. And sure, new gear is fun, but rarely does it solve the problem. Rather than spending money, try out this technique to improve your photos.
How often do you feel unsatisfied with your images and almost reflexively open up your browser and start longingly looking at new lenses or cameras? I certainly do not blame you; I do the same thing, even when I am feeling fine about my current work. No doubt, new gear is fun; I will not argue that with you. However, I think we all know that save for a few specific situations, better gear will not make for a sudden, marked improvement in our photos. Gear does not fill in gaps in technique or creativity, and after the novelty wears off, those same gaps will be there.
This article will not tell you how to fix technique. Practice and education can help with that. On the other hand, this article will help you with your creativity.
Part of the reason we search out new gear when we are not feeling inspired is because we feel on some level that it will give us new creative options. And in some cases, that might certainly be true. Surely, the things you can do with an expensive 85mm f/1.4 lens are different than what you can do with a kit lens. But perhaps paradoxically, that can actually work against you in some cases.
You have probably heard of analysis paralysis before. This is when overanalyzing a situation can bring the situation's progress to a halt. This can be brought on by a variety of causes, one of them being the paradox of choice. This essentially states that initially, as the number of available choices increases, happiness increases, but this increase does not continue on infinitely. Rather, the happiness reaches a peak, then decreases (with corresponding increasing anxiety) as the number of choices continues to increase. In other words, if we have too many choices, it becomes more and more difficult to choose between them, which in turn actually slows down or entirely halts our progress on whatever we are working on. You have likely experienced this before when staring at a blank page or wondering what or how to shoot something.
I have certainly been guilty of this. I remember the first trip I went on after I got really serious about photography. As a chronic over-packer, I lugged every last piece of gear I owned with me for fear of missing some once-in-a-lifetime shot while thousands of miles from home. I then laid it all out on the floor every morning and stared at it for literally a half-hour, trying to decide which five or six lenses to stuff in my bag and lug all over Paris that day. And of course, walking 15 miles all around the city every day with 50 lbs of gear on my back in the middle of July was not particularly pleasant, nor was stopping every time I thought I might have a shot to decide which lens to use and to take it out of my backpack, put it on my camera, put the old lens in the bag, etc. It was a ludicrous way to go about things.
How Do You Fix It?
Simple! Give yourself restrictions. It seems strange, but imposing restrictions on yourself can actually foster creativity. It's a two-fold effect. First, it removes the issue of decision paralysis. Second, it forces you to solve the problems imposed by the restriction, focusing you on a specific task. Psychological research suggests that these restrictions actually enhance creativity over having unlimited possibilities.
And here is the best part: the restrictions often do not have to be profound (don't give yourself another case of analysis paralysis trying to pick one!) Rather, they can be arbitrary, even silly. For example, you can decide to shoot everything at a narrow aperture one day. No bokehlicious backgrounds and relying on a wide aperture to take care of a messy composition! In turn, this will force you to think about and search out photos that work well at f/8 or to work on compositions with careful layering given the large depth of field. Of course, if you are working on a project for a client, make sure that your self-imposed restrictions do not interfere with their creative needs or force you to stray too far from the aesthetic you were likely hired for. You can even choose different restrictions to try out every day or week to work on your creativity.
For example, when I first got my drone, I was surprised by just how concentrated I was shooting with it and how good the shots were relative to the rest of my portfolio. At first, I chalked it up to just having a new perspective, but the more I paid attention to how I was shooting and the images I was creating, I realized it was the restrictions imposed by the drone. First of all, shooting with a drone imposes a major restriction on time, as you only get about 20 minutes of time to fly, position, choose settings and compositions, and take shots before you have to land again. This forced me to choose opportunities quickly and decisively. Furthermore, unless you are using a high-end drone (which I was not), you can't change lenses or even zoom (though DJI does make a zooming consumer model now). This meant I was stuck with one focal length, a relatively small sensor, and not much time to shoot whenever I took it out. All of these restrictions forced me into a hyper-focused state, where instead of worrying about all the possible images, I actively looked for the shots I knew I could take. I started imposing similar restrictions on my work with normal cameras, and my work there improved too.
Having a blank slate full of options can actually be paralyzing, whereas imposing restrictions forces you to solve the difficulties created by them, thereby focusing your attention into a specific creative pathway. Try this exercise with your own work this weekend!