Hit Refresh in Your Photography and Step out of Your Comfort Zone: You'll Thank Yourself for Doing It

Hit Refresh in Your Photography and Step out of Your Comfort Zone: You'll Thank Yourself for Doing It

It’s a cliché but true nonetheless—old habits die hard. Following the same routine day in and day out because it’s what we know and are comfortable with can lead us into a rut of our own making. In a creative process like photography, repetition and routine can easily become a recipe for bland.

I love street photography and I’ve spent many happy hours walking around with a camera, capturing the street life of the cities and towns that I visit. At one point, my wife even complained that I took more pictures of strangers than I did of my own family (not true, by the way!). In street photography, there are a number of renowned photographers whose work is often held up as the epitome of the genre. Many photographers (including myself) have been inspired, for example, by the magical, candid portraiture of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vivien Maier, or the vibrant and spontaneous vignettes of everyday life captured by Garry Winogrand on the streets of New York. There are many more that I could cite, but one thing that the great majority of these celebrated street photographers had in common, is that they worked largely in black and white.

Now, it’s only natural when you’re honing your craft in any creative field, that you will want to emulate the work of the artists who have inspired you, and walking a mile or two in their shoes is a great way to grow early on in your career. Given the overwhelming prevalence of black and white work in the street photography canon, it is not surprising that it still tends to be the dominant medium in the genre. There are good reasons to work in this medium as well. Working in black and white can simplify and declutter an image, reducing it to a set of tonal essentials in which there is much less to distract the viewer from the image’s narrative. Black and white can also confer a kind of timeless and nostalgic quality to a photograph and lend it an atmosphere that it might not have as a color image.

Young girls at an amusement park - Gordon Webster

But what I discovered after a while was that it became very easy to rely upon the use of black and white to boost the impact of my own street photography. I shot a lot of black and white film, and even when I shot digital, it was almost as if black and white conversion had become an integral and automatic part of my post-processing workflow for street images. Take a decent image, convert it to black and white, pump up the contrast and clarity to make it nice and crunchy, and boom! Instant, timeless classic with oodles of atmosphere.

In time, though, I noticed that there were fewer and fewer truly compelling black and white images in my work. My street photography felt a little stale somehow, and it had definitely lost some of the excitement that it had held for me earlier on. I started to have the feeling that I might be using black and white as a kind of creative crutch.

Guitar player performing in the park - Gordon Webster

If you visit any of the popular street photography forums online, you will see that the great majority of the images posted there are, for want of a better description, some variation on the theme of crunchy black and white. As a photographer in the twentieth-century art world from which street photography emerged as a genre in its own right, it was pretty much a necessity to be working in black and white if you wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. There were other reasons why black and white predominated in this era, but for better or for worse, this bias towards the use of black and white for street photography has persisted to this day.

There were a few photographers, however, who bucked this trend.

In my previous article on color theory, I discussed Saul Leiter’s masterful use of color in his own street photography. William Eggleston and Fred Herzog were also pioneers of the use of color photography. None of these photographers achieved early, widespread recognition for their work, though, largely as a result of the unwillingness on the part of the art community to take color photography seriously as a legitimate art form. In a pre-digital era when a photographer could only become known through printed media via books or gallery exhibits, Fred Herzog’s recognition by a wider public was further hampered by the inability of the print technology at that time, to accurately reproduce the color palette of the Kodachrome film that Herzog loved and used, and which became an essential part of his signature look. More recently, photographers like Joel Meyerowitz, David Alan Harvey, and Alex Webb, among others, have continued to carry the torch for the use of color in street work. Despite the apparent ubiquity of black and white work in the genre, color street photography is very much alive and well.

Retro gas station - Gordon Webster

At some point, it had become clear to me that without really making a conscious decision to do it, I shot pretty much all of my street photography work in black and white—because everybody agrees that’s the best medium to use for street work, right?

It might sound odd to consider that you’re “shooting in black and white” when you’re working with a digital camera and have the option to choose between color and black and white in post-processing. But the decision about the final image is being made even before the shutter button is pressed. When you shoot black and white, you’re looking at the fundamental aspects of the scene—the partitioning of the frame by the visual elements, shadows and light, texture, form, and so on. Decisions about composition are being driven by these elements before the scene is ever captured.

Custom car in the July 4th parade - Gordon Webster

One of my early photography heroes was Ansel Adams. I was (and still am) blown away by his use of light and shadow, and learning and putting into practice his Zone System for managing visual tones was one of my first forays into the technical artistry of photography. But I was also struck by Adams’ discussions about visualization—the notion that the photographic process is an act of ideation that starts as soon as the photographer considers the scene they are about to capture. I recommend listening to Adams’ own description of this because he expresses it far more eloquently than I ever could, but in a nutshell, it’s the idea that the photographer is working towards a final image that is already in their head—an image that captures in tone and emotion, the story that they would like to tell with it.

Burger bar window - Gordon Webster

In my own work, I feel like I had fallen into the trap of composing and exposing my street photographs based upon some notion I had about what street photography was supposed to look like. In some sense, I was emulating the work I saw in books and online in the street photography forums, and this is not an entirely bad thing. As I said previously, you can learn a lot this way.

But at some point, you need to find your own voice.

Finding your own voice requires breaking old habits, stepping out of your comfort zone, and trying new approaches—even when it feels intimidating. As this process was unfolding in my head, I realized that I had actually given very scant consideration to color in my street photography. There was an entire dimension of photography to which I had been essentially blind for my street work. To be clear, it wasn’t as if I had no color images at all in my street portfolio, but they were definitely few and far between, and mostly the product of fortunate happenstance.

Once I had made the resolution to remedy this situation and deliberately push myself to use more color, I started buying the monographs of street photographers who had worked in color. In the work of photographers like Herzog, Leiter, and Eggleston, there was no shortage of the kind of inspiration that I needed to step outside of my monochrome comfort zone, dig myself out of my rut, and really push myself to do more of my street photography in color. Learning some color theory also led me into an exploration of some of the painters who had been masters of the use of color, and everything came full circle back to photography again when I discovered that some of the great photographers like Saul Leiter had also been painters.

Street sitar player - Gordon Webster

One of the best things about photography (or any art) is that it is a lifelong education to which there is no end. There’s always something new to learn—about the art and science of photography, and about yourself. But it’s easy to get comfortable in your art, especially when you have an online audience that’s giving you lots of praise for producing the kind of stuff that fits the general consensus about what’s “good” and garners lots of “likes”. This is why I think it’s so important never to get too comfortable with where you are in your photography—plus, it's incredibly fun and exhilarating to stretch yourself artistically!

In summary then, my one-line takeaway would be something like this:

If you want to keep growing as a photographer, always nurture an attitude of restless creativity.

Happy shooting!

Gordon Webster's picture

Gordon Webster is a professional photographer based in New England. He has worked with clients from a wide range of sectors, including retail, publishing, music, independent film production, technology, hospitality, law, energy, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, medical, veterinary, and education.

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What a great article, Gordon. "Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative", this is a quote that has been on my mother's refrigerator for as long as I can remember. I keep this in mind when my photography gets stale or complacent. And you are correct, it is easy to get comfortable with your art. I will also have to remember your final line, in addition to the one on my mom's fridge when I need to grow my creativity.

Thanks for the kind words Christopher. I also really like the quote from the author Paolo Coelho - "The reward of our work is not what we get, but what we become." At some point I'll probably end up using this in another article ;-)

Another great quote. I look forward to your next article.

I see photography from a number of people who, whilst they are good at what they do, they tend to just produce the same types of photos over and over. They may have a style that involves silhouette street photography, deliberate camera movement or some other distinctive style but once you’ve seen enough photos it really becomes rather repetitive. I would get very bored if I became good at doing one style over and over that took no effort and felt like just going through the motions. If I don’t constantly challenge myself, I get very bored. Photography is a lifelong learning experience after all.

If you're looking to rejuvenate your photography practice, I highly recommend the articles "Hit Refresh in Your Photography" and "Step out of Your Comfort Zone." Both pieces provide unique insights that challenged me to experiment with new techniques and perspectives. Breaking away from familiar habits has not only improved my technical skills but also rekindled my passion for photography. For anyone feeling stuck in a creative rut, these articles are a must-read. They inspire and equip you to explore uncharted territories in your artistic journey. Check them out and see your photography transform!