Are you a creative photographer? If so, there are pitfalls that we can avoid. Some are of our own making, while more are set by others to deliberately ensnare us.
One of the big hurdles we have in photography as an art is that we are creating interpretations of the ordinary. Although there are plenty of counterarguments to the adage that the camera never lies, to a certain extent it is true. Unlike other artists who can invent whatever they create, photography, with a few exceptions, is mostly observational art and not interpretative. Consequently, in making our images compelling, we must show the ordinary world in an extraordinary way.
That extraordinariness is made even more difficult by the prolific nature of photography. An unimaginable 1.4 trillion photos were shot last year. Admittedly, the vast majority of those were not created as art – although whether pulp photography is art is a topic for debate – the sheer number of people who are taking their cameras and attempting to create something worth looking at is still staggering. Consequently, originality is difficult to achieve.
Much of the photography we see is derivative of one other photographer’s work. There are plenty of clones of Ansel Adams, for example, and the one thing they all have in common is that their work is not as good as Adams’. Of course, there is nothing wrong at all with emulating the style of your favorite photographer; it’s a great way to learn. However, we can be trapped by that. A creative photographer will be inspired by their heroes, and then escape that style, taking their creativity at least one step further.
This doesn’t, of course, apply to just photography, but every other creative art form, from painting to writing. For example, when we at Fstoppers write an article, it is not unknown for other writers online to take them and rewrite the information as their work. Sometimes, it is obvious that they have taken the article as they have only partially reworded each paragraph. Of course, the copy is never quite up to the same standard as the original. It happens in the painting too. I wonder how many paintings by Bob Ross clones hang on living room walls, all slightly worse than the real thing.
Likewise, with each new genre of music is born a multitude of copycat artists who are not quite Mozart, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, or David Bowie. I picked those musical geniuses for a particular reason. All of them took other musical styles that preceded them and then made them better. How did they do that? Not by directly copying what went before, but by mixing two or more styles to create something new and exciting. That’s how creativity works. With very few exceptions, it is a progression resulting from combining existing elements. Understanding that can help us climb out of the traps that hold us back.
All art evolves from what came before. Yet, in photography, it seems as if it is acceptable for many photographers to be trapped with following their favorite photographer and not evolving from that, not challenging the norms. Consequently, a lot of photographs are boringly similar and never quite as good as those they copy.
Creativity isn’t easy. It certainly isn’t a process that comes naturally to many, but it is a skill that can be learned and, with dedication and practice, be improved on.
If we try to escape the conventions of photography, we are likely to be met with resistance. Photos that break the bounds are unlikely to win the most likes on Instagram. But in fact, bowing to popular opinion is unlikely to make you a better photographer.
So, how can we approach photography differently? We can start by learning from the other arts that have always challenged convention and encouraged experimentation.
Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy [physics], of which pictures are but the experiments?
Just like the great 19th Century landscape painter, John Constable, said that of painting, the earliest photographers thought of science as a major part of photographic art too. Photographs were experiments. That is something many have lost and should bring back into photography. So, besides shooting the same photos we always take, based upon the work of photographers that came before us, we should push the boundaries and discover what we and our cameras are capable of.
Experimentation is important for developing photography beyond the constraints of the ordinary. All great photographers have experimented, whether it was Henri Cartier-Bresson with his ongoing pursuit of the golden section and the decisive moment, Ansel Adams with his investigations into tone, or David Bailey pushing the boundaries of fashion photography.
So, what do I mean by experimentation? It’s taking aspects of photography in directions you haven’t tried before. For example, treat street photography like a wildlife shoot; incorporate your fashion shoot into a landscape shot; if you are an architectural photographer, introduce a dynamic, living element into the images; try a camera from a different system than the one you use: if you shoot full frame, try a Micro Four Thirds camera, or vice versa; instead of using top quality glass, pick up an adaptor and a low-quality vintage lens.
It doesn’t stop with the camera. Doing some research to discover some different creative processing and editing techniques and then combining them in new and inventive ways can also take your creative photography to another level.
Accept that the experiments are less likely to bring you online accolades in the form of throwaway likes. Most people appreciate only what is familiar to them. The ordinary simplicity of pulp photography requires little effort or brainpower to process. What is more, you may even face direct criticism from those who are limited in their ability to see beyond the mundane. For example, I built the website and shot the images for a holiday rental cottage, and the client wanted to emphasize that the property was pet-friendly. Consequently, I included images of a dog in some shots and posted one of them online. I later faced criticism from another photographer for having included a dog in a real estate photo.
Challenging the conventions of photography requires bravery. But those who disparage creative work are saying more about themselves and their limited capacity to understand it than your skills. Moreover, we should avoid falling into the trap of negativity and always encourage others in their work, even if their results are not to our taste.
Do you experiment with photography? Do you push the boundaries? It would be great to hear your thoughts about the challenges you face with creativity and originality, and maybe see some of your photos in the comments too.