Loads of photographers enjoy a little light entertainment during the often monotonous process of editing photos. When you’ve got to bang out edits on a 10-hour wedding or work your way through vacation photos, it’s nice to have something playing in the background. However, recent studies suggest that whether you listen to music or podcasts or binge-watch your favorite shows, you might be hindering your creativity.
Marathon editing sessions on a deadline are the worst. Creativity can’t be forced, but until recently, we’ve believed that it could be encouraged through music. I’ve spent countless hours over the years jamming out to 90s hip-hop (I recommend No Diggity radio on Pandora) or unabashedly belting show tunes while editing photos. Music helps pass the time. It keeps you company. Sometimes, if I’m in need of a little inspiration, I’ll enhance the editing session with epic movie soundtracks. Other times, I just want to laugh, and I’ll catch up on episodes of my favorite podcast, The Dollop. Growing up, I often did my homework with Friends playing in the background, so the idea of editing pictures while binge-watching some truly terrible show on The CW doesn’t seem so outrageous — at least no more outrageous than a 30-something watching TV intended for teenagers.
A study published in The Journal of Cognitive Psychology in February of this year tested multiple groups’ abilities to perform creatively in response to word puzzles. One group performed in a quiet setting while other groups were given music with unfamiliar lyrics, music with familiar lyrics, or instrumental music. On the whole, the participants with music performed poorly compared to those performing the test in a quiet setting. So, how does this relate to photographers? Word puzzles are much more involved and require a lot more conscious thought than photo editing, right?
According to Mark Beeman of Northwestern University’s Creative Brain Lab, the key is recognizing that background entertainment isn’t just staying in the background. He recently told Time: “For breakthrough moments of creativity, positive mood is generally helpful.” So, if listening to funny podcasts or channeling your inner Ethel Merman puts you in a positive mood, then maybe your editing entertainment isn’t so bad, but it all depends on what stage of creativity you’re currently experiencing.
Beeman explains that there are two stages of creative thinking. The first stage relates to examining a problem or situation and either coming up with a solution or hitting a roadblock. If you’re looking at photos in Lightroom and you know exactly how you want your finished image to look, then you already have the solution. Since you have the solution, you’re probably ok with some entertainment in the background, but if you stall out on a photo and can’t pick a preset or just don’t know how you want the photo to look, then you’ve hit a roadblock and your background entertainment is going to pose a problem. The more you push yourself to focus on the task at hand, the more pressure you assign to it. That pressure creates anxiety, further blocking your creativity.
Beeman says the next logical step in dealing with a roadblock is to let the block recede from your active consciousness and let your subconscious take over. In other words, don’t push it. Mentally step away and you reduce the pressure. You invite creativity to return. The trouble with music and other distractions, according to Beeman, is that you never fully let your brain relax and withdraw enough for problem-solving to occur. You’re keeping all of your resources engaged by listening or watching.
So, if you’re moving right along and banging out your edits like a champ, then you’re in good shape to listen to music or watch TV to your heart’s content, but when the editing block that we’ve all experienced hits you, consider unplugging from the stimuli and letting your subconscious take over for a while. Soon, the block will pass, and you'll be right back in the groove.