At some point we will all get stuck. We will all feel like we’re not developing as creatives. These ruts can drive us down or they can be a wake-up call to do something different. How we handle them determines how we function as creatives afterwards. In this article, we’ll discuss the power of doing something different.
Much like a computer, people are only able to output using the data they have acquired. We cannot draw on inputs we do not have. We need to be stimulated in order to create stimulation for others. Many people I speak to credit long walks, learning an instrument, or a discussion with a friend as inspiration for their photographic works. Things outside of photography create links in our brains between disparate ideas that will allow us to become creative. But what about within photography itself.
Over the past year, I’ve been feeling quite discouraged at times. I have felt like my work is going nowhere and that I should probably try something new. I’ve even considered choosing another career path. At times, I just haven’t been able to make progress that satisfies my inner desire to create work I’m proud of.
I’m primarily a portrait photographer. I love photographing people and particularly the relationships people have. I also enjoy street photography, but I’m constantly searching for human stories within the bounds of that larger genre. For the longest time, photography without a human presence has held very little interest for me.
I recently got a call from a good friend of mine saying he was taking a road trip through South Korea with landscape photographer Bruce Percy and asking if I’d like to join them for a few days. I’ve never been much of a landscape photographer. When I’m out in nature, I’m typically just enjoying it for what it is and not trying to organize it into compositions. But, I wanted to meet Percy and spend a couple of days with friends. So, I agreed and hit the east coast of Korea together to see what would happen.
We arrived late in the town we’d be staying in and sat down for Korea’s favorite combination of fried chicken and beer. As we each had a couple of drinks and the conversation started turning towards photographic style, it was great to hear Percy talking about his drive, his use of film, and why he processes his images the way he does. Being a completely different way of working to my own, I was fascinated by his process and the things that drive him.
Hearing about patience, finding a composition, sticking with it, and eventually processing in a way that pleases you and fits your body of work were all familiar concepts. However, for me, I’d never applied this to landscape photography. So, the sunrise we got to work together would be a great experience for me.
We arrived at a random piece of coastline we had selected from a satellite map the evening before at about an hour before sunrise. Using our torches, we were able to get a feel for the textures of the rocks and find some preliminary compositions before the dawn illuminated the landscape.
As the sun came up, I dedicated myself to making one image from the set of jagged rocks in front of me. My lack of experience in landscape photography made this a frustrating experience for me. I couldn’t seem to find a composition that pleased me. I kept in mind the words I had heard the night before about vision and being able to process the image in a way that suited my tastes, words about simplicity, and waiting for the light.
I waited for the light to be just right. I loved the way it illuminated the gap between these two rocks, the way the sky reflected in my composition, and the way the waves came between the rocks as the tide came in. I was working on a long exposure because that’s what I envisioned when I saw the scene. However, it wasn’t until I embraced the fact that this composition was never going to be my shot that I was able to create something that worked for me.
I stopped trying to create a minimal shot that represented the natural landscape and my desire to use a long exposure to render it even more simply. I started focusing instead on the life I saw within the frame. The seagulls had arrived with the morning fisherman. They became the point of interest that would shape my frame and a few subsequent frames to come. This was my own spin on what I had been trying to achieve. Now I was starting to feel alive.
While I was making those frames, I noticed a lone rock to my right that had now been illuminated by the rising sun. This seemed like a much better candidate for the long exposure I had originally been trying to achieve. I set up my tripod again and within a couple of cuts, I had the image I’d been pushing so hard to create. It wouldn’t win any awards, but it was a photograph I could be proud of from the morning.
At this point, it felt great to start making images in a style so completely removed from my own that I moved about the shore and got into a flow (no pun intended). I made four or five different compositions before I stumbled upon what would be my favorite image of the morning.
As the tide was coming in, it had started to flow between some of the rock formations on the shore and create some interesting patterns. I found a composition I liked using the Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Zero D and started making some images. I experimented with several different exposure times, but it wasn’t until I combined the beautiful flare this lens produces wide open with an ND1000 for a long exposure that I got to the image I would finally use as my piece from the day.
I tell this story not to wow you with the images I came away with. I’m sure landscape photographers are throwing up in their mouths a little just looking at them. They’re not the point of the story, though. This state of flow I achieved while exploring a genre so different from my own would serve to get my creative juices flowing again for some time after we returned from this trip. I found myself exploring new options at my family sessions and contacting past editorial clients just to get back in touch and see if we could work together.
That drive came from taking a trip to photograph rocks, learn from my betters, and explore new ways of making photographs. This change of inputs sparked new inspiration for me. Since then, I’ve made a point of creating photographs so different from my normal work that I can inspire myself with the tools I use day to day. It’s been a great experience that has rejuvenated my love for my job and encouraged me to keep trying to achieve new things. What do you do to stay creative photographically? Do you look to other arts? Unrelated activities? Other people’s work? What is it that keeps you going?