How to Become a More Creative Photographer
As an art and a craft, photography involves a lot of creativity as well as trained skill. However, creativity itself is something which can be improved with practice. Unfortunately, creativity is such a vague concept that few people treat it like a skill, and by consequence they don’t progress as quickly as they could. Therefore, here are some concrete, actionable suggestions for how to become a more creative photographer.
One lens challenge
The one lens challenge is pretty simple – you limit yourself to a single lens for some period of time. Usually I’d suggest at least a week, as it takes time to really benefit from this activity. If you’re a professional this might be impossible of course – imagine going to a wedding and only having a 20mm lens! In that case, simply limit yourself when you can, with personal work rather than during professional jobs.
The lens you choose doesn’t matter – it can be a humble 50mm prime, or an advanced 70-200mm f2.8. The point is that you have to make due with its limitations, while better learning its strengths and how to get the best photos possible from that lens. I would recommend not choosing a lens like a 28-300 or 24-105 though, as a versatile standard zoom like that won’t challenge you as much, nor will it offer the same opportunities that a more specialized lens might.
In addition to becoming very familiar with the lens’s strengths and weaknesses, you’ll start to see the world as the lens sees the world. You’ll begin to recognize scenes that would suit the lens, as well as scenes that wouldn’t. Of course, if a scene doesn’t look like it suits the lens, the next step is figuring out how to make the lens suit the scene. Do you change your position to get a better angle or a different framing? Do you choose to focus on one element of the scene that does suit the lens? Do you have to wait for a different time of day, or add something to the scene like a person or some lights? By pushing yourself to make the most of such scenes your photography skills and general creativity will improve drastically.
Shoot new genres
We shoot certain genres because they’re our favourites, but it’s easy to stagnate when you become good at photographing one genre. You may think you know it all, but there’s a good chance that a technique from another genre could be applied to your field and result in a very interesting image.
It doesn’t even have to be a related genre. For example, a bird photographer might be an absolute expert at shooting birds. But if they shot portraits for a while, they’d learn about different poses, lighting scenarios, and post-processing skills that might well be applicable to birds as well. Or a fashion photographer might shoot jewelry for a while, and then take what they’ve learned and create new lighting set-ups for their fashion photography that really highlight sparkles and yield nice gradient reflections.
But even outside of those benefits, the overall effect on your creativity is valuable. By pushing yourself to photograph new subjects and handle new situations you’ll teach your brain to be more adaptable and better able to recognize good opportunities for photography.
Use cheap gear
In the spirit of limiting yourself, using cheap gear will force you to consider techniques and photo opportunities that you might have ignored before. Perhaps you even go so far as to use a film camera and manual focus – working with film will give you a different outlook on photography as well.
Every medium has its weaknesses, but modern cameras and lenses solve many of the issues that we previously had to solve ourselves. Sensors with high dynamic range are an absolute blessing, but by using an older camera with limited DR you might be forced to use off-camera lighting to balance out a scene, or you might be on the lookout for subjects that are already balanced. When you take those skills back to your modern equipment, it will still give you an edge. Likewise, a camera with mediocre or non-existent autofocus capabilities may hone your abilities of predicting the moment and pre-focusing on where the subject will be. Again, that kind of skill will allow you to take better images even with the best cameras available.
The extra mental processing that it takes to identify scenes that will turn out well with low-end gear, and the work-arounds that are necessary to making the most out of that gear will undoubtedly strengthen your creative abilities and allow you to take great images with any camera.
Use a prime lens
Using a prime lens with a fixed focal length is yet another way of limiting yourself. With a zoom lens it can be tempting to just stand in one place and zoom the lens to get the desired composition – but this will give you a different perspective than if you moved yourself to get the right composition.
Sometimes this is a good thing – you might have found the perspective you want, and you just need a different focal length to frame the scene properly. But you can’t really know what the best perspective is unless you have lots of experience with finding the right perspective. And this is where a prime lens comes it, as it forces you to move to get the right framing, and thus you see the change of perspective (good or bad). Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from moving around with a zoom lens too, but by using a prime you have no choice so there’s no risk of you being lazy and just zooming.
Additionally, prime lenses simplify photography a great deal, and thus are great tools for learning. With a zoom lens you might have dozens of focal lengths available, and it can be hard to really get a feel for the look that each focal length provides. With a prime lens there’s only one focal length, so you’ll quickly be able to get a feel for what situations that focal length is best for and the ways in which you can find creative compositions with it. You’ll also start to recognize scenes that would suit that focal length, allowing you to capture better photos than if you were just looking for any sort of composition.
Videography is certainly similar to photography in that the technology is about the same and both mediums rely on capturing light from a scene and then showing those images to us, but videos have some added depth to them that can help to make you a more creative photographer.
Firstly, videos have movement. This is in fact one of the keys to video, a stationary camera is most likely a boring camera. A video is dynamic, and this allows for variety – different angles of a subject, different subjects, different lighting – it’s easily able to hold a viewer’s attention for a long time. With a photo, you don’t have that kind of freedom – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be equally engaging. If you gain some experience with video, you’ll start to think about how you can impart a sense of motion to your photos, and there are several ways to do this. For example, you can take a panning shot or capture some motion blur. Or you could even create compositions that are still, but framed so that the viewer’s eye is lead through the frame and over the details you want them to see.
Videos also have a story, at least of some sort. They provide information, and can even provoke emotions. Telling a story in a single photo is a great challenge, but if you’re familiar with making videos you’ll be able to think of ways to compress a video into a single image, or possibly a series of several images. Photojournalists are experts at photo stories, where every photo is a story by itself, but together it’s an even more advanced story. This will help make your work more engaging and meaningful, and it’s also a valuable skill if you ever decide to do video work in addition to photography.
Participate in contests/challenges
Thanks to the internet there’s no shortage of competitions and weekly or monthly photography challenges available to everyone. Plus there are of course local competitions and clubs with photo challenges if you’re lucky. These are all a tremendous opportunity to push your creativity to the limit and really advance as a photographer.
The main benefit of contests and challenges is that there’s a set theme. This forces you to think about styles and subjects that you may not be experienced with, and it allows you to diversify your skillset considerably. While it doesn’t matter if you win or not, the competitive nature may also be beneficial to some people, motivating them to work harder and be even more creative than they ordinarily would be.
Critique the work of others
Critiquing other people’s photos seems like an odd suggestion – shouldn’t it be receiving critiques that improves your photography? Despite the counter-intuitiveness of this suggestion, it’s actually a great tool for becoming a more creative photographer.
In order to critique a photo, you need to analyze it in depth. This analysis will provide you with some very useful insights about what works and what doesn’t in a photo, especially if it’s a style or genre of photography that you don’t often work in.
Critiquing your own photos and getting critiques from others can also have value, but it’s impossible to be objective about your own work. By critiquing photos from other people you’re free of any biases, and can really focus on the photography. I would recommend writing all critiques down, even if you don’t post them. The act of expressing your thoughts in words will allow you to better internalize the concepts you’re discussing, as well as help you iterate on those ideas and come up with other critiques.
Be aware of reflections and shadows
Photography is all about light, and being able to recognize and work with light is a crucial element of creativity. A photographer who can see opportunities to use shadows and reflections in a creative manner will be leagues ahead of photographers who only think about the subject and the objects they’re photographing.
Try to take photos where a shadow or reflection plays a major part in the image. You don’t have to take great photos, just get the practice in and focus on recognizing opportunities to use shadows and reflections in a photo. Eventually you’ll develop an eye for interesting lighting situations and you’ll be able to work them into your photos in a way that enhances your subject.
For some examples, Jerry Ghionis’s portfolio
shows many examples where he uses reflections and shadows to add interest to his portraits – and sometimes he even fabricates the shadows with off-camera flash. That’s the next step once you’re adept at working with the existing conditions.
Emulate the work of others
They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but it’s also the best way to figure out what you don’t know. You might look at a photo and think it’s not too complicated, but try to replicate that photo yourself and you’ll likely run into some interesting challenges that push you to find creative solutions.
Not only does imitating the work of others allow you to learn new techniques and diversify your experience, it solidifies your personal style. By intentionally emulating someone else you recognize their style of work and understand the differences compared to yours. This means that you won’t risk accidentally sliding into shooting like them, since you’ve consciously realized exactly how they differ from you and thus if you take elements from their style you’ll be intentional about it. The more photographers you can emulate, the more secure you’ll be in your own style, while still gaining a broad range of skills that can be applied to your work.
Edit other people’s photos
Similar to emulating people’s work, editing their photos gives you a deeper understanding of their stylistic choices, while also giving you better editing skills and a better ability to recognize what you like in an image.
Your edits can be as simple as applying a curves adjustment layer to change the colour balance of a scene, or as complex as a detailed retouching with cloning, warping, and even compositing. I’d recommend starting with fast edits, and only doing more complex edits later on when you’re working with photos that are so good that you can’t think of easy ways to improve them.
Ultimately, this all comes together to make you more creative as you have a larger range of styles to draw upon and a better grasp of the tools available to you. Plus it gives you experience with dealing with subjects that you haven’t worked with before, and if you have a similar image to edit in the future you’ll be capable of drawing on that experience.
Learn another art
Photography is a great medium, but it does limit you and it does lead you into certain creative patterns and viewpoints. And this is true of any art form – each medium has its own workflow that affects how you approach the art and limits your creativity to that workflow.
By experimenting with different art forms you can start to understand the limitations that photography places on you and then start to think about how you can work around them. For example, with painting you can paint absolutely any subject you’d like, whether it’s a location far away or a completely abstract scene. Perhaps this encourages you to do the same in photography, with advanced editing or some interesting use of props. While this may not be possible in all cases, it opens doors that previously may have been invisible.
Additionally, you’ll learn the strengths that photography has. 3D rendering might let you create any subject, but it takes far longer to render a scene than it does to snap a photo. By appreciating the advantages that photography has you’ll start to recognize subjects that are inherently well suited to photography, and possibly use that information to take photos that can’t be rivalled by any other art form.
Practice with Photoshop
Photoshop, or similar image editing software packages, remove many of the constraints from photography. However, if you only have a basic understanding of image editing your creativity will be limited since you can only consider what’s possible with those basic edits. Which isn’t to say that you necessarily need to heavily edit images – doing minimal or no editing can be a valuable challenge as well, and forcing yourself to capture the best shot possible in camera will improve your photography skills greatly.
But having the option to perform more advanced edits is a useful skill that opens up a wide range of image possibilities. Images that you might have thought impossible or simply too expensive can be within reach given sufficient editing skill, and you gain a degree of artistic freedom that photography alone can’t match.
Keep in mind that photo editing is a difficult skill to master, and it takes time. Your first really advanced editing jobs will probably look pretty bad, but that’s okay. Don’t worry too much about perfectionism, practicing is more important that polishing. You just want to get a feel for what’s possible and an idea of how it’s done, and then you can learn to polish a final image later on when you’ve taken an image worth editing like that.
Plan more advanced shoots
Planning is a very underrated activity in photography. In other arts, a piece might take days, weeks, or even years to complete. Yet a photo can be taken in a fraction of a second, and most edits take five minutes at most. It’s little wonder that photos have relatively little worth compared to other artistic works.
However, that doesn’t mean that photography is inherently low quality – spending time on an image can result in something truly spectacular. Time spent thinking about a concept and a message to convey, time spent creating rough drafts, time spent waiting for the right moment or setting up the right scene, and time spent working on several variants isn’t time wasted. It feels weird to spent hours or more on a single image when most of the time we’re taking dozens of images each hour, but that thoughtfulness often pays off.
Photography’s just like any other art form, your effort shows. With some subjects this may be impractical, but for artistic shots where you want to create something beautiful and really say something then it’s necessary to put the time in to stand out. All the time you spent working on a project is time that your brain’s evaluating and re-evaluating each aspect of it, and this will lead to better creativity.
Becoming a more creative photographer isn’t just about talent, you can train yourself to recognize strong photographic opportunities and bring out the best in the photos you take. Even someone who sees themselves as uncreative can eventually create powerful images after enough practice and training, the key is putting in focused work towards improving your vision. This article is by no means a complete guide to the methods that can be used for this training, but hopefully it’s given you an idea of some techniques to work on. If you put in the time I’m certain you’ll see the results, no matter where you’re starting from.
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Lauchlan Toal is the creator of Unlock Creative Photography, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org