In the daily push and shove of running a photographic business, it is easy to forget the basics of creativity and composition. Thus, it’s worth reminding ourselves of these principles from time to time, especially when feeling creatively blocked.
If you’re new to photography and have focused primarily on learning the technical basics of proper lighting and camera operation, then I would encourage you to spend some time learning about these principles of design and composition in more detail.
When your work is evaluated in a portfolio review, these are some of the underlying principles that will affect how your images are evaluated. Technical proficiency matters of course, but so does your knowledge of how to apply the timeless principles of good art and how people view images. There are many great books aimed at photographers, graphic designers and artists on composition. Same principles apply to all three. Start with what you can find in your local library and go from there.
Photographers work with a visual medium, and thus a visual language, and so use the same creative elements as painters, sculptors, and designers. So let's use this post to remind ourselves of some of the core aspects of our art. The core design elements and principles to work with are:
- Negative Space
- Repetition reinforces
- Rhythm makes you look for predicted occurrence
- Contrast or variety, in size or color, for example
- The Focal Point
- Controlling eye path
Some of these elements are more self-explanatory than others. For example, repetition of a certain element reinforces its visual power. Rhythm makes you look for the next predicted occurrence. Contrast or variety in size or color makes certain elements in the composition stand out.
Here are some other points to keep in mind:
Point placement: A single dominant object or element should be placed carefully. Multiple points compete and may create shapes with particular meaning (e.g, three points in an upside-down triangle can be dynamically unstable, and visually more interesting than a conventional triangle with a more stable, horizontal base).
Abstraction: Abstraction means eliminating everything from the image that is not necessary to your intent. By removing the clutter, you draw the viewers’ attention more closely to what you want to highlight. Removing color or blurring backgrounds are examples of some methods of abstraction.
Rule of thirds: When you frame the shot, visually divide the scene into thirds, vertically and horizontally. Imagine two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Align your points of main interest on one of these horizontal or vertical lines or where the lines would intersect. This creates a more interesting composition than simply centering the subject.
Opportunity: In any given location there are an infinite number of photos you could take. The light will vary. You can change positions, angles, or lenses. Or, you can move objects around to create different juxtapositions, etc. Since any given location has an infinite number of photo opportunities, why can’t you see them? The reality is that you will only see the opportunities that mesh with your photographic thinking at that particular time. This is why you can return to a familiar location much later and see completely new opportunities.
So you must try to expand your thinking about photography. You can do this by always trying to think of some of the possibilities listed below:
- Still life
- Low light
This list is far from complete. The more you expand your thinking about photography, the more possibilities you will consider.
Think About The End Use: If you know how you intend to use a given image it can affect how you shoot. For example:
Must the image be cropped in camera or can you crop later?
Will the shot be the whole image or will you be combining this shot with others?
What emotion do you want to convey?
What aspects do you want to show?
What do you definitely not want to show?
Overcoming Blocks: When you face the inevitable creative block, it can help to remind yourself of the concepts and ideas listed above. Often the best way to overcome a block is simply to try something new—or something that you were taught long ago but haven’t thought about lately.
So keep this list handy and when you feel creatively blocked, pick an element at random and try using it in your work. Simply trying something different will eventually get the creative juices flowing again.
As I write this, I am in the middle of the month-long Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BFB). It got me thinking about all the various ways in which we can benefit from participating in events such as this.
There is one annual photo event I regularly attend, the Photo Marketing Association (PMA) trade show here in Australia, as well as the Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BFB) every second year.
The PMA Conference and Exposition: PMA in Australia (as I believe it is in the US and with similar shows in other countries) is actually a composite event. While the core activity is to enable photo-industry suppliers to meet with photo retailers and end customers, many other events run concurrently. While PMA runs workshops relevant to its members, two professional photography associations run meetings and print awards, and the Photo Imaging Educators Association runs their own sessions. Plus, various organizations take the opportunity to exhibit photography.
No matter which group is conducting the sessions, the training events at PMA not only provide great information but are also timed to enable you to network with other participants. Each of PMA’s affiliate organizations holds cocktail parties and get-togethers.
The best part of these networking opportunities is that you never know what will come out of meeting another photographer. I’ve discovered great ideas about new directions for my work, great workflow suggestions, selling tips, and much more.
Examining exhibitions of photography can provide similar benefits. You can learn something from looking at any photography, even if you simply learn what you don’t want to try.
The Ballarat International Foto Biennale: BIFB is a month-long festival of photography, with a core exhibition program, a fringe festival of associated photography exhibitions, and a workshop program. Workshops run at two locations and exhibitions are spread over the city of Ballarat (a regional city of about 80,000 people) and nearby towns, including major concentrations in Daylesford and Trentham. Various talks are also given.
Like the PMA event, the BIFB provides lots of stimulation for the creative juices. The workshops not only provide training but also networking and the opportunity to learn from other photographers. The exhibition program at BFB is extensive and if you can’t learn something from any group of exhibitions you are not trying.
Similar events to BFB are conducted all over the world. I attended Arles in France once and found it to be a similar, but more intense, experience. There are so many others events, including the New York Photo Festival.
At any such photo festival there will be many exhibitions from which to choose. Some will appeal to you, some will not, and others you will find by happy accident.
Plan Some, But Not All, Your Time: One good way to maximize the return on the time and money invested in attending a conference is to look through the program in advance and choose which workshops you must attend and the exhibits you must see.
At some festivals, you can buy a package that allows you attend a certain number of workshops. In this case, choose the ones you must but if you are allowed some extras, then I’d suggest almost choosing at random. Since you want to experience the happy accident (and you can’t predict in advance just what you will get out of it), almost any workshop will do if you don’t have to pay extra for it.
In the case of PMA, allocate enough time to see the trade show. Then in the time you have left, try wandering into exhibits or seminars that weren’t included on your “must-do” list.
Often, you will discover that exhibitions or seminars that don’t sound particularly worthwhile from the conference program will actually offer you something of value if you go.
At most festivals, it’s impossible to see every event, but if you leave some free time in your schedule, you’ll at least have the opportunity to discover something you weren’t expecting. And it could be something the changes your creative life. Believe me, it happens.
If you derive some or all of your income from photography, then attending some of these events can be tax deductible. Since they are usually held in interesting locations, your spouse may enjoy going along, too.
It is hard to overstate just how valuable these events can be to your career and development as a photographer. So make the time and travel if you have to.
Sometimes the greatest value of attending a festival comes from something small. It could be one part of an image in one exhibition that haunts you and pushes you in a new direction once you return home. Or, a discussion with a photographer might open up a whole new possibility. You never know quite just what will happen. But I do know that I am always stimulated and something unexpected always happens whenever I attend one of these photography events. Give it a go.
A lot of rapid progress can come in your photography when you integrate it with the other things you do in life.
Photography can seem to be a very distinct activity in our lives. We shoot on social occasions, vacation, and on deliberate photo trips (such as my long trips into the country to shoot landscapes) or for work as a portrait or event photographer. But it is rare to find someone who only has one thing as their entire life focus or as their only ability.
Many of us have hobbies in other areas than photography. We may be into model trains, wargaming, historical recreation, quilting, sewing, gardening, cooking, cars, spiritual practices, social work, model making or whatever.
Any other activity we are involved in, either for hobby or work, can not only provide subject matter for our photography but may also bring talents that can be applied in our photography. Let’s have a look at some people doing just this.
David Leventhal has moved from shooting toy soldiers, cowboy and Indian figurines, religious statues and sports models to adult toys. Using shallow depth of field and a large-format Polaroid camera, he creates dioramas that explore American culture. The result is a strong body of work that has achieved great success.
David Lambert mixes a passion for the landscape and environmental concerns with an ability to create model landscapes in a series of works with a strong conceptual basis and great visuals.
Edward Weston’s Pepper image from 1930 should inspire any photographer with an interest in cooking or vegetable gardening to start shooting some of their vegetables before, while, or after they are in the pot.
Anyone who has burned a lot of incense will have seen the amazing patterns the smoke makes in the air. Why not try photographing this, as Mehmet Ozgur did.
I hope you are starting to get the idea. No matter what your other interests, professional or hobby, you can apply them to photography.
If you are a passionate computer game player, set up the camera pointing at the screen, set a long exposure, and capture the movement as dynamic blurs.
A skateboarder could tape on a suitable camera to their board, set to take a picture every five seconds and shoot while in action. Similarly an amateur rally driver or off-roader could affix a camera securely to the car and capture action shots.
Someone with great people-handling skills, such as a psychologist or sales person, could persuade people to pose in unusual ways or in challenging situations.
A lab technician or scientist could take great images of equipment setups in the lab.
A mother could choose to document suburban life, do abstract shots in the supermarket, or serve as an event photographer at their kid’s activities.
A student could create great images of other students or abstracts of study materials or even books in the library.
It is when you draw diverse things together that you have the opportunity to make some unique creative choices. While lots of people shoot landscapes, how many shoot model landscapes seriously? There are many who shoot flowers, how many shoot flowers with bugs from their bug collection? While many shoot insect macros, how many do so using the endoscopy equipment that doctors use?
When you combine very different areas you limit your competition, making it more likely for you to get noticed. You also end up seeing images in situations that no one else does, thus sharing your unique vision with the world.
So try combining your interests. Your life will be easier when you can share time on several passions and your work will have a unique quality.
While this may sound very New Agey, sometimes it is the negative experiences that we learn the most from. This is as true in photography and business as it is in other aspects of life.
At one level or another, most of us resist change. For example, unless there is a damn good reason, we keep taking the same types of photos or printing on the same paper and at the same size. Or, we keep operating our business the way we always have.
Two weeks ago, my main website was hacked into and vandalized. I spotted it very quickly and then spent three frustrating days trying to restore the site and close up the holes. During this time I kept finding more that the hackers had done. So after three days I decided I had no choice but to pull the site down.
Then the question was what to do? I had been considering moving the site to a new, underlying server technology but I hadn’t done so because of the issues involved in porting the site. Thus, I began to see the hacking event in a more positive light. The incident had motivated me to not only completely revamp the security aspects of my site, but also to move it to new technology that enabled me to add features that I had been wanting to add for quite some time. So now my site is back and better than ever.
Likewise, I have discovered that my photography improves if I set conditions that require me to use new tools. When I received a new lens, the Lensbaby Composer, I wanted to give it an extensive workout. So I decided to make it the only lens I would use during the next month of shooting. That decision really pushed me to be more creative.
Because the Lensbaby Composer has a single focal length, I had to overcome my comfort with my zoom lenses. My photography was enhanced as I discovered how to work with the tilting mechanism on the Lensbaby Composer. And, having the choice of a heavily distorting plastic lens, a less distorting single-element glass lens, a sharp double-element glass lens and a combined pinhole/zone plate ‘lens’ caused me to really explore how I felt about sharpness in my images.
In an ideal world, we would find ways to constantly stimulate the creative response without the need to be pushed by unpleasant situations such as the website hacking.
For example, going to a new location can be like a breath of fresh air to our creativity. Because it is a different place, we are forced to look at everything anew, and so we usually take a huge burst of images.One way to stimulate your creativity is to actually schedule time to do something different. Given the nature of contemporary life and current economic concerns, work and mundane life tasks will often grow to fill all available time.
So you may have to block out some time in your weekly schedule for a creative project, and actually do it come hell or high water. One way to make sure you follow through with creative pursuits is to make plans with other photographers to try new things or shoot somewhere new. Then, you won’t want to let them down if other mundane life tasks crop up. During the time blocked out for creativity, push yourself in various ways. Try a new technique, shoot a different subject, or go to a different location. Or, go to a highly familiar location but try to shoot from a different perspective, such as how a tourist might see it.
Forcing yourself to make the most of a negative situation, a new piece of equipment, or unfamiliar location can unlock the creative juices that may have become stagnant due to familiarity and repetition.
Do most of your images start with pre-visualization? Or experimentation? Do you only work only one way or the other? Or do you swing both ways, photographically speaking?
Pre-visualization is big in the arts. In your mind, you see beforehand what you want to show, capture or create and then you set out to do so. Pre-visualization can occur in a momentary flash of inspiration or slowly develop over a long period of time. (The image on the right was created through previsualization.)
Experimentation is a sophisticated term for play. Photographically, it means simply doing for the sake of doing, and then seeing what the results are later. Play can be deeply focused, totally absorbing your attention for awhile. Or, play can be sporadic and interrupted. Whatever form experimentation takes, it’s still play.
Pre-visualization is a result-oriented approach. You envision the end result and then set out to make your vision real.
Experimentation is process oriented. You are absorbed in the process and care little for the end result because the result is essentially a byproduct of the process. (The image shown below was created through experimentation.)
Despite what some photographers might tell you, there is no right or wrong way. It depends partly on your personality and how you think. Some personality types are best suited to only one way of working and thinking. Others will be able to choose or change how they work depending on their moods or circumstances.
Personally, I think it is good if you can work both ways. So if you have a strong tendency to only pre-visualize or only to experiment, try to develop the other way too. The value comes from the fact that the two different ways of working are not really that far apart. Pre-visualization can be regarded as experimentation ‘in the head.’ When you experiment (play), you try different things, examine the results, and choose what worked best for you. In pre-visualization all this still happens, but it happens in your mind before you go near the camera, computer or darkroom.
Here are some tips to get you started:
Experimentation: Let go of any expectations about future results. Allow yourself to become totally absorbed in the moment. Shoot with different settings, lenses, and angles just for the sake of the trying it, not for what you hope to get. This in-the-moment thinking can be difficult because results-oriented thinking has become so ingrained in us as business people. So, expect to keep pulling yourself back from considering future results and quieting that internal evaluative voice.
Pre-visualization: Develop the final image in your head before you even pick up your camera. This process may be so quick that you are not conscious of all the stages that occur. But there are still stages. It usually starts with a brainstorming period during which you generate a number of ideas. During the evaluative stage that follows you consider the results of brainstorming stage, editing and eliminating some ideas. A development process of fine-tuning can follow the idea-evaluation stage. In the end, you have a pretty clear picture in your mind of the image your want to create. The issue then becomes a matter of using your photography and image-editing skills to translate the image in your head into an image or print.
Give both methods of working a go and you will find that there is a time and place for both in your photography. Both can be extremely productive and creative and either can be the key to getting yourself to that next level of creative output.