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Ways to Reach Creativity

There's a technical side to photography, and there's also a creative side. The technical details can be mastered with time, but just what even is "creativity?"

To most aspiring photographers, creativity is an almost mystical state that is only achieved on occasion or that they strive one day to achieve. The goal is to be creative, to be "in the zone," so to speak. This way of looking at creativity is what gives rise to notions of "having been born with it" and "having a knack for this sort of thing" but offer little help for the rest of us not so blessed. Spend any time talking to successful, "creative" photographers though, and they'll all tell you it can be learned, somehow.

Numerous rules have been proposed over the years as ways to approach being creative, as if to say, "if you do this, that and the other thing," you can shoot a creative image. And since you shot it, you get to brag about your creativity. But this sort of "rules" end up saying little about what creativity actually is. Somehow, it just doesn't seem very satisfying to live with creativity being boiled down to a process of following rules. That seems to me like the very opposite of being creative.

Etymologically, "creativity" obviously refers to the ability to create. But if the thing being created were the photograph itself, then everyone would qualify as "creative" each time they press the shutter release. Click, click, create, create. Look at me, creating images, aren't I creative? Clearly though, a "creative" image is not just any image. There's obviously more to it than that.

A bit of rummaging around for a better definition of creativity on Google points to an ability to create meaningful new ideas, methods or interpretations. If everybody else sees the same thing in predictably the same way, it's hard to be creative.

There's a whole class of techniques including panning while the shutter is open, multiple exposure, soft focus, and intentional over and underexposure. These fall under the "creative methods" part of our working definition. They tend to create images that can't entirely be predicted based on how they were shot. Sometimes the work and produce a rendition that seems to impart a feeling or meaning beyond the apparent subject. Other times, they yield curiosities that may still be interesting, but can so easily be considered successes.

Some photographers I know can create amazing images using such methodological approaches to creativity. But in my experience, creativity has to do with seeing what is already there, but in a new way. The rest is merely technical details and pressing the shutter release. There really aren't any hard and fast boundaries separating these two approaches of course. Is a long exposure of a waterfall the result of a method of shooting, or of seeing in a new way? In this example, the answer is clearly both. But if we focus on creative seeing, the question becomes, seeing what, and in what way should it be seen?

The world we live in is filled with stuff to see. To a significant degree, what we choose to focus on out of all that depends on how we approach the situation. The world presents itself to us based on what we expect of it. Someone not interested in nature can go o Mt. Rainier National Park and view the experience as dirty and only minimally of interest. Others can go there and see the grandeur of nature in all its beauty. This principal holds true in every day circumstances too. A grocery store looks very different when you're a hungry shopper than if you're an employee of the store stocking the shelves for eight hours a day.

Every time you look at the world around you, you create your viewpoint on it. But it's not enough to create something, you need to create something new. A way of looking at something beyond the ordinary way of viewing it. In other words, if everyone creates more or less the same image of a scene, at best only the first such image might qualify as "creative." Standing in the footsteps of Ansel Adams and attempting to duplicate his iconic images of Yosemite may be a lot of fun, but its generally not considered very creative.

Rules for creativity may be a reasonable jumping off point in that they can get you looking at things beyond the obvious. More of a guideline ultimately than a hard and fast rule, the rule of thirds is perhaps the most popular of all composition "rules" taught to photographers looking to be more creative. If you see the world as a tic-tac-toe grid with things of potential interest lined up with those grid lines and their intersections, you're following the rule of thirds. But more to the point, you're not looking at your subject merely as in-focus wildflowers, mountain streams, hillsides and boulders. If you compose your image to create a leading line, guiding a viewer into the scene, or if you compose it as a grouping of geometric shapes, you're looking at the scene as being built from lines and shapes, not just as things and objects. But these are all just possible recipes for taking you out of your ordinary way of seeing things. Once you get the concept, the rules become merely guidelines.

Forget what something actually is. It doesn't matter if you see the trees as people or the people as trees. They're not really, of course, but they can be seen as sharing qualities such as uprightness, strength a d community. It's all in the interest of showing your subject in a new way. Try squinting at your subject. Look at it upside down. Whatever. If something strikes your fancy, explore it, and see what you can do with it.

In other words, be creative.

Date posted: May 13, 2018


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