In the two previous parts of this four-part series of essays we looked at why projects are important and how mini projects can help us facilitate the process of completing a project.
We are now at part three and it is time to look at how we can make our projects unique. Creating a unique project starts with creating unique images. To do so we have to learn how to generate creative ideas.
Creativity is at the core of all successful projects and it is time to study how it works. To do so, we are going to look at several techniques that will help us improve our creativity.
Creativity is a process. It does not just ‘happen’, it has to be given an opportunity to visit us, a space to flourish and grow, and time to stay and take root. We all have an inner creativity that wants to be released but too often this creativity remains bottled inside us. To make use of it we need to learn how to discover our creativity, put it to good use and let it out. Feeling ‘stuck’ is what we experience when our creativity is unable to come out. To solve this problem we have to uncork it and let it out of the bottle in which it has been kept so far. Only then will it be able to express itself.
Creativity depends on the context in which you work and on the constraints within which you operate. While following your artistic intuition is important, learning how to control these two variables is critical.
Many new photographers find that setting constraints limit their creativity. They believe that defining specific parameters for a project will reduce their creative potential. This is a myth. The fact is that constraints are freeing rather than limiting. We are far more creative when we set specific parameters than when we are left to do whatever we please.
Many photographers work in technical professions. For this reason comparing art and science can be enlightening. For example, when we look at creativity and engineering what we find out is that engineers are most creative when they have to work within specific constraints. Engineers are not being creatively challenged when they are asked to complete a project any way they want, with an unlimited budget, with no constraints and with no specific purpose. Instead, you extract the creativity of an engineer by saying ‘here are the parameters you must work with’. Now the creativity is unleashed. Now that the engineers start to have fun solving the problem because the playing field – the limits they have to work with – is defined for them and they have to find ways to be creative within the constraints they must operate in.
These constraints in reality are liberating. The better we know the ‘box’ we have to work in, the more creative we are. Knowing the constraints we must work with reduces the number of variables we have to deal with. We must work with a finite instead of an infinite number of possibilities. It is this limitation that unleashes our creativity.
The white canvas is the fear of every artist. For painters an effective solution is to see the empty space as an opportunity and not as a penalty. Another solution is to see the white space as being full in your mind and then approach the work as printing your mind onto the canvas.
As photographers we do not have to face this because our ‘canvas’ is already filled when we take a photo or open it on our computer. However, what to do with the photograph and how we interpret the subject to make it unique can be just as daunting. In photography the ‘white space’ is not knowing what to do with the image.
Several variables affect creativity, whether in the arts or other fields of endeavour. Here are the most important ones:
• Creativity is affected by the context that surrounds it.
• Creativity is affected by the technology available to you.
• Creativity is affected by the tools that are available to you.
• Creativity is affected by the financial aspects of your situation: how you make a living. Whether you are paid for your creative endeavours or whether you need to make a living some other way affects your creativity.
Some of the factors that affect creativity are unconscious. We learn to think about creativity within specific parameters without knowing what these parameters are. The result is a set of unconscious beliefs that need to be examined in order to free our creativity and use it to its full potential.
These unconscious beliefs are a challenge that stands between us and creativity. Solving this challenge starts with finding out what these unconscious beliefs are. Below is a list of the most important ones. As you read through this list, try to think about which ones are affecting your creative impulses:
• Do you worry about what other people think of your work?
• Do you have a thick skin? Creativity depends on not being negatively affected by what people
• Do you explore the work of other artists that you find inspiring?
• Do you give yourself mini projects?
• Do you study with instructors who are supportive of your efforts and who know how to teach?
• Are you kind to yourself throughout the process of creating art?
• Do you give yourself the permission to create art that is yours and not what you think others want to see?
• Do you make time for creativity?
• Do you make space for creativity? Did you assign a creative space in your home or office where creativity is welcome and has room to bloom?
• Do you disregard the negative voices around you?
• Do you have fun while creating art? Fun is the root of creativity.
Negative criticism hurts creativity and can go as far as generating depression. I honestly do not understand negative criticism. I am shocked at people who make only negative statements and who refuse to understand the perspective of the artist. Doing so means bypassing one of goals of art, which is to create a dialog between artist and audience.
Personally, I do not understand criticism for criticism’s sake. I do not see the motivation behind it. Maybe it is because I do not think that way. If I do not like something, I do not talk badly about it; I just move on thinking that it is not for me and that it will please someone else.
It is important to be open to exchanging ideas and opinions. In fact, we should welcome it. We should also welcome constructive criticism; meaning criticism that points to ways the work can be improved or done differently. Listening to such criticism does not mean that you will do what the critic suggests. It only means that you keep an open mind and are willing to listen to the different responses that your work generates.
In creativity there are no bad decisions. You never know where you are going to end up and you never know who you are going to inspire or how your work is going to affect your audience. For these reasons you do not want to evaluate your decisions in regard to whether they are good or bad. What you want to do is create and forget about everything else. Do not have guilt or remorse about what you are doing, do not second guess yourself and do not think about what critics might say. Just create. When you create, decisions only need to be evaluated in terms of creativity. The more creative your ideas are, the better.
Creative work is completed work. This means that you have to finish the work in order to fully express your creativity. You have to bring what you are doing to completion.
As in many of my essays, here is a set of Skill Enhancement Exercises to develop and refine the concepts I present in this essay:
Instead of trying to be as good and as ‘perfect’ as someone else, throw all care to the wind and photograph without feeling bad about potential mistakes. Instead, embrace your mistakes as creative opportunities.
Use a single lens
Use only one lens, either by taking just one lens with you or by using a camera with a fixed lens. Using a single lens is a technique that will foster creativity and reinforce, or initiate, creativity. It is based on one of the fundamental art concepts: less is more.
Set specific constraints. For example, limit how much time you take to create a photograph or work on a project. Define strict boundaries for the area you are photographing or specific characteristics for the subject you want to photograph.
Set a focus for your project
Setting a specific focus for your project is another way of setting constraints. Doing so gives boundaries to your project by defining what you are going to photograph. Below are some focus ideas. For each focus idea I provide three examples, each of them starting with the same letter. These examples are intentionally creative.
- A specific subject (trees, teapots, turnips)
- A specific place (Cottonwood Canyon, Carefree, Corner of Lincoln and Central)
- An idea or concept (dreams, daily life, driving home)
- A diary (today in my life, three rainy weeks, through the tunnel)
- A narrative (journey home, June of 2012, jackalope hunt)
- A portrait (best friend, Bob, Bartender)
Being creative is based on a variety of things and describing these things was one of my goals in this essay. In concluding this essay I want to mention the four most important ones.
• Being creative means operating in a constraining environment because constraints are freeing, not limiting. Whether we are artists or engineers we are most creative when we have to work within specific parameters.
• Being creative also means having the courage to be different, seeking difference instead of acceptance, and wanting to break new ground rather than trying to be as good as someone else.
• Being creative means desiring to do something unique rather than demonstrate the ability of doing work which as good as the masters.
• Creativity education is important in order to acquire the ability to think outside of the box regardless of the field you work in, be it artistic, scientific or other.
Creating art is the most effective way of learning creativity because art lends itself to exploration without any real penalty other than negative criticism. For this reason creativity is best taught through art programs that encourage artistic exploration.
Unfortunately, because arts programs are being cut, creativity instruction is diminishing or disappearing. If you did not get art instruction in school, an effective solution is to study art either by yourself or under the guidance of a mentor or instructor.
The Fine Art Photography Summit
Taught by Alain Briot and Jeff Schewe, and now in its 14th year, the 2016 Fine Art Photography Summit takes place in Page, Arizona home of Antelope Canyon, Slot Canyons, the Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell and many more world-class locations. The summit includes fieldwork, classroom instruction, printing, print reviews and one-on-one instruction and is followed by a three-day field workshop to Navajoland. You can read the detailed description of this unique event at this link: