This question came across my screen recently asking, “Are we allowed to be creative for the sake of being creative?” I loved the answer.
In America, no. Somehow, our artwork and creative pursuits is only seen as virtuous if we are able to earn money from it, “make a living from it”, or preferably make a killing from it.
For example, if you tell other people that you’re a photographer, probably the first question they will ask you is if you earn money from it, or if you make a living from it. Why do people ask you this? Because once again, to earn money from some thing is a legitimizing force. To do something, without concern of money is seen as pointless.ERIC KIM, Collective Creative Thriving
I have fought this notion for as long as I can remember, especially as it pertains to photography. Mentally overcoming these stereotypes has a lot to do with just getting out and shooting more and ignoring the noise that constantly surrounds us.
Rules and Absolutes Crush Creativity
From the very first college classes I ever took on photography the critique section was super helpful, but also put a false notion firmly in my head that there were rules and absolutes in photography. The rule of thirds, rules on sharpness, colors, subjects, and composition especially. These “rules” were actually super helpful at the time. I had no idea what I was doing, and shooting mostly nature, nature photographers follow the rules.
The rules do make a difference. And if you are just starting out, it’s a good idea to understand the concepts and why they exist. The problem comes in when these “suggestions,” as they should be, turn into absolutes or rules to say what is “correct” and what isn’t, how an image “should” look and how it shouldn’t. I’m all about absolutes when it comes to theological issues, but when it comes to art or photography, the absolutes can crush any possible aspect of creativity. I had always struggled with being creative on my own, but a rule I can follow. I just wasn’t aware that one can crush (or suppress) the other.
I have a lot of technically correct photographs that ended up looking great, but feel more or less boring to me. The rose is technically correct. It uses thirds, circles, two colors, has a clear point of focus, clear subject, is exposed properly, is sharp, and also could have been taken by pretty much anyone. The one below it, is not technically correct or accurate at all, but I really love the shot. To me, the haze, the people, and mystery of the image means a lot more to me than the rose. The rose is somewhat forgettable, the purple haze photo is unique. The purple haze invites the viewer to create a story of their own, a narrative around what is happening. Because the viewer doesn’t know exactly what’s going on, they can creatively make up their own narrative.
I don’t know any photographer that hasn’t gone through doubts about their work. I’ve never known an overconfident photographer. Are these photos any good at all? Am I doing it “correctly?” Is anyone going to like this image?
A few years ago, after years, maybe decades of asking myself questions like this I came to the obvious conclusion that it doesn’t matter. The only person who has to be happy with the image is the one who created the image. If I like it, that should be good enough for me. This sounds easy enough, but in an Instagram-perfect world, it’s far from easy.
Every photographer, or any type of artist, needs helpful critique to improve. Critique is an important step at improving, but it shouldn’t crush creativity, freedom in expression, and the joy of just making something you like, something unique.
Get Out, Shoot More, Worry Less
I’m always trying to get out and shoot more and worry less about how perfect it looks. Instagram has made photography “too perfect” among other things. The Instagram feedback loop is often toxic for the creative mind and not just on the photography side. The Instagram-worldview offers the unrealistic expectation that “what I’m looking at is reality.”
Photography isn’t about reality at all (maybe pure documentation photography is, but who seeks out those images as something desirable to look at?). As a photographer I’m not trying to create reality, I’m trying to create unique art in my own style. And again, the only person that has to like the image you’ve created is yourself. If you don’t, you have a way to improve.
Don’t Shoot what Everyone Else is Shooting
I’ve taken thousands and thousands of images at Auburn football games. I’m proud of the portfolio of sports images I’ve created over the years. But I’ve taken the standard shots over and over, the obvious shots. It wasn’t until I looked away from what everyone else was shooting that I found what I loved photographically about GameDay on The Plains, the fans. Every fan is unique, every person interesting. They all tell a story of some kind or another.
Shoot the Normal Routine of Daily Life
I love the routines of daily life. These routines are always with you, and a lot of people just don’t think about photography in these times because, well, you are always there. Something that I’ve always tried to do is shoot everything, everywhere. This is not really as easy as it sounds. It irritates people you are with, it slows things down, normal tasks take longer to check off the list, but it is one of the fastest ways to grow and improve your photography. Just shoot more and more photos, everywhere and anywhere.
The rest of these shots were taken at my local WinDixie when I went to pick up my normal groceries. These I like. You may not, but that’s ok.
My New Rules of Photography
To me, one of the hardest things to do in photography is to learn to love your own work. That could take a really long time, but it is something I was never taught in college about photography. There should be other rules of photography such as…
- Have fun – number one rule, have fun. Photography should be fun, you should love the camera you use, forget the specs and megapixels, shoot what is enjoyable to you
- Be creative – be uncomfortably creative with your shots
- Learn to love your work – listen to critique, but use it as a guide not an absolute
- Share your work with others – lower any barriers to accessing your work
- Don’t take your work too seriously – see rule number one
- Money corrupts these rules – it’s a necessary thing in life, and a really difficult one to handle in photography. It’s really hard to do the ideas above when it’s a paid shoot. That’s ok, we do what we need to do, after that, just go back to the rules above.
This newsletter has a great look at some of these issues, it’s a great place to start. What are your own rules for photography?