Sunday, March 13, 2016


I feel that I've written enough technical articles in the past couple months and now it's time to talk about something more important: creativity.

Photographers often discuss what makes a photo a "good photo", referring to composition, level horizons, etc.

To me, a factor that really makes a image stand out is when it has a sense of uniqueness.  A second factor is when every aspect of the photo comes together in a unified way, usually as a message or just a pure emotion.  Photos that can do both of these things tend to be special and very difficult to create.

Let's focus on the first aspect in terms of creativity.

This article shares a bit of my personal story of creativity.  It includes images I have taken over the years that I consider creative efforts, including some that I have never shared due to thinking they were "not good enough".  Thus, I'm not implying that creative efforts alone make these photos "good", but I am stating that they helped me tremendously in my personal growth.

2012 was my first year of "creative photography" via a 365 project.  I think it led to images that are not "technically superb", yet still have an enduring quality that outlast their technically superior peers I captured at that time.

The goal of this article is to inspire you to prioritize creativity and to give suggestions on how to nurture it.

Maybe this article is not limited to photography...

The Birth of Creativity

Creativity comes from the marriage of an idea that feels novel and the motivation to explore the idea.

Using bokeh to simulate a spectrum

Creativity never guarantees a remarkable result.  Perhaps the idea felt novel, but is actually common.  Perhaps motivation can not cover for the lack of skill, knowledge and luck needed for a good result.

But remarkable results are, by definition, not easy.  If they were, then everyone could easily achieve them and they would thus lose their quality of being remarkable.

Whether you are running a race, competing for a job or trying to excel at an art, the game is always the same: put in the work that unlocks your natural potential and try to overcome the inevitable series of setbacks and obstacles that come naturally with progression.

Thus creativity should not be thought of as a "shortcut" to success but as a building block toward a goal and ultimately a vision (more on that in a future article, perhaps).  Many attempts at creativity will feel like failures as they tread on unfamiliar ground. This feeling of failure can push a person toward past "safe successes" but these failures should be viewed as valuable opportunities for education and improvement.
During this shoot, I noted the "fiery effect" of the first image, then changed settings outside of my normal comfort zone to make it more pronounced.  I then tried different tones, eventually feeling that red treatment was a bit too blunt.

Success and failure are two sides of a double-edged sword.  One provides natural feelings of motivation but little in terms of learning potential.  The other does quite the opposite.  I believe you need a balance both to keep moving forward.  Success motivates, failure teaches.

This image is a "refined by experience" version of others that I have shared before.  I feel "safe" with the share and can predict the reaction but there is little opportunity in terms of personal growth.

Nurturing Creativity

Make it a Priority

To nurture creativity, you need to first give it priority.  A quick test:
  • Look at your last 25 different photos (e.g. not duplicates of the same thing)
  • How many gave you a feeling that you were pushing a personal boundary and were not sure how or if they would work out?
  • If the number is less than 5, maybe more priority is needed...
by the way: my own test of this experiment (in March, 2016) shows that I need to give creativity more priority - I'm playing it too safe right now...

Force Discomfort

"Forcing Discomfort" means creating an environment where it's hard to take the photos that are in your comfort zone - spiritual duplicates of photos you have taken many times before.  Here are some examples:
  • Do you depend on amazing lighting conditions?  Try going out in the middle of the day or during overcast conditions.
  • Are you a master of subject isolation with depth of field?  Try using only your mobile phone.
  • Do you post process every image in Photoshop or Lightroom?  Set your camera to JPEG mode and try some of the creative filters.
  • Do you always crop?  Try to go a month without ever cropping a photo.
  • Do you never crop?  Try to go a month cropping every photo to a 1:1 square or other ratio.
  • ... and so on

I very rarely shoot with a long lens and this is one of only five images I captured in 2015 using one.  Perhaps the difference is what led me to "see" the potential of framing this the image with an intent to vertically "flip it", thus creating a near-subconscious source of tension and interest.

I don't recommend changing too much though.  I think that changing too much at once can give a "fish out of water" feeling that is not productive.  Instead, I recommend forcing only one or two differences and keeping the rest in your comfort zone.  This should encourage exploration and discovery along that new path.

This image of falling Jenga blocks was a challenge to capture in that it combines a blurring ambient exposure with a motion-freezing "flash".  From an external perspective "it's been done" but I had feeling of creative motivation during the process and this pushed my knowledge forward.

Also note that the goal here is not to find an easy path to amazing images, quite the opposite is likely.  Instead the goal is to gain knowledge and spark ideas.

Apply Vision

Vision in terms of a single image is the concept of "seeing" a photo in your mind months or years before you capture it.  You set the stage in your imagination, perhaps while listening to interesting music or in a special place of reflection.

What follows is a series of "attempts", each of which captures part of, but not all of the vision.  Some lucky visions might truly be found, and these images will be special.

My advice is to do what it take to personally get your creative thinking engaged (visiting a favorite quiet place, etc), and coming up with "idealistic" ideas that can then be chased and hopefully achieved.

My "first opportunity" of a photo vision I had for about a year before finding the image.

My "second" opportunity of the same vision, taken a year later.  It's still only about 70% there.  I hope to have another opportunity in the future that gets even closer...

Flash Cards

Here is an idea that I sometimes use.  Get some flash cards and write down idea fragments - one per card.  My personal cards look something like this (one per card)

  • ND Filter
  • Flower
  • Long Exposure
  • Fill Flash
  • Macro
  • Zoom blur
  • Light Painting
  • Tree
  • Infrared
  • Dancer
  • ... and so on
I wouldn't worry about rules in making your cards - rules are the enemy of creativity after all.

Flower + Vignette + Zoom Blur
After you have enough, shuffle and draw three.  Think about various combinations of the three cards.  Any ideas?  Write them down to think more on later.  Try a few times and see how it goes!

More Thoughts?

If you have thoughts or tips on creativity you would like to share, I'd love to hear them below!


  1. Great article, Matt! I also have a whole list of words I keep in my phone that I compiled from various photography project lists - things like, high/low key, scale, shadows, decay, patterns, silhouettes, and so on - just something to spark an idea when internal creativity may not be producing anything.

    1. That's a great idea Rachael - I'm going to try it!

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