Santa Cruz Photography Workshop

Want to improve your creativity behind the camera? Set some rigid boundaries.

From time to time we all get a little tired of what we’re producing with our cameras.  It’s altogether too easy to find something we love to shoot -be it crashing ocean waves, ice-covered mountain peaks, or tranquil reflections- and then shoot it to death.  When this happens our photography can become formulaic and uninspired, and that’s the pits!  A little creativity can breathe new life into our shots and reinvigorate the most jaded shooter, but where does this creativity come from?  Oddly enough, we can coax it to appear all on its own, simply by setting some rigid rules for our photography.  Seem counter-intuitive?  Perhaps it is, but I’ll explain below how some inflexible structure can help you break into new creative realms and improve your photography.

You might think that in order to encourage creativity we’d want to cast off all limits and open ourselves up to as many choices and ideas as possible.  The problem with doing this is is that when presented with unlimited choices, most people become paralyzed and unable to choose at all.  A far better way to see creativity emerge is to give yourself as few options as you can.  The human mind is a natural problem solver and when confronted with a problem with few ways of solving it, the mind goes into creative overdrive.  The fewer options available, the more creative the mind will get while searching for a solution.

Apply this idea to photography and you have a sure-fire method of pumping up your creative, image-making juices.  Here are just a few things you can try to get out of a photo-funk and take your photography to the next level.

#1 If you mainly shoot horizontal compositions, shoot only verticals

This simple change can really shake things up.  When you make this switch, don’t be surprised if vertical comps feel restrictive and too tight.  With time, this tightness will teach you to make creative use of the space and to refine and simplify your compositions.

#2 Stick to a single exposure

For at least 3 years, I shot all my landscape images as bracketed exposures which I later blended in Photoshop.  This enabled me to choose the best sky from one shot, and the best foreground from another shot.  However, when I started using grad ND filters to capture the entire dynamic range in one shot in the field, I noticed a big improvement in my images.  Why?  Because focusing on capturing everything in a single exposure forced me to start paying much more attention to what I wanted to see in my photos.  And when you’re paying more attention, you see more, and this leads to new ideas. Trying to capture this scene at Natural Bridges in a single shot made me really think about what I wanted in my final image: streaky wave action in the foreground, and a curling wave in the mid ground.

#3 Change focal lengths

In landscape photography, I shoot almost exclusively with an ultra-wide-angle lens because I love the sense of depth and proportion it gives me.  But recently I’ve been trying to use a 50 mm prime lens for landscape work.  The longer focal length prevents me from thinking along my normal, formulaic, “foreground, leading line, midground, background” line and helps me become more intimate with the scene and focus on a smaller part of what attracts me to it, like with the waves and clouds in this shot from Big Sur.

#4 Set a time limit, and don’t move!

Landscape photographers (myself included) are often prone to “headless chicken” shooting where they shoot a composition, then move to another composition, then another, then another, then another.  Instead of bouncing around like a camera-wielding pinball, find a spot and stay there for at least 15 minutes, if not more.  Being rooted to one spot for a long time will make you try different perspectives, different angles, and subtly different comps that you would have missed by simply taking a shot and moving immediately on.  You can take this creative challenge to the next level by finding a single subject (like a rock) and shooting it as many different ways as possible.  I shot this series of rocks over a 10 minute period using a number of different compositions.  Another fun exercise along these lines is called “20 steps”: take 20 steps in any direction then stop and find something interesting to shoot.  You can only move on once you’ve taken a shot from that spot.  Then go another 20 steps and find another interesting shot.  Keep doing this and you’ll be surprised by the things you come up with.

These are just a few ideas to help get you started on discovering new creative paths for your photography.  Feel free to post any other great ideas you have in the comment section below.  But no matter what you try, the key to success is making your rules inviolate.  By forcing yourself to stick within whatever boundaries you’ve set, you will cause your creative side to engage at a higher level, and you will come away with new and exciting images.  Take care, and happy shooting!

5 replies
  1. Neil Charles
    Neil Charles says:

    Cool website Jim; I can’t believe that’s all that is left of the rock at Natural Bridges. I guess time marches on and things change, even rocks!

  2. Lukas W
    Lukas W says:

    Nice article Josh. My favorite is the focal length suggestion. I live at the wide end of my lens and only go to the other end when necessary. As for other ways to break the mold, I’d suggest changing the light you typically shoot in. Moonlight, sunset, overcast, city lights, mid day are all options that work well in different situations. Get high, get low is another one I like. The most interesting POV usually isn’t the one at eye level.

    Love that Big Sur shot 🙂

    • Josh
      Josh says:

      Great suggestions, Lukas. The POV tip is one I neglected to include in the article, but is one of my favorites as well. Cheers!

  3. Matt
    Matt says:

    Glad to see that I’m not the only one who…suffers from stagnation in creativity. I shoot primarily waterfalls, mostly because here in the pacific northwest they are so abundant and easily accessible. I need to find other scenes to shoot, which are also nearby in the Willamette Valley of Oregon…Good time Lukas, I also shoot primarily at the wide end of my camera…


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