As a photographer, have you ever found yourself not being able to turn on the creative juices when you need to? Do you sometimes feel stifled and not able to come up with new ideas? Call it a slump or a rut; call it creator’s block; call it the photographer’s yips even, but the fact is that sometimes, even as creative people, we can find it hard to be creative.
I personally don’t think I’m a highly creative person when it comes to just coming up with ideas without any kind of catalyst. I have to seed ideas and build on them. I am constantly amazed at people like Dan Newcomb, who’s won many of our previous photography assignments, because he visualizes such amazing images in his head, before he even starts to work on the execution. Granted, he often evolves and develops the idea as he goes along, but still, I’m always impressed with his ability to come up an idea from scratch.
I’m more of a sink or swim type, in that I have to jump into the situation, before my creative juices start flowing. Recently though, even having put myself in a position where I would usually make some nice photographs, I kind of came up against a brick wall in my creativity, and it took a little bit of extra effort to break down the wall. Today I thought I’d share that experience with you, in the hope that you might glean some ideas on how to break out of a creative rut yourself, if you ever find yourself in one.
Flowerscape Photography Assignment
I set the Photography Assignment theme for May 2010 as Flowerscapes. Flowerscape is a word that I believe I coined a while back to describe flower photos where there are lots of flowers in the shot, but not necessarily a macro photograph or a portrait of a flower etc. It’s more like a segment of landscape heavily covered with flowers. I chose this theme for the May assignment because the northern hemisphere is coming into a season where flowers are pretty abundant, and the southern hemisphere would hopefully still have some autumnal blooms available before they dive into their winter. The second reason was because I wanted to push the envelope a little for participants of the assignment, but I never dreamt that it would end up pushing my envelope too.
I first decided to head over to the Jindai Botanical Park and Gardens, about an hour from my Tokyo apartment, on the 8th of May, 2010. I was actually not expecting to find anything that would make a good Flowerscape image here, but my wife had not been out into a park for a while, and I figured it would be a good way to keep my photography gears greased. Although I never feel as though I’m losing my touch, I do start to feel distanced from photography if I’m not doing do it regularly. Since returning from the February workshops, which is a veritable feast of photography, I’ve been shooting roughly once every other week, which isn’t as regularly as I like it to be, and to really keep me on top of my game.
You Have to Continuously Improve
It was a pleasant day, nice and warm, and I shot some nice images, but I felt as though I came away with nothing that improved on my previous work, so felt a little disappointed, as that hasn’t happened for a while. As I write this, two weeks after this first outing, I still haven’t gone through my images to make a final selection to upload to my Web site, so you can tell I’m not overly excited about the results.
The following week, I decided to head out to Shouwa Memorial Park, where I know they have fields of Corn Poppies in bloom at this time of year. I was going to shoot for my own image to enter for the Flowerscapes assignment, but I’d have gone anyway of course, as I love shooting this sort of image.
Usually when I can make time to get out, just the act of composing my shots and releasing the shutter makes me happy. When I got to the location on this occasion though, I was surprised to feel a little deflated, and non-creative. I figured that it was maybe residue from the somewhat uncreative park visit the week before, or maybe I was just really tired from a hard week. I have to admit though, that I don’t always feel like a fountain of creativity as I approach a location. Although I’m always happy to be photographing, sometimes, I can stand in front of the subject and initially not really be able to see any shots, until I raise the camera to my eye, it then all starts to flow.
Feeling Disengaged & Uncreative?
On this day though, I was doing it, but I didn’t feel totally engaged. Firstly, there was something that I hadn’t planned on. In with the beautiful red, pink and white poppies, there were a significant number of dead flower heads. It seemed like pretty much every segment of flowers that I lined up for a shot had a dead-head or two, right where I didn’t need them. I usually shoot my Flowerscapes across the scene with a long lens, to accentuate the shallow depth-of-field, and so reaching in and removing the dead-heads is usually not an option. I’m fine with dealing with situations, and believe that my flexibility and ability to think my way out of a scrape is one of my strengths, but on this day, it really just wasn’t coming together.
I stuck with it, and came away with a few nice shots that I like, but little that improves on images I’ve already captured in the past. I started to feel a little disheartened. Standing there on the side of a hill, I was looking out across a mass of beautiful Corn Poppies, and for the first time ever, I recall feeling as though maybe I’d exhausted my Flowerscapes theme. This was actually a devastating feeling for me, as I love shooting them, but it was real. It almost felt as though a pet had died or something.
Flowerscapes are not as easy as they might seem. I often find that I only have to move the camera a centimeter or so in any direction, and the bokeh just doesn’t work, something that I don’t like creeps into the edges of the frame. Because of this, the dead-heads caused a lot of problems, because there’s often only one angle from which the optimum Flowerscape can be shot. Once framed up, I spent time waiting, for example, until the wind blew a foreground poppy into a position where it covered up the offending dead flower head. Frustrated, I even left the odd dead-head in, kidding myself that they might add to the image in some way, but this never works. I almost always throw the image out in the end.
When got home, I was disappointed as I started looking through my images. It’s been a while since this has happened, but apart from a couple of OK shots, I really didn’t have a lot to show for my day out. I was expecting to come back with a few classics, that would make my 2010 top 10, or close to it, but this had been my second week in a row now that I had not knocked it out of the ball park, and I really started to feel as though I was in a creative rut.
The Importance of Shooting Regularly
I started to think about what I could do to get rid of the yips, and I recalled a conversation with David Lee, an excellent photographer and friend of mine that many of you will know from the MBP community. David did a photo-a-day project in 2009, and one day when we were out shooting together, he’d mentioned how much more creative and in-tune with his photography he felt from doing the project.
I recalled that when I am not shooting as often as I’d like, I sometimes walk away from a scene or subject without shooting something that should have been so obvious. I might overlook a good angle, say for example if I lie down on the floor or walk around the back of something. Usually I realize what I could have done as I walk away, and am able to go back and shoot the additional images, but I still kick myself for not thinking of the extra things that I should do automatically. It stops being second nature, until I am shooting regularly again. I remember feeling envious of Dave, being so in tune with his photography towards the end of 2009, and his images proved this.
With everything that I’m into, there’s no way I could do a photo-a-day project like David, but I kept coming back to the thought that to maintain my creativity, I need to continue to create, even if I’m not making top ten images every week.
I heard on the weather forecast last Thursday that there was a possibility of morning mist in Tokyo on the morning of Friday the 21st. I’d had a tiring week, and had to go to the office on Friday too, but I’ve been haunted by images of the city enshrouded in mist, that I saw on the TV recently. There have been a number of very warm days following very cold rainy days, which are perfect conditions for thick morning mist, and although I love natural subjects, I really want to photograph the city with the skyscrapers jutting out of the mist. It looks simply amazing.
Determined to try to photograph more, even if it’s not the natural subjects I love, I packed a camera bag, and left it at the foot of the bed, just in case. My plan was to leave early, if I woke up early. Not being one for sitting around doing nothing once I get an idea in my head, I slept for a total of three hours. By 3:30AM my eyes were wide open, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I tried for an hour, but it was useless, so I got up and headed out by 5AM, getting on the first train to the office. It was obvious by the time I got closer to work that there was going to be no mist, but I was determined that I was just going to shoot something anyway.
I walked down to the Emperor’s Palace grounds, and photographed some buildings in the early morning light on the way. When I got into the Palace grounds, I shot a few more images, and had a nice chat with a policeman guarding a bridge over the moat that the public aren’t allowed to cross. He even brought some historical photos out from his police box to show me, and I felt happy, on this warm early summer morning, and a little sad that this is such a far cry from the stories I hear of photographers being unduly detained by police in the UK and US in recent years.
Was I making any great photographs? Not by any stretch of the imagination. I got a postcard image (below) of part of the castle in the grounds of the Palace, but it was more important for me at this point to just be doing photography. It felt great!
Having had just three hours sleep though, I was worn out by early afternoon, like I usually am when I leave home before dawn or drive through the night for a sunrise shoot, but I was happy, because I’d been making images.
“The Moon” Video – Opportunity Seized
Just before 9PM on the same day, my wife reminded me that we had to take the garbage out, and I reluctantly gathered enough energy to go down and sling a few bags of rubbish into the designated cages that keep the crows from ransacking it all. Then I looked up, and saw one of the crispest clearest moons than I’ve seen in a month or two, and I recalled that I have wanted to video the moon for a while, and wanted a half moon, as it was on this night. A half moon accentuates the craters near the center, because the angle of the sun is much more acute in comparison to a full moon.
Much to the amazement of my wife, bearing my current state of fatigue in mind, I grabbed my 600mm lens and a couple of extenders, along with the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV camera, and went out onto our balcony to video the moon. I was out there for probably about 40 minutes or so, and gradually added the 1.4X extender, then the 2.0X extender, then I stacked the both, checking with each addition that I could still get sharp enough video, and I ended up shooting a video where the moon starts out of frame in the top left, and then traverses the frame leaving from the bottom right. I added the music “Moonlight Sonata” from Beethoven, and some titles and credits and released the video here if you want to take a look. It’s actually surprisingly good for such a simple concept, though I say it myself. I have no doubt though that despite my fatigue, I was being creative, because I’d started to create more than usual, and it was starting to snowball.
I’d been racking my brains trying to figure out where else I could go on Saturday to shoot Flowerscapes at this time of year, when I realized where I had to go. I was still mindful of my disappointment from the previous weekend, and I needed to go back to the Shouwa Memorial Park and face my temporary demons as it were. The poppies would still be there a week after my first visit, but I had to see if I could make something of another visit, and a now better, more creative frame of mind. I was starting to feel as though I was now on a mission.
The roads were clear and I arrived in an hour flat. It usually takes me about 90 minutes to get out here with traffic, so I started to feel as though I really was on a roll, until that is, I got my first glimpse of the poppies. I don’t know if it was vandalism or if it was the high winds and rain we’d had in the week, but the first field was a mess. The poppies had been grouped together, as if they’d almost been tied up that way by humans. Some were laid down flat, as if trampled on by a bunch of rowdy teenagers that might have snuck in during the night.
Feeling a little deflated, I recalled another field that I’d seen from the top of the hill that I concentrated on the previous week. I left my camera in the bag, and walked around the track to the base of the other field. I purposely didn’t walk up through the poppies on the first hill, as I would have almost certainly reached for my camera and started to waste time trying to salvage something of the situation. I needed to stay focused. Like I said, I was on a mission!
The Scene Was Set
As I rounded the trees that prevented me from seeing the second slope as I walked to it, I was presented by an almost pristine field of Corn Poppies. There were dead-heads, but not as many as the other hill on the previous week. Trying not to get too excited, I made my way around to the furthest point from which I could still see the poppies, so that I’d have seen everything the fields had to offer, and then I reached for my gear. I’m not going to go into detail on the actual shoot, but I had an amazing afternoon. My creativity was flowing like wine, as I spent about three and a half hours composing various Flowerscape images, as well as a little macro work, all based around this one field of Corn Poppies (right).
Don’t Just Wait for Your Creative Muse
I’m not one for sitting around, waiting for creativity to strike. I go to great lengths for my photography. But having had this burst of creativity following a minor slump recently, this general theory really took shape for me.
My proposition to you is that if you are feeling stuck and uncreative, and feel as though your photography isn’t progressing, don’t just mope around wondering when your creative muse is going to come and grab you by the hand and guide you back into the field or studio. Rather you should pick up the camera and start making pictures regularly, even if you can’t think of anything to shoot at first. It took me years of shooting stuff I was only half interested in before I started to really find what I wanted to shoot and develop a style.
This might be obvious, and if it is, good for you, but also consider stirring things up a little, to help take your photography to the next level. If you always shoot from eye level, kneel or lie down on the ground, and see how different the world looks. Stick your camera on the end of your tripod and hold it up in the air and release the shutter with a self timer or cable release. Find a tall building to shoot from, or go out in the rain. The more you push yourself when you have the luxury to play, the easier it becomes to come up with innovative ideas when you are under a little more pressure to be creative, whether that pressure comes from your own goals or external requirements, say to complete a photography assignment for a client.
Overcome Obstacles with your Technique Toolbox
When I was shooting the poppies on Saturday, at one point, I found myself at the edge of the field looking at two deep red and one white poppy with a dark background, and as I set up my 300mm F2.8 lens, I found that the composition required to get the poppies the size I wanted them in the frame, brought me closer to the flowers than the closest focus distance of the lens would allow me to shoot. Can you think of something to do to overcome this? Fitting a 1.4X extender and moving back is an option, but I was shooting from a path, and couldn’t move back that far. Even if I could, I would have been inviting people to walk between me and the subject, which makes them uncomfortable, and my shooting harder work.
The thing that jumped to mind was fitting a 25mm Extension Tube between the camera and the lens. This shortens the minimum focusing distance, and enabled me to get the shot to the right. I know this is an option because I continuously work at my shooting processes, and my art. This sort of thing is usually second nature to me. Am I confident that I’d have thought of this on the previous weekend? Maybe not. But this week I was in the zone, and everything was coming very easily.
I still need to make my final selections, and I should probably wait a few more days to cool down after the shoot before saying stuff like this, but I believe I may have created a few of my best Flowerscape images ever last weekend, and that, followed a weekend where I almost gave up shooting them all together! I’m convinced that it was partly because I worked at my photography a little harder last week, and pushed the boundaries a little further, to get out of the little slump that I’d somehow plunged into. This and the creativity I summoned up for the moon video have really driven home the idea that the more we create the more creative we become. Creation breeds creativity.
The Moon video: http://vimeo.com/11961331
X-Rite Coloratti Announcement: http://bit.ly/mbpxrc
Here’s David Lee’s 365 day project Flickr set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/davejp/sets/72157612095217264/
Music: Mvt 1, Piano Sonata 14 (Moonlight Sonata)
Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven
Publisher: Public Domain
Recording Licensed from the UniqueTracks Production Music Library Inc.
Download the Enhanced Podcast M4A files directly.