Lighting & Composition

Achieving Your Potential As A Photographer – Owning Your Creativity

We’ve all had the experience of photographing a subject that many other photographers have tackled. “Well, duh,” you say, many of us photograph flowers or landscapes or kids or beautiful women. In my workshops, sometimes a group of technically competent photographers will stand in more-or-less the same place, each with roughly comparable gear, and—however much I try to persuade people to look at what’s in front of them with creativity— photograph more or less the same things.

But the interesting thing is that even when the subject is the same, a few photographers usually come away with amazing images, while the rest, even if they are technically competent photographers, produce solid B+ images: technically competent, but definitely missing the special something that really makes an image interesting and stand out from the crowd.

Let me say that photographic technique is important. Technique is important in the sense that photography is a craft. If you don’t master your craft, how can you know what the options are?

In other words, photographic technique is necessary, but not sufficient to creative image-making. The most technically proficient image in the world that doesn’t have a spark of originality, or an ounce of feeling, will be of absolutely no interest to anyone.

So let’s assume you know something about photography. How can you add your own creative touch to the images you make?

Probably the key part of this question is “your own.” Because my creativity isn’t your creativity.

I don’t want to teach you to be a photographer just like me, and I probably couldn’t even tell you how to do exactly what I do, even if I wanted to.

My goal is to teach you to be the best, most creative photographer you can be. This means that the creative “secret sauce” needs to be expressed in your own way. What you are cooking needs to be relevant to your own work.

A photograph expresses how we see. Looked at in one way, it is a representation of the world that has been arbitrarily composed, and is constrained by the crafts of formal composition and the rules of exposure. But importantly, a photo is a way of seeing, your way of seeing.

I love sunflowers! They are truly a wonderful flower. Of course, sunflowers are often depicted in art. For example, it is probably hard for me to say “sunflower” without thinking of Vincent van Gogh’s famous sunflower paintings. But did you know that the sunflower is also visually interesting from behind? Looking at something from a new angle can lead to enhanced creative options, and versions of photos of common objects that present them differently—so that one is seeing the object as if new for the first time.

Playing with Your Ideas

The way you see is very personal to you.

Even photos of ordinary subjects—for example, landscapes—are an expression of the way of seeing, and therefore the individuality, of the photographer.

Learning to access your unique individuality and way of seeing is the best way of identifying your special secret sauce—what will give you an edge when you make photographs.

How does one approach subjects and situations with creativity?

Certainly, understanding equipment is necessary, and having an eye for exposure, color, and composition helps, but without the ability to tap your own unique creativity, coming up with something special would be a haphazard business at best.

Sometimes, the best bet is to work on seeing, and not photography. For this reason, I sometimes go on location without a camera. The goal is to help spark visual ideas without being stuck with the mundane details of bothering with your camera.

Hohenzollern Castle is located in Swabia about 80 kilometers south of Stuttgart, Germany. Originally, it was home to the family that became the emperors of Germany. The last resident was Kaiser Wilhelm, whose poor judgment undoubtedly played a part in the events leading up to the catastrophe of the First World War. When I took this photograph, it was gently raining as it had been all week. Mist had gathered around the castle’s towers and water drops were collecting on my camera lens. As grand and in some ways beautiful as Hohenzollern is, it remains a show place for a kind of glorification of an imperial, military tradition. My idea in creating this image was to allude to the tragic implications of the military architecture, avoiding the temptation to show a picture-perfect Disneyesque fantasy.

Fortune favors the prepared mind

If you can conceptualize something, with all the tools of photography and digital art that are available, you can make it manifest. Of course, sometimes the process of figuring out how to accomplish the vision that your imagination has conceived is a long-drawn and plodding affair. But if you decide to do it, and then just do it, you will succeed.

So this means that the key underlying issue is the one of creative visualization. Learn to see first—and by seeing encompass an entire world of potentialities, of things that are waiting to be revealed, and new ideas waiting to be born. With this vision, creating digital photographic representations of your vision, when the circumstances are right, is merely a matter of photographic implementation.

Fortune favors the prepared mind. To capture creative worlds of imagination means growing your imaginative faculties. Imagination is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. When you have bulked up your imaginative biceps, you will have the ability to begin to access a vision that is uniquely yours. With a unique vision, when the occasion presents itself, you can indeed be a photographer living up to your potential.

During the Second World War, the navy shipyards on Mare Island near Vallejo, California built the ships that won the battles for control of the Pacific Ocean. But as the years past, the Mare Island shipyards tumbled into decay, and have become a favorite place for local photographers to capture the remains of the former bustling industry. To exaggerate the sense of perspective with a vanishing point in this image of an old gantry used for building navy ships in the Mare Island, California shipyards, I constructed and extended the gantry, and added landscape to the left side of the image. So the elements in this image are real, but they’ve been manipulated in post-production to create an image that as a whole, while plausible, is inherently unreal.

Excerpt from Achieving Your Potential As A Photographer: A Creative Companion and Workbook by Harold Davis © 2016 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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MasteringPhoto, powered by bestselling Routledge authors and industry experts, features tips, advice, articles, video tutorials, interviews, and other resources for hobbyist photographers through pro image makers. No matter what your passion is—from people and landscapes to postproduction and business practices—MasteringPhoto offers advice and images that will inform and inspire you. You’ll learn from professionals at the forefront of photography, allowing you to take your skills to the next level.