America loves groups of three. We have three branches of government. We eat three meals a day. We invented three strikes, you’re out along with the Three Stooges, the Three Musketeers, and Three’s Company. The USA loves the “TLA”: CIA, TSA, FAA, IRS, FCC, CDC and FBI. You hang out with your BFF and use OMG and WTF in your conversations. Last but not least there is TMI! I will do my best to not have “TMI” be the case here.
Our cameras have LCD’s. Instead of Liquid Crystal Displays, here’s a new acronym to help keep you focused on consistently making great images: Light, Camera, Design. Think of these three things as tripod legs. If one leg isn’t solid, the whole tripod fails. Virtually all successful images incorporate favorable LIGHT, proper CAMERA technique, and strong visually captivating DESIGN. Program this helpful “TLA” into your planning and location workflow.
LIGHT: This is the anchor tripod leg. It goes down first and I consider it the most important. Decisions on the other two are based on the light I have and/or the light I can create (with artificial lighting) that blends with ambient light.
You have 2 choices: Only photograph your selected subject when the light is spectacular, or adjust what you shoot based on the light you have and/or the light you can create. If you have difficult and uninteresting light, consider that a creative challenge and try to produce something others might miss. This ability is part of what separates photographers from camera owners. Develop the mentality of seeing more possibilities than limitations.
CAMERA: Yes, camera operation and proper technique is important to the impact and quality of an image. Unfortunately, many photographers place way too much emphasis on camera function and technique. Keep in mind that a perfectly exposed, razor sharp, boring image will always be a boring image. There is so much more to mastering photography than camera operation. The key is to streamline your whole camera operation for simplicity and maximum efficiency. I use only aperture priority or manual exposure for 90% of the work I do. I use either servo AF mode or MF and hardly mis focus on my subjects. If you know your camera inside out and can make technical operation second nature, it frees up more “brain pixels” for creativity.
DESIGN: It isn’t just composition. It incorporates the entire creative process of putting together and arranging all the visual elements in an image, from idea generation to logistics involved in being at the right place at the right time, assembling all the right resources, effective composition and even post processing for final presentation. Effective design starts with great ideas that are unique, different but still powerful and attention grabbing. Big design elements to focus on besides composition include: picking a way to clearly define and emphasize your main subject, a unique point of view, flawless separation between subject and background, establishing a strong sense of place, and understanding how to exploit the most visually pleasing lines, patterns and colors.
GENERATE BETTER IDEAS AND IMAGES
Begin with getting rid of creativity inhibitors. Let’s start with an analogy.
Many people want to get in better shape and live a more healthy lifestyle. Simply hiring a personal trainer won’t get you in shape. Neither will learning everything there is to know about exercise technique, diet and nutrition from countless Youtube videos. What actually gets people in shape, losing weight and meeting fitness goals begins with getting rid of the road blocks and excuses that prevent a long term, persistent and disciplined training regime. You have to actually get out and do it. And keep doing it, with or without a personal trainer.
Personal trainers and videos can keep you motivated and build skills but you actually have to put in your time and sweat equity. They can’t do it for you. Committing the time and effort to improved health and fitness can be done without a trainer. There is solid science behind walking, exercise and boosting creativity. A simple walk can reduce stress or anxiety that boosts mental clarity that can lead to more creative thinking.
I believe creativity works the same way. You can’t just read about it in newsletters, blogs and on Youtube videos. You gotta get out and do it! And keep doing it until it’s second nature. I also believe the brain works like a muscle. An unconditioned muscle and brain will tire quickly but with conditioning reaches greatly increased capacity. Let’s get rid of these creative inhibitors.
Obligation to others. In a tongue in cheek manner, meals, mates and motels are what most prevents us from making good shots. “I couldn’t go out and chase sunset because I have dinner reservations at 7 with my spouse back at the hotel. I’ll shoot this real quick so I’m not late.” “I know tomorrow morning might be a killer sunrise but I was up late tonight and I don’t wanna get up in the cold. Next time.” Get up anyway and start your day with the possibility of a great image in great light. Take a nap or push through a little sleep deprivation. Set aside time for yourself with the ability to stay longer or start earlier if need be.
Impatience. Perhaps you’ve seen the person driving down a national park road filming with their smartphones through the window or sunroof while driving. Who has time to stop? Too many other things to see, right? It kills me to see shooters with 10k worth of gear simply point their camera at a distance scene, take a shot or two, put the camera away and move on. If something is worth shooting once, it’s worth shooting again. Hurried photos usually look hurried. Take the time required to work the scene. Program this into your workflow: resist your first idea. Or, after your first idea, always look for a different way to shoot what you just shot. That exercise will often result in a better image. Good things often come to those willing to wait. If you are not willing to wait, why should they?
FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, “Men aren’t interested in what’s on TV. They are interested in what else is on TV”, or something like that. One of the best skills a photographer can develop and master is the ability to recognize and anticipate when light will be magical and they can make magic at the location they are at and not worry about missing something better somewhere else.
Overwhelmed: Visual overload and don’t know where to start. This is a very common sentiment among beginning and intermediate landscape and travel photographers. This is most common in locations where immense beauty is in all directions and you hear non-photographers say things like: “It’s so beautiful, you can’t take a bad picture here.” “It’s so beautiful I want to take it all in.” That rarely works and many shooters simply put too much in one image where nothing is really emphasized. Not everything beautiful translates to a beautiful image at that given time. The creative skill to develop is to identify what visually excites you the most, use effective techniques to emphasize your main subject, and shoot it in the best light.
Lack of Confidence. This can be similar to a combination of FOMO and feeling overwhelmed. You are just not sure if you are in the right place at the right time, don’t know where to start, and are not sure if this location will result in a great image. Again, the more you study light and visual design and the better you get at technique the more confidence you’ll gain. One of the best ways to build confidence with creative skills is by constructive critique. Developing sone pattern recognition goes a long way.
Cumbersome equipment and inefficient workflow. Camera ergonomics and ease of use are a big deal to me and my top priority over brand or model popularity. I spend hours setting up new cameras at home to simplify and streamline operation and ease of use on location. Fumbling and stumbling with camera gear on location takes a lot of energy from creativity. So does a cheap, clunky, and difficult to set up and use tripod. Camera and tripod operation should be as simple as a skier tossing skis onto the snow, stepping in the bindings in 10 seconds and whisking off to get on the lift or drop into the run.
Wrong attitude: “The light sucks and nothing is interesting.” Challenge creates opportunity to see new solutions! Don’t accept defeat! Work hard, antennas always up, be willing to adapt to conditions you were not expecting or like and accept the gifts the day presents to you.
We only grow creatively when we come out of our comfort zones. Try something new that you will likely fail at on the first try or two. (My new goals this spring are to learn to use my R5 and how to attach my GoPro to the bow of my packraft for a different perspective than the usual helmet view looking downriver.)
Workshops and tours facilitate the things that help folks get more creative not necessarily just during the workshop but afterwards as well. Hanging out with other creative and passionate people is positive contagiousness.
If you want to read more about planning your shoots, here is an interesting tutorial from PhotoPills that’s related to some of the things I’m talking about: Photography Planning: The Definitive Guide