You’re not likely to ever excel at anything unless you push past what you normally do and exit your comfort zone. That’s unless you’re the type of person who’s not comfortable unless they are constantly taking risks.
Becoming more creative with photography requires you to seek out new subjects. It means trying different techniques. It demands you tackle the difficult and uncomfortable at times.
Most creatives seek to improve on what they have already achieved. This can mean photographing what they normally photograph different and better. It could mean working in whole other genre of photography altogether. Both approaches are challenging and vulnerable to failures.
How can you step out beyond your comfort zone and experience real magic in creativity?
Watch Your Attitude
I believe the biggest struggle many people have in growing creatively is that they can be too hard on themselves. When they try something new they set themselves up to fail because of negative thought patterns. Sound familiar?
Taking a step outside your creative comfort zone with a positive attitude is the most important factor towards your success. Acknowledging to yourself that what you are doing is new and difficult and that your initial result will probably suck, is important. If you are broken hearted at your photos the first time you try a new aspect of photography, you will never grow. You will not find the magic.
You need to press on and make the most of what you find difficult to help you improve.
Commit to Learn
Studying the new technique or subject you’re challenging yourself with is a positive step towards creative magic. If you launch headlong into something new without knowing much about it you will most likely fail. I know this to be true from far too much personal experience.
Taking time to study a little more, step by step, you can become an expert. When I first worked in a photography studio with subjects, lights, props, and backgrounds I could manipulate it was all new to me. I had come from working as a newspaper photographer where I often had no control over these things. I didn’t know what to do.
Initially, I wasted a lot of Polaroids, (instant photos which were used to preview the setup, now we chimp our LCD screens).
Then, I found a gem of a book in the local library, (yes, this was when the internet was still a baby.) Light Science and Magic was a superb teacher. This book taught me so much of how to control the lighting. I am also a big fan of Irving Penn and love his still life arrangements. I have always learned a lot by studying the work of high achieving photographers.
Creating Photos for Someone Else
The main difference between amateur and professional photographers is not that pros take better photos and earn a living doing so. The most significant difference is that professional photographers must consistently produce photos that fit a brief and please someone else, not just themselves.
Photographing what you are passionate about is meaningful for enjoyment and creative growth. Photographing something you have no interest in is often a huge challenge.
When I first started work at the newspaper I learned very quickly that I was well out of my comfort zone. I was having to not only talk to strangers but to go back to my picture editor with publishable photos of those strangers. I was painfully shy and it was so difficult, but I wanted to keep my job, so I took on the challenge.
Later came other challenges like photographing sports events and other action photo situations I had no experience with. The opportunity to attend top international matches was a good incentive. I learned because I had to and I came to love it.
Role-Play Being a Pro
You don’t need to get a job working for a newspaper. These photography jobs are few and far between nowadays. You can role play effectively and imagine you are a pro.
Set yourself assignments and treat them as though you are working for a newspaper or magazine. Better still, have someone else task you assignments of their choosing. This way you will begin to photograph subjects and in situations, you may never have chosen.
You will discover that you love some of these assignments as you are being stretched beyond what you normally do. As you are outside your comfort zone you will have to think and behave differently.
Set deadlines. Approach this exercise realistically. If someone else has set your assignment, have them review your photographs with you and make a selection.
By role-playing like this, you may have the advantage of rephotographing the same subject if you can see room for improvement. This is a luxury I did not often have when working at the newspapers.
Photographing What is Familiar
I am not advocating only photographing new and different things with techniques you’ve never used. Making great photos of what you love can be equally challenging.
Taking pictures of what you love over a long period of time your photos may begin to lack flair. This is common. If you are truly passionate about what you are photographing you need to press yourself to remain creative.
We are often at the local markets in Chiang Mai taking photo workshops. I told myself after we’d been going there for about a year that I need to come away with at least one new portrait each time. Not of the same people who I knew and were easy to photograph, but of different people in different locations at the market.
I’d passed this guy many times and felt a little intimidated by his tough looking exterior. One winter’s morning he was standing in the sun outside his flower shop watching the world go by. The light was fabulous and he had on a cool beanie. I had to ask him. Turns out he was happy to pose for me. I took him a print of this photo next time we were there and now he often gives my wife or our customer’s flowers when we are passing.
I have become pretty comfortable photographing people, but still, find it challenging. Like with the tough looking flower seller, initial contact and relating to a stranger is not easy for most people. If you step out and ask often the results can be most rewarding.
Photographing people you know can pose other problems. My friends got engaged recently and asked my wife and me to do a photo session for them. My challenge was pressure I put on myself to excel. I wanted to bless them with photos that made the event special.
Working with my wife is always enjoyable. We work well together. I found I could capture different moments, especially when their attention was on her. My expectations and desire to do well for my friends was my biggest challenge. My fear of failing was my biggest hindrance.
Once I relaxed and enjoyed myself as much as they were I was able to take some photos that they told us later were their favorite image of themselves they’ve ever had. This is feedback every portrait photographer loves to hear.
Two New Personal Photography Challenges
My wife and I recently moved to a new home in the countryside. I have never been particularly interested in landscape photography, but now I need to be.
We are running a homestay and need to show off the wonderful environment so people will want to come and stay here. This means I must make the best landscape photos I can. It’s good to be working with a subject that I have not cared for much and to have a reason to be taking these types of photos.
My second challenge is to use my phone for more photography. I am comfortable with my camera, thank you. I have had little interest in using my phone except to take the occasional snapshot. Currently, I think I am using my phone more than I am using my camera.
I ride my bicycle in the surrounding region each morning. But I don’t like carrying a camera when I ride so I am using my phone to photograph the local landscape.
Part of my motivation to take up the challenge of photographing with my phone is that this is how most photos are being made in the world now. I need to know more about it so I can teach it. The best way for me to learn is to just do it.
The limitations I have with using my phone are a big challenge. I must innovate and be creative to capture the photos I want. Now I am also beginning to use my phone to photograph more than only landscapes. As the challenges continue I hope my creativity continues to grow.
Be encouraged, find something new that’s not easy for you. You will only reap the rewards if you step outside of your comfort zone and try. Tell me in the comments below how you are getting on with your challenge, I’d love to know.