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On Saturday July 18, photographers across the world got together to walk and shoot on the Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk. Here in Vancouver we walked along the beautiful Stanley Park seawall and finshed with something a little different. Photographer Dave Delnea and I brought in 3 fantastic models and a truck-load of lighting to give participants a chance to shoot and play in a way that they might normally not have. Dave and I did minimal teaching, played along with the photowalkers, and shot until the sun went down. I went home more excited about photography than I’ve been in a while, with a head full of ideas and inspiration. I also stumbled on something I’ve been trying to put words to for a while, and it concerns niches, grooves, and ruts.
Most photographers that endeavor to combine their craft with the world of commerce will eventually find a niche – a corner they carve into the market that plays best to their unique skills, passions, and vision. It’s a powerful place from which to market. It’s also a dangerous place in which to be a creative. A niche differs from a rut only in a matter of degrees, I think. It’s easy to spend your days so focused on what you shoot and the creative skills needed to create those images, that you become so specialized your other skills get rusty. If you don’t use those skill anyways, what does it matter, right? Well it matters a great deal because creativity occurs with the combining of multiple unrelated elements, and the more of those – including your skills and experiences – that you can draw from, the better.
As photographers we focus so heavily on our technique that we risk become a little too focused. We shoot the way we like shooting so much that we often don’t explore other possibilities. Here’s where the photowalk taught me this lesson again. I am an international assignment photographer specializing in humanitarian and world photography. As a result I don’t shoot beautiful models very often. I don’t use much more than modified natural light very often, so the chance to play with my strobes, soft boxes and gels doesn’t too often present itself. No, it’s worse than that, I just don’t make the opportunities happen. But the few hours I spent photographing a couple beautiful women in settings and light I wouldn’t normally play with gave me new insights, new ideas, and new solutions to problems I meet on the field. And better than that, those few hours knocked me out of a rut and into a groove. I didn’t know I was in a rut, we usually don’t until we’re awakened by the sound of our creativity hitting the sides of the thing. But I was. My niche had become my rut.
A groove differs from both a niche and a rut. Where a niche is marketing talk, and a rut is a place in which we get stuck creatively, a groove is a channel that leads us, funnels our creative energies, allows those energies to flow purely in one direction without having to spend effort in steering them. A groove is a great place to be. It’s a place where there is room to play, to explore, to boldly make mistakes. Where a niche applies to those with commercial concerns, a groove is for all of us, a place to which we aspire as creatives.
A groove isn’t something you create, but you can set the stage for it. By working on your craft and exploring the corners you’ve left untouched. Learn about off-camera lighting, borrow a Tilt/shift lens for a week, play with a 4×5 field camera. If you’ve never lost track of time in a wet darkroom, take a course and see what you can learn. If you shoot people all the time go take a landscape course and learn from their fanatical pursuit of light. Get out early for a week of dawn photo-walks, or stay out late and only shoot when the sun dips below the horizon. Discover play again. Stop being so serious. Tape down the focus ring, shoot in manual, or render your work only in black and white for a week. If you’re a working photographer, take pains not to let your niche become your rut. If you’re a hobbyist, then you’ve got the luxury of not needing a niche but the dangers of waking up in a rut are no less yours. However you do it, jump the rut and find a groove.
David duChemin is an international assignment photographer based in Vancouver, Canada. His niche is humanitarian and world photography, his rut is often found in naturally-lit portraits, and his groove is anywhere he can escape the homogeny and sameness of western culture. David is the author of the bestselling book, >Within The Frame, The Journey of Photographic Vision, and his newest book, VisionMongers, Making a Life and a Living in Photography, is due out in November 2009. David can be found blogging at PixelatedImage.com/blog and on Twitter @PixelatedImage.