Years ago I shot an image for a competition that I was sure was a highly original piece of genius. Only to find out when looking at other entries, there seemed to be rather a lot of other highly original geniuses with exactly the same idea.
To get further in competitions I realized I had to start thinking outside the box. So I developed a strategy for getting a bit more original with my photography. Here are some tips you may find helpful for coming up with unique ideas and for creating original images.
Coming up with an idea
If you don’t already have an idea to work from, you can pick one right now – be it the first item you see after reading this sentence, or google your town and see what comes up. For example, the first link might be to a local hairdresser, so your theme could be hair. Try this with some other keywords like; photography or art, or go completely random and google both hair plus the first item to your left.
Send in the clowns
A quote from musician Nick Cave explaining his song writing process:
“Do you want to know how to write a song? Song writing is about counterpoint. Counterpoint is the key. Putting two disparate images beside each other and seeing which way the sparks fly. Like letting a small child in the same room as, I don’t know, a Mongolian psychopath or something, and just sitting back and seeing what happens. Then you send in a clown, say, on a tricycle and again you wait and you watch. And if that doesn’t do it, you shoot the clown.”
Apply this to your photography. Your theme, that’s your small child. Add to that a certain style of photography, macro , high speed , light painting, that’s your Mongolian psychopath. Now send in the clown, perhaps this could be, as above, the first thing you see to your left, or something available to you that might not be available to other photographers like an awesome local location, unique props, or skills. In my case some mad crafty skills and a friend, with a lot of red hair, to model for me.
Think about what is available to you
It’s all well and good to want to do a high-speed Kung Fu fighter action shot in low light, when all that is available to use is your mobile phone camera and your dog as the actor, and he has no Kung Fu training whatsoever. Not that it can’t be done, just saying, know your limits – then ignore them, or try to work around them.
Go for a walk
Even if you have a good idea, it’s a good idea to go for a walk.
When you get home, write or sketch further ideas. They don’t have to be good, or fully thought through, just get them down on paper or computer. Make notes of anything that comes to mind, you can sort out what works later. Even if you think your first idea is the one, still try to stretch yourself to come up with at least five to 10 more. This may sound like a lot, but sometimes that is what it takes to get yourself thinking outside the box.
If by then you don’t come up with anything original that you are excited about, go for another walk.
Let it rest
Creativity requires leisure, as they say. I am all for striking while the iron is hot, as they also say, but there is a lot to be said for allowing yourself to just mull over ideas for a while. Send in or shoot a few more clowns, see if you can improve the concept, or add a new element to really make it original.
Google your idea or theme in an image search. This may not only inspire further ideas, but also allow you to check that any you’ve come up, with haven’t already been done a million times before.
Be prepared to re-shoot
Sometimes we can get caught up in an idea. I once went to great length with costume, setup and a bizarre concept, for a competition brief. After a lengthy photo session and editing, I realized the idea didn’t actually make any sense because the concept was too complicated. So I simplified the whole thing back down to basics, shot the clown as Mr. Cave advised, and the second attempt worked a treat. Going that extra mile to keep thinking and photographing, plus a willingness to let go of an idea you have worked hours on, will help you get to that truly original image in the end.
Shoot a series
This works on the same principle as coming up with 10 ideas in the sketching stage before you settle on one. Getting past your first inclinations, and pushing an idea, will get you outside your initial box. Photographing a series, forces you to take that a step further. When you are thinking about an idea over an extended period of time, over several shoots, you really give your creativity a work out. You may surprise yourself with what you come up with by your seventh photo shoot, based on your first concept.
Aristotle said; “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Not all collaborations create equally, but when they work, something wonderful happens. The combination of two or more collaborators can create concepts and ideas that take you far beyond what you would have done on your own.
Even something as simple as asking a portrait subject to bring in some props or personal items of their own, can change a photo shoot from ordinary to original.
Go beyond the sunset
This applies to any form of photography but I’ll use the ubiquitous sunset shot as an example.
Basically what I am saying here is get out of your comfort zone, and take a different approach. Instead of the cliché sunset, try something new with it, be it learning different photographic method such as infrared photography, multiple or long exposures, light painting, or add a new element, some random item. Hair + sunset = a challenge, but it’s going to take you beyond the ordinary sunset photograph.
An exercise to stretch your imagination
Choose one of each from the two lists below, then try a few of the tips above, especially coming up with 10 possible photograph ideas. Then go have a hoot photographing the one you like best!
- Something from your refrigerator
- A bottle
- A piece of fabric
- An item from your bathroom
An image from that list could be a low light shot (sunset) and a message in a bottle on the beach, not exactly an original concept. However, just because something has been done before, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run with it, put your own mark on it, find an original way to show that story.
Should you try the exercise, or any of the above tips, share your results in the comments, let’s have some fun with this!