Some thoughts on trying to be original in a world where everybody has a camera, everybody is a photographer, and everything has already been photographed.
Do you ever feel like there is nothing left to shoot? You know the drill. You’ve already shot all over your hometown, and you are casting about for other ideas that aren’t too far away, so you can hop in the car and shoot something new. (We always want something new to shoot, don’t we?). So you come up with an idea of something nearby, and Google it, only to find some fabulous photo that has already been taken of the place (or more likely, several photos) - and likely by someone you haven’t ever heard of (even though they are local).
Or here’s another one - and this feels even worse. You and the family decide on a big vacation somewhere new, and you are fired up and ready to get some photographs of something far away and exotic, something new and exciting, something foreign and unique. So once again, you turn to your friend Google, and start researching the things you want to see and do when you get there.
And what do you find? A multitude of amazing photos of the place, already taken and shared by countless others. We recently returned from a 6 week trip to Italy, which was amazing, but I felt like I was often shooting the same thing that has been shot a thousand times before.
It gets frustrating, doesn’t it? It seems like you can never be the first one somewhere, or be the one to capture the “defining” shot of a place, even if you end up capturing an amazing photo from there. You can’t exactly control the weather so that stunning sunset you are hoping for might end up being just another unfulfilled wish, and you likely don’t have time to return to that same spot again and again, in hopes of that sunset you dreamed of actually coming together for you.
You are not alone in feeling this way - I suspect we all have those moments when we just want to scream. These days there are fairly low barriers to entry in this world of photography, and a lot of creative minds in the world, and some amazing tools, and thus a lot of fantastic pictures that are already taken of all these awesome places. It happens.
Now, of course you didn’t expect to the first one to get a great shot of whichever place you are heading to, but you also didn’t expect to find SO MANY EXCELLENT photos that already exist of it, did you?
Sometimes, it feels like there is nothing left to shoot. I know I feel that way occasionally. I just spent 6 weeks feeling that way, every single day. It’s almost depressing.
But, I have decided that I don’t care that I will never be the first one somewhere or that I will not be the one to take the defining shot of a place. I have realized that luckily there are some ways to resolve this conundrum, and it’s not just to lower your expectations (that works, of course - though I don’t recommend it). It’s about finding and following your inner vision and getting creative on site. It's about breaking free of any artificial restraints you may have imposed on yourself and just doing what makes you happy. Isn't that what this should be about anyway?
So how do you do that?
Well, there are probably a million books and articles that can give you way better advice about this than I can (see, someone has already done that, too!). But here are some things I try to do either onsite or in the digital darkroom to get creative and (hopefully) end up with photos that I am both proud of and that (hopefully) have a chance of being at least a little bit different than those that came before me. While there is nothing wrong with photographing something that has already been photographed (and photographing it in the same way - happens to me constantly), it sure feels good when you come up with something fairly original.
Here are 7 tips I try to employ in my photography to help me get creative in the field.
Am I succeeding in implementing them? Maybe. Sometimes. There are times I am well aware of being stuck in my old habits, and so I force myself to make some changes to get creative - but I don’t alway succeed. Art is tough, and being original is really tough. Being consistently creative and original is nearly impossible. We are creatures of habit. Such is the human condition, I guess. :-)
So like everyone else, I am trying. Some days are better than others, but getting out with the camera and giving it a go is always a good start.
1) Change your perspective
I shoot in landscape mode ALL THE TIME. You may not notice, since it’s generally the “standard” view of things, but I often find that when I switch it up and turn the camera into portrait orientation, something interesting happens - the image looks very different. This is a minor shift, physically, but a bigger one mentally. It really does impact the outcome of the shot, and it’s something I keep telling myself (and reminding myself) to try when I am out in the field.
Interestingly, I find that with my iPhone I shoot in portrait orientation a whole lot more. Perhaps that’s because that is my natural state for holding the phone, or maybe it’s something else. But I am working to get more shots with my real camera in portrait orientation. I like the look of those shots - I just have to remind myself to change it up. In the above examples, I used my Sony camera in Portrait orientation and I really liked the framing and the outcome. Usually I hold the camera horizontally, so switching to portrait orientation for these shots really helped isolate the subjects here. Of course I started shooting that Venetian sunset in landscape mode, capturing the grandeur of the scene, but I found that isolating the bell tower worked better for me.
2) Change your lenses (or your camera)
I suspect we are all guilty of this at times. We find a lens that just “feels right”, or that offers a focal length (or zoom capability) that just really appeals to us in some way, so we stick with it again and again. I do this a lot. I went through a period of a couple of years where I shot everything with a wide angle lens. I was completely addicted. I’ve been able to break that addiction (thankfully), and now find myself using my mid-range zoom (a 24-70mm on my Sony A7II) more often, since it’s much more flexible in terms of focal length and I get a better variety of shots from it.
I am also getting out a lot more with my prime lens, the 28mm f/2. Since it’s a prime, it causes me to move a lot with my feet to frame the shot, which helps me look at things in different ways. I love that about the prime lens, since it makes me think more when I am out shooting, and that’s really what it’s all about.
But don't forget about your phone! I use my iPhone all the time, and often find that many of my iPhone shots from a trip are my favorites. I took a gazillion iPhone shots in Italy. I was shooting with it constantly, and I think I captured some nice photos with it. I also have a small point and shoot that I was toting around, and I fired away with that one, too. Using three cameras really caused me to mix things up quite a bit, and I think it resulted in more diversity in my shots, too.
So I am not suggesting that you go buy a new/extra camera, but do take advantage of that amazing piece of equipment in your pocket, at the very least. You might just get some seriously good shots out of it. Plus, I always find that I take a different type of shot with my iPhone or my point and shoot. Something about changing gear seems to change my approach to the shot, too.
But whatever your habit or addiction is, try and break it, at least at times. You may find that you are creating new and interesting shots that you hadn’t thought of previously.
3) Change your subjects
This is another hard one. I definitely have my favorite subjects. Namely, I love to shoot landscapes and cityscapes and architecture, with some graffiti and neon signs thrown in for fun. My eyes are naturally drawn to these subjects and I shoot them a LOT. In fact, that’s nearly everything that I shoot.
But I really need to mix it up and force myself to do things that I am not comfortable with, because it’s how you learn. This is probably the biggest one for me. I guess I’m really set in my ways, but I’m trying. It’s hard to break habits that you have accumulated over many years, but I find that when I do so, and succeed in capturing something new, it’s really rewarding.
On this trip in Italy, I tried some street photography as well as some more random shots that include locals. I find you really have to look harder to find things you aren’t naturally drawn to, but it is quite fun and certainly makes you think a lot. If nothing else, it's a great creative exercise and that always helps me expand my photographic experience base.
4) Change your processing
This one is not really that hard to do, but it’s really hard to get started (at least for me). I feel like our processing styles are ingrained in us a bit from years of practice and experience (and the weight of years of habit, likely), and so when I am ready to process something, I just start processing it in the same old tools, and the same old way. But it’s easy to make a shift here.
In fact, I completely changed my workflow when I adopted Aurora HDR from Macphun. It’s a wonderful tool and I am glad that I am now using it, both for HDR and single exposures. Previously I just went into auto-pilot with my other tools and became almost robotic about it.
But when it comes to processing, being robotic is not a good thing.
I need to be experimental and creative - it helps drive me forward - and Aurora is helping me explore new techniques (such as applying textures to photos). But this isn’t about getting you to use Aurora (although I highly recommend it - and you can download a free trial here). It’s about trying new tools, or new tricks in existing tools.
You see, this doesn’t mean you have to go buy more software. You can completely change the way you process images in whatever software you have. Just take the time to learn a new technique, or experiment and see what happens. Try new presets or filters. Click on something you have never clicked on before. You might find something amazing.
Try split toning. Convert a photo to black and white. Apply a texture. There are a million things you can experiment with, all pretty easily. I have been a "big color" sort of photographer for many years, but I am really loving the pure simple joy of a monochrome photo, and have been converting more and more of my shots to black and white. It's been a great creative outlet and one I continue to explore.
The bottom line is that there are many paths you can take on any photo, so try and be cognizant of what you habitually do, and stop yourself before you just do the same thing again and again. Try something new and you will be surprised how it alters your approach the next time.
5) Get up close/Fill the frame
As I mentioned earlier, I used to be addicted to my wide angle lens. While it’s something that I love to shoot with, it’s not the only arrow in the quiver, so to speak. The thing I loved about the wide angle was that you could just get so much in the frame, at least from left to right. What I often found was that you also end up with a lot of empty space at the top, since the view is so wide.
These days I err more on the side of trying to fill the frame, which is likely a tip you’ve heard before. I think it’s a good one. There is absolutely nothing wrong with negative space (and sometimes it makes the image), but just don’t forget that you can go the other direction and get MORE in the photo, which could make it more impactful.
While I think you want to be careful that you don’t create an image that’s too busy, I think getting in closer allows you to really see something in a different light. Instead of an item being a small part of a wide angle shot, it can be the subject of a closer shot and really make an image pop.
6) Go minimal
When traveling, we all pack our gear - even stuff we rarely use - just in case. Am I right? I have done many trips where I barely use a lens, for example, and it probably wasn’t worth even bringing it along. It was there “just in case”. What if I need it?
Well, I have also done some trips (and not just local outings - I’m talking about getting on an airplane and flying off somewhere distant) with just a single lens. Yes, one lens. It’s very hard to convince myself to do that, but I have to admit that it has worked out just fine EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. I have captured shots that I am proud of and that I genuinely like. (I have also done trips with just my iPhone - talk about feeling free!)
This exercise in minimalism is a great way to force yourself to think differently. You HAVE to get creative because you don’t have the safety net of other tools to lean on. It’s also incredibly freeing. I love to travel light - always have - and having just my camera with one lens (and no tripod, even!) has caused me to look at things differently, and while I frequently shoot things I would shoot with other gear, I have also shot new things, which is exactly the point.
I had several outings in Italy with just my iPhone, or just my Sony camera with no tripod, or just my small point & shoot camera. I feel free when I travel light, and I feel more willing to get experimental for some reason. Perhaps not being burdened with a large, heavy backpack is the reason, almost like you are a part of the scene and not just an observer there to document it. You feel like you can get deeper into it, since you aren't setting up a tripod and bumping into people. You can be quick and stealthy, and it's just plain fun. Plus your back doesn't hurt at the end of the day. ;-)
7) Change your expectations
Ah yes, expectations. We all have them. We all want them to be exceeded, don’t we? I dream of a magical sunset happening every night on every single trip and I visualize it happening, but that doesn’t mean Mother Nature is going to cooperate. I mentioned earlier that you can just lower your expectations, but that just feels like you are handing over the keys to fate and letting things happen, doesn’t it? It feels like a letdown. It feels like you are giving up.
I don’t think any of us want to do that. We want to take the wheel and drive it ourselves.
But I try to go into any trip with limited expectations. I hope for the best, but let’s be honest - hope is about all we can do, since we can’t control the weather.
However, we can work around the weather, dealing with issues like rain by shooting inside (many museums are camera-friendly, and architecturally-gorgeous), or dealing with crowds by shooting in off-hours (sunrise is the best for that) or by zooming in for detailed shots of a location. Or maybe we change up our subject matter and decide to create completely different photos of a place than we originally planned.
We just have to take a different approach. I don’t think of it as lowering my expectations as much as it is adjusting my expectations. I allow my expectations to be fluid. Don’t expect too much, but know that you can deal with any obstacle and find a way to get creative onsite so that you still get the shots you envisioned prior to arrival (and hopefully, many that you did not envision!).
So that’s it my friends. It’s easy to feel like you are the last one to see some famous landmark, and thus the last one to put your own creative stamp on an image of it. And while many may have come before you (and many will come after you), that doesn’t have to stop you from getting an interesting and creative photo of something. Sure, it may not be the first great photo of a place, but really, does it matter?
I think what matters is that you went out and created an image that means something to you. An image that you like. An image that you will cherish.
And for the record, I absolutely advocate that you take a shot of that famous landmark wherever you are, even though there are already a million shots of it. Who cares? You still need your own shot of it, don’t you? I shoot all the same stuff that everyone else shoots, though I try and get creative using the tips above, and I seek out other less-well-known spots in the places I visit, too.
Mix it up. Experiment. Get creative. Do something "weird". Who cares? This is art, and it is meant to be experimental.
These are tips I try to use on each outing, just to get me out of my comfort zone and into the creative zone. Sometimes it works, and admittedly, sometimes it doesn’t. But when I make the effort to change things up, I always feel better about it.