Get creative beyond the cliche

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Making a pretty photograph at iconic places like Delicate Arch in Arches National Park or Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park is easy. Hoards of photographers have already figured out sellable compositions in spots where Mother Nature has graciously painted a breathtaking palette. A shutterbug need only to show up in good light to these locations with the camera turned on and the lens cap removed to make an eye-catching image.
However, these repeatable photographs represent the same documentary “trophy” shots so many other photographers have already snapped. These pictures have a place in everyone’s portfolio, but looking beyond these clichés can help you achieve more meaningful, personal artistic expressions and separate your work from others.
Creativity stems from following a distinct creative process (how ironic!), where one prepares, incubates, gains illumination and verifies the results. Or, in photographer’s speak, we acquire new knowledge, visualize ideas, encourage the “Aha!” moment on location and critique the resulting images.
1. Preparation: Fill your brain with ideas.
In his award-winning book, “Steal Like an Artist,” Austin Kleon presents the premise that nothing is original. All new creations originate from the combination of existing ideas into fresh ones (referred to as “conceptual blending”). Furthermore, author Jack Foster suggests, “ … If ‘a new idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of elements,’ then it stands to reason that the person who knows more elements is more likely to come up with a new idea than a person who knows fewer old elements.” Photographers need to tap into their existing knowledge and thirst for learning to kick off the creative process.
First, master your camera’s functions. Knowing which button to push when enables your artistic ideas to come to fruition. Answering foundational questions like “How do I blur the background?” and “How do I freeze water?” will help you develop necessary tools for creative use.
Simultaneously, research extensively and develop expert-level knowledge about subjects that fascinate you. Following your passions will motivate you to dive into deeper visual messages on these topics.
Then, as Kleon recommends, start stealing. Collect inspiration from everywhere — other people’s photographs, books, movies, etc. Internalize how you would apply the styles you observe to your own work. What do you like about what you see? What don’t you like? How would you handle it differently with your photography?
Once you have developed ideas, seek out different perspectives to help refine your approach. Gain input from those who you admire, those who are nothing like you, and those who know more — and less — than you do.
2. Incubation: Visualize your photos.
Turn scattered ideas into clear mental pictures of your photographs prior to snapping the shutter. Beginning with one or two ideas, consider what innovative insights you can convey given your knowledge. Repetitively ponder various “what if” scenarios such as “What if you approached your subject with a wide-angle lens?” “What if you photographed at sunrise?” “What if you photographed from an airplane?” Although tempting, do not discount any silly or strange ideas you identify. Instead, explore the possibilities.
Imagine yourself standing at the scene. How would you compose your image? How would you respond to changing lighting conditions? What equipment would you use? As you daydream, record in as much detail what your desired end result looks like in either a drawing or shot list. Define the ideal time of day, preferred weather conditions, and tide levels for your photograph as appropriate. While difficult to predict what Mother Nature will offer
during the actual shoot, this mental practice helps you prepare a focused vision for your photo outing.
3. Illumination/Inspiration: Encourage the “Aha” moment on location.
After substantial preparation and incubation, instead of continuing to noodle on your ideas, quiet your mind. Some shutterbugs find meditation helpful to enter a Zen-like “no mind” mood, but I prefer to hum “Flora’s Secret” by Enya over and over until all thoughts dissipate. Forcing photographic ideas (thinking about “What would make a great photograph here?”) is the fastest way to inhibit creativity.
Before picking up your camera, experience first what you hear, see, taste, smell and touch. Make a photo when you fall in love with your observations and sensations. Avoid labeling what you encounter and heed Minor White’s advice, “One should not only photograph things for what they are, but also for what else they are.” How is the ocean like the desert? How are bubbles floating in seaweed like outer space? Blend two different concepts to invent something new.
4. Verification: Critiquing your results.
After clicking the shutter, critique of your image. What do you like about what you see? What don’t you like about it? How can you convey the same message differently next time? Evaluating your images results in even more ideas for you to feed into the creative process and future photo outings. ♦
— Starting in 2007, Colleen Miniuk-Sperry combined her love of the outdoors with her passion for the communication arts to escape Corporate America and create an exciting full-time profession as an outdoor photographer and writer. Residing in Chandler, Arizona, she supports a variety of editorial and stock outlets, teaches photography workshops across the United States, and has authored two guidebooks. Learn more about her work at

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