This lesson is part of the How To Photograph Life - FREE Course. To see the full list of lessons, and learn more about the course, click here for the index.

LESSON No.12:

Experimentation & Creativity

The best thing about capturing your life is also one of the hardest things about it: the sheer length of the assignment.

On the one hand, it is your single greatest chance to tell an incredible story, spanning decades, and getting real, honest, and deep. Truly an opportunity of a lifetime.

On the other hand, burnout is all too easy when you’re looking at such a lengthy project. It's like taking fewer photos as a trip progresses (I know I’m not the only one who has a gazillion photos of the excited flight out, and exactly zero of the exhausted flight home).

This is why second children don’t have as many photos of themselves as the first. Sorry second children.

We habituate. It’s normal. We get used to things we see every day, and we stop really noticing them as unique and photo worthy. This is evolutionary – if we paid full attention to everything around us it would drive us insane! We’d never be able to focus. But, as a photographer, this tendency will be a big detriment to capturing your life. It’s something we need to be aware of, and work to overcome.

We need ways to break out of our ruts, and refresh our eyes.

Now, I can’t even begin to tell you how many different things we’ve tried in the pursuit of new and creative images. We’ve shot everything from instant film to large format film. We’ve stood like giant nerds in the dark, spinning a dollar store string of lights in wild circles to see what would happen. We’ve shot waterfalls and startrails, mountains, oceans, and jungles. We’ve captured sunrise, sunset, and everything in between (and around). We've photographed babies, llamas, and anacondas, though definitely not at the same time. We’ve used almost every type of camera or lens you could imagine. And then we took the lens right off the camera, held it out, and took a shot to see what would happen. (It’s called freelensing, it’s pretty neat).

Once we even made an elaborate system to trigger both of our cameras with one press, so we could take two shots, from different perspectives, at the exact same time. It was cool.

All of this is to say that one of the very best things you can do for your photography is simply to try new things. It will not only re-energize you, but it will help you take better images. It will give you new techniques and tools for telling your story. And it will help you find ways to make your images stand out.


"One of the very best things you can do for your photography is simply to try new things."


What follows are some of my favourite ways to try something new. Give one, or all of them, a shot, and I think, at the very least, you’ll have some fun.

Shoot With Something New

I love my 50mm lens. For a while I wondered why any other lens even existed, because the 50mm is so great. But then I stopped being such a snob, and tried other lenses. Lots of other lenses. And while I still love my 50mm, pushing myself to try things outside of it has helped me to appreciate different perspectives, and different ways to compose a frame. Indeed, there are many times when a different lens would do a better job of telling the story than a 50mm.

So learn from me, and go and try a different lens. Call up a friend and borrow something. Better yet, swap so you can both experience something different. If you don’t have a photographer friend, try renting a new lens for a weekend. You’ll learn something in the process, and open your eyes. You’ll take photos that look different from anything else you’ve done, and who knows, you might just fall in love.

The same thing goes for cameras. There’s a huge difference between shooting with an iPhone and a DSLR, right? Well, you’ll probably find that there’s a huge difference between a Holga and a 35mm film camera too. Give those a shot, and see what happens. I’ve shot with all of the above, and I can tell you, each and every one of them is a blast.

The Floating Islands on Holga

This is a shot from the floating islands of Lake Titicaca in Peru, taken with a Holga. A Holga is a plastic camera that shoots medium format film. It's essentially a toy, and it created this image, which is one of my favorite of this entire trip.

A Dandelion in Macro

There's nothing like a macro lens to completely change the way you see the world. You have to get up close and personal, and really notice the details. We don't use our macro a lot, but when we do it's truly eye-opening.

Pick a Theme

This is my go-to technique when I’m feeling overwhelming or uninspired. And it's delightfully simple: I decide to shoot a theme for the day.

For example, when we were in Vietnam I was feeling a little bit overwhelmed. There was so much around me, I just couldn’t figure out what to capture, and everything was coming out a bit blah.

So I decided to photograph dogs.

Yep, little known fact, there are dogs EVERYWHERE in Vietnam, and they’re all just ridiculously adorable. So I spent the day just walking around, looking for pups to photograph. I even had one of my best memories of the trip, playing in a courtyard with a few schoolgirls with a frisky puppy I named Chompsky, because he kept nibbling my hand. I had such a great time on my little scavenger hunt, got some great photos, and felt far more engaged with my work than I had in a while.

Now, the theme of “dogs” might not work in your everyday life, especially if you don’t own a dog. (Though it could be a good challenge in that case!)

But you could pick a theme like the color red, shapes, expressions, movement…you get the idea. Pick a theme, and work it from every angle. I guarantee you’ll be amazed at how much it changes how you shoot.

The Dogs of Hoi An

In case you thought I was joking about taking photos of dogs all day. 

Try a New Style

We all have our own styles – the techniques, approaches, and looks that we gravitate towards. And that’s wonderful to have your own style, even better if people start to recognize your style!

But sometimes the very thing we need to re-energize our work is to try out a new style, if only as an experiment. That’s the absolutely marvellous thing about all of this – you can try something out, give it a go, and then decide to totally abandon it if you want! You are not committing, you are simply creating.


"You are not committing. You are simply creating."


So if you’re a hardcore documentary photographer, spend the day shooting classical portraits. Learn the lighting techniques. Finesse the posing. See just how much emotion you can get in these scenarios. Not only are you going to learn a lot about photography in the process of trying something new, but you’ll probably pick up tips that you can apply to your usual style!

If you tend to shoot in soft light, go and intentionally shoot in hard light.

If you like bright images, purposely create some dark ones.

If you’re all about color, shoot an entire day in black and white.

If you always shoot horizontal, force yourself to shoot vertical.

Changing things up is truly the best way to engage your brain. It comes alive in challenges. And like I said, you don’t need to change your style. Trying something new will help you better understand what you like and what you don’t, and will help you learn new things in the process. You never even need to show anyone these images. But I do hope you try creating them.

Hard Light

Do you tend to use soft light? Then go shoot in hard light!! There's so much great contrast and shadow to be found. 

Night Light

Are you a daytime shooter? Then try being a night owl. The different light sources, and darker scenes will give you a whole new world to experience.

Set a Challenge

Are you competitive? I bet I’m more competitive. In fact, I bet I could beat you at being competitive. Let’s go.

Ok, just kidding. Mostly...

Yep, I like to compete, and if you’re like me, there’s nothing like a challenge to get you motivated.

I mentioned 365 projects, and the 5 Minute Project in a previous lesson. Both are excellent challenges to get you picking up that camera.

You can also set yourself the challenge to learn a new technique. There are so many photography skills that can give you different ways to capture your life, and challenging yourself to learn them will both make it fun, and get you to follow through. (For extra bonus motivation, make your challenge public so your friends and family can hold you to it, and encourage you!)

A few skills to challenge yourself to learn:

  • Panning and dragging the shutter
  • The Brenizer Method for super shallow depth of field
  • Photographing the night sky
  • Photographing strangers
  • Double exposures
  • Off-camera flash

Those are obviously just a few that jump to mind – the list is endless. So pick a technique that you’ve always wondered about, and then go learn it.

The Brenizer Method

This is a technique originated by Ryan Brenizer (who we have had the pleasure of meeting!). It's pretty simple – take a bunch of photos at a low aperture value, as you pan across the scene. Kind of like a panorama but with a person. Then use Lightroom or Photoshop to stitch them together, and you win up with a super duper shallow depth of field!

Panning

Panning as you shoot a moving subject can create awesome background blur and a great sense of motion! Start with a low shutter speed (between 1/15 and 1/60 of a second), practice, and be amazed at what you create!

Visualize

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen has said that he has been successful because he visualizes the images he wants to make.

Imagining the shot you want to take can engage your brain in a new way, and help you bring different elements into your work. This is especially true if you find you want to use a different compositional technique, or a different type of light, but tend to forget in the moment. If you’ve taken the time to visualize, that image is more firmly rooted in your mind, and you’re far more motivated and likely to make it a reality.

I like to use this technique especially when trying something really new, or something complex. I will go so far as to sketch out my shot ideas. Not all of them come to life but the simple act of pre-meditating the image is a highly creative and engaging act.

Don’t worry about your drawing skills either. This is about broad concepts and shapes! After all, we’re photographers – the fine details are what the camera is for!

Freebie: Photography Logbooks! 

This downloadable printable will help you keep track of your photography information and inspiration (think: location scouting reports, shoot reviews, a film log, a bucket list, a place to sketch out your shots, and more!). Did we mention it's free to Explorers' Club members? Sweet!

Share

I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have been able to share photography with Rob from day one. Having another person around to talk with, and shoot with, is both very motivating, and simply very fun.

Photography can be lonely if you’re always shooting by yourself. Especially if you shoulder the burden of capturing your family life.

So try to share your passion with others. Teach photography to your loved ones. I can’t tell you how many of my family and friends I’ve convinced to get into shooting. Yesterday one friend proudly sent me photos of her newborn daughter that she took using window light (I'm getting misty eyed just thinking about it). And a few weeks ago I sent lens recommendations to another for her African safari – the images she took were incredible! My heart truly bursts with pride over seeing my loved ones putting so much passion and effort into their images. I adore sharing photography with them, and it thrills me to see them enjoying it themselves.

We’ve even started introducing photography to our 3 year old son, by getting him his own camera. Right now he’s very young, so it’s less about teaching and more about simply exposing him to the process, but I can’t wait until the days when we can shoot and discuss photography together.

Max Learns Photography!

We're slowly introducing our three-year-old son, Max, to photography. It's been a lot of fun! (And choosing a drop-proof, water-proof, dust-proof camera has been a big help!)

If you don’t have friends or family who are interested, then get out and make some photographer friends. Connect with other shooters in your city. Join or start a photo walk.

Being around other people who understand your passion and joy for photography is so very energizing – it reminds you of why you love photography and why you keep picking up that camera. 

Don't Overdo It Now!

Ok, so we just talked about a TON of ways to get creative with your work, and keep your interest alive. Don’t go crazy and try doing them all at once! You’ll probably wind up overwhelming and confusing yourself. I know if I approach a scene with too many new ideas, I end up getting befuddled, and not doing anything well.

So take it one step at a time. Choose one idea or technique to try out, and give it a solid go. Learn about it, try it a few different ways, at different times. Don’t give up or move on after just one attempt. Then review the results and let it marinate for a while. Think about it, and then don’t think about it. Give the experience time to seep into your subconscious and just keep shooting as usual. Then, when you start to get the itch again, pick something new and restart the process.

I know that I regularly feel stuck with my work. It’s completely natural. But even just writing this all out has given me more energy to get back to it. There is truly an infinite number of ways to try something new, get some creative images, and stay excited about this amazing art form. I hope you’ve gotten a few good ideas here, but remember, anything is game. Just get out there and try something!

Keep On Learning!

Want more fun ideas to get your creative juices going? We have an entire eBook called The Creativity Field Guide filled with 100+ ideas and photos to help you try something new with your photography, and have a blast while you’re at it.

Click here to check it out and get it with an instant download - keep on learning, you’re doing great!

Came just in time as I was feeling quite unsure of my abilities and needed a creativity boost, which this amazing tutorial is full of."

Julia Nikulina

Coming Up Next...

Well, we’re very nearly at the end of this course. But we’re not fully done yet. Come back tomorrow as we wrap things up, and discuss what to do with all of this information going forward, so you can get the most out of what you've learned. Sleep tight, my friend, and I’ll see you tomorrow!

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