Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

The Big Picture: Why Perfect Technique Does Not Always Improve a Photograph

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

 

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” —Mark Twain

A little secret that is well known to educators is the concept of the “good lie”. It encapsulates the idea that any course of instruction is bound to be incomplete or imperfect, but learning has to start somewhere. When we first begin to study any complex subject, we need some structure, some kind of foundation on which to build our understanding of it. For example, when I was beginning my studies in art history, my professors introduced me to the subject of ancient Greek sculpture by emphasizing the evidence regarding known sculptors, what each had contributed to the art, and why any of it mattered. I later learned just how much of this introduction amounted to optimistic conclusions based on ambiguous evidence, but that education brought me to higher levels of understanding. By the time that I started working on my doctoral dissertation, my research was focused on some of those points of weakness as areas where I could make my own contributions, and my professors were encouraging such questioning because the “good lie” was only ever a starting point.

Learning photography involves a similar progression through structured principles into personal discoveries. As landscape photographers, we learn our craft as a combination of in-field methods, compositional rules, location research, weather chasing, and post-processing solutions—all of which amounts to the “good lie” in our field. Together, these ideas provide a useful framework through which we can develop our creative sensibilities, but the framework itself is merely a way in.

To be sure, craftsmanship is an essential part of the photographic process, and good technique is often crucial to the success of a creative motivation. The sheer spectacle of technical virtuosity alone can provide a special frisson: prickly sharpness, masterfully controlled tones, or precise calculations of celestial events—all count among the many technical accomplishments that tend to delight viewers of landscape photographs. Regardless, perfect technique hardly amounts to the holy grail of photography. Despite its many virtues, technique is fundamentally reproducible, is always subject to becoming obsolete, and can become a visual crutch and a developmental cul-de-sac. For anyone who wants to keep progressing in their photography, creativity is the higher good. Therefore, it is important to be open-minded about craftsmanship and to acknowledge that creativity is a messy place.

Keeping the following caveats in mind can help to ensure that perfection doesn’t become the enemy of the good.

Spring Back by Erin Babnik

This photo departs from my usual standards in many ways: through its range of tonality, through its irregularity of detail, through its impressionistic approach in general. What I might consider unacceptable imperfections in other cases are precisely what give this photo the character that I find appealing.

 

 A Perfect Lemon is Still a Lemon

There is an old joke about a person looking for his keys under a street lamp. When a passerby asks him if he’s sure that it’s the area where he lost his keys, the man replies, “No, I lost them a block away, but the light is better here.” The process of making a good photograph can go wrong in the same way, by letting some unimportant factor dictate a direction. I often find participants on my workshops abandoning a great composition that they saw because it would require some minor compromise, choosing instead to photograph something less interesting that they can make ‘perfect’. Sometimes you just have to seize a moment or follow through with an idea however you can because it will result in a powerful photo regardless. Even if it means that you have to use a high ISO or shoot handheld instead of using a tripod, it’s better than not getting the shot at all. When technique starts dictating which ideas to pursue, then it’s probably time to cut the chains and enjoy some creative freedom. No amount of masterful technique will improve the photos that we never make!

The Devil is in the Details

According to the law of diminishing returns, sometimes ‘good enough’ really is…good enough. The value of technical quality does have its limits. After all, the world’s most compelling photographs do not tend to be studies in technique, and most viewers do not even notice many of the technical shortcomings that typically make photographers cringe. Laboring in the service of perfect technique can easily become an unnecessary hinderance to progress, causing a photographer to leave projects unfinished or to become too frustrated to begin a new one. I remember once spending days on processing a photograph with a delicate color palette, shifting hues and tones by minute amounts ad nauseam in my efforts to achieve the perfect balance. I shared some of the variations with a friend who has an excellent eye for such details and who was very enamored with that photo. He carefully compared all of the versions and finally said, “I doubt that any of these differences even matter,” and he urged me to release the photo and move on. It was great advice.

Imperfections Can Create Character

As Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, “There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportions.” He finds this strangeness in the abnormally large eyes of the woman he loves and delves into describing the depths of her character that he sees through them. Beauty in photographs can also come about through such strangeness, typically created by some imperfection in the pictured elements or by some irregularity in their presentation. A leaning tree or burned out snag can break up regularity and give character to a forest scene in the same way that film grain or soft focus can. Even ancient Greek architects seem to have understood the power of imperfection when they made temple columns bulge in the middle instead of being perfectly straight vertical elements; the more emphatic examples suggest an interest in giving the temple some life, some character, as if its columns were bulging like muscles while supporting the temple’s entablature. Similarly, a high level of refinement can sap the life out of a photograph, causing it to it look too mechanical. It is possible for a photograph to be lacking in vitality simply by appearing too perfect.

Craftsmanship has always been one of the great joys of artistic creation for me, and I both exercise and teach it with great enthusiasm. “The good lie” is good for a reason, providing an important foundation and a perpetually useful touchstone. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that it has its limits, its exceptions, and its missing links—and sometimes making a substantial contribution to your portfolio means stepping outside that box. The pursuit of perfection has the potential to elevate a photograph significantly, but it can also smother its fire or prevent us from creating a photo at all. Ultimately, it’s the pursuit of our own goals that should tell us which direction to go. When creativity is hiding in the shadows, we’ll never find it by looking in the light.

The Lost Ark by Erin Babnik

The clouds were moving quickly this day, changing the quality of the light in addition to the character of the sky from one minute to the next. Upon seeing an opportunity taking shape, I had to pluck my camera off of my tripod and quickly reposition myself on my elbows to catch this moment before it was gone forever. A small aperture gave me the depth of field that I needed to get it all in one quick exposure at the cost of some diffraction, and there was no way for me to set up my tripod perfectly in the time that I had. The resulting image is plenty sharp to print large, although focus stacking and the use of a tripod could have made it that much sharper—but prioritizing those techniques would have meant missing the moment.

 

Inner Glow by Erin Babnik

When I found that condensation had filled my lens with moisture behind its front element, I almost packed it up to use my telephoto lens instead, a choice that would have limited my options a lot at this location. I decided to keep shooting with the water in the lens regardless and discovered that the condensation gave a wonderful glowing quality to my backlit composition.

 

All or Nothing by Erin Babnik

I spotted this moment unfolding much further away from me than some closer options that I liked less. I knew that the composition I wanted would require a significant amount of cropping with the lens that I had, but I was very excited by the rare and wonderful play of atmosphere and backlighting. I decided that a smaller photo of something that I really liked was preferable to a full-sized one of something less interesting to me.

 

Octopus's Garden by Erin Babnik

Getting the tones and colors of a photo dialed in so that they harmonize and balance perfectly can consume an enormous amount of time and mental energy, and eventually you reach the point of diminishing returns and need to move on.

Have you ever had issues of technique keep you from pursuing a moment or an idea? Do you have any photos in your portfolio that would not exist without some compromise? Please feel free to share in this discussion with a comment below!

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Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

American Dreamscapes – Book Review by David Cobb

Monday, November 28th, 2016

American Dreamscapes – Book Review

By David Cobb

 

American Dreamscapes Stolen Car II

American Dreamscapes Stolen Car II

I’ve been friends with Christian Heeb for a number of years. An immigrant from Switzerland, Heeb first got his photographic start in the U.S. photographing the Native American. His wonderment in the American myth of the Wild West led him to a variety of places including the desert southwest, the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada range, and Route 66 among others. During his career—which includes over 200 published books—his assignments have taken him to every corner of the states and also around the world. His newest venture isn’t for a U.S. or German publisher however, but a personal project titled American Dreamscapes.

 

American Dreamscapes is the American dream not as interpreted by Horatio Alger, but maybe one closer to the vision of film director Quentin Tarantino. Coming of age in Switzerland, Heeb’s photography has certainly been influenced by fellow countryman Robert Frank; but Heeb also has influences in the surreal imagery of Gregory Crewdson, and the more voyeuristic photos of David Drebin. His settings also remind me of the more banal locations of photographer Stephen Shore.

American Dreamscapes / Bunny Man III

American Dreamscapes / Bunny Man III

Many photographers of the lost America like Anthony Hernandez, Lewis Baltz, and Robert Adams show the blight of American expansion and decay, and those who have been left behind or forgotten. Heeb photographs the edge of American life in a Hopperesque way: from the wayward hotel to the diner, with guns, girls, cars, and sex being common themes. This is the dark side of “when America was great again,” and this is the America that would give Dorothea Lange nightmares.

 

USA,Midwest, Minnesota, St.Paul, Mickey's Diner, American Dreamscapes / Mickey's Diner

USA,Midwest, Minnesota, St.Paul, Mickey’s Diner, American Dreamscapes / Mickey’s Diner

These people are not only on the fringe of society, but also on the fringe of daybreak. These are the hours when the neon glows brightly, and the hours when folks are desperate enough to commit a crime as seen in his images “The Hold Up” or “Stolen Car.” His models pose with cold distant looks, disconnected from each other and reality. In the photo “The Fun Center,” they’re having anything but fun. These people inhabit a lurid world, and they’re all trying to hang on to make it through another day.

 

American Dreamscapes is a limited-edition book which may be purchased in both print and digital versions from the Christian Heeb website. The book is in the dual languages of English and German.

Here is a link to download your digital copy here at his web site.

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Outside the Box: Advice for Making Risky Creative Decisions

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

 

“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”Neil Gaiman

Exhibiting any creative work entails some amount of risk. Anyone who has a reason to show their work to others has a reason to care about how well it is received. No creative photographer is ever entirely immune to fretting over that simple question that begs for consideration before the release of a new photograph: “Will they like it?” Even if all that is at stake is a feeling of accomplishment, the risk is real, especially for those photographs that we hold dearest.

The higher levels of risk involve decisions that take us outside our norms, whether they are departures from the conventions of a genre as a whole or simply from those of one’s own oeuvre. A risky decision might entail working in a certain type of light, featuring an obscure location, composing in an unconventional fashion, employing a new post-processing treatment, or any number of other decisions that might place us outside our comfort zones. The further we step out on a limb, the more unnerving it can be, so having a strong will is important for taking those steps. What follows is advice for making risky creative decisions with confidence, some thoughts to keep in mind when you feel as though you may be flying without a net.

Onward and Upward

Risk is essential to creative work. Taking risks is how we make progress, how we manage to put something of our own selves into our photographs, and how we can get that special taste of satisfaction for having done so. It is all too easy to fall into habits that seem to work well and that feel safe, and sometimes those habits can become limiting. Of course, there is a lot to be said for reaching a point of some consistency as an artist. Establishing what we like is crucial to self-expression, so consistency in a portfolio usually indicates a certain level of creative maturity. Nonetheless, if consistency drifts into habitual repetition, it ceases to be self-expression; at that point, it’s just rehashing. When you find yourself at a crossroads wondering if you should play it safe or take a risk on something, just remember that the latter option is likely to be more rewarding in the long run. Even if you deem it a failure at first, your decision may be a first step towards a development that you never could have imagined at the outset.

Sweet Emotion by Erin Babnik

Making a risky decision can feel like standing on the edge of a chasm, contemplating a jump. When I chose to use a fast shutter speed for this photo of a waterfall in the Graian Alps, I actually felt a considerable amount of anxiety about it, since smoothed out water is the norm for such subjects, even in my own output. I also took a risk in choosing a location that I had never seen photographed before, although I am more comfortable with that sort of risk because it is not unusual for me. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed shooting and processing this photo; despite the challenges involved, it was one of those rare images that seemed to pour right out of me with the greatest of ease, and that gave me the confidence to release it.

Move Towards, Not Away

Probably the strongest reason to make any unusual creative decision is because of a compulsion to do it. If we are genuinely drawn to an idea or are at least curious to see the results, then we are responding to an inner urge, following our own instincts. The opposite situation would be to make a decision to do something unusual for the mere sake of novelty, fixating on what we want to avoid instead of on what we find interesting. Creativity is the pursuit of ideas and the application of them, not a simple rejection of what came before. If a risky decision holds distinct appeal, then at least you know that you’re following your own nose when you carry it out, and that is usually reason enough to do it.

Goodwater by Erin Babnik

So-called “quiet” photos are inherently risky, since it is typically the more dramatic scenes that tend to draw the greatest responses. A small encrustation of salt makes a humble subject, but I had my own firm reasons for producing this photo of one.

Be in it for the Long Haul

When a photograph departs from some kind of norm, a portion of your audience may not ‘get’ it. Accept that familiarity is appealing to most people, and that not everyone who typically enjoys your photographs will cheer you on enthusiastically down whatever trail you may blaze. Even if your experiments do not result in immediate encouragement, there could be momentum building, and if that is the case, then you will only ever realize it if you stay the course. Regardless, doing something unconventional is gutsy, and that point in itself should provide a certain degree of satisfaction and motivation. Knowing that you are being true to yourself is a source of real power that can continue to propel you forward.

Moondance by Erin Babnik

I have photographed this particular Joshua tree on many occasions and have led numerous workshop participants to it so that they could enjoy it too. My go-to vantage point is from a different angle, from which the tree looks like a native American dreamcatcher, and my typical compositional scheme is utterly different, featuring long shadows as leading lines and a more traditional division of space. A bout of insomnia caused me to approach this tree at an unusual time and to have different ideas about it, producing a photo that is one of my all-time personal favorites.

Be Honest with Yourself

It is possible to convince ourselves that our accidents are happy ones, especially if we put a lot of effort into a photograph that ultimately missed a mark in some regard. If a photograph has some quality that is unusual simply because misfortune struck, then it should undergo special scrutiny. Sometimes the results of happenstance will be genuinely appealing and will inspire further experimentation along the same lines, but otherwise we need to let go. We should never allow a rescue mentality to convince us that an unsatisfactory photo is a bold act of creativity.

Thick Skin by Erin Babnik

Abstract photos are the least likely of any type of nature photo to generate a lot of interest. Ironically, this one turned out to be one of my most popular images, but I expected just the opposite before releasing it. My reasons for sharing it were many, but the expectation of success was not one of them.

Tomorrow is Another Day

Keeping perspective is important. No matter what you produce today, even if it amounts to the biggest feather in your cap, the next blank canvas awaits you. What ultimately matters most is the process of creation, which for a nature photographer means experiencing the outdoors, having responses to those experiences, and expressing those responses through the medium of photography. Everything that follows is peripheral and should not be allowed to derail the process. As the saying goes, just keep on keeping on—and above all, remember to have fun.

How do you handle risky decisions? Is there anything that you like to keep in mind to make them any easier? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on FacebookTwitter and 500px.

The Two Essential Strategies of Effective Post-Processing

Monday, May 30th, 2016

 

Knowing how to use post-processing software is important for any creative photographer, but it is equally important to know what to do with that knowledge. No matter how proficient we are with our development tools, we still need to decide which direction to take an image for its final presentation. What follows is a guide for getting the most out of your image development by having clear strategies to guide the process. These strategies fall into two basic categories: directing attention and conveying character.

1) DIRECTING ATTENTION: Work with the composition, not against it.

Effective post-processing will emphasize the composition of a photograph by helping it to direct eye movement and to highlight points of visual interest. The first step to determining how to proceed with processing is to have a clear idea of how the eye should travel through the frame and which parts of the image are most important. Where is the main path that the eye should follow? Is there a primary point of interest? Are other points of interest playing a supporting role or are they competing for attention? Is anything drawing the eye out of the frame? With these questions answered, we can concentrate on a few approaches to addressing any concerns that they raise.

• Finesse the Light

The eye follows light, so it will be attracted to the most luminous parts of an image. Increasing or decreasing the luminance of an area selectively can help to bring it ‘forward’ or to push it ‘back’ in the hierarchy of visual interest. Likewise, a gradation of light can be very effective in transitioning the eye between zones.

Some caveats: While digital processing gives us remarkable and very selective control over luminance in an image, there are limits to what we can accomplish in affecting the quality of light in a scene. Very strong, directional light is the most difficult to finesse because its effects tend to be quite emphatic, while soft light is quite malleable, allowing for a high degree of discretion in post-processing. The suggestions above for adjusting luminance can only go so far—if the light in a photograph is working strongly against its composition, then that photo is probably a candidate for reshooting in different conditions.

• Adjust Colors

Colors can attract attention much like luminance does. Warmer colors ‘advance’ and draw the eye more than cool ones, which tend to recede in an image. Nonetheless, cool colors can demand a lot of attention if they are anomalies in an otherwise warm color palette. Selectively adjusting the hue or saturation of a feature can have a great effect on its presence in the frame, allowing you to control how much attention it demands.

• Take Charge of Textures and Forms

Features with greater dimensionality attract more attention, while flatter ones are less noticeable. Sometimes increasing the contrast of a feature will help to make it stand out better. Conversely, making an area “flatter” (that is, less dimensional) can help to take attention away from it. If a scene has an area of busy detail that detracts from the more interesting parts of the photograph, then reducing the contrast there could be beneficial to the overall image.

Forms that are very different from everything around them are also likely to attract attention. For example, a footprint in an area of smooth sand or a jet contrail in the sky may amount to an unfortunate distraction, in which case it may be a good idea to remove those features by cloning them out.

Flowers for Miles by Erin Babnik

Selective adjustment of luminosity directs attention to the path that the eye should follow and away from busy textures that could be distracting.

 

2) CONVEYING CHARACTER: Bring out the essence of the image.

Any compelling photograph has the potential to suggest certain qualities of character or mood over others. A scene may be cheerful, ominous, dreamy, surreal, whimsical, or any number of other possibilities. Identifying the essence of an image in these terms will provide a framework for processing decisions of a more creative nature. Once you have a good idea of the character or mood that you would like to express, there are a few categories of adjustments to consider that can be very useful in creating the final look of an image accordingly.

• Tailor the Overall Tonality

Most photographers agree that camera settings should target an exposure that will provide the most flexibility when it comes time to process the image. Working this way in the field may result in an initial tonality that differs from what will best express the mood that you have envisioned for the final photo, however. A cheerful feeling may require a brighter treatment, while darker tones tend to suggest a more “moody” character. Even the range of tones may need to be narrowed or expanded to hit the right note, as it were. For example, when giving an image an airy, high-key treatment, you may want to restrict the range of tones so that there are no absolute blacks in it.

Swept Away by Erin Babnik

I wanted a light, warm, airy, impressionistic feel for this image because those qualities are what the scene suggested to me when I experienced it. I removed some distracting blue hues from the top of the photo and avoided making the shadows very dark. There is no absolute black in the final image.

• Constrain the Color Palette

Colors can do a lot to express a certain character. A palette of earthy tones tends to provide a more mature, relaxing appearance, while more vibrant palettes can suggest high levels of energy or exuberance. Shifting certain hues within an image can get them to adhere better to the dominant color scheme, making the character of a final photograph more pronounced. Harmonious color palettes are not only more expressive but are more settling to the eye, so it is worthwhile to explore the possibilities for getting colors to harmonize and to set the right mood for the scene.

• Emphasize Ambience

Some processing treatments do more to establish a sense of ambience than anything else. Deliberately softening an image or making it more hazy can cause it to appear more dreamy, whereas increasing sharpness and clarity can lend a more gritty tone to the whole. Making light sources appear to glow by diffusing them versus hardening their edges can have a great effect on the tenor of a scene. Such treatments can be very subtle and yet still go a long way towards emphasizing the qualities of an image that make it particularly expressive.

Rhapsody in Blue by Erin Babnik

Constraining the color palette to an analogous scheme helped to emphasize the brooding mood set by the storm clouds. There was enough yellow in the raw file that I could have brought it out and produced a complementary scheme, which would have a more peppy mood than what I wanted to convey. I therefore cooled off the traces of warm hues in both the sand and the sky opening in order to ensure that they wouldn’t disrupt the overall feel of the image.

Considering how we might direct attention and what character we want to convey will give clear direction to our development process. Although there are endless options for editing images these days, they are all best employed in the service of a goal. Sometimes a round of experimentation is necessary to help define those goals, but once the direction is clear, all else will follow with more effective results. Do you ever struggle with the direction to take a photograph during its development? What strategies do you find most helpful in pointing the way forward?

 

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Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on FacebookTwitter and 500px.

To Look or Not to Look: Can You Find Yourself Through the Work of Other Photographers?

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

Jigsaw Earth by Erin Babnik

 

There are many photographers who worry that exposure to photographs by others will contaminate the purity of their own creative vision, that they will never find their own voice if they are working under the influence, so to speak. Creativity involves choice, however. The late, great art historian Michael Baxandall famously demolished the idea that artists can ‘influence’ other artists in the true sense of that word. He rightly pointed out that the notion of influence describes the effect of an active power exerting itself on a passive subject, and that the nature of artistic intention actually runs the other way around. He offered up some alternative vocabulary that better explains the process of working in any medium, actual possibilities for what an artist can do in light of another’s work:

“Draw on, resort to, avail oneself of, appropriate from, engage with, react to, quote, differentiate oneself from, assimilate oneself to, assimilate, align oneself with, copy, address, paraphrase, absorb, make a variation on, revive, continue, remodel, resist, simplify, reconstitute, elaborate on, develop, face up to, master, subvert, perpetuate, reduce, promote, respond to, transform, tackle…—everyone will be able to think of others.” (Patterns of Intention, pg. 58)

It is important for photographers to keep in mind that they have all of these options and more for creating their own photographs after viewing other images. It is also important to acknowledge that no photographer exists in a vacuum. One of the great plagues of history is the idea of pure creative genius, that an artwork can spring fully formed out of the head of an artist without any external input. On the contrary, we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and even so-called “naive” artists absorb the visual solutions of whatever imagery they do encounter. Promoting the idea of purity in creativity is not only absurd but is also detrimental to the creative spirit in that it sets up a false premise. That premise posits that what ultimately matters is difference, the extent to which a photograph or a body of work can stand apart from everything that came before it. What really matters, however, is not difference but substance—not standing apart, but making a contribution. As I have written before, the pursuit of difference puts the emphasis on what to avoid rather than what to create, an emphasis that is ultimately counterproductive.

One of the most helpful ideas about viewing photographs that I have encountered is to consider how they might be “extending the conversation” established by photographs that came before them. How is a given photograph in dialogue with what preceded it, and what has it contributed to that conversation? As Brooks Jensen explains, the more that we view other photographs and get to know the history of photography, the better able we will be to appreciate “the subtleties of the currents that drift through the medium” (Looking at Images, pg. 102). That level of appreciation will serve any photographer far better than the impossible pursuit of visual ignorance—burying your head in the sand only cuts off an important avenue for personal development. If we think about existing photographs positively, as foundational elements for all that follows, then we will be more likely to process this visual input in creative ways. We don’t have to try to ‘un-see’ other photographs or fear how they might affect our own work if we embrace the idea that we can ‘own’ our responses to them.

So my answer to the question in the title of this article is a resounding “yes”. Explore and enjoy the images of other photographers! Even photographs that cause us to be overwhelmed with admiration can advance our progress as individuals by helping us to identify what moves and motivates us, which is ultimately a point of personal discovery. If we keep in mind that visual literacy will inform the work of a photographer, not ‘influence’ it, then we can remain focused on productive goals rather than getting hung up on being different. Viewing the works of others is one avenue that can lead in a positive direction as we respond to what we see. Ultimately, anything that can put you in touch with your own interests, reservations, emotions, and experiences is going to help to place your focus where it belongs: on you.

Do you find yourself conflicted by the idea of viewing the images of other photographers? Do you have any favorite strategies for responding to visual input? Please feel free to chime in on this important topic by leaving a comment below. Thanks for reading!

 

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Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on FacebookTwitter and 500px.

Five Valuable Lessons that I Learned in Art School

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

 

Art school may not be necessary or even helpful for everyone with creative intentions, but it can provide a valuable experience. In my case, being enrolled in a fine arts program introduced me to a lot of great advice that has stayed with me over the years. What follows is a list of the five takeaway points that most resonated with me, lessons that have enabled me to derive greater personal satisfaction from my photography. Of course none of these lessons are uniquely available through formal education, and some may even seem like common sense. All of them touch on issues that most creative people face, however, and therefore art educators tend to make a point of teaching them, as I now do in my workshops.

1) Remember to Have Fun

Creativity is ultimately a playful process. There are times when some thoughtful problem solving can go a long way, but it is important to enjoy what we are doing. Curiosity, whimsy, and passion are all fueled by enjoyment, and without them, we are left with simply going through familiar motions. Landscape photographers may be especially familiar with the woes of frustration because we are so affected by circumstances that are out of our control. Disappointment can set in quite easily if we go to great lengths to reach a location and then have conditions that thwart a particular motivation. When the mind is hung up on what it cannot have, creativity plummets, and taking ourselves too seriously will only compound the effect. If you feel yourself sinking into that hole, remind yourself that what you are doing is supposed to be fun. Allow yourself the freedom to experiment and to explore ideas playfully, without any pressure for results governing the process.

"Frizzante" by Erin Babnik

The best kind of work is play. I hiked up to a high alpine lake thinking that I would shoot some snowy landscapes there, but instead I spent two days photographing bubbles in the ice of the lake because I was having so much fun with them.

 

2) Go Big

The phrase “go big” is familiar to most artists, but many take it to mean the size of a finished product, which is exactly what I assumed until exposure to big ideas taught me otherwise. It is not the size of your prints that matters, it is the extent of your ambition. If your passion is pointing you towards a certain idea, then ask yourself what the fullest expression of that idea might entail. If it means pushing yourself harder than you ever have before, then so be it. Hike farther, climb higher, wait longer, venture deeper, learn new techniques—whatever is necessary to take yourself to the next level. So long as you allow your passion to drive you, then there will be a unique kind of enjoyment in it all, even when the going is rough.

"Afternoon Delight" by Erin Babnik

Pursuing big ideas can result in great personal satisfaction. Without much more than some topographical maps to guide me, I spent five years exploring the higher elevations of the Dolomites, concentrating on areas that I had never seen photographed. It was a big project. I traveled repeatedly to a foreign country, hiking a lot of steep terrain, and taking the risk of it being an unproductive expense of time and money. In the end, the photos that I did produce helped me to progress personally and professionally in ways that I never could have predicted.

 

3) Find the Tipping Point

An art instructor once said to me, “You’ll know that you’ve found the point where you have gone far enough after you find the point where you have gone too far.” This advice is related to the first two lessons on my list in that it encourages experimentation and pushing ideas further to see what happens. If you like a feature of your composition, what would happen if you made it take up more of the frame? How about all of the frame? How close to the water is close enough? How about standing right in the water? Is less color more effective? How about going monochromatic? How dark is too dark? Sometimes we allow habits, timidness, or laziness to govern our decisions instead of exploring the limits of our ideas more fully. If we find that we are at the point where we have gone too far, at least we’ll know where it is.

"Harmony" by Erin Babnik

You’ll know what is ‘just enough’ after you’ve found ‘too much’. I discovered this view while out exploring one day and subsequently returned to it many times to photograph it in different conditions. After shooting this same composition in some very dramatic light, I decided that I preferred this softer light for the scene instead.

 

4) Craftsmanship Matters

Whether we intend to pursue a polished look or a grungy one, it is important to ‘own’ our results. It may require more effort to produce a photograph with technical quality and developing that looks wholly intentional, but it is worthwhile to try. Being sloppy rarely produces anything very satisfying. For example, awkward out-of-focus areas, blown-out skies, or obvious blending halos are going to detract from a landscape image unless somehow these qualities suggest deliberate decisions. Ultimately, the extra enjoyment that comes from the finished product will be worth whatever extra attention to detail may be required to realize your vision for it.

"Embrace" by Erin Babnik

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. A lot of extra work is required in order to shoot and process an image that involves focus stacking and also blending for dynamic range, and I find these less creative aspects of processing to be a bit tedious. Nonetheless, it is always worthwhile to have your final photo match the vision for it.

 

5) Creativity is a Messy Place

The caveat to everything above is that creativity works in mysterious ways. Sometimes we arrive at solutions without understanding exactly how we got there, but we can still feel a sense of accomplishment when we do. It is important to give yourself credit for what may seem like a happy accident because, chances are, your creative instincts had a lot to do with it. One of my photographer friends once complained to me that he felt disappointed in himself for not being more disciplined in the field. He often left his tripod attached to his backpack and shot handheld, requiring him to patch together multiple exposures in order to produce an image that he ostensibly could have achieved more easily with a more controlled approach. Nonetheless, this method of shooting enabled him to catch very fleeting moments with ambitious compositions, and his portfolio sparkled with a freshness that surely owed a lot to the spontaneity enabled by his unorthodox techniques. Sometimes it is best not to let that little voice in your head tell you that you’re doing it wrong, even when you’re going against received wisdom that you truly respect.

"El Dorado" by Erin Babnik

Trust your instincts. Although I was shooting with friends this day, I wandered off by myself, gravitating towards a high ridge that would give me a view only in the ‘wrong’ direction. The giant butte that we had come to photograph was now behind me and too close to show its form. For whatever reason, I felt compelled to hike up to this point, not really conscious of what I might find there. I photographed the giant butte that day as well, but this view turned out to be my clear favorite.

The pitfalls of creativity are many, and these five lessons certainly do not address them all. These are the nuggets of advice that seem to have been most beneficial to me, but there are many more. What advice has helped you to get greater satisfaction out of your creative efforts? Please feel free to share your comments on this article below.

 

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Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on FacebookTwitter and 500px.

The Creative Photographer: Three Reasons Why You Should Forget About Originality

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

Dark Hollow

 

Originality is the single most celebrated quality of the artist. Craftsmanship may rank a close second, but it is originality that typically draws the most praise and causes an artist to be remembered. Nonetheless, there are several good reasons why the creative photographer may be better off forgetting about originality during the process of making photographs.

1) Personal motivations are more productive.

If we set out to make photographs with the goal of being original, we are focusing on what others have done already. The emphasis becomes a matter of what to avoid rather than what to pursue—a process of moving away instead of moving towards. Therefore, the concept of originality can amount to a terrible distraction for an artist. By concentrating on our own interests and motivations, we can allow the process of creation to run in a more positive direction, one that originates from within instead of merely diverging from external considerations.

2) We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

Photography, like any artistic medium, is one of the world’s great unfinished projects and always will be. Since inspiration plays an incalculable role in the process of art-making, we should recognize that we are all taking part in an ongoing collaborative process. Art’s inherent combination of personal expression and creative exchange is what makes it culturally powerful, and we should embrace opportunities to develop both ends of that spectrum. Therefore, it is helpful to acknowledge the works of other photographers as part of our collective foundation, to realize that we draw upon them, and to think of our own works as responses rather than as departures.

3) Originality is inevitable.

Unless we set out to produce deliberate replicas of existing photographs, we are bound to put something of ourselves into everything that we create. Every photographer, by the virtue of being an individual, has unique ideas that are at least germinating with the creation of every photograph. Finnish photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen wrote forcefully on this topic when he used the metaphor of a bus transit system to describe the creative process. He explained that all of the buses in his town cover the same route as they depart from the central station, and if you want to reach an area that is unique to a particular bus line, then you have to stay on one of the buses for a while. Such is the case with creativity, he explains. If you practice your art long enough, you’ll reach that unique area eventually, and it will then become apparent that your line was distinct from the others all along. In other words, so long as we allow our own interests and ideas to guide us, we will inevitably produce a body of work that shimmers with originality.

For these reasons, it is probably best to think of originality as a wonderful result but to forget about it as a goal. Concentrating on more constructive concepts, such as interpretation or expression, will help to put the focus where it belongs: on what each of us invariably has to offer as an individual.

 

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Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on FacebookTwitter and 500px.