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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