“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 in the French Alps 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.

Erin Babnik is a full-time landscape photographer, photography educator, writer, and speaker. Immersion in the visual arts has been the one constant in Erin’s life, including an extensive background in various studio arts and a doctoral education in the history of art. Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Europe, teaching workshops and giving talks on both continents. You can learn more about Erin and her ideas about photography through a variety of interviews with her.  |  Erin’s Website:  www.erinbabnik.com

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