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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Think Differently About Your DSLR

How experimentation can pay big creative dividends

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Whether you enjoy creating by pencil, brush or camera, the challenge of keeping your creative level at its peak can be daunting. Over the two decades that I’ve been behind the lens, I’ve had to face this issue daily. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to fall into a creativity rut where we tend to approach familiar subjects in the same way, use the same lenses and rarely alter our perspective. It’s not immediately apparent when this begins to happen, but a sure sign of it is when you notice that all of your images have started to take on the same look and feel. While achieving a certain creative style or look in your work is important, it’s also necessary to let it continue to evolve in order to avoid stagnation.

Buying a new lens or trying the latest image-manipulation application can certainly help change your images. I’ve found that if I make some fundamental changes in the way that I think and perceive at the beginning of the creative processes, however, the impact for change is much greater. One of the most fundamental underpinnings of the creative process has to do with how we’ve chosen to define not only ourselves and our craft, but also the tools we use. These definitions, while vital as a basis for communication, also can greatly inhibit our creative abilities. New tools are a critical part of the evolution of image-making, but they’re not the only part.

Unlike painting or sculpting, photography is a relatively modern invention originally intended to be another tool for the creative artist. Charles Baudelaire, an early critic of the medium, unfortunately forever changed our perception of photography by stating that it was merely an exact reproduction of nature and, therefore, it could never be considered on the level of art because it relied on technology rather than imagination. To be fair, in Baudelaire’s time, “realism” as an art form was in vogue, and the success of one’s creation (whether with brush or camera) was measured by how close the results matched the real world. That dogma is still with us today and is reflected in the fact that with billions of pic-tures created each year, photography has mainly been reduced to its most basic usage—either a snapshot intended as a memento or an image used for documentation purposes.

On the back end of the creative process, our understanding of our art and the work produced has grown since then. We know by the way each of us responds to images that they’re not simply a reproduction or recording of a momentary reality. Images have their start as a blending of the photographer’s understanding of his or her world, life experiences and chosen tools, which is the same creative process of expression used by a painter or sculptor.

We also know that the visual message in an image is subject to the interpretation of both the photographer and the viewer. An image is more than simply the sum of its parts. An image of a bald eagle soaring in the morning fog is an example of this. The image is more than a recording of a bald eagle, fog, sunrise and a bush. When combined with choice of exposure, the effect transcends the sum of the components, bringing with it new levels of interpretation that are different for each viewer.

At the front end of the creative process, our perception of photography hasn’t evolved to the same degree unfortunately. This can be seen in how we define the tools of our craft. In my workshops, if I ask for a definition of a camera, the answers generally will fall into one of two main categories: It’s a device that records an image, and it’s an object that captures light. The ghost of Baudelaire is still with us today. It’s important to note that the defining two words in both descriptions are “records” and “captures.” Both words, by the way we conceive their associated actions, can set limits to our creativity.

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