Business vs. Creativity

(© Ian Plant) A reader recently emailed me with an interesting question: How is your photography affected by the fact that you earn your living from your work? In particular, he was curious about how the “immense pressure to capture killer images” on each excursion affects my shooting, and how it might influence one’s decision to turn to Photoshop in an effort to make unexceptional photographs look significantly more magical than they were to the eye. I think his questions, although seemingly mostly relevant to professional photographers, are also of interest to many serious amateurs and enthusiasts.

There can be no doubt that the "Digital Revolution"—both in terms of the popularity of digital cameras and the ubiquitous domination of the Internet—has significantly changed photography as we know it (for a tongue-in-cheek exploration of this, you may want to check out my recent blog post The Death of Photography). Suddenly, more people than ever are taking photographs, and everyone is posting their photos on photo sharing and social media sites. The Internet is awash with images from all over the world, and only the most eye-catching rise to any sort of prominence.

There can be little doubt that anyone who participates in this Internet frenzy, pro and amateur alike, feels intense pressure to produce photographs that can’t help but get noticed. Hence, in recent years in particular, there has been a dramatic increase in reliance on stunning sunrises and sunsets, extreme perspectives, mind-blowing scenery—and heavy Photoshop processing to help things along whenever Mother Nature isn’t fully cooperating. Let’s face it: “subtle” doesn’t typically do nearly as well with Internet audiences as a photo that beats you over the head with epic beauty (I previously wrote about this in a blog post called The Subtle Eye).

So, the pressure is on, and all of us feel it, especially when making an expensive trip. It’s hard to spend time and money in the field only to come up empty-handed. It is all too easy to get myopically focused on one or two “epic” scenes, waiting for days or weeks on end for the light to be just right to make it all come together—and even easier to simply coax things along in the digital darkroom.

I feel the pressure as much as the next person, perhaps even more so because I do this for a living and rely heavily on the Internet for marketing and promotion of my work. I constantly dream up images in my head, and sometimes spend the better part of a photo trip looking to turn the dream into a reality. But more often than not, when I get on location I let the dream fade to the background. Instead, I begin to focus on what nature is offering me, and my thoughts turn to finding a way to make what is offered work as a pleasing photograph. Eventually, my subject dictates to me the possibilities, rather than the other way around. I immerse myself in the now, in the immediacy of the scene, and I let the dream take a break.

The end result? Photographs that perhaps are more subtle than epic, but undeniably more personal. Sure, the occasional legendary moment comes along, and when it does, I do my best to do it justice. But when it doesn’t, I try very hard to resist the temptation to pound a square peg into a round hole. To me, creativity is stymied when you try to turn something into something it is not. So much of the magic of the photographic process is letting your subject be what it is, of exploring and revealing its truth rather than trying to bend it into some Kinkadian fantasy.

Granted, this is sometimes more aspirational than sensible. Times are changing, and what might have been considered “over processed” five years ago is now the new normal. I try to keep up with the times, and I recognize that my line of work is getting increasingly competitive. So although I can’t afford to go all King Lear, shouting helplessly at the wind, as it turns out I enjoy exploring the subtle moments as much as I do the epic ones, and I try never to forget that.

In the end, it can be difficult to predict what mercurial Internet audiences and photo editors will respond to. While I'll take epic beauty when it is available, I prefer to spend my time in the field searching for images that are meaningful to me. I shoot what moves me, and then let the chips fall where they may.

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    Good commentary Ian. Lately I’ve pondered a similar question specific to lens correction software. I’d used PTLens on occasion to correct keystone when it was important for a personal project. Lately I’ve found myself using barrel distortion correction on every ‘decent’ wide angle shot I take. My eye has gotten very sensitive to wavy horizons and barrel bulges in scenery. What’s your opinion on lens correction – (1) use it always or (2) sometimes for/against affect or (3) rarely?

    Hi JDB, you raise an interesting question. As you probably noticed, I actually have a bit of wide angle distortion in the image I use in this post (noticeable in the butte in the lower left), caused by the upward angle of my camera position. I made some effort to correct the distortion, but didn’t go all the way. I guess I’m fairly agnostic about correcting distortion: sometimes I’ll correct it if I think it distracts from the overall image, sometimes I’ll leave it be, sometimes (as here) I’ll split the difference. Anytime you make distortion corrections, you degrade image quality somewhat, so I try to avoid it when possible, but beyond the quality issue I personally don’t have any moral objection to fixing distortion. Thanks for chiming in!

    Great article Ian, as was the Death of Photography. I live in a region with few outstanding natural features, so I’m learning to take more photographs of the subtle beauty around the area. I agree, it’s way more personal, and probably shapes your personal style more than the “Grandscapes”.

    Right on Ian, your essay speaks volumes. I think you hit it on all eight cylinders here, Perhaps if everyone eventually tires of the over processed/saturated image with the mind blowing skies, subtlety will stand out in the crowd!

    This was such a good and honest post, I really enjoyed reading it. I feel I have struggled a lot with the same delima but differently. I can’t even tell anyone that I’m a photographer without them telling me how their brother/cousin/friend is also a photographer. I hear so often, “oh my fianc̩’s friend has a big camera, he’s gonna shoot our wedding.” Its so hard to stand out now, I have to have a day job. I’ve decided instead of focusing on going pro I’ll keep it as a side gig unless the chips fall right and work builds up.

    Hi Matthew, thanks for your comment. This is something we all struggle with these days, pro or not – it seems that EVERYONE is a photographer! It makes it very hard to stand out or to even produce work that is fresh and unique. Which, in my opinion, makes it all the more important to photograph what inspires you, and not worry about what everyone else is doing. Good luck!

    An excellent honest article! It feels so much better to know that even pros go through the same issues as the amateurs! I have been taking pictures since since I was 10. I remember using all 36 exposures on a waterfall near the Himalayas when I was 13 (1998). A lot of people hated me for that – as I was supposed to take snaps of the visit instead! I refused to budge!

    And now I have my own simple Canon S5 IS – taking as many as I want. But, every time I approach a moment – I get lost within the possibilities of it. I always think that the composition I am trying to frame can be far better from a different point. But I fail to figure out what that point is and then end up with some snaps which look good but I am never always happy with. That’s when I resort to photoshop – trying to make it better than it ever was. And, if I wait too long to find the perfect spot – the light changes or something else happens! 🙁

    I feel dejected for days after that!

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