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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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Also, three new eBooks are available for sale in my eStore: South Carolina Wonder and Light by Richard Bernabe, West Virginia Adventures in Light by Joseph Rossbach, and Play Fool to Catch Wise by your truly. Thanks!