Break Free From Your Comfort Zone

Familiarity can hamper creativity. If your photos have been feeling bland lately, it may be time to push yourself into some uncharted territory.

Most people tend to establish what’s known as a “comfort zone,” which is a limited set of safe, predictable and comfortable behavioral patterns that gives a sense of security and allows one to deliver a steady level of performance. Our comfort zone with photography gets defined early on. From the moment we first pick up a camera, we’re indoctrinated with all sorts of rules and conventional wisdom: Always use a tripod, shoot during the golden hours, compose using the Rule of Thirds, never clip your highlights, etc. We also learn the best places and subjects to shoot, and we flock en masse to iconic places made famous by others. Too often, the end result is that we stifle our creativity, letting our fear of taking chances lead us down well-trodden paths.

Freshen up your view by changing perspectives. Move around, get low, go from wide-angle to tele, or vice versa. Tamron 90mm F2.8 Di Macro; Sigma APO 120-300mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM; Tokina AT-X AF DX 10-17mm F3.5-4.5 Fisheye Zoom.

The best photographers know that the comfort zone is the enemy of artistic expression, however. They don’t just shoot the same images that have been shot a million times before; instead, they seek new and unique ways of seeing the world. They look for new angles, new perspectives and new subjects in order to stand out from the pack. They’re always willing to walk away from the “safe” images and instead swing for the fences with riskier shots.

It’s time to break free from your comfort zone, to take some chances with your photography and to start taking the images you’ve always dreamed of making. Here are just a few practical tips that can help open you to new ideas and perspectives.

Get Off The Beaten Path
There are many places around the world that are the iconic places of nature photography, such as Snake River Overlook in the Grand Tetons made famous by Ansel Adams. There’s nothing wrong with shooting icons—they’re beautiful places that will continue to inspire all of us for ages to come—but they’ve been done over and over again, making it hard to find something truly unique and personal. Whenever I can, I like to get off the beaten path and to find places unknown or overlooked by others. When alone in such places, I feel free to explore my personal vision, and I feel that my connection with my subject is more personal and more intense.

Besides, iconic locations don’t have a monopoly on beauty. Many less visited places are every bit as beautiful as the icons, some even more so. There are plenty of undiscovered icons out there, waiting for someone to photograph them and bring them to light—so go out there and find your own icons.

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Think about the direction of light. If you typically shoot in front-lit situations, turn around and experiment with backlighting or sidelighting. You can create some dramatic looks. Play with exposure. Deep shadow can create its own compositional elements and shapes within a frame. Don’t be afraid to try making high-contrast images.

Find New Perspectives
Try to get away from “normal” perspectives, focal lengths, compositions and positioning. Shake things up a bit and break free from your personal routines. For example, instead of shooting at eye level, get low for new angles. If you tend to use normal-range lenses, put an extreme wide-angle lens on your camera instead and get in close to your subject to create an “in your face” perspective. Don’t just shoot frame-filling portraits of wildlife with the longest telephoto lens you have; experiment with wider compositions that include some of the animal’s habitat. Tell a story about your subject and create an interesting composition.

Brush up on the theory of artistic composition so you can move beyond the comfort zone provided by the Rule of Thirds. Study the works of the great painting masters such as Vermeer, Sargent, van Gogh, Degas and others, and you’ll see that they employed a number of dynamic compositional techniques long before the Rule of Thirds ever came into existence. Try compositional styles that are new and unfamiliar to you. If your photos tend to lack “punch,” try something bold and attention-grabbing instead; if you rely on bold compositions with powerful leading lines, try something less obvious and more subtle. Take chances with your compositions—they may not always end up looking good, but you can’t progress if you don’t have some failures along the way.

A scene doesn’t have to be in an iconic locale to make a powerful photograph.

Master The Moment
There’s no need to always search for iconic scenery. Some of my personal favorite images are of rather boring subjects, brought to life for a brief moment by a rare convergence of unique natural elements. Such moments can transform even a mundane place into something magical. Rather than search for places that are instantly recognizable and easily copied by many, search for never-to-be-reproduced moments that will inspire and amaze. Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most famous practitioners of the art of photography, coined the phrase “the decisive moment,” referring to the peak moment when two or more disparate elements interact in a meaningful way. Photographers like Cartier-Bresson relied on capturing decisive moments—capturing convergences of motion, shape and mood—to create their art and to reveal the essence of their subjects.

Weather, above almost all else, defines the decisive moment in outdoor photography. For example, clouds create compositional shapes, which relate to elements of the landscape below, and can create color and mood, as well. “Atmospherics,” as I like to call interesting weather phenomenon such as mist, rainbows and storms, can transform even average scenes into something exceptional. Bad weather often produces the most dramatic conditions, and the best photographers find a way to suffer through the nasty stuff, waiting for the chance to shoot moody storm clouds, backlit mist, sunbeams scattering across the sky and other magical moments.

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You can create long exposures and motion blurs by using an ND filter.

Make Motion Your Subject
Photography is the art of taking a dynamic, three-dimensional world and squishing it down into a static, two-dimensional image. Our job as photographers is to find a way to re-create the sense of energy and motion that we perceive in the real world. One way to do this is to make motion over time part of your subject. While long exposures can be unpredictable and risky, motion blur can add energy, direction and depth to photographs. A common example of using motion blur is stream and waterfall photography. Such images are relatively simple to make: Just put your camera on a tripod and set exposure for 1⁄4 sec. or longer. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg—to really move away from your comfort zone, you need to try motion blur with elements other than just moving water. Some potential subjects include windblown foliage, clouds streaking across the sky, animals running or birds flying, and leaves or ice floating in water. Done correctly, moving elements can create an impressionistic blur that adds mood and additional compositional interest to your photos.

Several tools and techniques are available to achieve long exposures. Shooting during the twilight hours helps considerably, as exposure times of several seconds or minutes may be required in the near dark. Neutral-density and polarizer filters (both of which block light coming in through the lens, although a polarizer also removes glare and reflections) are useful for lengthening exposure times, as are low-ISO settings and small apertures. The trick with photographing moving subjects is to strike a proper balance between stop-action and motion blur. Too little motion, and the subject appears frozen. Too much motion, and the subject loses texture and detail. Somewhere in between is usually just right; of course, that “just right” spot is subjective, giving you plenty of wiggle room to explore your own artistic vision. Experiment freely with different exposure times to get the look you desire.

Kenko Vario ND; Heliopan Vario ND.

Shoot Unconventional Light
The best photographers don’t just shoot safe “sun-behind-your-back” light; instead, they look for the edges of light, where light and shadow mingle. I prefer to work with directional light, such as side- and backlighting, as much as possible. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I shoot into the sun far more often than I shoot with the sun at my back.

There can be no doubt that the so-called “golden” or “magic” hours (the hour or so around sunrise and sunset) often yield incredible displays of color and light. While shooting during the “magic hours” is a good thing, don’t turn your back on photo opportunities during the rest of the day; you can find great photos even during the harshness of midday light. The lesson here is that there’s no such thing as “bad” light—there’s only the right light for a given scene. If you look to the landscape with a creative eye, you may find unconventional and surprising pairings of light and composition.

Flash is another great way to bring something unique and creative to your photos. The trick is not to overdo it. You generally want to avoid an obvious “flashed” look. Use flash at low power to place emphasis on an important part of the scene. Colored gel filters can be used to add some color to your scene when natural light isn’t giving you the results you desire.

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Try adding artificial light to illuminate the foreground. Nikon Speedlight SB-900; Canon Speedlite 580EX; Litepanels Croma LED.

Embrace Your Flaws
We’re taught early on to avoid technical flaws. Flare from the sun is bad, insufficient depth of field or bad focus is a no-no, avoid over- or underexposing your images. Look at the work of the best photographers, however, and you may notice that they often creatively embrace these “flaws,” turning them instead into artistic strengths.

Here’s something to consider: The limitations of our equipment are, in part, what make photography unique as an art form. Simply put, our cameras and lenses don’t see the world quite the same way that our eyes and brains do, and this is a good thing—our goal as artists is to show people the world in a way that’s different from what they’re used to seeing. Although in recent years, many new digital techniques such as high-dynamic-range (HDR) imaging, focus stacking and other photo-editing tools have made it easier to get around the technical limitations of camera equipment, we need to remember that these limitations also make photography singular and special. While I have nothing against these techniques and use them often, it’s important to keep in mind that technical limitations of equipment can and should be used creatively, and can lead to some interesting and unique photo opportunities.

For example, I enjoy making “underexposed” images that are dramatic and moody, with just a hint of light piercing the gloom. Another favorite technique of mine is to use lens flare creatively. Often, I’ll include the sun within the picture frame, especially when using a wide-angle lens. Small apertures on a wide-angle lens will create a “starburst” effect as a result of flare. Flare also can be used creatively when photographing wildlife, imparting a warm, low-contrast look to the image. Many photographers also artistically use shallow focus and depth of field, and intentional overexposure to produce what are known as high-key images. When technical limitations arise, think creatively and find a way to use them to your advantage.

F/8 And Be There
There’s an old saying, “ƒ/8 and be there,” which essentially means that being on the scene is paramount. If you want to break free from your comfort zone, you need to throw your all into shooting when on location, and don’t settle for merely “good enough.” You don’t need to dedicate your entire life to photography to get great results, but when you do manage to find some time in your busy schedule to get out in the field, don’t waste any of it—be there, as much as you can, and reap the rewards of persistence. If you’re not behind the viewfinder as much as possible, you’re going to miss out on a lot of great images. When in the field, constantly immerse yourself in the photographic process; you’ll be amazed at what you turn up.

Ian Plant is a full-time professional nature photographer, writer and adventurer. His work appears in numerous magazines, books and calendars, and he writes a regular blog at He’s also the author of a number of ebooks and digital-processing video tutorials. See more of his work at