Think Differently About Your DSLR

How experimentation can pay big creative dividends

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.

Likening a camera to a blank canvas and redefining your perception of a subject can rejuvenate your artistic approach to photography. Rather than looking at a rose simply as a rose, try redefining the flower based on its color, tone and shape to create a composition where your imagination acts as the main influence, not the subject itself. This can sometimes lead to more conceptual images like the flower abstract above or the zebra shot lower left. Changing your creative process often results in finding new ways of expressing familiar subjects.

It becomes necessary, then, to start fresh, throwing out what we’ve learned and seeking new meanings. When confronted with the responses from my workshop students about what a camera is, I asked myself if it can be perceived in a different way. Can it be more than just a camera? Ultimately, the answer, while simple in its concept, resulted in a major paradigm shift for me. Rather than a device to capture light or record a scene, I came to realize that I could consider the camera to be nothing more than a blank canvas (specifically, the sensor or film) onto which I could “paint” anything that my imagination could conjure up. This was a key perceptual shift as a different mind frame comes into play with the word “paint” than the one associated with the word “record.” I wasn’t holding a device to trap light; I was hanging on to the back end of a blank canvas!

All I needed was something to paint with. Almost immediately on the heels of the first paradigm shift, the second one came about in the form of redefining the concept of “subject.” Thanks to our desire to define things—a flower being just a flower—we tend not to look any deeper than the definition. That action in itself is a barrier to creativity. Rarely do we abstract a subject down to its essence which, when we do, can significantly influence our imagination and the type of images that we can make. Instead, we simply put the subject in our shot and let it go at that. Staying with the “paint” theme while working with a vase of flowers on my dining room table during one Minnesota winter, my subjects weren’t roses or tulips. Instead, I redefined them as sources of color, tone and shape that I could use to create compositions based on whatever my imagination could conjure. As soon as I embraced these two new paradigms, whole new pathways of creativity began to open up. Tripods? I experimented without one. As the flowers (my new paintbrushes) were already fixed in position, all I needed to do was move the canvas to paint!

The result of these two paradigm shifts was a journey into abstractionism and, lately, impressionism photography, which has blurred the boundary between photography and art. Over the last five years, I’ve put these paradigms to the test, letting my journey into abstractionism run its course while photographing in the creative environment of the estate gardens of Claude Monet, where I now teach a workshop using the creative tools that I developed. Being in such a garden, I feel a bit like Monet (well, at least like an artist), who has just opened a box of pastels or a case of paints. I’ve come to interpret it not as a garden, but as a fascinating space filled with color, luminosity and tone that ignites my imagination to create images that are based on the essence of the flowers. I aim for a result where the work transcends the natural definitions, leaving the viewer with the challenge of adopting new levels of perceptions to arrive at their own interpretations.

These paradigm shifts in both definitions and perceptions not only opened new pathways of expression, but have created ripple effects that have impacted the way that I approach my landscape and wildlife photography, as well. Familiar subjects have taken on new visual interpretations, and old perspectives fade into the distances as new possibilities beckon me to come and give them a try. All that from a simple change made in our definitions.

See more of Mark Lissick’s photography and find out about his workshops at

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