Essential Photography: The Creative Principle

Essential Photography: The Creative Principle


Essential Photography: The Creative Principle

The Creative Principle

Creativity is the process of making, or creating, something new and useful – in context, that would be a photograph. So in order for a photograph to be creative it must involve a scene, technique, or composition that’s new and unique – never been done before. But making something new isn’t nearly enough. There are an infinite number of ways to make new or novel images with your camera – including tripping the shutter as your tripod accidentally falls to the ground or firing it remotely after attaching the camera to your dog’s tail as it runs through the yard. The results would be new or unique, to be sure, but they wouldn’t necessarily be creative. Almost all of the photos would be failures, unless you “created” a random, happy accident. The photograph needs to be both new and useful, meaning it has to make a meaningful connection with the viewer. Art can never be the product of an accident, it must be purposeful. Composing a scene through your camera’s viewfinder is just one conscious, purposeful thing you can do as a photographic artist.

Following the compositional “rules” will surely lead to visually appealing images that are “useful” but they might lack the creativity you’re striving for since there’s nothing new in any composition recipes. You must learn to break the rules in order to achieve true creative results but you also must know the rules in order to break them. Actors and actresses are instructed to learn their lines so they can later forget them and improvise lines in the moment. The good ones do just that. Call it counter-intuitive if you wish, but I prefer to call it the Creative Principle. Feel free to break this one too since there are, in fact, no rules here.

It’s also crucial to understand that breaking the rules just for the sake of breaking them is not being creative either. What’s most important about knowing the rules is understanding why they work most of the time. Knowing why the rules work will lead to something akin to a higher state of compositional enlightenment: knowing when your photo is successful when not using the rules, or better yet, purposely breaking them. Once you get to that happy place, you will be on the path to true creative synthesis.

The last step on this journey to creative expression is actually putting The Creative Principle into action. The French artist, Henri Matisse once famously declared, “creativity takes courage.” It takes considerable courage to deviate from the safe confines of conventional compositional rules because trying something different could lead to failure. Your art should be an intimate expression of yourself so it’s easy to take failure personally. It’s important to remember, however, that artistic growth requires experimenting and trying new things. Failures will occur along the way but they’re a small price to pay for the creative breakthroughs you’re going to make by venturing outside your comfort zone. Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, said, “an essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.” Don’t be afraid to try something new.

So consider the rules merely as guidelines or suggestions with which to take generous liberties. “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,” Pablo Picasso offered as advice to fellow creatives. When I’m behind the camera, I am not thinking about compositional rules, guidelines, or suggestions but instead I’m working on more of an intuitive level. I don’t think too much about composition. I simply defer to what feels right. Later on, I often discover that I did, in fact, use one of the rules presented here (or I’ve discovered that I ignored all of them) but I’m never thinking that way while creating.

Remember, no one is born an accomplished photographer and master of composition. It’s not an innate talent. It’s not a gift. There are no child prodigies in the field of photography. Every great photographer has had to learn the rules, intentionally break the rules, then ignore them altogether. If you’re just starting out, rest assured that you are in the same place that I once was, as well as every other professional photographer. Learn the rules, adopt the Creative Principle, then follow your heart and intuition to a life of creative expression. Enjoy the journey.

Essential Composition: Frames

Essential Composition: Frames


Essential Composition: Frames


Using frames is an effective compositional technique in photography and art that provides a powerful way of emphasizing the primary subject or most essential visual element in the photo. Framing immediately directs attention to and leads the eye to the subject or anything else you feel is important in the image. This is the “frame within a frame” that you’ve probably heard so much about in composition books. The image border is a frame too. Frames are another way of helping manipulate and guide how your audience looks at your image.

Look for frames in architectural elements such as doorways or arches, natural elements such as tree branches and natural arches, or variations in light and dark to effectively frame your subject.

“Spring Garden” Magnolia Plantation, Charleston, South Carolina USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 24-105mm @ 58mm, 1/20 second @ f/13, ISO 500.

In the image above, the arching tree branches not only provide a frame for the walkway and “V” shape created by the azaleas and receding tree trunks, but it also gives some needed balance to the image by counterpoising some visual weight the colorful flowering shrubs in bottom part of the photo (learn more about Achieving Photographic Balance in a previous blog post).

You can learn more about using frames, as well as many other compositional concepts in my e-book, Creative Composition: Image Design Masterclass.

Essential Composition: Seeing Abstractly

Essential Composition: Seeing Abstractly


Essential Composition: Seeing Abstractly

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I can offer a beginning photographer to help see and create more compelling compositions is learning to let go of the literal elements of a scene and embracing the underlying abstract qualities instead. That doesn’t mean you should start making purely abstract images, although that’s not necessarily a bad idea for its own sake, but rather try to see through the literal elements to visualize the scene abstractly. For example, instead of seeing a scene’s obvious aesthetic beauty – the mountains, trees, rocks, clouds and river, you should train yourself to look deeper for interconnecting shapes, space, balance, lines, patterns and how they relate to each other and the image frame.

When working with students in the field, I might ask them to squint their eyes just a little so the literal elements mostly disappear and all that remains is the skeletal structure of the scene – shapes, lines, patterns, etc. This is very good practice if you’ve never tried it before and a good way to learn the art of visualization. The literal elements flesh the image out later when the image is captured.

In the images above, you can easily see how the elephant family creates a virtual triangle. There is aesthetic value in arranging important visual elements into power shapes – triangles, diamonds, pyramids, and circles – rather than random grouping of animals or primary subjects. Seeing abstractly allows you to identify these underlying shapes that help give your image balance and order.

Pretty scenes are a dime a dozen but well designed pretty scenes are much less common. Developing the ability of seeing abstractly will lead to stronger compositions and more compelling photography.

If you find you have some difficultly in seeing abstractly when doing your photography, try the advice I gave above about squinting so that the scene’s literal details are blurred out. If that doesn’t work, you can practice by studying the work of other photography masters and artists while identifying the underlying abstract nature of the images.

Photography And The Creative Process

Photography And The Creative Process


Photography And The Creative Process

When it comes to photography and the creative process, I fully embrace the principles of brain function lateralization. In a nutshell, brain function lateralization refers to how the left and right hemispheres of our brains process information in different ways. The right half of the brain is where we feel emotion, use our imagination, and do our dreaming, while the left half is where we use language, reason, and apply logic.

This idea is certainly nothing new to most of you, but learning how to use this knowledge can help you, as a photographer, better understand the creative process and make images that better express your experiences both intuitively and conceptually.

It’s important to understand that our conscious mind can only process information from one side of the brain at a time. We are able to switch back and forth fairly effortlessly, but it’s not the best way for the brain to operate. In the end, authority is almost always delegated to one half or the other when deciding what information enters our consciousness and what doesn’t. This includes visual information that is transmitted from our eyes via the optic nerve. Alas, the struggle is almost always won by our dominant left brain, while the right plays a much more passive role.

Our right brain is sometimes able to covertly sneak information into our conscious awareness but only when the left brain is either asleep at the wheel or lulled into boredom. During these episodes, random emotional and visual vignettes and freely associated images wildly dance and flicker through our consciousness before the rational left brain once again regains control and restores order.

For the photographer, it’s in the right half of the brain where the creative spark is kindled, making a connection to the world we see in intuitive, emotional terms. The left half is concerned with more workaday matters such as exposure, perspective, and composition (I am convinced that composition is a deliberate cognitive process rather than intuitive one although admittedly, I often simply defer to what feels right).

If your goal is to have others inspired and moved by the images you make, you must be inspired and moved by what you see and experience. If you want to evoke a strong emotional response from others with your photography, you must have a strong emotional connection to your subject matter. How can you expect others to be moved by your photography if you are ambivalent? How can you possibly expect your viewers to feel power, awe, tranquility, melancholy, or heartache in your images if you, an actual witness to the scene, felt nothing?

When I am in the field, I often forget that there is a camera with me. I am not thinking about composition, light, or pressure to make a single image whatsoever. I’m simply try to savor the experience and totally immerse myself in the present moment and place with heightened senses and awareness. I’m not looking for anything in particular, nor do I expect to find anything. Instead, I am creating a state of mind where I am completely receptive to something finding me.

The late fine-art photographer, Ruth Bernhard, once explained how she approached her craft. “I never look for a photograph,” she explained. “The photograph finds me and says, ‘I’m here!’ and I say, ‘Yes I see you. I hear you!’”

The key is being completely open and receptive to your environment while passive with your thoughts. I find this to be the most effective way for allowing the right brain to temporarily gain the upper hand. The worst thing you can possibly do is rush into the field or photography session with preconceived ideas or images that you want to create. That includes the pressure to create any image at all. There should be no expectations. Trying to force things only reasserts the left brain’s dominance and ultimately leads to photographic clichés, old concepts, and emotionally sterile results.

When something in the field does speak to me and I am emotionally drawn to a subject or scene, I don’t want to immediately reach for the camera and start shooting either. Too many times I have aborted the creative process at this point and began to take capture the images. These are usually disappointments as I am left muttering later over the computer, “What was I thinking here?” Far removed from the emotional high experienced during the capture, the images failed to trigger the same response later on. This is exactly how your viewers will feel, since they too are emotionally and physically separated from your experience. Your right brain may have provided the intuitive, emotional spark, but something was clearly missing in the translation to the finished product.

Instead of instinctively grabbing the camera, ask yourself some basic questions: Why do I want to photograph this? What is drawing me to this subject or scene? What emotion – specifically – is this scene eliciting from me and what ultimately do I want to express here? What elements within the scene are contributing to this emotional sensation I am feeling? If you can verbalize some of these answers, they will be easier to act on. Language is the domain of left brain processing and verbalization provides the catalyst to the left brain image execution. Remember, we cannot process information from both sides of our brains simultaneously, so this verbalization should jump start the transition from right to left.

What emotional sensation did you verbalize? Tranquility? Strength? Power? What elements – specifically – were contributing to this emotional response? The motion of the water? The ominous, foreboding sky? The sensual curve of the lake’s shoreline?

Now, what tools do we possess that can help accentuate these specific elements? Those tools can be found deep within your camera bag or in the well of your accumulated technical knowledge and photography experience. Where is the focal point of the image? Do these elements lend themselves to a wide-angle composition that merges the focal point gracefully with the surrounding environment, or does a more simplified presentation communicate this better?

Well, you get the idea here. We are creating a concept, which is all left brain thinking. If we remain in the right brain, intuitive mode without crossing over to left brain conceptualization, we are likely to create images with strong emotional content, but with little or no meaning to anyone but ourselves. Your emotional response to the scene must be conceptualized in order for others, who were never there at the scene, to “get it.” And if you only approach your photography from the left brain mode and never establish any emotional connection to the subject, the results will likely be technically adequate, well-crafted images that are emotionally sterile.

Creativity as artistic expression is a syntheses between the right and the left, the intuitive and the conceptual. A 2014 article in The Atlantic titled, The Power of Two describes the genius of The Beatles, how John and Paul were complementary opposites who probably would have failed without each other (I’ll let you decide who was the right/intuitive and who was the left/conceptual). Their creative process, and their genius, relied on both – as do you, the creative photographer.

5 Easy Ways to Become More Creative

5 Easy Ways to Become More Creative


5 Easy Ways to Become More Creative

Everyone is looking for ways to be more creative, both in their work, life, or their photography. Following are five easy ways to help break the routine and old ways of thinking to work, think, and be more creative.

Start something. Just start. Maybe you have a gut feeling or intuition about a project without necessarily having an end game. Hey, that’s okay. Just start anyway and see where it goes. Planning is generally a good thing – especially with those really big, important life decisions with serious repercussions – but all too often, over-analyzing a project just leads to too many “what ifs” and other negative thoughts from the responsible version of you. Next thing you know, you begin having doubts and you never start at all. It’s amazing how, after starting something, you just find your way once you’re in the thick of it – particularly if youre good at it…or passionate about it. Don’t be afraid to take a chance on a good idea. Just start and see what happens.

“Don’t think, just do.” –  Horace

Write it down. When you get an idea, immediately write it down. Carry a pen and paper pad in your briefcase. Email it to yourself. Use the Note App on your smartphone. Heck, you don’t even have to write it. Call yourself and leave a message on your voicemail. Just get it out of your head and make it tangible someplace.

Some of our very best creative ideas come to us when our mind is quiet or in a meditative state. When our dominant left brain is resting, it can be temporarily outflanked by our imaginative right brain to allow ideas to see the light of consciousness. But once you get busy again, they’re gone and you just can’t get them back – I don’t care how old (or young) you are. Ideas are fleeting and ephemeral and they will be lost to the wind unless you write them down to act on them later.

Do the Opposite. This is also known as the George Costanza Principle. If you want different results, it only makes sense that you make different decisions. Why not try the opposite of what you would instinctively do? If you’re in a rut or stuck in a rigid thought pattern, this might be a good way to start.

It must be said that common sense is to be used here so you don’t ruin your life or die by doing something really stupid. But if applied to photography, for example – where you probably wont die or ruin your life by the decisions you make, you might try doing the opposite of what you would normally do in that same shooting situation. Going out for a landscape sunrise shoot? Leave the wide-angle at home and bring only a telephoto lens. Bring only a mid-range zoom for a wildlife shoot. Photograph birds or sporting event using only long shutter speeds (like the image at the top of the page). You get the idea. What have you got to lose, after all? The answer is either nothing or the same old thing. Sometimes just asking the question, or at least raising the possibility, can shatter old ways of thinking and lead to creative results.


Image Design Masterclass by Richard Bernabe $9.95 USD
74-page PDF E-book on photographic composition theory and practice by photographer Richard Bernabe.

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Break The Rules. I wrote at length about this in the Creative Principle, but it’s worth mentioning yet again. Learn the rules so you can creatively break them. The best metaphor I could think up is the one I recited in the Creative Principle about how actors and actresses agonize over learning their lines, only to forget them and ad lib when the emotional tone of the scene calls for it. Some of the best scenes in motion picture history are the result of this kind of creativity freelancing.

Be Humble. When you’re humble, you’re a lot more open to learning something new than believing you’re always the expert. At least once each month, you should put yourself in a situation where you are the most ignorant or unskilled person within a group of other people. I once spent an afternoon with a group of very skilled portrait photographers and was easily the dumbest person there, with regard to portrait photography. I was humbled, obviously and I didn’t say much because I didn’t want to embarrass myself. But I watched and listened (they were photographers so we did speak the same language) and I picked up quite a few things that I could take with me and apply to my travel, wildlife. and nature photography.

You’ve never done yoga, you say? Attend a yoga class with a group of experienced practitioners. Go to a chess club meeting, even though you’ve only played a few times as a kid. Go to a lacrosse game. Just get out of your element and areas of expertise and humble yourself a little bit. It’s good for the soul and you might learn a few things too – particularly about yourself.

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