I can’t speak for your goals or interests or learning style, but I know that my creativity is enhanced by actively experimenting some of the time. It is a conscious decision to try something completely different than what I normally do.
Break the rules
If you have read this blog much you have picked up on a love-hate relationship to photographic rules. Rules have a place but also a time when they should be abandoned.
Learn, study, internalize the normal rules of composition. Get excellent at the techniques necessary to create well executed images. These things prevent you from embarrassing yourself by releasing well meaning garbage to your viewers.
Sorry to be so blunt, but not bothering to learn the accepted conventions established over the years for good images is just arrogance and immaturity. Learn the conventions and follow them until they are deeply ingrained in your subconscious. Follow them until they become uncomfortable. and confining You will eventually understand when that is.
At some point you will find yourself saying “yes, but…”. Then the rules are no longer enough for where you are creatively. They are restraining you to do the same kinds of images everyone else is doing. Something inside is compelling you to do it differently.
It is very important then to realize you have permission to change your norm. You don’t have to ask anyone or apply to some authority for permission to do this. Just follow where your now trained instincts lead you.
Now you will begin a period of experimentation and uncertainty. The old foundations you trusted are beginning to crumble. Will you trust your instincts to carry you to a new place?
To be honest, you will probably start doing a lot of bad work. At least, work that is very different from your norm but far short of the vision you have for where you want to go. That’s OK. Push through it. Keep on trying and modifying until you get closer.
At this point you probably better be content to get criticism. The people who enjoyed your old work will not be happy and you haven’t really gotten to a stage where you could develop a new audience to support you. Honestly, if you have to support yourself from your art you may have to continue doing the old style work and confine this experimentation to personal projects and off times alone. For a while.
But you have to really ask yourself why you are changing and experimenting. Isn’t it because your vision is changing and you are no longer content with what you used to do? You will need to decide at some point if you want to be true to your vision or keep in the safe zone of doing what worked in the past.
Do things that can’t possibly work
Let me challenge you to regularly set aside time to experiment with wild ideas. Come up with crazy ideas that can’t possibly work – and try them. Can’t work might just mean no one has tried it like you are approaching it. Or it really can’t work. Either way you learn something.
History is full of failed experiments that led to whole new ways of doing things or looking at problems. Did you know that Post-It Notes came from a failed adhesive experiment? What would anyone want with an adhesive that didn’t stick? Until somebody needed a bookmark that didn’t fall out of the book. They got together and things sparked.
And those things you are trying that don’t seem useful? You are building a catalog of possibilities. A base of knowledge and ideas that will find surprising applications in the future. And you are accepting that not every image has to be “successful” in the conventional sense. Success in expanding your vision and your abilities may be more important long term.
A special snowflake
Please pardon the cynicism, but everybody is told they are unique snowflakes and many of us believe it. But do you act it? Or do you spend your energy trying to make the same pictures everyone else does.?
Most photography tutorials are “how to create the same image I made”. Most workshops take students to locations where they can take the same iconic images everyone else does. Aren’t most online comments praise for safe, conventional images that are just like the norm?
Everybody has the possibility of being truly unique, but you have to develop that uniqueness. You have to reach deep inside and bring a vision that is truly you. You have to be able to express that vision is a tangible way that others can see.
Experimenting with ideas you have never seen before is one good exercise for that.
And now for something completely different…
All right, so I’m old enough to have been a Monty Python fan.
I have preached the faith of experimenting but I haven’t shared any examples I have done. The image with this blog post is a deliberate experiment I did recently that violates virtually all rules I know of. It is long exposure, hand held, taken from a moving vehicle. There is nothing sharp in the entire image. It doesn’t fit normal composition rules. I certify that this is a single original frame with no double exposure or compositing.
What has it got, in my opinion? Intrigue, interest, great flow, visual interest, ambiguity, questions, a staying power that makes me want to put is on the wall and look at it for a long time. Those things give me joy. And hope. I’m very glad I experimented.
It keeps you fresh
Training yourself to have a habit of experimentation will help keep you fresh. Always ask “what if?”. You lose the fear of trying something new and maybe failing. You gain the benefit of letting your vision expand and bloom in new ways.
Do you look at your work and see the same subjects, the same treatment, the same composition over and over? Experimenting and taking on “strange” personal projects outside your norm and with no intent of commercial success will keep you from getting stagnant. You need it to keep your creative energy flowing.
And when your experiments lead to results you are proud of, be confident to incorporate the technique into your mainstream work. You are a dynamic, living being who changes with time. Your work should reflect that. Don’t be afraid.