What Would You Make?

Break all the rules: not sharp, subject centered, subject indistinct, no leading lines, etc.

As creatives, we make things. But are we constrained by sets of rules and conventions? What would you make if those rules weren’t there?

We’re makers

Artists are makers. Maybe that is obvious. We have to be able to realize what we visualize.

It doesn’t do any good to say “I wish you could see what I’m thinking about doing.” It is not real until we do it. But sometimes we are held back by rules that seem to prevent us from doing what we want to do. Sometimes those “rules” are the voice in our head that is trying to keep us out of trouble, since trying something new carries the risk or failure or rejection. That protective voice can’t evaluate the upside of what we do, just the potential downside of loss or embarrassment. That fear can be as debilitating as hard rules someone imposes on us.

Whether it is our inner voice or the things we have been taught, when they prevent us from making what we feel we should, they are in the way.

Follow the rules

Many people seem eager to put rules on us. There is the famous rule of thirds. Then other rules of composition. You must have a foreground, middle ground, and background to have a balanced image. Don’t put the subject in the middle. Watch the edges. You can’t have any clutter or distraction there.

If you make it past all those, there are rules about what a photograph can or can’t be. Have a well defined subject that is in sharp focus. Never shoot in the 4 hours each side of noon because the light is too harsh. Expose (the histogram) to the right, but do not blow out highlights. Always use a tripod. There are many more. You know the routine.

Sometimes it seems impossible just to make an image. It all gets too complicated.

Whose rules?

But as I often ask, where did those rules come from and are they really “rules”?

There is no standards body that certifies artists. No one needs to grant you permission to practice your art, even if you went to art school and they thought they had the right to do that. No one can come and yank your image from the gallery wall because you broke a rule.

Given that, why do we act as if we are bound by rules or conventions? Is it to fit it? To be part of a group? Because we are insecure about our style or ability?

Maybe our favorite artist only does very realistic and dark black & white work, so that is the constraint we put on ourselves. We submitted work for an exhibit and it was rejected. Everything selected was highly abstract, so we think that is what we must do. Our local camera club disallows landscape images that show any sign of man, so that must be a rule for landscapes.

Don’t apply them indiscriminately

All the “rules” may well have been created for good reasons. But they should not be applied indiscriminately. There is a story of the mother teaching her daughter to cook. The mother cuts off the end of a roast before putting it in a pan and cooking it. The daughter asks why she did that. She says she doesn’t know, but that’s what her mother taught her to do. Sometime later the little girl asks her grandmother why she cut off the end off roasts. The grandmother told her it was because when she was young her pan was too short.

The story is probably fake, but it’s point is valid. Even if rules were created for good reason, they may not apply to you in the situation. Always evaluate the reason realistically.

Be yourself and do your own art. Who gets to decide if the work pleases you? Isn’t it only you?

What would you make if there were no rules?

Imagine there were no rules imposed on you. What would you do in that case? What would you create that is different from what you are doing now?

Would you be bold to create fresh new art that may bend genres and go in new directions? Then do it! You do not have to be bound by anybody else’s rules. Set your own values and constraints. That is how creativity happens.

Now, I am not advocating total anarchy. There is enough of that posing as art. It does not have to be disturbing or unrecognizable to be creative. Just make it your own vision.

Learn the history of image making. Study what has been done by masters over time. The things that have been recognized as leading to “good” art. Knowing what has been done will not pollute you.

What will pollute you is taking those things as rules that you must follow. Learn the rules then creatively break them. That is the way to push the boundaries to new limits. Limits you discover and exploit. Be free to take your art in whatever direction feels best to you.

No rules.


I get ideas in a lot of unlikely places. It fascinates me that I got the idea for this article from an interview I heard with Carrie Underwood, the Country singer. A lot of her songs bend and even blur the limits of her genre. She was describing one project she was working on and being frustrated in not being able to come up with the effect she wanted, The patterns and constraints of what makes a typical country song seemed to box her in. Then she asked herself “what would I make if I didn’t have rules?”. After that she felt more free to relax the constraints and take ideas from rock or other sources that she liked. Now she could create her own preferred style.

We can do it, too. What would you make if you didn’t have rules?

How To Be Creative

Keeping Knowledge locked away

Is creativity a talent only certain people have? Is it a process to be learned? Did you ever wonder about how to be creative?

The Muse

People often speak of being visited by the Muse. Or more likely, not being visited recently. The muse seems to be this mysterious, invisible force that comes on us at times and endows us with tremendous creative force. For a while. Until she decides to leave. The muses are almost always described as female.

I can’t deny that sometimes I seem to be filled with creative energy and sometimes I can’t come up with a single good idea. Is that because of muses? I don’t want to jinx myself, but I don’t think so. It is too easy to blame external things. There is an ebb and flow to everything in life. I think creativity is part of that. It is unreasonable to expect to be on a creative high all the time. It would be nice, but we have to recharge sometimes, too. If it was constant, we would appreciate it less.

A talent

OK, so is creativity a talent a few have naturally and most of us don’t? It seems like that sometimes. Have you ever met someone, maybe an artist, maybe someone in your work life who seems to exude a flow of creativity? Someone who seems to get more done than anyone else?

I have. Several times. It can be humbling. It can make you want to change careers because you seem so inferior.

Talent is a real thing. Back in my life as a software developer I did some investigation into this and found evidence that there can be a 20 to 1 difference in productivity between developers. That seems to imply that some have a natural talent for doing the work. But, don’t let this slip by, they evaluated a 20 to 1 difference in productivity. That is not necessarily creativity. Creativity is much harder to measure.

Here is a truth of life that is important to remember: just because something is easier for someone than for you does not mean their work is better. So while there are differences in talent, that does not exclude anyone.

A process

On the other hand, we can demonstrate that creativity is a process. We have to do it, not sit around waiting to be inspired. A couple of quotes from my article I reference above:

Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning.” – Chuck Close

Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week.” – Joel Grimes

One thing we seldom talk about as an element of creativity is domain skill. That is, to be creative you first need to be good at what you are doing. Whether it is photography or writing or software development, you have to be skilled in your domain to be able to rise above the average.

So a good part of our process is to always be working to improve our skills. When “the muse is gone” and we do not feel inspired, at least be working on our craft. I have often seen in my own life that sometimes just focusing on a technical skill can lead to new thoughts and ideas for new work.

Am I creative?

Ah, the question that haunts most “creatives”. We often doubt ourselves. After all, what we think and do is obvious to us. So it must be obvious to everyone else. Right? Probably not.

Almost everyone is creative is some areas. But I have never met someone who has all their faculties who does not have the ability to create at some level.

But we set a very high standard for ourselves, don’t we? We expect massive, glowing creativity. World changing things. Really? Not many things change the world to any measurable extent. Our insecurity about our creativity is right up there with our imposter syndrome fears.

Try this experiment. Look at a lot of the published work by other artists is your field. There will be some that blow you away. That really impress you and make you feel inferior. But think about 2 things. First, remind yourself that you are only seeing their best of the best. You never see the 99% of the failures. Are you comparing your failures to their best?

Second think about what you consider the fails among that work. Will there be a significant part of it where you will say “Really? I throw away stuff like that.”? This should convince you that you can be just as creative as most of them.

Ebb and flow

Human nature is such that we don’t just go through life at an even level. There are peaks and valleys, ebb and flow. Sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down. Don’t get disappointed when your creativity follows this pattern.

But one of my points above is, get to work. Do something. Don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself and waiting for the muse to come back. Work. Maintain a discipline of doing things anyway. You may throw away most of what you do in this phase, but you can learn and improve your skills and it can be effective at getting you out of the valley more quickly.

One of the self help gurus I for some reason get stuff from recently said “Confidence is a byproduct of action”. I happen to agree with this. And I would add creativity is, too.

Little C or Big C

Notice that I have never defined what creativity is. This is intentional. Don’t most of us say “poor me, I’m not creative” without defining what we mean.

One conventional definition from Psychology research is that creativity is “the production of ideas or outcomes that are both novel and appropriate to some goal” (COMPONENTIAL THEORY OF CREATIVITY, Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School). The clause about goals is there because the motivation of the research was the corporate environment. Talking solely about art, I would remove that and concentrate on the novelty of a work product.

So, what is novelty and how novel does it have to be to be considered “creative”? Amabile and others say that almost everyone has some degree of creativity. It is expressed in different ways and with different impact.

She uses an example of what she terms little C creativity vs big C creativity. The dentist who came up with the idea of letting kids wear fun sunglasses during exams to protect their eyes from the bright lights is what she calls little C. It is creative but not hugely novel. At the other extreme Schawlow expressed the principles on which all lasers are based. He won a Nobel Prize for that. Definitely big C.

So maybe we ought to give ourselves a little more freedom. Creativity does not have to be Nobel Prize winning. A novel composition or idea in our images is genuinely creative if you have never seen it before.

Novelty for its own sake

So if creativity revolves around the concept of novelty, how novel and new does something have to be? I think many artists are too caught up in this and try to do novel things regardless of their artfulness. Just browse through most contemporary art galleries or The Hand Magazine.

The definition of creative above brings together novel and appropriate. Maybe doing something solely because no one else has ever done it is not good enough. Don’t forget that the idea is to make art while we are doing it.


So maybe we shouldn’t be expecting lightning flashes of brilliance in our daily work. Maybe we should work our craft and perfect our skills to make sure we are about as good as anyone else. Then “connect the dots” as Steve Jobs used to say. If we can be open and receptive to thinking in new ways, we can look for opportunities to apply novelty as an edge to differentiate our self from the pack. Then the novelty is actually a creative enhancement to our work, not just something novel.

Today’s image

I seldom try to create “message” images. When I came across this scene, though, it was too powerful to pass up. It connected several dots with me. I think I have made a creative image that can express a strong idea. Maybe more than one. What do you think?

Overcome Boredom

I have written before that we should be able to find interest wherever we are, even if it is familiar territory. I still agree with this, but sometimes it helps to do something different. It is easy to get stagnant without a refresher. So what can we do to overcome boredom?

Love the familiar

There is a comfort and special knowledge that comes from working with well known subjects or locations. We get to know all of the moods, the look in different lighting and conditions, the “best” times. When we have a familiar subject we can work when we want, we are not dependent on the luck of what we find the day we are there. We can keep coming back whenever we want to explore how we best like to see it.

This has always been true. Claude Monet was drawn to his water lilies. Some artists only do portraits, because they are energized by the personal interactions. Guy Tal mostly does images of the Colorado Plateau in Utah. That is what he loves and it is where he lives.

Probably most of us have a favorite place or subject we are more drawn to and spend a lot of time working with. It is natural. Familiarity tends to build strong ties and a deep appreciation.


But if we are not careful, we can get stagnant. We get into a rut. If we keep doing the same familiar thing over and over without injecting new thought or new creative approaches, we will cripple our art.

Are we able to see something new in the familiar territory? Can we look at the same thing and visualize it differently? This is a skill. Like any skill, it must be developed by thoughtful practice.

I mentioned Claude Monet. How much can you do with a small pond with water lilies? Well, I recently visited l’Orangerie in Paris. This museum has a special wing built to host an incredible set of paintings he did of his garden. It hosts 8 images, each 2 meters high and 91 meters long. Yes, each painting is 299 feet long! It is quite an experience. This, to me, is an example of creating a fresh approach to a familiar subject.

Seeing new approaches to the familiar is a great creativity exercise. Sometimes, though, the subject doesn’t support the depth of vision required. We burn out on certain subjects. That is OK. Take what we have learned and fall in love with a new subject. This is one of the advantages of doing projects. A project gives us a subject or a theme to pursue for a while until we feel it is exhausted. Some may run out in a few weeks. Some last our whole career.

Shake yourself up

However we do it, we have to shake our self up. Shake off the rust and barnacles. To pull out of the rut and make our work fresh again. What works for you is intensely personal. I am not one to try to tell you what you should do. I don’t like it when someone presumes to know what I need without even knowing me.

Some things commonly recommended are projects, travel, workshops, classes, and tools. I have tried all of these and all have varying degrees of impact on me.

I mentioned projects already. This has been very useful for me. Having a project as a focal point for your creativity is stimulating. Taking a subject or a concept you have never seriously considered and trying to make a coherent and excellent portfolio around it is a great creativity exercise. It might give you a fresh viewpoint on other things, too.

As a personal example, I just returned from an international trip. Rather than going with the idea that I would shoot “everything” that is interesting, I had 4 projects in mind for the trip. Yes, I shot lots of pictures just because they were interesting, but I found myself drawn to my project ideas in a deeper way. They gave me a focus for my creativity.

Travel is almost universally recommended. Getting out of your comfort zone and into a new environment tends to change our perspective. I believe almost any travel is useful, but that idea of getting yourself out of your comfort zone is important. What I mean is, if you live in Philadelphia, traveling to Cincinnati would be interesting, but going to Utah or France would have a lot more impact. Those are a major change of comfort zone.

Other tools

Workshops and classes have good results for a lot of people. I find myself not drawn to workshops for a variety of reasons, many related to my personality and learning style. I do, though, take a lot of classes. Mostly online. There is a wealth of instruction available now. I get many of my classes from CreativeLive or Kelby One. And I get no consideration for referring them.

Sometimes new tools or technology can spur us on to new levels. New camera bodies with great built in features might cause us to try new things. New software tools might give us incentive to apply new techniques to our work. To think in different ways.

Whatever works for you, find a way to do it.

Feed your head

Like Jefferson Airplane said way back, we have to feed our head (but hopefully not the way they did). Our creativity comes from within. We must protect it and grow it. If we let ourselves get stuck in a creative rut, all our work starts to look alike and we are just repeating the same things over and over.

Sometimes this is the result of boredom from focusing on the same subjects and the same locations too long. Get out of your comfort zone. Get scared when you cannot find new things to do in your work. Don’t repeat yourself.

I don’t want to do that. I hope you don’t, either. And have fun while you are doing it. After all, this is your art.

Recording the Obvious

Balanced between. Which path to take? Uncertain.

The great photographer Edward Weston once said “I see no reason to record the obvious.” But isn’t recording the obvious what most of us do most of the time? What are the alternatives?

Cameras record everything

As I have pointed out many times, our marvelous high tech sensors are great recording devices. They do a great job of capturing what they are pointed at.

Because of that, these days our phones have become an invaluable data capture device. We record a sign we want to look into later, or a wine label we want to remember, or selfies of us and friends. When I rent a car I always do a 360 degree bracket of it before leaving the lot, just in case there are and disputes about when some damage happened. We have our phone with us, so when in doubt, snap a picture.

Most of this is never intended to be considered art. It is just data. Maybe memories. They are a ubiquitous part of our lives.

Most pictures are of a clear, well defined subject

Most of these images, whether on our phone of our “real” camera, follow the rules of composition we have been taught. The subject is centered and as sharp and well lit as we can do. Perhaps we have a clear foreground, middle ground, and background. Maybe we have made the lighting interesting: high key or low key or strong side light.

What is common is that the photos are “of” something. They are generally straight representation or even utilitarian.

I do not dismiss this as unimportant. But it is not art. If we want to make art we have to take a different path.

Can there be more?

Trillions of pictures are taken every year, no exaggeration or typo. One more image I take is just a drop of water in the ocean. Why should I bother? How can I stand out? What can we do to be a new voice?

We are often told to be creative. But almost everything has already been tried. True creativity, in the sense of something that has never been seen, is very rare. We may never do something truly creative, but we can do work that is fresh, because it captures our feelings and point of view.

If we try to get in touch with what we feel and our reaction to a scene, we can capture it in a way that no one else has seen. We are unique, in that our thoughts and experiences and values are different from anyone else. Therefore we should be able to see things somewhat different.

This difference that is unique to us is what sets our work apart from everyone else. We just have to follow our unique view and not try to make our work look like everyone else’s.

Look for the story within the story

You walk up to a beautiful landscape. There are 20 other photographers there snapping away. What do you do? Are you going to make the same image as all the others?

Go ahead and shoot it. Capture a record of that standard scene. Get that out of the way. Now start responding to it at a deeper level. What do you really see? It may be a famous scene, but what draws you? Everyone else is using wide angle lenses. Maybe you feel like using a telephoto to isolate just part of it. Small sections of a scene can give an impression of the whole. This is making the picture “about” something.

It doesn’t matter what people expect to see there. What do you see? What tweaks your interest? One fresh, interesting frame is better than a whole memory card full of “me too” shots. You are the audience you have to please.

Look deeper

I find it useful to keep asking myself questions and demanding an answer. Especially “why?”. Forcing myself to go through 3 or 4 levels of why questions about a scene can reveal a lot. But only if I make myself answer truthfully and with some detail. It is too easy to accept a vague idea of what I feel. No, be specific.

Can you find something more there than the surface image? Is it actually interesting? Does it excite you? Paraphrasing the great Jay Maisel, “If the thing you’re shooting doesn’t excite you, what makes you think it will excite anyone else?”.

So peel back the layers until you discover the truth or essence of what you are drawn to. It doesn’t have to be a deep, profound truth. It could simply be “I really like the way the water is flowing over that rock.” But you have identified what part of the scene you are drawn to and why. Now the resulting image can clearly convey your intent.

Edward Weston famously told us “This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” (Guy Tal based a whole book on the idea. It is good. Get it). This statement is pretty Zen-like, but it brings up a lot to think about.

How can a picture of something as simple as a rock actually be about a deeper idea? Maybe it can or maybe it can’t. I have to say that some of the pictures in Mr. Tal’s book did not bring deep concepts to me. That is the problem of conveying feelings to another person. It doen’t always work. But, the artist attempted it and discovered something meaningful for him. Perhaps I cannot perceive it, but it was there for the artist. It is an honest attempt to bring me more than a rock.

Get over the obvious

So I encourage us all to dig below the obvious when we are creating our images. The obvious may be pretty, but is there any substance to it, in the sense of engaging our brain, our thoughts, our feelings?

I have come to believe that I just bring you the same images you would have shot if you were there, I have probably not added much value for you. I owe it to you to force myself to understand what I was drawn to and capture my feelings, while making a beautiful image.

Today’s image

New Orleans French Quarter comes alive at night. The color and interest of this scene really drew me in, but it lacked depth. I had an idea of what I would like to see and I refined it as I watched various people stop and look in. This person finally paused there in the entrance, alone, questioning, swiveling. He seemed torn between conflicting ideas. Go in or keep going? To me this captured inner conflict and moral ambiguity. Choices.

Happy Accidents

Burned forest. Like a pen and ink drawing.

We like to promote the impression that we are a professional, so what we do is always deliberate and we know exactly what the result will be. Too bad it is not true for many of us. Sometimes our best discoveries are a result of happy accidents. If we are open to them we can learn a lot.

Have a plan

Shouldn’t we have a deliberate plan before we go out shooting? That depends on what you are doing and what your personality is. If you are shooting for someone, of course have a well thought out plan. You are contracted to produce agreed on results. You have to deliver.

I am a “fine art” photographer, though. My only client is myself. This “client” is looking for great experiences and images that are meaningful to me and that excite me. Those are very hard to plan.

I find it best to have one or two project themes in mind and then put myself is harm’s way, so to speak, by getting out and shooting. My best work is done by being in the moment and reacting to what I find rather than just thinking about what I might do.

So no, I don’t really plan. A plan for me might be to decide to go east today. That determines the general nature of what I will find.

Accidents happen

I expect accidents to happen and I expect many of them to be happy ones. An accident does not imply something bad or disruptive. It just means it was unforeseen and unexpected. An accident in my terms is not usually an event that happens. Rather it is the recognition of an opportunity I had not considered.

If I have a few project ideas kicking around in my head to seed my thoughts, I wait for something to trigger some kind of recognition. I have to stay wide open to what is there so I allow myself to recognize what I am seeing. This is my own brand of mindfulness.

Be receptive

Being receptive is the hard part for many of us. Especially you Type A personalities. If you are heavy on control and planning you tend to put blinders on to other opportunities that present themselves.

Not being a Type A, I am usually content to go out empty, as Jay Maisel would say. I enjoy just having some vague ideas in mind to slightly focus my thoughts and wait for things to come to me as I wander around.

Let’s say I am thinking about a project on “The Forest”. I go to a forest cause, well, that’s where you find forest pictures. I wander around aimlessly for a while, shooting a few frames to get the creative juices flowing. After getting the obvious shots out of the way, I start asking myself more questions. What is the essence I am feeling? What is a forest, really? Is there anything unique about this group of trees? Can I offer any insight on this? Things like that.

If my mind is engaged and things go well, I will get past the obvious, shallow first impressions and start delving deeper into my feelings about this place and what I am seeing. Magic can happen then. I seem to be operating on a different plane. Suddenly new worlds of sights open up and I see a different forest than I had before. At this point I can do creative work.

By being receptive to my feelings and what I am encountering, I can create images that show a new perspective on the subject. This usually will not happen unless I can get into a mindset of being grateful and receptive and respectful of what is around me.

Get out of your own way

Finding this state is not easy until you have done it enough times to trust the process. You have to get out of your own way. Stop trying to control so much. Gratefully take what is there and use it to the best of your ability.

There is a yin/yang battle going on in my mind. Part of me is instinctively framing and shooting as I intuitively recognize good images. Another part of me is questioning. Asking “why?”, “what am I drawn to here?”, “how could I get deeper to the core of this?”. This questioning dialog subtly guides the instinctive shooting process and helps refine my view of the subject.

But there needs to be a healthy balance. Don’t become paralyzed by over-thinking what you are doing. On the other hand, don’t just go totally open loop and shoot all day without any self-examination of what you are getting and why.


Results count. For me it may be better to say the quality of the results count. When I went out to shoot I may have had a vague notion of what I expected to find and capture. If I have taken advantage of the happy accidents I encountered, what I ended up with may not have been at all what I expected. Hopefully I will think that what I ended up with is much better than what I expected to get.

It is kind of a mental game that takes practice to master. In a way it is probably like being in a flow state. If you have never experienced it, it is just an abstract concept. Once you have experienced it, it is “Wow! That’s great! I want to do this a lot more”.

That is how I feel about happy accidents.

Today’s image

This is one of those unexpected, happy accidents. This is sort of a follow up on the idea of working on a “The Forest” project.

When I went out to shoot this day I had no idea I would end up with pictures of a burned forest. I went up high and came to a burn area of a few years ago. Usually I would avoid a scene like this. It makes me sad to see so much of the forests near me burned. Knowing they will never come back in my lifetime.

This time I found the sights and designs of the burned trees fascinating. It reminded me that there can be beauty even in death and destruction. It is a natural cycle. Besides, just taken on their own it kind of reminds me of a stark pen and ink drawing. Something I really appreciate.

This was my introspection on a forest that day.