Constraints are Important

Most of us would say we don’t like constraints. But I believe constraints are fundamentally necessary for art and most things.

If there were no constraints, everything would be possible. There would be little or no creativity or learning because everything is too easy. Any art form I know of relies on its constraints. Take painting: paint on a canvas is (mostly) 2 dimensional, canvases are usually rectangular, they are (somewhat) constrained in size, they don’t glow or move or talk. In addition, each particular sub-medium of painting introduces more constraints. What you can do with watercolors is different from what you can do with oil.

Or consider a cello, one of my favorite instruments. It does not have the range of a piano, it is designed to play only 1 note at a time, it is relatively slow because it requires fairly large movements of both hands to play it. But it has a wonderful mellow sound that can produce very pleasing music, when played in a way to take advantage of the constraints of a cello.

Likewise photography is a very constrained medium. It is 2 dimensional, rectangular, static (I’m not discussing video), limited in resolution and speed, depth of field is limited, and so much more. Sounds like a real pain. Why even try to use this? Because great images can be made by recognizing the constraints and using them to advantage.

Consider the image above. Taken at night it required seconds to expose well. That would possibly blur the subjects. It was especially difficult since I did not have a tripod and an 8 second hand held exposure would just be a blurred smear of light streaks. Now, I sometimes like to do things just like that, but not this time. So by bracing the camera on a park bench and pressing it down firmly, I was able to get a sharp image of everything except the airplane taking off, which is exactly what I wanted. This uses the constraints of the medium to show the passage of time, something you could not see live.

A creativity exercise I use and recommend is to limit yourself to 1 camera and one lens on a photo outing. It will seem frustrating at first, but with practice you will learn to see just as you lens sees. You will automatically recompose things to fit what you have. It is exciting and freeing and it helps your creative eye by training it to use the discipline of constraints to improve your vision.

So stop viewing constraints as a hinderance. When you push against them it is an opportunity to improve as an artist, writer, teacher, employee, manager — person.

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