Constraints

I have written about this before, but I feel it is time to revisit it, maybe from a slightly different point of view. We have constraints on almost everything we do. Usually we try to find ways to avoid or relax the constraints. I am suggesting that they can actually be useful, Working within constraints can make us a better and more creative artist.

Constraints

Constraints are anything that bounds us, that limits what we can do. We all have them. You aren’t able to go on a 6 month art sabbatical because you have to work to earn a living. I would like to get the latest super mega pixel camera – no, I need it, really. But I can’t afford it. I feel limited because I don’t have a great wide angle zoom or super telephoto.

Wherever we turn we bump up against constraints. Time and money are the overriding classics. And there are technology limitations and constraints imposed by our families, school, and job. Maybe the inability to travel to the locations you want. Everything seems to be conspiring against us.

They seem to limit us as artists

I was having a discussion recently with a friend I respect a lot. A very good professional photographer who you would know. He was observing that he has always taken multiple camera systems with him on shoots, along with all the associated lenses, batteries, etc. But he is getting older and all that slows him down and makes the experience less pleasant.

Isn’t this common for photographers? We feel like we have to have LOTS of equipment. You may need that 600mm for a bird shot. You may need that tilt/shift lens to do architectural photography. The portable flash system would come in handy for portraits. Having a small mirrorless camera is good for travel photos, but you might want that medium format system for fine art scenes you find. We always need more gear.

How can we capture the image we want unless we have that exact, perfect piece of equipment? Well, maybe we have to think. More on this later.

How to work around our constraints

We have freedoms of choice in our lives. Don’t have enough money? Earn more. Don’t have time? Get out of the working world and use your time for yourself. Can’t carry all your gear? Get a photo van and outfit it with storage for all your equipment. Drive it to your shoots. Can’t carry all you need to a location? Workout hard to get strong enough to carry a huge backpack. Family taking up too much time? Cut them loose.

How’s this working for you so far? Yeah, I thought so. Doesn’t work for me, either. We have choices we can make, but I can’t snap my fingers and wish up a life of luxury to feed my art desires.

I guess we had better resolve to accept most of our constraints. They are there. They are real. We don’t have a magic wand to wave to make them go away. Sure you can adjust your life goals to better accommodate your art. But we will probably not have unlimited money or time or equipment or travel opportunities. That’s life.

So we have to deal with our constraints and work with them and still create our art.

Turn it to your benefit

In some types of self defense programs you are trained to use an attacker’s momentum against them. That is sort of what I am advocating. Our constraints seem to be working against us and limiting our freedom and ability. Use them for our good instead of fighting against them.

Constraints can be a road block or a creativity enhancer. It is a matter of attitude. Don’t sit around moaning because there is a constraint in the way. Accept it as a challenge. Use it to rise to a new level.

An example of constraints

A story to illustrate. In 1974 a young upcoming director named Steven Spielberg was hired to direct a movie called Jaws. It was the first major motion picture to be actually filmed in the ocean. It turned out to be beset with problems. One of the producers later said if they had read the book twice, they would have not made the movie when they realized how difficult it would be.

There are many interesting examples of constraints with this movie, but one in particular fascinates me. The mechanical sharks turned out to be a nightmare to make work. Even when they were working it took a team of 14 “puppeteers” to operate them. The sharks caused so many production problems that they had to be cut out of most of the first half of the movie. The result was that in the final product, the hidden presence of the shark, combined with John Williams brilliant music, built much more tension and drama than their original plan. The movie was a blockbuster hit and still viewed today.

It was made better because of the constraints that had to be overcome. Spielberg later said of the difficulties that “The film went from a Japanese Saturday matinee horror flick to more of a Hitchcock, the less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller.”

Our constraints

We may not be making a multi-million dollar movie, but we encounter constraints all the time in our every day lives. How we deal with them makes or breaks what we get.

Maybe you can’t fit a photo safari to Iceland, Africa, New Zealand,… (fill in your blank) into your life or budget. Does that mean you should put up your camera and sulk and not take pictures? Of course not. Shoot where you are and what you find. The reality is you will have more insights on familiar areas than you do seeing a tourist spot for the first time. Learn to really see what is around you. Let your curiosity lead you to an attitude of awe about what you find.

You’re a fine art photographer and you feel like you need to have a medium format system to shoot 100MPixels or more with great dynamic range. So you should sit and wait until you can afford to put $20,000 or more into a good medium format system? No. That is something you defined. Get out and work.

Most fine art photographers I know do not shoot medium format, at least not exclusively. The fact that they do not shoot it exclusively means they recognize that it is not always required. They can do excellent and very salable work with their DSLR. It is more about vision and insight and technique than it is about technology.

Do the best you can with what you have. Maybe someday you can upgrade, but that will not change your vision or your style. It will just make your images printable at a larger size.

I could use many other examples of constraints. Many are common to most of us and some are unique to each of us individually. Whatever yours is, embrace it and work with it.

Become a problem solver

Embrace it? Yes. You have to live with it, so use it to your benefit.

Working around constraints is a problem solving exercise. We have to think. We use our creativity to come up with an even better solution to what we wanted to do originally. Like Spielberg in Jaws.

Looking to shoot a scene, but it would take a super telephoto that you don’t have? Re-evaluate your composition. Maybe there is a different POV that you can shoot with your 200mm. Or get up and move closer.

Working on a composition that requires a super wide angle to bring in all the lines and shapes you envision? Re-think how to make the image using your 24mm. Maybe get closer. Maybe re-compose it to change the relationship of the elements.

This is a significant part of creativity. Creativity is not just coming up with wild new ideas that no one else has ever thought of. A lot of it is solving problems to remove obstacles in order to realize your work. Your vision should transcend your constraints.

So when an obstacle or constraint presents itself, don’t let it derail you. Put your creativity to work on it. It can be a good thing. It can stretch you and grow you as an artist. Find a creative workaround. Let it spur you to produce something better than you originally envisioned. If you react to it positively and exercise your creativity, you may end up being thankful for the constraint.

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