Techniques for Inspiration and Creativity in Concept Photography
Creativity and Inspiration is the lifeblood of concept photography
The value and depth of a concept photographer’s work doesn’t rely on either his gear park or his technical (photographic) experience. I am not saying these two won’t affect how his photos look in the end, but they have no influence on the concept per se. Many aspiring photographers spend hours and hours reading up on the latest gear and lighting techniques, they follow well known photographers on Facebook and Twitter, and last but not least, they are always on the lookout for that next piece of gear that will make them a good photographer. However, when the question arises of what to shoot, there is often this big empty, crippling void. I believe the reason for this void is that most of us don’t actually know HOW to be creative. Some writers blame this on the lack of confidence, where people don’t allow themselves to be creative (Julia Cameron, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Artist’s_Way), others blame it on the constant social noise which surrounds us (Zack Arias, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z65jlY4e908). I’d like to take a different approach and provide you with a set of techniques and tools I’ve come to rely on which often help me greatly in coming up with valuable ideas.
Section I: The Creative Environment
Try to get yourself “into the zone” deliberately. Don’t expect for great ideas to fall into your lap while doing something else, especially something that demands your mental attention. You have to create a nurturing environment for the creative juices to flow by addressing the following issues:
- Find a peaceful, relaxing place where you won’t get distracted constantly. For me, good places are my comfy sofa, a chair on the balcony, a solitary compartment on a train ride.
- Give yourself at least half an hour. Meaning even if you don’t come up with something in the first couple of minutes, you should not feel tempted to get up and do something else. This has been shown to be highly effective by many artists, including John Cleese (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijtQP9nwrQA)
- Prepare yourself. Get something to trink ahead of time. Have something ready to take notes. If you are trying to find a concept that follows a specific subject, person or theme, have some materials at hand that can give you background information, important key issues etc. Research is very important, but don’t overdo it in the beginning because there is such a thing as over-immersion, which can happen for example if you look at hundreds of photos other people have done in an area you’d like to come up with a concept. There will always be time for more research once you have some leads.
- If you don’t advance and are on the brink of desperation, embrace your despair! Take as a natural part of the process. I despair a little bit with almost every project, but have come to think of it as the drought after which a rainy season will start. The sooner you can come to embrace it, the sooner your creative block will pass.
Section II: Techniques
Although I am going to provide you with a set of techniques that work for me, I encourage you to develop your own and experiment with them. As with all creative work we can get both lost in the big picture as well as the details, so it’s important to, at first, not discard anything, but write everything down. The process of writing not only makes your initial spark something that you can come back to, but in the course of writing, you will automatically develop the idea further – which gives your idea some momentum and can turn into either a fuller picture or other ideas that build upon your initial spark. In the Tools section I will show you my system categorising ideas. But for know let’s look at some of these techniques.
1) The Catalog of Questions
Prerequisite for this technique is that you know your theme. If you don’t use one of the other techniques. Build a catalog of questions that can help you build a fundament for your theme. You can use this catalog over and over again for different projects. New questions will be added over time, others you might notice will loose relevance and can be dropped. My catalog of questions is very basic and straight-forward. But I try to incorporate some of my own expectations that I have in my work, e.g. “What symbols can be associated with your theme?” if you appreciate symbolism in your work.
Here is my current catalog of questions:
- What locations match the theme or have a connection to it?
- (for people) What clothes match the theme best?
- What props and decor elements are often associated with the theme?
- What symbols and shapes can be associated with the theme?
- What kind of person could be part of the theme?
- What human relationships often take place in and around your theme?
- What natural elements have a connection to the theme?
2) The Inverted Catalog of Questions
Okay? Now, turn each question on its head – e.g. what location has absolutely nothing to do with your theme, but if set in context with it can yield something interesting. “Finding the opposite picture” is a very interesting technique by the great Gregory Heisler (http://strobist.blogspot.ch/2013/09/my-week-with-heisler-pt-1.html) . Where he applies it on the set, you can apply it even in your creative process. Because opposites help to create depth, contrast, dynamics and a sort of mental friction. So for example if your theme would be “dryness”, the desert would would certainly be an interesting location – but what could make it even more interesting, if there is a lighthouse in the desert. Immediately, we start to think of the connotations of this lighthouse. Was there an ocean in earlier times? Is the man in the lighthouse hoping for water to return? Are there maybe ships that swim in sand? See? Boom, so many ideas can grow from this inversion of the catalog of questions. There is a danger however. One contradictory element usually helps the theme, too many of them will totally rip it appart and the whole concept will simply become bizarre. But who am I to tell you that you can’t go there ;-).
3) Turning Reality Upside Down
So don’t have a theme yet. You simply would like to find something that sparks your interest, which will in turn provide a theme. I have a technique for that as well. It’s actually related to the Inverted Catalog of Questions, but it starts at a different point. It’s kind of a thought experiment too and I absolutely love it. Following it, you can come up with a whole bunch of ideas in no time. Here is how it works:
Sit down and look around you. Then start to turn objects either visually or functionally upside down. Switch objects that have a relationship like the gardener and the flower pot, which might end up as a flower that irrigates a gardener stick out of a plant pot. Simply said, turn reality upside down.
I’d like to give you some more inspiring examples. Imagine a door where the door knocker is on the inside. Ask yourself, why could that be? In what kind of a world would people have the door knocker or door bell on the inside. Or imagine a man standing under an umbrella, however rain falls down on him from inside his umbrella. What kind of a man is he? What’s his story? Both of these ideas aren’t some kind of stroke of genius but simply something you can find in your surroundings by this thought experiment. Go ahead, try it, daydream away. 🙂
Section III: Tools
Other artists swear by the use of paper, i.e. the good old note book and #2 pencil. I like to keep my notes in the digital domain though. Even when I draw, I draw digitally using either my Wacom tablet or the iPad. My most important software tool is undoubtedly Evernote (http://evernote.com, avaiable for both computers, tablets and smart phones). I use the tagging features heavily and developed a system for categorizing my ideas, which I’d like to share with you but, again, encourage you to find your own:
- Weak Concept: an idea in its infancy, with yet many open questions and open ends
- Strong Concept: a concept that has already prospered and with rather concrete ideas and visions
- Current: a project I am working on right now
- Archived: a project that has been completed, the “Current” Tag is therefor removed.
- Assignment: a paid assignment
- Free: personal work
- Interesting: Snippeds of info, quotations, techniques that I find inspiring, but intend to develop to fit my own needs.
- Know-How: Tutorials and notes I take from reading/watching tutorials and books, mostly technical stuff
Weak and Strong Concepts are probably not the best names, because it suggests that the weak ideas aren’t as GOOD as the strong ones. Maybe a better name would be simply “Ideas” and “Concepts”, but I’ve gotten accustomed to them and so run with it…
Cloud storage solutions
The second tool is Dropbox (https://www.dropbox.com) and more recently Copy (https://copy.com). The latter has the benefit of an insane amount of free cloud storage, however it’s technically not on par with Dropbox yet. For example there is not client for Snow Leopard, which I do still use on my Mac Pro. I use both to keep my projects with me all the time, location photos, drawings, mood boards etc. Recently I’ve been also using Loom (https://www.loom.com) as a sort of portfolio tool on the fly. I am currently in correspondence with the developers of Loom to let iPad users make use of their full screen resolution. They seemed to be very interested in the idea of a feature to let the user decide wether he’d like to apply device specific photo compression and down-sizing or if he’d like to have always the max resolution at his disposal. I have a good feeling about this tool.
I hope I was able to give you some helpful advice or at least approaches that help you develop your own techniques. In one of my next blog posts I’ll write about the importance of your network, collaboration and strategic partnerships.
Until then, have fun being creative!
- be both random and systematic
- Write everything down
- Create a system
- Getting inspired by others vs. coming up with your own concepts
- network of friends and partners.
- Despair is your friend