Essay 9 - Stop Underexposing Your Creative Potential
I have noticed a trend over my thirty years of pursing the art and craft of photography. Photographers have a tendency to get stuck in the "technical" and never reach their full potential. I think this is a natural bias because there are so many technical details that must be learned and ultimately mastered before a photographer is free enough to create with intention. I went through this journey myself, and I am hopeful that I can encourage and help other photographers to continue moving forward in their pursuits.
Many of the greats like Paul Strand, Ansel Adams and others have given similar advice over the years. If I were to distill their wisdom into a single phrase, it would be: master the technical details only so far that you can freely create and express your vision.
But, how can you reach your full creative potential? I hope to provide some pragmatic advice in the paragraph below that will hopefully jumpstart you in the right direction.
First things first. A photographer does in fact need to study, learn, and apply the technical aspects through the lens of their own passion. This is a parallel journey that doesn't need to be mutually exclusive. For example, use your passion for mountain climbing as the fuel to learn the technical skills to create the types of images that make you proud and happy. Whatever your passion, just get out there and apply what you are learning. The more you practice and see your failures, the faster you will be able to improve. I call this failing forward.
After you can use the technical variables of photography to create the types of images that make you proud, then you can move forward and being the next phase of your development. Don't get stuck in the technical details and worry too much about gear. I promise that no one other than your photography friends will ask, or even care, what camera equipment you used to create your masterpiece. This is "shop talk", and while it can be great fun with your colleagues, it can keep you from reaching your full creative potential.
Many people are creatures of habit. We like routines because they are safe, predictable, and they can even be a way to relax. There is nothing wrong with going to the same places or photographing the same subjects, but there is something you can do to help you evolve. Expand your vision. This can be done by seeking out new treasures in your normal routine, or it can mean that you need to explore new places. It can even be both. Often times our first thoughts are the opposite of what we need to be doing. For some people, it may mean that you need to simplify versus expanding. I experienced this in my creative journey. I needed to simplify my gear and processes in order to create more compelling and emotionally evocative work. I was too busy fiddling with my "gear" and was robbing myself of precious time that I could have used to explore my love of nature more deeply.
In order to create the type of images that evoke emotion from others, you need to deeply be connected and fully understand your subject. This is much more important than being a master of the technical aspects of photography. For example, I am a nature and landscape photographer. I read every book that I can get my hands on that involves, nature, plants, trees, landscapes, and so on. None of these books are about photography. They are books about the core details of the subjects that I love to view, explore, and photograph. By learning about and understanding more about my subjects, it shapes my creative vision and extends my ability to create more powerful images. It doesn't end with self-education. I went through the Master Naturalist program with the University of Missouri and Missouri Department of Conservation. I regular attend training courses and workshops to learn more about trees, flowers, insects, and so on. I do all of these things in order to be connected with my community, to expand my understanding of my favorite subjects, and deepen my love and appreciation for the things that I love to photograph. Get active, get involved, and expand your vision of whatever your passion includes.
A common thread amongst the most successful people in the world is they all have coaches and mentors. No matter how smart you are, how much experience you have, we are all limited by our own experiences and personal knowledge. I encourage you to find a mentor, get a coach, and continue to grow. My final thought on this subject is that I hope you don't limit your creative potential by getting stuck in the technical details of photography.