Seeing pictures (2) - Creativity within limitations

Since the last article, I have been thinking a great deal about how to attune oneself in order to better see pictures, to get into the mindset of really seeing what is in front of our our eyes - without the mental filters we apply. Two things come to mind. The first is by being aware of, and imposing, limitations. The second is by not looking. This second point I will come to another day.


I am at my most creative when there are limitations. The more choices there are, the harder it can be to make decisions and be productive. Conversely, the more limitations, the freer I am to concentrate on the photograph; to see. 

Let's consider a commissioned portrait. I should first mention that there's already a lot to think about in order to convey an aspect of someone's personality - a rapport needs to be built with the subject, a mood created. Aside from this, there are technical and practical issues: time, location, choice of lens, lighting etc. 

And as for these considerations, there is an almost infinite number of options as to what kind of picture we will make. And every moment spent considering, weighing up the options, is time away from our subject, and time away from looking for the best pictures. So it is this choice which we can limit. The important thing is not which option to choose, but that a choice is made.

Once the choice is made, then - in theory - the camera becomes an incidental tool, and the location merely a place where you happen to be. With a 50mm lens and natural light, there is only so much we can do, so we work with what we have. With a longer lens and working outside, we have another, different set of pictures we can produce. Not (necessarily) better or worse, just different. Once these practical aspects are dealt with, we can really concentrate on seeing. Seeing - in this example - is used in its wider sense of being aware of possibilities, open to ideas.

How experience helps

With experience, we drop ideas which have not worked for us before. It is a little like a game of chess, where each new turn permits many possible moves. For the experienced player, however, many of these are rejected immediately as bad ideas; the choice is reduced. Similarly, the experienced photographer will not go down certain routes. Borrowing ideas, or using our own experience, allows us to start several steps ahead, and so the path is simplified. Again, this is like a chess player, who will know all of the major openings to a depth of several moves. He does not need to process the information; there is no 'problem-solving' in these early stages.

Experience helps us to become more aware of the limitations imposed naturally. Choices are already made for us in so many situations. Sometimes, it's simply too cluttered indoors, so we go outside. Or we go for a long lens and opt for a 'tighter' picture to solve this problem. Or perhaps, going outside, we find ourselves in bright sunlight, and so we are forced to head for the gentle shade of the trees. In other circumstances we only have a very short time, so we have to keep it simple. Again, the more practice we have, the more aware we are of limits, and opportunities, when they appear.

Imposing limitations

Still left with too much to think about? Too many options? Trying to see everything, but not seeing anything? The it's just a question of practice, of exercise. So choose an idea, a background, a theme, a time-limit, a lens etc. Even a combination of these. But keep it simple and go with what you know. 

The point is not to get stunning pictures, but to stop and consider an object or theme, and really focus on it as a photographic subject. It will help reveal the opportunities and possibilities, and break down our assumptions, make us aware of the filters we apply. In some ways, the more mundane the subject is, the better.

It's another limitation, after all.