Photography has a lot of parts to it. Each one a place to dive deeply and try to perfect. That’s both what makes it so fun to get into, but ultimately what can also hold you back.
Many people get hung up on the lenses. Others obsess on the quality of an image. There are those who seek to master techniques and still others who treat location scouting as an art. The result is a linear approach to success. A guaranteed path toward getting good at photography. But that’s only the beginning of making imagery that reaches people. And, in fact, getting good at photography can be exactly the thing that keeps you from doing work that inspires.
Because good is the enemy of great.
Being good at something can also make you complacent. People will hire you when you’re good — and when you’re learning, that seems like the ultimate goal: to become a professional. So, often, people get themselves exactly to that spot and then stop pushing. Eventually, this leads to further questions about the meaning of the medium and a lot of photographers find themselves in a state of ambivalence once they plateau. And it can happen to anyone. I’ve sat next to pro photogs at NBA games as they went through their routine, completely bored, taking one predictable shot after another. This happens to portrait takers, model shooters, architecture photographers, street shooters and everyone else. The right way to shoot ends up painting you into a corner, where everything looks good — and then you forget to push past it.
On Being Loose
Being loose is how you continue to find joy and growth in photography, ongoing. It’s actually a process of letting go. But to let go of something, first you must own it. This is why being loose in photography is an advanced technique. Trying to be loose without knowing photography intimately will lead to a lot of cliché blurry images. The real effect of being loose is taking your style and doing something different with it. Looseness shakes you out of standards that everyone is used to and pushes you to do something unique, different and that force you into territories that continue to excite you — and others.
Also an image with looseness has a real effect on the viewer. When you’re doing everything perfectly and according to best practices, the audience feels the careful, manicured process underneath it. But when you’re freer, the image conveys that and the person looking at it will be lifted and transported by the mesmerizing way it all seems so natural, interesting and carefree.
The key to getting looser is non-linear thinking. This kind of outlook forces you out of a mindset that says you have to follow a particular path, which leads to a predictable outcome. But it’s our nature to stay on the path. It’s safe there. So, these are roads you must force yourself down. Here are some ways to break out of your own rut and look at your shoots a little differently:
I spend a lot of time spinning my images around. It doesn’t always yield great results, but as a practice, it forces me to look at the world differently. This opens up my mind to things I wasn’t seeing when I was in the moment, shooting. And while it might not always make an image from a particular shoot better, it does lead to ideas that I bring to my next shoot. Ideas I never would have seen if I didn’t rotate the canvas.
We view the world standing upright with the horizon always in the same place. Even when we turn the camera, the horizon stays. So, rotating in post is like spinning the world around into views we rarely see — this expands the mind and pushes you out of your usual constraints.
You’re already doing shifts in scale when you switch from a wide angle lens to a telephoto. So, why stop there? There’s so much more scale to be considered than simply what your camera lens and sensor can capture. Panoramas, 360 cameras and drones are already pushing the boundaries of scale inside the camera, but you don’t need to be beholden to the boundaries of the capture device. You — and your ideas — are bigger than the camera. I do a lot of experimentation with scale in post, extending lines, enhancing angles and adding space. Scale has an incredible impact on the experience of an image.
And playing with scale is another great way to get looser with your thinking, as scale has a way of very quickly changing our understanding of what we’re looking at. The laws of Gestalt — which originally studied how the mind interprets what the eye sees — proved out that we understand the objects in the world differently depending on what an object is juxtaposed against (the whole is different than the sum of its parts). In expanding the canvas, either through pulling back or adding more space or even manipulating an image, we continually change the way the image is experienced. Allowing yourself to be open to how whatever you’re shooting changes as the scale of what surrounds it changes, again, loosens up your mindset. In the image above, I simply widened the image out a bit in order to make the perspective all the more dramatic.
Another great method to loosen up your images is to work with movement. When you’re dealing with free-flowing forms, it just adds life and energy to an image. As photographers we often get caught up in creating a perfect scene, wanting to get it all just right for our shot, when the best thing we can do to bring energy to a shot is work on our subjects’ poses and try to capture the human form in a dynamic way.
Of course movement happens — and is conveyed — in many ways. By leaving your shutter open longer, you can convey movement by letting figures blur, breaking out of their hard-lined worlds. And the effect can be quite stunning. But long exposure is not the only way to get a figure to feel more loosely-defined. One of my favorite techniques is to shoot through water or some other transparent material.
Finally, I want to talk about messing with your images. A small group of purists will reject this idea out-of-hand. Which is precisely why I like it. I’ve met plenty of these so-called purists, and their work always follows a rigid course that comes across in their work. But of course we all manipulate our photos as part of the process all the time.
Choosing to shoot at golden hour is a manipulation of time, in the name of light. Telling someone to smile is a manipulation of feelings. Angles and crops are a manipulation of a scene. Use of shallow depth-of-field and different film types are manipulations of an image. Dodging, burning, adding grain and retouching are all forms of manipulation. Not to mention, of course, the filters, color conversions and post processing techniques like bringing up shadows, adding structure and contrast that also manipulate an image beyond what it looks like to the normal eye. Choosing to stop manipulating before the use of Photoshop is certainly a viable choice, but not one that I find makes much sense to dig your feet in on, what with the above list of manipulations already occurring in the medium. Unless, of course, you’re on assignment as a photo journalist.
When it comes to the actual practice of it, manipulating photos is fun — plain and simple. It’s a form of play. And play is crucial to the non-linear mind.
When you embrace manipulation, you find there’s a whole world out there of new techniques and cool effects that have great emotional possibility and push your image to places you might never have considered.
It also creates the possibility of moving your photography past the basic functionality of capturing an image and elevating it to a whole new meaning.
These techniques are just a few I use to push my work into a place where it’s not so rigid, but there are hundreds of techniques out there. Hopefully this might inspire you to find the ones that work best for you. And if you have some personal ways you push beyond the expected, please tell me about it in the comments!