On Inspiration

How often do you feel inspired? Where does your inspiration come from?

What is inspiration, really … and why is it important?

An Oxford dictionary definition: ‘the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.’

Being mentally stimulated provides the motivation—or often, the compulsion—to take some kind of action. For photographers, that action results in us making a photograph. Seems simple enough … but is it? Exactly what is going on when we're in this state of mind and more importantly when we aren’t feeling it, what can we do about it?

Photographers of all kinds, especially the more serious ones, will experience an ebb and flow of creative juices. At times it can seem like we are on a constant search for inspiration. This is especially true for those of us who shoot outdoors, whether it be in the natural world or the built environment, where most of what we encounter is beyond our control.

When we are feeling inspired, we find many opportunities to make photographs. When we are not inspired, it can seem like nothing is worth taking a picture of. So we don’t.

Let’s compare this to the creative process of a painter. When faced with a blank canvas, the fundamental act of making the first marks is absolutely crucial to initiating the creative act. If a painter is lacking inspiration—e.g. ‘out of ideas‘—they can stare at the canvas forever without taking the first action. A painter’s actions come mainly from within their own mind. This holds true even when painting from photographs or other existing source material, because with a blank canvas, it is entirely up to the artist to generate the picture.

In photography, the creative process is very different. Using our manmade, mechanical device, we seek to capture an image which exists in physical reality. The power of the frame is paramount: as a means of selection, the frame edge is the photographer’s most important tool.

What to leave in a photograph, and what to leave out, is the beating heart of photographic creativity. Thus photography is a process of selection, reduction, and elimination. We are starting with the infinite possibility of the physical world, trying to identify the tiniest sliver of it to capture within the frame, with the aim that this slice of reality will later be interesting to a viewer.

So it seems to make sense that if you’re in an environment where you don't see anything that inspires you to make a picture, you don’t make any. We’ve all experienced the disappointment of a highly anticipated shooting session that has produced limited results. We rationalise this by saying ‘the conditions weren’t right’, ‘nothing was working’ or ‘I couldn’t get in the zone.’

This line of thinking is misleading and unproductive.

As photographers, our goal is to make photographs. And we need to practice doing this even when we are not feeling inspired. Much like the painter facing a blank canvas, the simple-but-not-easy act of making the first captures can shift our mindset and get us into creative flow.

Of course, this approach is far easier to justify when shooting digital. After all, pixels are cheap. If you’re shooting film, the execution may be justifiably different, but the goal is the same: especially when you're not feeling inspired, it’s up to you to generate the magical stuff that gets the creative juices flowing.

Here are a few ways to do this:

1. Look through the viewfinder
As photographers, our most important skill is seeing the potential for a good photograph. With time and practice, this will be achievable with the unaided eye. But when you’re struggling to see potential pictures, sometimes the best thing to do is simply get the camera up to your face and look through the viewfinder. On a camera without a viewfinder, the next best thing is to look at the screen, all the while moving the camera to explore possible compositions. These actions assist you by imposing the frame on the world around you. In the case of a real viewfinder, when you look through it with only one eye open, you are also excluding everything else not within the area of the viewfinder.

You’ve surely also seen the trick used for decades by film directors and cinematographers, making a frame with your two hands and looking through the opening. The essential principle here is that when you are struggling to see the shot, simply imposing a frame onto the scene can help you visualise possibilities.

2. Shoot Fast, Shoot Slow
This is one of my favourite photography exercises, taught to me in a workshop led by the great American photographer John Paul Caponigro. This exercise is really only feasible using a digital camera or smartphone, as you are likely to ‘waste’ a lot of frames! Here’s how it works:

First, spend ten minutes shooting quickly, reactively and without overthinking each shot. Explore the scene and take make as many different compositions as you can. I’m not suggesting you just wildly wave the camera around without even looking at what you are shooting; rather, try to make ‘good’ pictures but do not spend lots of time on each shot. In ten minutes you should aim to make at least 50 or 60 pictures. After the ten minutes have passed, take a few moments to pause, catch your breath and maybe review a few of the shots you captured.

Next, you will have another block of ten minutes, but during this time you will only press the shutter ONCE. This means you have ten minutes to simply look closely and carefully, view the scene from different angles and use your mind’s eye to previsualise possible compositions. By slowing down and resisting the urge to snap a photo, you will activate your ability to apply your true creative intention to the process. Obviously the major takeaway here is that you absolutely must prioritise the options and decide what matters the most, because you only get to capture the single frame within the full ten minutes.

If you periodically remember this exercise and do it frequently, you may be amazed at how it changes your approach to photography. It’s essential to learn to recognise and master the various states of mind available to you as a creative practitioner. Most fundamental among these are the different modes of working quickly and reactively versus working slowly and methodically.

3. Other people’s tripod holes
A tongue-in-cheek phrase I often heard in my early days learning landscape photography in the wilderness of the American West was to ‘find the tripod holes’. This refers to the most popular spots and common angles of view found in the majority of photos of a given scene. One prime example is Mesa Arch in Utah, an overly popular photo location known to produce countless photos that all look essentially the same. So when you’re finding the tripod holes, you are intentionally replicating the view that you’ve seen in someone else’s photo. No doubt, when you start paying attention to this, you will find unlimited examples of photos that show the same thing, and could have been made by anyone.

While I strongly advocate finding your own voice as a photographer and making pictures that only you could make, this is a very lofty goal which takes many years of continued effort to achieve. While developing your craft—and especially in moments of low inspiration—there can be great value in simply emulating what you have seen done before. Yes, it’s a form of copying. But bearing in mind the unbelievably complicated journey of becoming a good photographer, there will be many times and places where replicating something you’ve seen can be of great help. I might suggest that these kinds of photos never find their way into your portfolio of best work, but you can learn a lot by trying to understand how and why another photographer made the choices they did. This can be especially true for well-known landmarks that offer myriad views and a multitude of creative choices.

4. Study photographers whose pictures you admire
Taking this a bit further, you don’t actually need to go to the exact location of an existing photograph to learn from it. I’ve often mentioned (and will discuss much more in coming articles) the importance of learning to read photographs, to evaluate and analyse exactly what is going on in the picture from both a technical and aesthetic viewpoint. When you mentally put yourself in someone else’s tripod holes, you can reverse engineer their thinking, and better understand their intention and creative process that led to the given photograph.

Always keep in mind that great photography, first and foremost, is a process of decision-making. The choices you make must reflect your priorities. When you aren’t feeling inspired, it may be largely because your deepest personal values have not been triggered by what you are experiencing. In these cases, examine the values represented by other people’s photos, and this can often help you get in the zone of inspiration.

When you encounter someone else’s photograph that you appreciate, for whatever reason, you owe it to yourself to take the time to understand a) what it is that resonates with you, and b) get into the mind of the photographer who made the picture. This can be especially productive in cases where you really admire a photographer’s body of work, their creative approach and technique. For you, as a serious photographer, it should never be enough to just be a fan of someone’s work. Take the time to fully understand their method, if possible even reproduce some of their pictures, and this knowledge will feed into your own inspiration.

The important role of technique

Here's another Oxford dictionary definition for you to consider:

'Technique: a particular way of doing something, especially one in which you have to learn special skills.'

One of the most important measures of your developing mastery of photography is found in your technique. Or, more accurately, 'techniques', as good photography involves a multitude of skills.

It can be helpful to consider the relationship between inspiration and technique. If we think about inspiration as mainly something that happens in your mind, it is technique which manifests your ideas into action and, ultimately, a creative output.

Certainly, much inspiration can be found in studying other photographers' technique, either as evidenced in the outcomes or be learning directly from the artist how they made a picture. Understanding the mechanics of how something is accomplished can often inspire new ideas and new approaches—especially when you continue to ask more questions.

Mastering your camera equipment and the settings involved in creating specific results will give you immense creative freedom from which inspiration springs forth. Conversely, when you have a great idea, knowing the required technique is what will make possible the results you envision.

Thus inspiration, in and of itself, is only the beginning of a creative process. You can have all kinds of fantastic ideas but until you know how to materialise them, they will remain unfulfilled.

Master of the Obvious

Anyone can be inspired by the spectacular. True artists, those who work hard to develop a practiced eye, can be inspired to create magic seemingly from nothing.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that truly compelling photographs can be made in any environment. Sure, this doesn't mean it’s always easy. In fact, we should be wary of easy photographs! The lovely sunset, the becoming flower, the grand vista, all are beguiling to look at and lure us into the idea that photography is about capturing obviously interesting and beautiful situations.

Yet a conscientious study of the most intriguing and compelling images in history should convince you that the most brilliant photographs can be made of the least obvious subject matter. Truly great photos also carry an element of surprise, because it shows us something we’d never considered.

So what of inspiration? When we see something lovely and are compelled to capture it in the camera, doesn’t this get to the core of photography? I don’t believe so; at least, not photography as fine art. Creating true art requires more than serendipity. More than a readiness to act.

Stephen Pressfield, in his excellent and groundbreaking work The War of Art, reminds us of a crucial concept that all serious artists should heed. The difference between an amateur and a professional is that the amateur constantly seeks inspiration as a motivation to get started, while the professional understands there is important work to be done and deliberately puts in motion a process by which something great can be made.

You do not need to be a professional photographer to adopt this work ethic and reap its benefits. If we only create photographs when we are feeling inspired, successful pictures will indeed be few and far between.

Inspiration is something that we should continually work to develop within ourselves, as a synthesis of ideas, curiosity and experience. The question “what if…?” can be a great instigator of inspiration, yet it does not come from outside. We can think of pure inspiration as coming from inside us, not something that happens to us. We need to produce the spark ourselves, and nurture it into flame.

Find your sources of inspiration and carefully cultivate them. Use moments of quiet contemplation to look deep inside yourself to understand your values and your true goals as an artist. Most importantly, never stop growing. Meaningful growth comes mainly from consistently working and striving, not in brilliant flashes of unpredictable luck.

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