As I mentioned before, this week I’m tackling three topics that mean a lot to me because they’re areas that I most struggled with and at the same time feel that I most developed in this past year: confidence, creativity, and productivity. (You can read the post on confidence here in case you missed it!) And again, there is a lot that can be said about ALL of these things, and there’s also a lot of overlap between the three, but I’m going to attempt to be as specific as possible in my observations and experiences and give practical applications so that hopefully you guys will be able to take away some good nuggets (clearly I love the word nugget, both in this context and the Chick-fil-A context).
(Side note: If you’re not a photographer or fellow business owner, and you’re a potential client or you just want to see my portfolio, please feel free to use the menu above to browse around, and click on some of my featured weddings in the right sidebar. I’m so glad you’re here and I hope to hear from you!)
I often wonder why it’s so hard for photographers to refer to themselves as being creative or artistic (present company most definitely included). It might be because people are literally telling us we’re not artists (true story, unfortunately!). Or maybe it’s because we have these lofty ideas of who “real artists” are, and we imagine them all to be tortured souls who live on the outskirts of society and can’t possibly be bothered to engage with small-minded commoners like ourselves. I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s been a long, uphill battle with myself to be able to answer the question “So what do you do?” in anything above an apologetic whisper. I used to hate saying I was a photographer because I felt like I was immediately opening myself up to critique. It’s like I was just waiting for someone to blow the whistle and expose me for a fraud. “An artist?!” they would scoff. “Oh, please! Who does she think she is?” Or at least these are how the imaginary conversations played out in my head.
And so I feel like a lot of my career in photography has been spent trying to prove myself. In the beginning, I would do all this crazy stuff in Photoshop because I was all, hey, look how cool and edgy and artsy I am! I also tried to find my voice by copying everyone else’s, as if there was some magic formula I could follow. Yep, I’ve made lots of silly mistakes along the way, but I finally realized there was no shame in declaring, OUT LOUD, “I’m an artist.” It eventually occurred to me that the mere fact that I wake up every morning itching to create something, to solve a problem, to make beautiful things, to share my ideas…. well, that alone made me an artist.
But it didn’t necessarily make me a good one. Honing my craft and developing my brand has required a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and it’s an ongoing, everyday process. But there are some tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way, and while no two artist’s paths are ever the same, there are plenty of ways we can learn from each other. :)
1. LOOK FOR INSPIRATION OUTSIDE OF YOUR FIELD.
When I first got started in photography, I thought that there was some kind of magic formula for creativity and success in this business. I figured if a particular photographer had a certain kind of logo or edited a specific way or wrote certain kinds of blog posts and it was working for them, then by golly, I should follow suit and surely it would work for me too. Well, after changing my website and color palette about five times in my first two years of business, and rotating through just as many sets of Photoshop actions in search of my “style,” and attending countless classes and a handful of workshops in hopes of learning all the “secrets,” I finally realized that there was no one magic formula. There wasn’t a 10-step list I could check off in order to become a rock star photographer. Most pros will now tell you that the “secret” is actually pretty darn simple: work your butt off, practice a LOT, and learn how to use your tools and get it right in camera.
Copying and “stealing” is a very touchy subject for most photographers. That’s why you see photos with giant watermarks on them, or photographers who refuse to post many of their photos online or share their knowledge freely, because they’re worried about copycats. I tend to go back and forth on this. On the one hand, I absolutely believe that there is nothing (truly) new under the sun, and we’re all influenced by everything around us and those who have come before us a lot more than we even know, let alone care to admit. I think it would be pompous of me to call any of my work “original,” simply because over time I have collected many little tidbits of inspiration and knowledge, so ultimately anything I do is going to be influenced by those things that I can’t take credit for. However, there have been times when it’s obvious that another photographer has “borrowed” an idea that I actually worked really hard to come up with as a way of being somewhat different or original, and my initial instinct is to be a little annoyed. There’s a very fine line between inspiration and copying in this business, and there are times when we all mask our “borrowed ideas” as inspiration to make it all seem completely harmless, and I do think that’s an issue. But when it comes right down to it, I’d rather my work be something worth copying than to fly under the radar unnoticed. I must be doing something right, so my job then is to stop wasting time worrying about copycats, and instead invest my energy in staying ahead of the curve and coming up with more ideas that inspire people.
But how can we stay ahead of the creative curve and keep from coming across as a mini-me of our favorite photographers? By looking outside of the photography world for inspiration. For example, when redoing my website over a year ago, I didn’t want someone to land on it and immediately think “Well, it’s obvious which photographer is her idol.” So instead of looking at other photographer’s websites, I spent time studying some of my other longtime favorite things: NYLON magazine, Kate Spade, DesignLoveFest, the art of Michelle Armas (my FAVE!), and home decorating books like Domino. As a result, I ended up with a super bright, colorful, modern, slightly whimsical and mid-century-ish design that 100% accurately reflects me. Nothing about it is minimal or understated or serious, but then again, neither am I! And when someone tells me how much they love my branding and how different it is from everyone else’s, I take it as a huge compliment. HUGE. If everyone else starts jumping on the bright colors/Kate Spade/retro-modern bandwagon, well… I guess I’ll just have to find a way to continue to “Be Morgan” while still always searching for the next best thing. :)
It seems like we should be only be looking at other people’s photographs to get inspired for the photographs we take, but I just don’t think it’s true. I get inspired by reading lots of fiction,, watching visually stunning films like Amelie and Funny Face, listening to music (especially watching live performances), and sometimes just by taking walks throughout the day and allowing myself to have space from technology and the quiet that my brain needs to allow inspiration to strike. So if you feel like your photography or branding or writing is just becoming a jumbled up regurgitation of all the photographers you admire, then consider taking a time out from looking to them for inspiration and instead seek out sparks of creativity in what the rest of the world has to offer.
2. SET BOUNDARIES.
Setting boundaries seems like a counterintuitive approach to being more creative, I know. But let me explain. I’m not telling you to not dream big or occasionally break the “rules” or avoid being trapped into labels or any of that. You should do ALL of those things. I’m talking about setting boundaries in the sense of giving yourself parameters to work within. For example, have you ever tried to look at a blank canvas and just magically come up with an amazing idea? Is it not the hardest thing in the world? Or is that just me? Ha.
The more I thought about how boundaries keep me working at my creative peak, the more SO many of my personality traits and tendencies began to make sense. For instance, by the end of my college career, I couldn’t even think about starting a paper until the day before it was due (sometimes I didn’t start until 4:00 am on the morning it was due, true story). Part of this was due to a little bit of laziness, but there was also something about that insane pressure of waiting until the very last minute that made me work at my best. I made my best grades on those papers that I was frantically still typing 10 minutes before class started, so I felt pretty justified in my procrastination. Ha. Another example of how tight limitations bring out my creative best? My decision to shoot primarily weddings. Wedding days give you so many boundaries to work within, it’s not even funny. From dealing with the weather and lighting conditions of the venue, to the pressure of having no second chances, to trying to find the bride’s brother during family formals, to having 10 minutes or less to shoot all the portraits of the bride and groom… the list goes on and on and ON. But what I’ve discovered is that I thrive in these situations. Having to solve problems on the fly is something I actually really enjoy. Making something beautiful out of less-than-ideal circumstances brings me a huge amount of satisfaction and happiness.
I recently came across an interview with Jack White in which he talked about how restriction is actually crucial for creative expression. He said “Deadlines and things make you creative, but opportunity and telling yourself you’ve got all the time in the world, all the money in the world, you’ve got all the colors in the palette you want, anything you want– that just kills creativity.” And that’s when it clicked for me. Suddenly my desire for guidelines and deadlines made total sense. My best work is done when I’m facing a specific mission or project with limited resources.
So the next time you find yourself staring at the proverbial blank canvas with no clue where to start, give yourself some specific guidelines and materials, and I think you’ll be surprised at how much more easily the ideas and creativity begin to flow.
3. EXPLORE OTHER (UNPAID) CREATIVE OUTLETS.
I was a hobbyist long before I ever became a professional photographer, and I remember how much I annoyed my family on vacation and my friends during our college years with my obsessive need to document everything. I loved it. And obviously I still do. However, I’ve realized that in order to keep my skills sharp and my ideas fresh now that it’s how I make a living, I need to be pursuing other creative hobbies just for the fun of it. It helps me to push myself and experiment in a low-stress, no-pressure kind of environment.
One of my favorite things to do in my down time is work on our house. I’ve mentioned several times how much I fancy myself to be an amateur interior designer, so it’s actually really fun for me to paint walls, hang curtains, think of projects to do, create artwork for the walls, collect ideas on Pinterest, and just in general make a happy and cozy home for us. I like to think that I’m strengthening my creative muscles when I do these kinds of things, which is only going to make me a better and more creative photographer.
One thing I loved about 2012 was becoming part of a group of female small business owners. We meet once a month and talk about the struggles we’re going through and encourage each other and bounce ideas off each other. But one of the other things we started doing was taking time to learn a little about each other’s craft. So I got learn the basics of letter-pressing, calligraphy, cake decorating, hair styling, and all sorts of other things. It was a great way to dabble in other creative outlets and see what I might be interested in pursuing for fun.
So I would challenge you, if you feel like you’re getting stuck in a rut with your creative career, to make some other kind of art just for the heck of it, whether it’s writing or knitting or painting or singing or anything else. I guarantee you that it’ll help you free your mind and improve the “work” you actually get paid to do, and remind you why you fell in love with it in the first place.
4. SHOW UP PREPARED, BUT BE READY TO TAKE A RISK.
One of the things I worked on a lot last wedding season was how to prepare myself for each event. I’m not talking about just having the schedule and contact info and a detailed map and an emergency kit in the trunk (though all of those things are very important). I’m talking about preparing myself mentally and creatively. I used to think that the best way to approach wedding photography was to just 100% go with the flow, and shoot with whatever ideas came to me organically throughout the day. But over time I’ve learned that while spontaneity is fantastic, it’s even better when you show up with a game plan.
For me, this involves envisioning what I want to do ahead of time. Bearing in mind each individual client and the overall spirit and vision and theme of their wedding day and the locations we’ll be shooting at, I do my research beforehand and map out a list of specific poses I want to do. I have about 5-10 “standard” shots I do with every couple, but then I like to shake things up by throwing in a few poses or set-ups that I’ve never done or don’t get to do as often as I’d like. Remember how I said in the confidence post that scrolling through other photographers’ blogs is usually more discouraging than inspirational (at least for me personally)? The way I seek out posing inspiration is through Pinterest. The great thing about Pinterest is that you’re looking at a mish-mash of photos instead of one particular person’s portfolio. So for me, I can really focus on the elements of each photograph that draw me in, whether it’s the pose, or the composition, or the lighting, without being distracted by who took the photograph. It’s also great because I love to look at old photographs and classic portraits for inspiration, so I can just make a little collection of everything to refer back to the night before a wedding, when I want to really zero in on my intentions and vision for the next day.
Another way to always be prepared creatively is to do LOTS of personal work, just for fun. This is something I have to remind myself to do (and I’m SUPER excited about a project I’m putting together right now, actually!), because I think it’s easy for me to think that if it isn’t paid work, then it’s not worth my time. WRONG. Doing this personal work allows me the freedom to really push myself and try out new techniques, because I would never want to treat someone’s wedding as an artistic experiment. Most of my very favorite photographers constantly stress the importance of personal work, and I think it really reflects in the quality of their photographs.
However, although you want to always be prepared and ready, I don’t want to underestimate the importance of being willing to take some risks and be inspired by the moment. Don’t plan so much that you’ve closed your mind to any other possibilities– just enough to give yourself a solid jumping off point. From there, go where the wind blows you and let your surroundings dictate the kinds of shots you’ll take.
I hope you were able to find some of this to be helpful! I apologize once again for my tendency to ramble, but I just find it SO hard to keep it short and sweet when I’m sharing about things that are so near and dear to my heart. And again, please come back for the last post in the series, on productivity, later this week!
Have a wonderful Wednesday, and I’ll leave you with this little gem: