This month, we’re turning our backs on critical thinking and technical precision. Please don’t think I am rejecting the merits of deliberate shooting generally; this month’s exercise is ultimately less about what you produce and more about opening yourself up to possibilities, actively experiencing the world differently, and letting intuition overtake intellect.
As the average person matures, her mind learns to ignore the irrelevant information in her environment. Being able to tune out the irrelevant is, after all, what allows us to focus on an important task, fall asleep, or identify danger. However, a 2003 report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says that the brains of highly creative people are more open to incoming stimuli: “Creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment….The creative person … is always open to new possibilities.” The technical term for this receptiveness to environmental irrelevance is called “low latent inhibition,” and because it is also tied to some types of mental illness, including schizophrenia, some have called it the link between madness and genius.
As photographers, reducing our mental and sensory filters should permit our brains to notice things in the environment that the average person is likely to deem “irrelevant.” Alternatively, we might try simply disrupting those filters by manually controlling the stimuli to which our brains are exposed. Can we force ourselves – physiologically – to see the world differently?
Let’s explore some of the ways we might alter how our brains typically process the environment as we shoot and open ourselves up to capturing opportunities that the normal person would be likely to overlook or dismiss:
1. Put on headphones or put in earplugs.
Just as the dancer or musician might better “feel” the music when blindfolded or a chef might be more receptive to tasting flavors when he cannot see or touch the food, so too might we more acutely experience our visual world if we manually strip out sensory distractions. Our minds naturally filter irrelevancies, but we can disrupt the way we visually experience the world by actively blocking or replacing our auditory experience.
So, grab a pair of headphones, and create a soundtrack for shooting, pipe in a meditative rhythm, or even play white noise. No headphones? Try earplugs! Think about how differently we would visually experience a movie if forced to watch it on mute. Ultimately, muffling or replacing sound while we’re engaged in our photography may help free our minds up to make new and unexpected visual associations.
2. Physically alter your vision.
When we discuss the building blocks of photography, including exposure, composition, and use of light, we talk about helping photographers train their eyes to see the world differently. This training takes time and is immensely valuable. However, for the purposes of this exercise, we are going to fast-track a change in view by physically altering the way our eyes take in the environment. If you wear glasses or contacts (particularly if you have significantly impaired vision), remove them before shooting. Have perfect 20/20? Adjust the diopter on your camera to throw your viewfinder out of focus and simulate the experience of a visually impaired person. Or even set your camera to manual focus, rotate the focus lens to throw everything into a state of blur, and commit to leaving it that way for the duration of your shooting, allowing objects to come in and out of focus only as you move closer or further away.
3. Relinquish control.
Consider that one source of creative inhibition may come from a sense of obligation or expectation. I often tell my students they are responsible for everything that appears within the frame. What if we make it impossible to exercise such control? Set your camera to full auto: that’s automatic exposure, automatic white balance, and auto-area autofocus (where the camera not only achieves focus but also picks the focus point). Indeed, I believe the inability to take control of every aspect of image-making is part of the reason why some photographers find it easier and more enjoyable to produce compelling images with their iPhones. We’re going to take it a step further: after setting the camera to auto, pull the viewfinder camera away from your face, walk around, and fire at will. You’re shooting somewhat blindly; your only decision is where to point and when to hit the shutter. Shooting a LOT here is key if you hope to have keepers.
The fun of this will be in seeing what comes off of the card at the end: the general subject matter — imprecisely captured — that compelled you to press the shutter, and the happy accidents that might result.
4. Shoot when you’re tired.
Place your camera on your night table, and set an alarm to wake you two hours earlier than normal. When roused by the buzz, roll out of bed, pick up your camera, and shoot for thirty minutes. Embrace the lackadaisical receptiveness of your groggy mind. Snap away before logic and clarity overtake your unfiltered imagination.
Shooting before dawn (or after dusk) may also be beneficial to creativity due reduced inhibitions produced by the lighting itself; a recent report in the Journal of Environmental Psychology concluded that dim lighting conditions enhance creativity, stating: “dim illumination heightens perceived freedom from constraints, which in turn improves creative performance.” Thinking more specifically about photography, lower light conditions that obscure the visual clarity of the world around us may encourage our imaginations to fill in the blanks.
5. Have a cocktail (or two).
You might have suspected this would be on the list. We all know that alcohol reduces our inhibitions, and in this case, you may be able to leverage that to benefit your creativity. Indeed, alcohol (along with other mind-altering substances) has long been cited as creative fuel for artists and writers throughout history, from Hemingway and his whiskey to Van Gogh and his absinthe. Like shooting tired, shooting slightly buzzed permits you to approach your photography in a state of greater relaxation and encourages your brain to process the environment differently than you would fully sober.
Alcohol may have the added benefit of silencing – or at least softening – our inner critic, perhaps encouraging us to loosen up on technique as well. I don’t advocate making it a regular part of your shooting routine, but every now and again, enjoying a glass of wine and opening yourself up to serendipitous imperfections may spark something invaluable.
Do, of course, proceed responsibly and in moderation if you choose to explore how alcohol might influence your photography.
A note on uploading, culling, and processing:
In order for your images to survive all the way through this creativity exercise, you need to extend some grace after your shooting session as well. Don’t overthink it. Commit to keeping at least 25% of the images that come out of an uninhibited shooting session, look for the possibilities, and try to get back in touch with the frame of mind you had when shooting as your process the images.
Remember that the idea of the activity is primarily about seeing what comes forth when your eyes and mind are forced to experience the world differently. Even if you don’t produce anything canvas-worthy, knowing that you have the ability to loosen up the way you approach the world is powerful. Feel free to treat the exercise more as a warm-up or a tool for those times when your mind and creativity feel especially restricted. It is okay to allow the images you produce to be merely a pathway to new ideas or fodder for photographs that you will later shoot more deliberately.
Let’s see what happens when we lower our creative inhibitions. Bring on unexpected subjects, abstractions, broken rules, and imperfection. Shoot in conditions that allow you to be creatively out of control (within reason). Just let go!
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!