The 7 Habits of Highly Creative Photographers
How creative can you become as a photographer?
Are you pushing your limits or not even close to reaching them? When I read Steven Covey’s Book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, I wondered what those habits might be for us photographers. Effectiveness is important in photography, but given its artistic nature it’s all about creativity in the end.
Creativity is a sport. Everyone starts out in the Little League, some make it to the Major League and others end up in the Champions League. But what is it that raises your game? If you want extremely great photographs, you have to be willing to make it an extreme sport!
Luckily, a few tweaks here and there will already make your photos much more creative. No matter how far you want to take it, these 7 habits will pave your way.
1 always follow the rabbit hole until you follow yourself
Being extremely creative means being extremely lost at times. You have to feel comfortable letting go of the known to explore the unknown. Creative gold neither lays in other’s footsteps nor can it be found on major roads. You have to take the extra mile on the road less travelled to forge your own path.
Imagine you are in a cave with a large group of travellers. Since the standard route bores you, you start looking for something else. That’s when you and some others explore an alternative, rockier route. You gain more and more confidence on the way and you feel it’s time to forge your own path. When your fellow travellers all turn right, you silently turn left and wander through a dark tunnel with many junctions.
Great, you got lost! Perfect, because now you can prove whether you deserve to find something special. You could practically return to your fellow travellers or the big group. That means that you give up your own journey though. You inhale deeply and you keep exploring.
You get stuck, you fall down, you hit your head and the experience is more scary than enjoyable till you see a pixel of light in the dark. You fight your way to the light, which turns out to be an incredible underground waterfall with a way out.
Your photography is like that cave. You start where everyone starts, but you have to explore it yourself even if you have to drive a new tunnel. It is challenging to leave the beaten path and create your own. Millions of photographers online constantly surround you. It helps to learn and get inspired from highly creative people, but sooner or later it’s time to focus 100% on your own journey.
Values you have to strengthen to strike photo gold are open-mindedness, curiosity, playfulness and courage. Only if you constantly dare to try something fresh and original, your creative output will become fresh and original as well. Always ask yourself when you take photos:
“When was the last time I did something for the first time?”
2 always Imprison Yourself to Break Out again.
As self-defeating as it sounds, unlimited creativity in photography comes from the highest of all limitations. As much as creative souls hate to be confined, it’s ten times worse not to be. Confinement carries the opportunity of a highly creative approach to something. Absolute freedom, however, carries the risk of a decent creative approach to everything and anything.
Once you’ve explored all aspects of a genre that you’ve confined yourself to, creativity emerges. How? Your safe and comfortable confinement quickly fuels your ambition to break out of it creatively.
Imagine you are a prisoner. You don’t dare to break the rules, because the guards like you for keeping it safe and sound. One evening you can’t help it anymore and start drawing on your perfectly clean walls. You get carried away a bit and realize that you’ve broken the rules for the first time. However, it gives you a sense of freedom that you remember from your childhood days. “I’m screwed anyways, I might as well go all in!” you think and slowly take out the colors you’ve smuggled in. The creative fire in you flares up and you splash the walls in all colors and sign it with your finger.
At night, you continue digging that hole in the prison wall that you’ve hidden for months. Half an hour before sunrise you see the sun for the first time in weeks. Before you run off you take some time to cover the broken wall with a cardboard that has a hole in the middle. As you escape through the blue lavender fields, the whole cell block illuminates by a projection of a blue sky and a gorgeous sunrise through the “camera obscura” you left behind.
If you do it right in photography, you not only bring your own style to your favorite genre. You also transform and open it up for others around you. Try as many genres and styles as possible, but pick one and focus on it as long as you can. That way you learn the ins and outs of it and explore all opportunities or lack of those.
Some photographers shoot all sorts of genres while others limit themselves to one. As long as it’s fun and makes you happy, you are doing it right, of course! If you want to become highly creative though, you need to focus on one genre or style for a very long time to innovate it.
Only in chains you develop an unbreakable will to set liberate yourself completely.
3 always love and miss your muse dearly
As important as it is for highly creative people to keep creating, it’s even more important to know when not to. Listen to your subconscious. Not only for knowing when to take a break, but more importantly to open up your personal gold mine for photo ideas and inspiration.
It sounds rather paradoxical to not create in order to create, but that’s how it works. You know when you get the best ideas? When you’re not even trying to come up with the best ideas. When does true romance often start? When you’re not even looking for it. Your thoughts are much less intelligent than your gut feeling. However, you have to listen to your gut a lot in order to understand it well.
Imagine you and your partner have an argument in the morning. It heats up more and more the longer you talk. Of course, you both want to fix it. You keep discussing not only what happened, but also anything that ever happened. At a certain point, you both get so lost that you almost don’t remember what you fought about in the first place.
You’ve had it and storm out of the house to cool down. You spent your Saturday driving around, watching football with your friends and take some photos in the park. In the evening, you drive home and find your partner reading on the patio with a nice meal for the two of you:
“I think we just needed to miss each other again!”
Sometimes, you just need space in life. The same applies to your creativity. Of course you need to take photos in order to create. Inspiration has to find you working as much as possible. But deep inspiration also needs to find you in a moment when you’re not. The most amazing ideas for photo projects usually come when you talk to friends, almost fall asleep, take a shower or work out.
Try to get out of your head to access your gut feeling, i.e. subconscious. Love, work out, laugh, shower, run, walk, listen to music or eat. Do something that takes your mind off the details and shifts your focus to the bigger picture. Literally.
The quality of a great photo certainly thrives from excellence in details, but it’s impact lies in the whole picture. It's also fine to take a step back from making photos if you feel it’s needed. Even if you don’t touch your camera for 7 months, it helps you redefine its original purpose.
Miss your muse as long as you need to, but never forget how it feels to kiss her.
4 always work harder than you think
You need a good reason or drive for high creativity. It doesn’t matter what your “why” is, but it needs to be powerful. Maybe you just want to prove to yourself how creative you can get. Competing against others can also motivate you. It could also be that you hate your office job so much that living a creative life is all you can think about. Whatever your reason is to make photos, it needs to be a strong one.
Imagine you hate your job and always think of living off your photography. The thought alone just makes you happy:
You wake up in the morning to do what you love till you go to bed again. Whenever friends mention their weekend get-away, you think of all the travel adventures ahead. Although money was never part of the dream, being a big hit among art buyers worldwide puts a smile on your face. Everyone celebrates you for your incredible journey and you think to yourself: “Wait for it, I haven’t even started yet!”
BAM! You wake up from your post-lunch food coma and realize: "Damn, I actually haven't even started yet!" You start taking more photos in your spare time. At a certain point, you use every free minute to improve your photos and market your photography. For years on end you get up when no one gets up, you work when no one works and you create when no ones creates.
BAM! You wake up from your excel nap again, hand in in your notice and look at your desktop wallpaper for the last time that says:
"It was all a dream."
Being highly creative is incredible, but becoming highly creative is incredibly hard work. Often it hurts, it’s frustrating and it’s supposed to make you bleed, sweat and cry. It’s a constant competition with yourself. The question you have to ask yourself is: “How much do you love working on your photos and yourself?”
That determines how creative you will get.
Whatever your goal with photography is, it needs to drive you. However, you need your eyes on the game and not the scoreboard or winner’s podium. In order to become insanely creative in photography, you need to love working hard for it. Improvement gives you more happiness than the result itself. That way, you develop a powerful focus for the process, which eventually leads to powerful photos.
5 always go all in for the knockout
At first you merely envision your high creativity in the form of photos you could create. You have an idea about how they should look, but reality begs to differ. It takes a long time to unleash your creative spirit. Of course, you always have to put quality above quantity. However, quality comes from quantity.
Imagine yourself as a boxer. Whenever you step in your ring, however, your competitor is your former self. If you haven’t learned much from the last round, you’ll do the same moves and mistakes again. As a consequence, you always reach a draw or even lose. You only win, if you train a lot and analyze your performance well. If you are stuck on your own, a coach will tell you where to hit next!
Embrace the challenge of it and keep going right for the flaws and weaknesses in your photos. It always hurts to do it, because you face brutal honesty for it. When you find a weakness, take a shot over and over again. It’s always hit and misses though, but with hard work and consistency you always go for the knockout! That’s how you beat your former self, win the title and prove to yourself how creative you truly are till you are ready to fight for the next one!
Only if you do the same thing over and over again you can improve. Of course, being honest with yourself is a given. Bruce Lee once said: "I fear not the man who has practiced 10000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10000 times." Take “the same shot” for years and it will become outstanding and excellent. The only question you have to ask yourself is:
“How often do you step in the ring to knock yourself out?”
6 face all your daemons
Highly creative photographers go right where it hurts. “Fear” is one of the most nutritious breeding grounds for creativity. It’s a field that is barely ever touched, but by working on it, you'll harvest something rather unique. Always remember: “The Universe #1 hiding spot for the most awesome shit is right behind fear.” Conquer it as often as you can in photography and you will become highly creative!
“That’s it, I’ve had it! Come at me!” Yet another spider startles you on your photo walk through the forest. To revenge yourself you flash them with your camera. What started out as a joke soon turns into a fun challenge to conquer your fear. You take it to the next level by flash photographing all sorts of animals that used to scare you: snakes, angry birds and even wild boars.
A big photography website picked up your photos online and made you famous as the “Wildlife Bruce Gilden”. Countless photographers around the globe celebrate your innovative animal photography, but it makes you feel horrible and guilty.
“How could I ever disturb peaceful creatures in their natural habitat with a flash for my own benefit?”, you ponder.
You’re happy that you conquered your fear, but this whole ordeal showed you how precious harmony in nature is. You spend more and more of your spare time in the forest and start helping out the local forester. After a while you care so much about it that you quit your office job to start your own wildlife fund.
You finance your dream through ethical wildlife photography workshops where you help city folks reconnect with nature. One burned-out accountant asks you one day what it is that makes you so successful and special in the wildlife photography community. You smirk and proudly say:
“My fear of wild animals!”
Photography and life are deeply interconnected. Creativity emerges through a connection of the world around you and your unique personality. Start somewhere with your photos and shoot what you feel most no matter how “wrong” or ridiculous it may seem. Keep walking, keep digging and keep reflecting whether your photos represent your values.
The longer you make photos with your personality in mind, the more they become your photos. Don’t take it the wrong way when other photographers don’t even understand your direction at first. How could they?
You are the first one taking it.
7 always shoot like there's no tomorrow
The highest level of creativity comes from the highest level of commitment. Only if you are willing to take it to an extreme level, you generate extreme results. Did you ever wait for a photo for 3 hours in one spot? Do you ever become obsessed with a photo project? Do you put yourself through hell to get that one shot? Do it!
This healthy dose of insanity is the burning passion that your photography needs. A few sparks here and there are simply not enough. Allow yourself to be crazy about your photos. Embrace your inner emotional chaos and pour it all into your photos!
There are exactly two deadlines that matter: your next one and your last one. However, you never know whether your next deadline is your last one. Picasso famously said: “You only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” Always create your own daily, weekly, monthly or yearly deadlines to create a sense of urgency.
No matter what happened today or still lays ahead of you, today is your day. It doesn’t matter if you just woke up, sit in an office or simply can’t fall asleep. Whether it's misty, steaming hot or raining cats and dogs outside, it’s your time to shine today!
Grab your camera now, follow your inner light and create the photo you deserve to create!
Today is your first and last day on earth.
Today you'll do what you’ve never done.
Today you'll walk where you’ve never walked.
Today you'll explore what you've never explored.
Today you'll love like you've never loved.
Today you'll fight like you've never fought.
Today you'll capture what you've never captured.
Because today is the day...
...where you take the most creative photo of your life.