How to be a more creative photographer and enrich your life in the process

One does not think during creative work, any more than one thinks when driving a car. But one has a background of years – learning, unlearning, success, failure, dreaming, thinking, experience, all this – then the moment of creation, the focusing of all into the moment.

Edward Weston

Creativity is, in some respects, intangible. It does not have a physical form. It cannot be distilled and sold in bottles. It cannot be summoned at will, and if it does happen to show its face, there is no guarantee that it will stick around.

Creativity is elusive and as such, is one of the pinnacles of photographic achievement.

Many photographers will ask after its whereabouts, and how it might fashion them a personal style, vision, or voice.

Creativity and fulfilment

Guy Tal once said that the biggest downside to shooting Mesa Arch at sunrise was that you’d end up with a photograph of Mesa Arch at sunrise.

Why? Because the end product is a photograph that has been taken before. A path that has already been walked, sometimes countless times.

Creativity by definition is the process of bringing something into existence that didn’t exist before.

This is easy to do, in theory.

Anyone can go out and take a picture of the clothes on their washing line. Have you created something that didn’t exist before you hung out the washing? Sure did. Creativity? Check.

You’re unlikely, however, to be moved by pictures of your underwear flapping in the breeze. Unless that’s your thing, of course.

Creativity without fulfilment is a waste of time.

Hence, I posit that you need to put yourself in situations that you find fulfilling. Situations where creativity is most likely to come knocking.

How do you do this?

It’s a three-step process, summarised as such:

1) Determining your unique attributes.
2) Defining your meaningful experiences.
3) Refining your creative process.

Determining your unique attributes

The great Ansel Adams was a photographer and environmentalist, as troubled by urban development as he was fascinated by the beauty of the natural world.

What is perhaps less well known about Ansel is that as a child, he was bullied because of learning difficulties and frequently changed schools. He was also thrown from his house during an earthquake aftershock, permanently disfiguring his nose.

While he had professional aspirations to be a pianist, he became interested in the outdoors after he moved to a house with uninterrupted views of the Californian coast.

It was here that his shy, curious nature could flourish.

(I was) more responsive to wild environments than to urban…the surf and dunes, the storms and fogs of the Golden Gate, the thickets of Lobos Creek and the grim headlands of Land’s End.

Ansel Adams

Recognising that Adams gained immense pleasure from more solitary pursuits, his father made the decision to home school him at age 12.

As a result, his father had more of a say in what Ansel would learn. He taught him to live in the vein of Ralph Waldo Emerson –  modestly, morally, and guided by social responsibilities to man and nature.

How to discover your unique self

The first step requires some good old introspection. I’m an introvert, so introspection is like shelling peas.

But for others, it may be less intuitive. Start by looking at what makes you, well, you.

If you like street photography, how did that come about? How has street photography shaped your personality? How has your personality shaped your street photography?

Attributes such as hobbies may be easy to determine.

Other attributes that explain your hobbies might require more insight. These are things such as ideas, values, beliefs, life experiences and even your genetic makeup.


Defining your meaningful experiences

For Ansel Adams, his parent’s decision to buy a house on the Californian coast was a major driver of his love of the natural world.

But this was just the start of his love affair.

At age 14, he took his first trip to Yosemite National Park.

That first impression of the valley—white water, azaleas, cool fir caverns, tall pines and stolid oaks, cliffs rising to undreamed-of heights, the poignant sounds and smells of the Sierra…was a culmination of experience so intense as to be almost painful. From that day in 1916 my life has been colored and modulated by the great earth gesture of the Sierra.”

Ansel Adams

It doesn’t come much more meaningful than that. The excitement and passion in his words are palpable.

What are your meaningful experiences? Where do you like to be, or what do you like to do often? What activities do these experiences entail?

Note that these can be any activity, not necessarily those where you have a camera in your hand.

Ansel Adams loved nature, but he was focused on becoming a professional pianist for many years before making the switch the photography.

Perhaps your meaningful experience is related to the freedom, isolation, and thrill of flying? Whether that be gliding, sky-diving or hang-gliding – could you incorporate a camera into these pursuits somehow?

Meaningful experiences are those experiences to which, either consciously or subconsciously, you attach emotions to. You feel a certain way just thinking about them.

Refining your creative process

At the introduction to this article, I mentioned that creativity without fulfilment is a waste of time.

I also said that creativity is intangible and almost impossible to summon at will.

Creativity is a bit like the cat in a room full of people who instinctively ignores the cat lovers and showers the non-cattiest person with affection.

Don’t go searching for the affections of creativity. Let them come to you.

Yes, there’s no guarantee that creativity will ever come knocking, no matter how much you try to follow a recipe. But half of the enjoyment of photography is finding out.

Fall in love with the process and you’ll save yourself a lot of pain.

Of one of his most famous works, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, Adams noted that:

If I had spent more time in the Chama Valley, I would have missed the entire thing. If I had come home earlier, I would have missed it. So there’s always an element of chance in photography. If you have practiced and practiced, the process is intuitive. You suddenly recognize something, and you react.

Ansel Adams

Ansel had a familiarity with the landscape, and his equipment, that allowed to him intuitively sense that such a moment was about to occur.

Creativity cannot exist without emotion.

If the sight of your washing on the line does not emotionally move you in some fashion, then you are going to be unable to translate that emotion into a photograph.

Using a more realistic example, my background is in environmental science. I love plants, animals and hiking in the outdoors.

When I’m hiking, I find myself looking for plants that I can’t identify. Beyond the obvious novelty factor, there’s also a sense of intrigue and curiosity.

I’m also interested in plants that are more familiar to me. I like to ask myself why a particular plant is growing in a certain place, or why it isn’t flowering yet.

My (very simplified) creative process might go something like this:

  1. My background in environmental science and hiking leads to an interest in plants.
  2. The interest in plants leads to a curiosity about their ecological function and as a result, their physical form.
  3. The curiosity in physical form and function builds a picture in my mind about the bush as an ecosystem and the spatial relationships between plants.
  4. The awareness of spatial relationships leads to the deep, focused observation of the bush. I notice the intricate details of plants. Leaves in various states of decay or the patterns of bark on pine trees. Communities of mosses struggling through the undergrowth.
  5. The intricate observations of individual plants lead me to start forming narratives in my head. Maybe the mosses are struggling for survival as they huddle together on the forest floor, clinging desperately to the last remnants of winter. Maybe the single green shoot on a tree devastated by fire is a story of hope and renewal.
  6. Then, photography occurs.

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.


While remarking that I enjoy the Australian bush would certainly be more succinct, it doesn’t explain how it is a meaningful experience for me.

Nor does it separate my meaningful experience from the millions of other people who enjoy the natural world.

Thankfully, this is only one of several meaningful experiences in my life.

My love of storm chasing on lonely desert roads, for example, is derived from many of the same unique attributes that result in my love of the bush.

When you combine subject matter from separate experiences or cross-pollinate them in some other way, the odds of unique, creative photography increase.

In a 1958 documentary, Ansel Adams likened his creative process to music. While he called music the most expressive art form, creative photography would come close if it was practiced for its inherent qualities.

Well, in music you have this absolutely necessary discipline from the very beginning. And you are constructing various shapes and controlling values. Your notes have to be accurate or else there’s no use playing. There’s no casual approximation.

Indeed, his approach to photography revolved around:

  • Previsualisation of an image before it was made.
  • Using a handheld meter to estimate exposure and tonal range (the Zone System).
  • Meticulous record-keeping of camera settings and zonal range data.
  • Meticulous negative quality control – checking for image sharpness and shadow density.
  • Maintaining standards comparable to an architect or engineer.
  • Many visits to locations to get the right shot in the right conditions.

Ansel had a love for the process – but only in the sense that things should be done properly, or not at all. He believed that there were no half measures in artistic expression.

His meticulous and rigorous attention to detail allowed him to focus on the creative aspects of photography. The stuff that matters.

Case in point — Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. A photographer less familiar with their tools would have squandered the moment. Indeed, the light on the crosses lasted a mere 15 seconds after the exposure was made.

How else is creativity influenced?

Adams was, to some extent, a product of the era in which he was born. A key proponent of his photography involved previsualising images before he took them. He would then spend hours in the darkroom achieving a realistic interpretation of the images that he saw in his mind’s eye.

Previsualisation was particularly useful for Adams, because he was devoted to preserving wild areas by communicating their grandeur to others.

Without being crystal clear on how he felt, what he saw, or what he wanted to say, Adams would have failed to inspire many people at all.

If previsualisation is one part of the equation, showing up is the other.

No matter how much Adams was excited about the potential of photographing the Sierra Nevada, he still had to physically be there to make the photographs.

Indeed, many of his forays into the mountains were no walks in the park (pun intended). Before he acquired a mule, he carried bulky camera equipment on his back without the assistance of well-formed trails or facilities.

Patience, persistence and hard work were crucial to his success.

Creativity in the modern age

Have qualities such as patience and persistence fallen by the wayside in modern times?

Is the extent of modern previsualisation looking at the same old compositions of the northern lights over the Lofoten Islands?

While Adams was a revolutionary in some aspects, creativity does not require that you reach the same lofty heights.

You just have to use the tools that you’ve been given in life.

Better yet, you have to honour your tools. Give them a chance to shine! What other option is there?

What do you want to say about the world? What do you want to say about yourself?

It might be something that you’re afraid to express. Conversely, something that you can’t express enough.

This may take some time to figure out, but the odds are you have meaningful activities that you haven’t yet associated with photography.

What is it that makes your heart beat rapidly – literally, or metaphorically? Embrace it! There is a good chance it’ll be you.


Creativity is walking your own path, even if, at least initially, you’re pushing through a blackberry thicket.

Creative, meaningful photography ought to be an expression of your uniqueness, rather than a simple reproduction of an aesthetically pleasing scene.

Creativity is a mixture of intuition, instinct, knowledge and meaningful experience. It is not something to be hacked, gamed or bypassed. It requires trust, faith, foresight and a certain tolerance to pain.

Aesthetically pleasing and often classically composed scenes are undoubtedly beautiful, but are they truly an expression of your innermost creativity? Only you can decide.

Don’t rely on external stimuli for your creative angle. Focus on finding your unique attributes and you can unlock the rest of the process from there.

In some respects, Ansel Adams was born to be a photographer. Even though he never made it as a professional pianist, it was his love of piano that instilled in him an understanding of expressive art, devotion to process and a strong work ethic.

These are qualities that are common to many people. But Adams also had environmental values from a young age, and he basically had an out of body experience the first time he saw Yosemite. A camera allowed him to do everything he did with a piano, and more.

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