It can often be hard – if not impossible - for us as artists to hold ourselves in a continual state of inspiration. For every artist - photographer or other - to whom inspiration is a constant and work flows out of in an uncontrollable torrent, there are a hundred others going to battle with their creativity on a daily basis, fighting to extract and convey their vision of the world.
Even when we ourselves are inspired, the resulting work may fall short. I've found that, at least for myself, my best work is achieved when I've taken the time to set the stage, and prepared myself and my surroundings to express my creativity. The specific steps and preparations are different for for everyone, but I think there are some broad categories that influence the quality of our work, most of which we can influence, if not control completely.
And so, to shed some light on what I do in order to perform my best work as an artist, here's a list of 5 things you can do to maximize your creative output. Note that while this list is geared towards photographers, most of the categories are broadly transferable to other creative pursuits as well.
1. Working with others vs. Working alone
This is a huge one for me. Generally when I'm out shooting in the field, I need to be on my own in order to coax out my best work photographically. I find that when I'm with others, especially non-photographers, even if they are accommodating to my desire to explore the location and get some shots, in the back of my mind I know that they're not willing to sit around all day and wait for the light or the moment. This activates my mental timer, and aside from limiting the time I have to explore the scene, try out different gear setups, and experiment, it also distances me from the moment and the scene emotionally. I end up spending a lot of time thinking about the others I'm with, whether they're getting impatient and ready to leave, and so on.
By myself, I'm free to take all the time I need to get a variety of shots without feeling any pressure or guilt over hijacking a group trip or experience for the sake of my images.
Working with other photographers can be a great experience given the right personalities. Especially shooting at night or in the wilderness it can be nice to have someone to talk to and commiserate with as you wait (often freezing your fingers off) for the right shot to present itself. Working with others who have a different perspective and style to your own can be inspiring as well, opening your eyes to new techniques and angles which you wouldn't have thought of otherwise.
Whatever your preference, figuring it out and gathering the right personnel for you can make a huge difference in the quality of the finished product.
2. Time Of Day
Figuring out what time of day you perform optimally at is crucial to being able to consistently produce outstanding work. Some people are at their most creative and productive at 5am, while others find that the creative tap is turned on late at night. Whenever you feel that you are at your most creative, it's good to make a note of it and then try to structure your work around that peak time in a way that is beneficial.
Keep in mind that different tasks require different skills and mental faculties. For myself, I find that when it comes to shooting and writing, I'm at my most creative in the morning, generally an hour or two after I wake up. When I'm looking to edit my images however I find that I do my best work in the late afternoon and evening. For whatever reason, when I'm writing and recording music, I find that I'm at my best in the middle of the day.
Get to know your peak operating schedules for the various creative tasks you perform and schedule your time to make the most of them. Obviously it isn't always possible, or even desirable to stick strictly to working during your peak hours. For example, maybe you find yourself to be your most creative during the middle of the day for shooting, but you want to get some shots of the Milky Way at night, unfortunately that may be hard to reconcile. Regardless, it's good to know your unconscious patterns and tendencies, and to do what you can to make the most of them.
Work location can encompass a few different things, which to me all boils down to setting up your environment in a way that is conducive to the work you're doing. When I'm at home I make sure my desk is clear of clutter and any distracting elements. I like to put on some ambient music in the background and am always sure to close Facebook and any other distracting websites. A lot of people I know love working in proximity to other people, and swear by working out of coffee shops or co-working spaces.
In terms of shooting, if you're working out of a studio it's easy to control the space and create a consistent setting to work out of. You can again keep the space free of clutter, and have your gear organized and easily accessible. If you're shooting landscapes, weddings, nature, or street photography, your location becomes harder to control. Organization and knowledge of the location however can go a long way.
Everyone loves to talk about gear, and while personally I think there are more important aspects that go into making great images, some gear is essential to getting the shot. Knowing what you're going to be shooting and in what conditions will help dictate what lenses you choose to bring. If I'm going out in low light I might choose to bring a faster, prime lens than a slower zoom lens. If I'm intending to shoot wildlife I might choose to bring my telephoto and leave my wide angle at home.
Aside from lenses, bodies and filters, make sure you have the appropriate accessories available to the conditions you're shooting in. If you're shooting in the Pacific Northwest for example, it's always a good idea to bring extra towels and lens cloths as the moisture has a way of getting into everything.
The most overlooked category of gear I think is clothing. Having appropriate clothing for the area in which you're shooting can make all the difference in the quality of your resulting work. No one wants to have to pack it in just as the moon sets and the Milky Way becomes visible because they didn't bring enough clothing and are now freezing. Ensuring comfort while shooting can make or break your outing and influence how eager you are to stay out exploring the location and finding the best composition.
Aside from having the appropriate gear with you, equally important is having it ready to go. Making sure it is clean and functional before you go can make all the difference between missing, and capturing the shot.
5. Pre Planning
No matter what type of photographer you are, maybe the single biggest thing you can do to maximize the quality of your images from a shoot is to do a little (or a lot!) of planning before the shoot itself. If possible, scout the location out beforehand at different times so that you can accurately predict the type of light you'll encounter. If you can't scout it out in person, see if you can find existing images of the location, or look on a map to determine where the sun will be at different times of the day. I often like to go into Google Street View and scope out a location virtually, especially if I'm going for sunset or sunrise where the light is everything.
Again, knowing your subject and the style of the shoot will inform what lenses and equipment you will require. Depending on the time of day and the location you may need different light modifiers and filters.
By taking care of all the administrative details and assessing how to emphasize the merits and control for the defects of a scene beforehand, you allow your creativity to take the reigns during the shoot itself, free of distractions.
Keep in mind that conditions change, and it's impossible to be completely prepared for any situation you might encounter. But by coming up with a game plan complete with a couple of contingencies factored in you'll take a lot of the pressure off in the moment, and you'll be primed to come through with your best shots.
I hope these suggestions have helped you begin to think about some of the ways to best coax out your creativity. There are probably dozens of preparations unique to you that bring out your best work, and through experimentation and curiosity hopefully you'll be able to establish a set of routines and habits that allow you to consistently perform at your highest level.
I'd love to hear some of the strategies you employ to maximize your creativity, productivity and inspiration, whether it's sitting down with a coffee in your favourite mug, or an hour long meditation to clear your mind. Continue the discussion in the comments section and let me know!
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