I teach a kids photography class twice a week. In Digital Photo Challenges, my eager group of students range in age from 12-17, and are some of the most creative people I’ve ever met. Since they are kids, I’m not really in a position to require a particular level of camera. My only requirement is that they have some sort of digital camera other than their phones. Having some students with DSLRs and multiple lenses in a class alongside students with very basic point & shoot cameras poses certain challenges for me as a teacher. If I spend too much time teaching to the DSLR group, my p&s kids will quickly lose interest. Similarly, there is only so much detail to be explored with a p&s, which would mean not presenting challenging information to those students with more advanced equipment.
That’s why I try to make it less about the gear and more about how they see the world around them. Don’t get me wrong– it’s important for them to know what’s happening inside the black box when they push the button, but at this age it is the creativity that I really want to foster. I’ve been seeing a lot of articles lately about boosting creativity or getting out of a creative slump, and that got me thinking about my students. I realized that while so many of their questions revolve around exposure and lighting, they almost never come to me complaining about a lack of creativity. Surely they experience the same sort of blocks as the rest of us from time to time, right? Everyone bangs their head against the wall every once in a while, hoping to jar something loose.
So, I put the question to 10 junior photographers, wondering how their responses would stack up against much of the “grown-up” advice making the rounds. Their answers appear below, in no particular order, and mostly unedited. How does their advice compare? You be the judge.
ENTER A PHOTOGRAPHY CONTEST
Obviously, not all photo contests are created equal and some are much more prestigious than others. What they all have in common, though, is the fact that it takes confidence to share your creation with the world. If you are taking the time to put your work out there, you are (hopefully) going to make sure it is the best that it can possibly be. That takes creativity. If you’re in a slump, entering a contest might just be the motivator you need to get out of it.
RENT A NEW LENS
Different lenses serve different purposes, depending on the type of photo you’re trying to capture. If you’ve been looking at everything around you through the same one or two focal lengths for too long, get your hands on a different piece of glass. See how widening your view or zooming in tight changes your outlook. A new perspective means new options. New options means making some magic.
WRITE A PHOTOGRAPHY BUCKET LIST
Okay– so I was a little surprised to see a 14-year-old using a term like “bucket list,” but as she explained, “having the tools is great, but having goals is better.” Even if you know it’s going to take a long time to check them all off the list, just having a list in the first place gives you something to hopefully be inspired by during the dry spells.
LOOK AT PHOTOS AND FIGURE OUT WHY YOU LIKE THEM
I think this one may have originated from a class assignment where they had to bring in photos from magazines and try to break down the lighting. One of my students had a particular knack for this, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that he continued to challenge himself like this long after the assignment had ended. As he put it to me recently, knowing why you like something helps break it down into pieces that are easier to manage. Learning how the pieces fit together makes them less scary, which means you’re more likely to try it.
DO A PHOTO ESSAY
I’m certainly not going to say it’s easy to take a single, meaningful photo. But if you’re in a slump, it might help to try shooting a series. Tell a story. Making the message less reliant on a single image might take some of the pressure off.
SHOOT SOMETHING NEW
If you’re into nature, try people. If you’re into pets, try food. If you have a style, change it. Put your camera on a tripod and go outside after dark. A change to your photographic routine might push you out of your comfort zone. You wouldn’t want the same thing for dinner every single night, so why be happy shooting the same thing over and over and over?
In the digital age, we’ve gotten used to photos that only exist on our computers. We have these huge archives, but we hardly ever print anything. In an article I once wrote called “The Power of a Print,” I made the point that even if you are editing on an incredible monitor, you are still only looking at your photos constrained from about two feet away. If you want the most solid indicator of just how good that shot it, get it printed big and hang it on the wall. Look at it up close. Look at if from the side. Look at it from ten feet way. Make it the first thing people see when they walk into a room. Seeing your work the way other people will see it has a positive, creative impact on what you shoot and how you shoot it.
And I’m not talking about the Facebook kind. In this era of the faceless internet photography forum, manners have become a thing of the past. Everybody thinks they know better than everybody else, and meaningful critique is often replaced with meaningless– and often insulting– chatter. Find people you trust and whose work you admire. Get together regularly to share critique, thoughts, and ideas. There’s nothing wrong with being harsh, as long as there is a constructive reason for it.
LEARN HOW TO ADJUST YOUR SETTINGS WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE CONTROLS
Many photographers will tell you that they consider their camera to be an extension of themselves. In order to be that comfortable with your camera, you have to know all its bells and whistles inside and out. The less time you spend looking for a button, dial, or switch, the more time you have to capture a moment in time.
GO FOR A WALK
Walking offers a unique perspective. You can look at your neighborhood from the back seat of a car day in and day out– you might even find something interesting. Walking through your neighborhood, though, is going to offer creative angles, compositions, and backgrounds you might never notice otherwise. Creativity might happen inside your head, but sometimes your feet have a part to play.
Checklists are great, but they aren’t always very realistic. My creative process isn’t the same as yours, and yours isn’t the same as that of a 15-year-old photography student. What we all share, however, are those times when our creativity rebels, leaving us with what feels like a complete and total inability to find our voice and capture it in a single frame. For those times, it’s nice to have a list of suggestions to get you over the hump, even if those suggestions comes from an unlikely source– like young students.
All photos in this article were taken by students in my Digital Photo Challenges class and appear here with their express permission. Since they are all minors, names are withheld at parents’ request. All rights reserved.