How to be Creative

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Creativity can prove a great challenge for many of us. I for one can attest to having more “dry spells” than creative abundance. Here are some things to consider that have worked for me and continue to work to this day.

  1. Keep a journal on you at all times and near your bed when you lay down to sleep. Begin writing in it whenever you have an idea, thought, or mental picture you want to record.
  2. Try writing about something ordinary, make it extraordinary through writing. Then explore the idea through visual writing.
  3. Describe the scene that you envision. Do not compose real images at this time, just write.
  4. Think about the type of light, the color, the subjects, the point of view, the depth of field, etc.

Once you are satisfied with your mental (now written) image. Set about exploring the various possibilities through the viewfinder of your camera. Capture a few images, looking at the results on your camera’s display. How is the actual picture different from what you envisioned? Is it a different color, is the lighting different, is the angle askew? Can these things be altered using post processes? Can you add light to the scene artificially, can you change the perspective by standing on a ladder, or getting lower? Perhaps having your subject move in or further away will change the feel. Now re-shoot, check the results. Still unhappy?

Don’t always trust your own judgment. Let the images incubate for a period of time, a few hours, days etc. Show some people you trust to give you REAL feedback, feedback that challenges you, feedback that is informed, and not just full of remarks like, nice pic, cool shot, neat one. If you don’t have people like that in your life, join a group of photographers who will give you feedback. Post images here for example.

After letting the images “rest” for a time, take them back to your studio/computer and work on them. How do they look in black and white? Push the contrast way up. Desaturate the color. How do these processes change the image? There is nothing wrong with altering a photograph in such a way. Great Master photographers and artists such as Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Erik Almas, Robert & Shana ParkeHarrison, James Fee, Eward Weston, and countless others dramatically altered there images, post-process, by using darkroom tricks that are now made available in Adobe Photoshop Or Photoshop Lightroom.

Also, create assignments for yourself or have a friend create one for you. Or ask me for one. You could then post your images for feedback. Your assignments should focus on concept over technique at this point.

Here’s an idea: Pick an object and abstract it through photography. What methods can you think of that will allow you to fully abstract the object nearly beyond recognition? Your photographs should be both properly exposed and well composed. An object like a shopping cart for example. By getting up close, setting your aperture to f-2.8 or lower and focusing your camera on the various parts and pieces as to break the cart completely apart. Then build it back together by first printing out all the prints 3×5 or smaller reassembling them in such a way as to build a mosaic then re-photograph that layout for the final print. Pick any object, the human figure, or a bicycle.

Finally, research the work of other photographers and subscribe to a magazine like Shots or LensWork and read through them. These magazines are full of today’s photographers and their images. While looking at the work of other photographers critique their work, use this opportunity to think about the work and develop your visual vocabulary. This will go a long way toward informing your work in the future. It is so important that you work hard and give each opportunity your BEST effort.

~ John Trefethen

Need more ideas:

Creative Exploration and the Generation of Ideas
How To Make Pictorialism
Connotation vs Denotation
Artist Focus: Shana & Robert ParkeHarrison

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24 Responses to “How to be Creative”

  1. […] How to be Creative How To Make Pictorialism Connotation vs Denotation Artist Focus: Shana & Robert ParkeHarrison Share/Save […]

  2. Bill Vaughan says:

    This is an excellent article John! I applied this to “everything but the kitchen sink” The reason I did this was because when I get frustrated over an assignment that is what I do, literally I will throw every object I can think of into the photograph.

    So, I studied and restudied your approach. The attached photograph was the result of my theme.

  3. Bill Vaughan says:

  4. trefethen says:

    Bill this is a whimsical image. I like the simple approach to your background. By using the black you allow me to really zero in on the details. The sharp point of focus, and clear exposure also make this image stand out.

    One point of confusion for me is that it appears you are slicing your lens apart. However the slices that are piling up in the foreground seem to have been sliced from the other end of the lens (knowing that filters mount to the front rather than the back).

    I had to take a second look; at first I was unclear of what was going on here. So much of telling stories (which this image is doing well) depends on pulling your viewers in. In order to draw us in, you need to convince us of the truth/reality of your narrative.

    I’d suggest spinning your lens around and re-shooting this one. It’s a keeper.

    ~ John

  5. Bill Vaughan says:


    at your request.. lens spun around… toooo much photoshop to do that one.. but it works for me.

  6. trefethen says:

    WOW! Bill, this is fantastic. The action is made more realistic and convincing by both spinning the lens around and adding the intermediate slice.

    You’ve also achieved a well balanced exposure. However, the hand is grabbing a bit more visual attention then necessary. I’d burn that upper left corner down an exposure or two.

    Remember, you want to break down the visual information within your image into organized priorities. In other words, what part of the image is #1, #2, #3 and so on.

    For this image, the slightly off-center (rule of thirds) knife and lens are #1 and most interesting. Next should be the sliced-off filters. However, right now my eye is being “forced” to the upper left bringing the hand to the foreground (ideally a great photograph should keep viewer’s eyes moving through the frame).

    By adding an adjustment curve that drops the exposure of the hand portion down an exposure or two, you will push this element to the background and bring back the slices.

    This image represents a great idea nonetheless. I can envision a whole series of images like this where fine culinary tools and photography join together.

  7. Bill Vaughan says:

    Funny before I came back to this site I already did what you said about the hand. I also removed the white lettering on the lens. I did this because on the first slice you can see glass and on the others you cant. more realistic ?

  8. Bill Vaughan says:


    same as above just 2/3 stop down on hand. I dunno I like this one better

  9. Yes, I would agree, the last version is the best. This is a great example of how to refine your image and idea into a final image. Great work Bill.

    I’d love to see what you end up adding to this series.

  10. Bill Vaughan says:

    Thanks John for all your invaluable input. Have some ideas for three more photo’s. Right now I am busy teaching a summer photography class and just finishing “photo hell week” its been a riot. Will email you some stories on that.

  11. Bill Vaughan says:

    forgot to mention the class is for high school students

  12. Bill Vaughan says:

    Stroboscopic Photography. Came across this type of photography, played around with it. Came up with the “52 Card Pickup”

  13. Bill Vaughan says:

  14. Very cool Vaughan, now let’s discuss happy accidents and controlling compositional outcomes. What can we learn from your experiences.

  15. Bill Vaughan says:

  16. Bill Vaughan says:

    You mean like lets discuss the difference in our outcome between these for instance?

  17. I mean let’s discuss what you learn from all the shots that didn’t make the cut. Like all the 52 card pick up shots. I am sure there were several that you didn’t like for one reason or another.

    During the process of shooting, even shots like the HDR one above, you learned from your mistakes. And the accidents you made along the way no doubt informed decisions you made in the future. What were they?

  18. Bill Vaughan says:

    Actually I only took two shots of the 52 Card Pick-Up. The first shot I learned was not to use the full deck, only half and flick the cards away from me as much as possible. I did do a previous photo shoot of poker chips falling on a table. That took about 8 shots to get the desired effect, my biggest mistake was waiting to long before I dropped the chips. I studied how to do “Stroboscopic Photography” by reading several articles and studying several photographs which were posted on various websites. I learned the most from Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton who is considered a pioneer for high speed photography. Now to be sure I will do a few more “object” type of stroboscopic photo’s before I move to the next level and use people. Which is my ultimate goal for “motion and blur” technique with environmental photography.
    This is what my mechanics were for the stroboscopic photo, used off camera bare 580 EX ll on camera left at 8 oclock. Exposure: 2 Sec Aperture: f/9.0 Focal Length 28 mm, [email protected]/8 Flashes. Flashlight on camera right at 4 oclock. On tripod, remote trigger.

  19. trefethen says:

    Thanks for the details Bill. Curious, are you using a remote flash firing unit to trigger the 580 EX or an additional 580 EX setting the off-camera unit to “slave?”

    Also, please share any links you found to be useful. Just enclose each link with the basic html markup:

    a href=”link here” followed by the closing tag /a Just don’t forget the “<>“

  20. Bill Vaughan says:

    I used a 50′ cord, haven’t tried any wireless setups yet, will try that next week. Let you know how that goes.

    Websites I learned from:

    people.rit.edu/andpph/text-digital-stroboscopy.html

    dptnt.com/2007/09/stroboscopic-photography/

    people.rit.edu/andpph/text-digital-stroboscopy.html

  21. Bill Vaughan says:

    Another inspiration… lol A drive down memory lane revisited.

  22. Bill Vaughan says:

  23. Bill Vaughan says: