I could probably sit here and type out a quick dozen cliches about what it takes to be creative. We've all heard them. We've all sat there trying to think of some idea that will really challenge us… really get the creative juices flowing…. right? Not that easy, is it?
Let's deconstruct the idea a little differently.
Creativity requires you to fill a void or a need. You're trying to do something different, right? You want that personal satisfaction of feeling like you discovered something… created something.
I would suggest, if you're feeling stagnant, you need friction. You need something to frustrate you and get in your way. Get riled up… get defiant. (Don't get angry… that's going too far. The next thing you know you'll start drinking. You start drinking and then you're hanging out in saloons. Hanging out in saloons with a camera will get you into arguments with movie stars. Movie stars hate paparazzi. Movie stars punch the paparazzi. Don't get punched.)
I'm guessing many of you have felt that urge that you really want to go out and shoot. You optimistically feel you're going to get up, grab your camera and head out shooting… returning home with something really fresh, really outstanding and having enjoyed the entire creative process.
And you fail. You can't think of what you want to shoot. Everything looks ordinary… everything looks like the same piece of tree bark or rusty metal shed door you shot the last time you felt this way.
Here's my suggestion... Get rid of your crutch.
Think about this. The camera company sells you this digital wonder with all its technological wizardry that is going to remove all the mundane routine of taking pictures so you are free to be creative. The magic DSLR is going to become transparent liquid in your hands and grant you creative freedom. You'll simply point, shoot and produce beautiful butterflies or, dare I say… triple rainbows. Not!
What's getting in your way is your camera.
Buy a simple 50mm prime lens. Maybe a 40mm if you're dealing with a crop sensor. Then, turn off the autofocus. Learn to manually sett the exposure. If you're going to leave anything on Auto, shoot aperture preferred… that is where you set the aperture and the camera decides on the shutter. Then, just for the heck of it… set the camera on monochrome and maybe 400 ISO.
Make this your de facto rig and setup for a few months… try it. No zoom… no auto focus… just you framing a subject, selecting an aperture and shutter speed… and taking everything into consideration. Go ahead… I dare you.
Now you have some friction. Now you're thinking. Now your flying without a net. Everything is up to you.
You might find something out about yourself. You might find out you've got a lot more to learn. You will find out the camera has been doing your thinking for you… and telling you little white lies.
The point is, removing all the conveniences of your modern day digital SLR puts you in the drivers seat. Now you're making the decisions. You weigh out the pros and cons of every decision you make. You're in control.
If you shoot the same camera with the same prime lens, using the same ISO and monochrome settings you'll develop (no pun) a baseline for appraising and comparing your results. With monochrome you'll pay attention to exposing the shadows and the working with the direction of the light… not worrying that the red is off or the green is too bright.
Shooting this way, you'll pay attention to the light and shadows. Your compositions will become structured. You'll step forward, move back and you'll work with traits of one focal length and develop an understanding for that basic point of view.
Most importantly, you'll become more responsible for what the camera sees and how YOU interpret the scene. You'll have to think it through.
I've been shooting with a Leica rangefinder for nearly two years now. While I love shooting with it, it's had its ups and downs. But the byproduct is I've become a better photographer. And, I can now reproduce my rangefinder style when I shoot with a DSLR. My friends assume all my black and white work is shot with my Leica. They'd be surprised how often they're wrong.
Shooting with limited auto-wizardry makes you think. It makes you stop and consider what you're doing. The process of choosing the exposure is typically only an slight adjustment. The light isn't suddenly shifting four or five stops… it's a 1/2 stop hearer and there. Aperture is somewhat predetermined since I'm fairly aware of where I want the depth of field. So all I'm really left with is focusing, composing my image and squeezing the shutter. My mind and thoughts are all about composing the image. For me, my time shooting with my Leica is when I truly experience the camera disappearing from the process of shooting a photo.
Both Canon and Nikon make very affordable 50mm and 40mm lens. If you're serious about getting better, I'd urge you to pick one up. I'd especially consider a 40mm if your camera is not a full frame. Go out with it. Shoot. Think about your shots. Think about how you can best frame and compose the shot.
Trust me, it will change the way you shoot… all the time.