Thinking Out Loud: Creativity

As a site that explores photography through the lens of lighting, Strobist is necessarily overweighted in technique. But technique as an end to itself is almost certainly doomed to yield boring, meaningless photos.

So today, a short detour to explore the different facets of creativity. Because they are all important, as is recognizing your strengths and weaknesses in each area.


Creativity for most people connotes an ability to imagine something before it exists. As a photographer, that usually means previsualizing an image or developing a concept.

This is something at which I have long sucked. Maybe that is because I was usually not responsible for developing concepts or previsualizing images when I worked in newspapers. My "concepts" were handed to me 2-3 times a day by a guy named Chuck Weiss in the form of photo assignments.

Even illustrative assignments were pre-framed by designers and/or editors. As photographers we would have to fight an uphill battle if we had our own ideas for illustrative assignments, because the ones already on paper had usually been decided in a meeting between writer, editor and designer.

For the most part our job was to execute the assignments. You could push against that hierarchy on occasion, but the momentum was always in favor of the existing idea.

As a result I have long seen myself as not being very creative, at least when it comes to imagination. I can problem solve, but that's a different skill. I have heaps of jealousy for my "creative" photographer friends like Sara Lando, who seemingly pull idea after idea out of thin air.

I do think some people are innately more creative than others. Or maybe they just enjoy it more. I'm not sure. But it always amazes me when people who are naturally creative get a good dose of technical how-to to add to their skillset, because that's when things can start to explode.

For those of us who are more technically minded, i.e problem solvers, questions of 'what to shoot,' 'why' and 'in what way' are things that do not come as naturally.

Similarly, many people who are naturally creative are often less comfortable with the technical stuff, which can be just as limiting but in a different way.


As frustrating as it is to suffer from a lack of good ideas, I imagine that it must be equally frustrating to see amazing photos in your head and not be able to create them. And at its heart, the root word "create" is really what we are talking about here. So execution, literally, is creativity.

Having the skills necessary to create something, be it a wooden sculpture or a sophisticated photograph, is just as valid — and necessary — as being creative in an imaginative sense.

Twenty years in newspapers will hone your execution skills very well. Multiple times a day you are dropped into a new environment and think to yourself, "Okay, how am I gonna make a photo here?"

The boundaries of the job and your prepackaged "creativity" (i.e., assignment) give you the framework. But now you have to execute. And your execution skills are being honed every day, real-time in a wide range of environments.

But step out of that environment, as I did in 2007, and you are left with a strong set of skills as an engine and no rudder with which to steer them. It works well for writing a how-to site like Strobist, but as whole photographer it can feel frustratingly incomplete.

Looking through the reader images in the Strobist Group on Flickr, I see a lot of the same types of people. I see lots of technically beautiful images which seem to exist merely to validate the ability of the photographer who created them. It is as if people are learning the skills as an end to themselves.

At its best, it feels very cart-before-the-horse. At its worst, it feels like a needless waste of capacity and ability. It's all the more frustrating because this echoes my process of transitioning from a staff (i.e., kept) photographer into a one-man band. In my case, I went from being a cog in the machine to being the whole machine.

It created an imbalance between skill and raison d'etre. My newspaper ecosystem, which was also my proxy for creativity, was gone. In its absence, I have learned to think of the ecosystem in itself as a third facet to creativity.


Assuming you can imagine and create your images, what then? Where do they go from here? What do your photos accomplish?

This, in a nutshell, is ecosystem. And as I continue to evolve from staff shooter to one-man band I now see the ability to develop an ecosystem as an important form of creativity.

If you are a 100% amateur, the ecosystem might be as simple as your photos existing to make you happy. Or to preserve memories of your friends, family and experiences. For a pro it might be as simple as earning a paycheck — a single-axis value proposition.

But lately I am beginning to see ecosystem as more of a fabric than a thread. My goals as a photographer are to grow, be happy, support my family and affect positive change. Hopefully, the downstream ecosystem for a given photo will cross-pollinate with more than one of those goals. Ideally, it will serve all four.

Essentially, creating an ecosystem relates to creating value. And that might mean value for yourself, for someone else or for lots of people. I try to think on terms of creating a positive feedback loop. Or ideally, many positive feedback loops. That was the genesis behind creating Strobist, and I learned a lot from the process.

And while money is important, it is just one of a number of positive feedback loops that can come from a photo. Growth and happiness are huge to me, because those outcomes create sustainability in what I do. Affecting positive change is good because beyond the obvious reasons it (a) feels great and (b) the visibility involved tends to yield new — and more diverse — revenue streams.

And as a bonus, considering the ecosystem as a part of the creative process often helps me to envision what it is that I want to shoot. And "envision" is where I am weak, so "ecosystem" thus becomes the catalyst that pulls things together for me.

It's an adaptive evolution from working as a newspaper grunt for 20 years, to be sure. But lately, it is serving as a pretty good compass point. So I am sticking with it.


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Blogger Tom Nutter said...

Nice post! I understand where you are coming from for sure.

April 26, 2012 1:02 AM  
Blogger Arti Agarwal said...

thanks for sharing !

April 26, 2012 1:31 AM  
Blogger Renee said...

AMEN David. I think you have summed up the thoughts of many a strobist in this peice. Still trying to find the right equillibrium in my own ecosystem as you put it. I'll be keen to read other's thoughts.

April 26, 2012 1:32 AM  
OpenID Jason said...

First of all, thank you for writing this blog. I constantly find it entertaining and educational.

In one of your final paragraphs, I think you meant to "effect positive change" rather than "affect" it.

- Jason.

April 26, 2012 3:08 AM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

This is such a great post and most interesting, as a lot of the things you write are close to my heart.
To me, learning to light was a major turning point for my creativity, as ideas alone can be very, very frustrating (seriously: before you wrote about lighting a subject separately from the background I didn't know how to get a white background: so I would spend hours in post production, making my light grey backgrounds white. I'm not even joking)

The only thing I probably don't completely agree with is right at the beginning, where you define creativity as the capacity to visualize something before it exists.
To me it's rarely like that: I might have a vague concept I start with, but creativity is more like exploring a cave, or digging out "a treasure" from the backyard. Most of the time I'm not sure where I might end up, but I'm willing to stick with the process and play (and sometimes screw the process and keep playing).
Technical skills give you a shovel so you don't have to dig with your bare hands, but most of the time creativity -in my limited experience- is just the drive to keep digging, choosing adventure over safety, playing "what ifs" and forgetting you're a grownup, who might have goals and measurable standards, for a little while.

People who label themselves as "non creative" are usually just people who stop once they get the job done, while that's usually when fun things start.
And that's just a muscle that can be trained: most of the self-diagnosed non creative people I met have incredible creative minds, once they let go of the fear of looking silly.

If you have half an hour to waste, I'd highly recommend this talk on creativity by John Cleese

April 26, 2012 6:35 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

As a total amateur but someone struggling to find a positive outlet for my (hopefully) growing photography skill set, I started my own little version of David's HoCo360 project. I kept it small and very local (just 1 town) - something I could easily manage. And I did so with the sole intention of meeting & educating local residents about things that were important to me in town, all while doing and sharing something I enjoy (and would be doing anyway). It very much helped as a creative compass point - what to shoot and why. Making money from it was not something I imagined would happen but as a hobbyist (terrible pun), wasn't my purpose anyway. After a year or so of sincere but somewhat inconsistent effort (when I had time), I was contacted by a local photojournalist who was commissioned to edit a coffee table book about what life is like living in our part of the state and he wanted permission to include some of my work, with re-usage rates paid. The point: intentionally trying to sell my work or developing skills would probably never have yielded anything, but having an accessible compass point for creativity seems to project the honest intention of the project, attracting those with similar interests, and you never know what may come of that. Thanks for the inspiration DH.

If you're interested, the project can be found here.

April 26, 2012 7:52 AM  
Blogger Doug Howell said...

I feel your 'pain' David. I've been making commercials and promos for a local tv station for about 15 years.. I have become adept at solving visual problems under short deadline - which doesn't foster much creativity.. or so it feels anyway. That is why I read your posts religiously.

When I pick up my camera for a portrait session I often times feel like my creative brain shuts down and filling in the gaps with technique learned from masters like yourself tends to help keep the process moving forward.

Hopefully at some point my creativity come along and technique will simply be there to help execute the previsualized image. Thanks for all your guidance and leadership.

April 26, 2012 7:56 AM  
Blogger john said...

I like this break from the technical schtuff :) Thanks David!

April 26, 2012 8:36 AM  
Blogger Rick Bennett said...

I think another way to think about what you're seeing in the strobist group is to think of photography in a craftsman versus artist perspective. For some, photography is a craft, not too different from making clocks--a fair bit of technical knowledge is required, and you can add some of your own flourishes to the casing, but it still has to be technically competent. An artist can attempt to make a representation of the passage of time through any medium, but no one looks at the work and expects to know what time it is.
Some of us are happy to stay in the craftsman realm--mastering the technical, adding the flourishes, but delivering, in the end, a portrait (for example). Some of us want to push beyond, and there probably isn't a bright line difference between craftsman-portrait and art-piece, but not everyone aspires to more than craftsman skills.

April 26, 2012 8:37 AM  
Blogger PB said...

Love the idea of an "ecosystem". I think I am already using it , but nice to label it.

April 26, 2012 8:49 AM  
Blogger Sharna said...

You had me worried with where you were going here. I thought you were going to say it was time to pull the plug on strobist. :O

I'm completely with you in the non creative part but want to tell you that one ounce of your "non creativeness" is 10000000000000000000000000000000 times better than my creativeness. LOL

April 26, 2012 8:57 AM  
Blogger Roman Skrada said...

I agree with your comment about the Strobist Flickr group. So many get blinded with all that alienbee, 100ft softbox triggered with a lightning strike from Krypton crap, but few focus on artistic value.

April 26, 2012 11:00 AM  
Blogger JS said...

David, thanks for this post. Personally, I find no better creative stimulation than being constrained in some way on a client's dime. It provides immediate focus. Having the world as your oyster? Far more daunting.

Btw, I always love imagining you at the Baltimore Sun—specifically, the Baltimore Sun of The Wire—making fun of some non-creative photographer.

"Every fire photo he brings in, there's got to be some burnt doll somewhere in the debris. I can see that cheating motherf*cker now with his f*cking harem of dolls, pouring lighter fluid on each one. You check his f*cking trunk, you'll find a whole collection."

April 26, 2012 11:27 AM  
Blogger Poppa-D said...

David - you do a great job of keeping the blog technologically relevant. Please update so the blog reads your posts to me out loud in your voice on my drive to work. Thanks. ;-)

April 26, 2012 11:37 AM  
Blogger Levi Thomas said...

That's the thing about the plascisity of the brain: "Neurons that fire together, wire together", so that repeation of action/process becomes habit, becomes invisible to our thinking, becomes 'hard-wired'...until we make the effort to re-wire once again. And it is a real effort, to un-learn our hard-won, useful habits and learn a new way. There is a very uncomfortable period where Everything you know is wrong and you go from expert to newbie. It can really suck.

I've been trying to recreate my approach to photography lately. I'vespent the past ten years doing concert photography which takes a certain set of reflexes and now am trying to do involved, fully-controlled tableaux type of images. Big change. I keep thinking of Andre the Giant from Princess Bride when he finally figures outwhy he's losing to the Man in Black--I've gotten to used to wrestling groups, I've forgotten how to wrestle just one man. It takes a whole different strategy!

The hardest part is swallowing one's pride and being Ok with floundering and failing. But I know I'll get there. So long as I don't weaken. :-)

April 26, 2012 12:00 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

@David - Thanks for the write up. As an 'idea guy' sometimes the technical is not so easy for me. It's nice to realize that the other way round happens also.

@Sara - Thanks for the link.

April 26, 2012 12:05 PM  
Blogger Mic Ty said...

In my opinion, creativity is the capacity to create something original regardless of or in spite of limitations. So, if you've been given specific requirements by your boss, creativity comes in when you can create something that meets those requirements yet still manages to be original. I also believe that under this definition you are being creative when you are devise original solutions to problems.

Best regards,

April 26, 2012 12:41 PM  
Blogger Mike Gaskin said...

Talk about take me back. I worked newspaper for 10 years or so many years ago. I clearly remember thinking to myself "I will shoot any and everything I can think of, then when I know how to do it I will get serious". Oddly, many of my earlier works, though executed poorly with cheap equipment, had more creative juice than later shots where I "knew how to do it". I found that knowing lenses, lighting, i.e. the craft of photography caused me to not shoot some things I wouldnt have thought twice about 40 years ago. In other words, "If I cant pull it off technically perfect, I wont shoot it". To me anyway, sometimes the quality of idea is (or can be) equally important as techical perfection. Just my 02

April 26, 2012 1:19 PM  
Blogger quinnwharton said...

What a great post. I often find my self struggling with the creativity/technical challenge. I always feel that I either have the idea and no way to pull it off, or no idea to run with in the first place. Your blog has done an amazing job of giving me tools to at least begin connecting the two. Thank you, my portfolio is largely what it is due to your information. Thanks for being so open to sharing.

April 26, 2012 4:09 PM  
Blogger Rob Horton said...

You're being too hard on yourself here and it stems from a flawed definition of creativity:

"Creativity for most people connotes an ability to imagine something before it exists."

To me, this is the definition of novelty, which shares some traits but is not necessarily the same thing as creativity.

To me, creativity is the ability to reach a goal in spite of constraints. i.e. You have to achieve "A" but you can't do "B" or "C". Most folks throw up their hands, but the genuinely creative people will skip over B, C, D, etc...and come up with the creative solution "K". Idea "K" may or may not be something novel that has never been seen. Or it may be something that was always hiding out there in plain sight. The point is that it is first a response to some sort of obstacle or limitation.

Give yourself some more credit. The OA posts on this site may not be novelties; but they testify to an infinitely creative mind.

April 26, 2012 4:36 PM  
Blogger Fettaugraphy said...

Nice post David. You have most certainly help me set-up my ecosystem over the past three yrs. and I am most thankful for it.

April 26, 2012 7:57 PM  
Blogger Deej said...

One thing I've been thinking about a lot over the past year is that I've never known a writer who said, "When I was 10, my dad gave me a typewriter, and I got hooked and decided to become an author." I've never known an artist who said, "When I was 9, my mom gave me a palette and brushes, so I became a painter."

But so many photographers I know say something along the lines of, "My uncle gave me a camera, so I became a photographer."

I have a strong feeling that this is a differentiator between photographers and other artists. I am not sure what the significance is, but I think it is a relevant difference. We as photographers often approach our art through our gear. I can't think of any other artist where this is the case.

Even moviemakers and videographers, which are also gear-heavy art forms, develop a love for the art form before they acquire their gear, or even their desire to pursue the art.

Perhaps the ease of production that comes with getting a camera, pressing the shutter, and getting "art" seduces a lot of people into feeling creative (or wanting to be creative) when they normally wouldn't.

April 26, 2012 8:34 PM  
Blogger Brent Nitschke said...


Really enjoyed your post today. Your envison and execution thoughts were spot-on. Also, love, love, loved Sara Lando's response about "exploring" creativity. Wow.

April 26, 2012 9:05 PM  
Blogger John Ashley said...

I'd also ask everyone to step back and ponder the entire "Strobist Environment" (Strobist Universe?) that David has created. I for one feel that Mr. Hobby already has his "affect positive change" goal down in spades. Many, many thanks. Keep reaching, and keep teaching.

April 27, 2012 12:19 AM  
Blogger kramon said...

'Inspiration is for amateurs'
not my words, but those of artist/painter Chuck Close.

Being a creative professional myself (video director & photographer) for almost 20 years, I tend to agree.

Simply work and master your craft doing so. In mastering the techniques your mind frees itself and is more open to the subject-matter in front of you. It allows you to work more intuitively.
Also being confident that you could actually take a descent, usable photo (if you wanted to), lowers the barrier for experimentation and surprise; herein another toolbox/style might present itself.

simply do. don't overthink.

April 27, 2012 6:29 AM  
Blogger James said...

I am an amateur photographer in the sense that I have sold very little work. I have no formal training, but have learned a lot from several sources including your blog.
I have found that the more things I know how to do and the more things I can control the more I am able to decide what I want. I do not consider myself to be very creative, but I am able to make choices and produce the result I wanted more often than not. I may be traveling down the road that you were on being more technical than creative, but the technical side just comes easier for me and I am working on my creative side. This is progress for me and I would like to thank you for your help.

April 27, 2012 12:46 PM  
Blogger MasterOfGoingFaster said...

Like you, David, I'm a tech guy. I enjoy technology for it's own sake, and digital photography has awakened my creativity. I study technique until it becomes almost an afterthought. Then I'm able to see the world around me and somehow pictures emerge.

I'm build a darkroom and now own a 4x5 view camera. It's a lot of fun getting out of my comfort zone again.

I don't hang around any photographers - I hang around painters and other artists. When I'm around photographers and videographers, we talk gear. With painters we talk art, composition, color and the like. I find myself less interested in viewing the work of other photographers as I find myself thinking of how I would have shot their image. Looking at simple Japanese watercolors and trying to figure out how to create that effect but with lights is helping me find my "voice". Your's is one of the very few photo blogs I read.

I think you are discounting your own creativity. Go hang out with a few painters and chat with them about what you're trying to do.

April 27, 2012 3:10 PM  
Blogger Frank Grygier said...

This post has changed my way of thinking. I appreciate that you shared your thoughts. I am an enthusiast and have been focusing on the craft in the hope that one day after I learn all I can I will finally create the images I see in my mind. From now on I am going to try to create with the skills I have and grow from there.

April 27, 2012 4:02 PM  
Blogger jthaney said...

David...Brilliant!! Many Thanks

April 28, 2012 10:26 PM  
Blogger Heipel said...

As usual good to hear what's in your head. And you ARE creative, of course. I think of how you kinda beat yourself up on the Dubai competition. All three of those shots were artistically creative -- each individual's own artistic expression, as it were. And with your amazing technical knowhow I don't have to remind you that creativity doesn't get restricted to the "artistic" but all human thinking and endeavours. Your blog and the shots you produce oooze with creativity -- technical and artistic.

April 28, 2012 11:53 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I agree with Heipel. Don't beat yourself up so much. It does sound like you're doing it after that Dubai thing.

However graceful and sensible your humility is, it's also unfair. There is always someone out there who's better. Much better.

But if all, say, writers would gawk at Shakespeare in awe forever and ever, we wouldn't have any libraries, would we?

April 30, 2012 6:04 AM  
Blogger CC said...

You might find this interesting.
John Cleese lectureing on creativity.
Really interesting and of course very funny

April 30, 2012 7:06 AM  
Blogger J. Michael Thurman said...


I'm a tech guy who has always struggled to be creative in word and in image. Your blog has given me the tools I needed to begin to innovate on my own.

Without Strobist I'd have never thought to pull out a speedlight and cross light a sports portrait with the sun while under-exposing the ambient by 2-stops. Nor would I have thought to take my medium sized (400Ws) strobes to shoot basketball. Without this blog, I'd have never started searching other sources and not so soon been introduced to the work of so many other photographers.

I happen to think that creativity rides on the horse of skills honed through long hours of work with fundamental concepts. You (and others) have shared your successes and, more importantly, your mistakes while working with these concepts in the pages of this blog.

Remember, the Beetles didn't just form a band in 1964. They'd had their formational time playing, writing and experimenting together for thousands of hours before playing the Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks for the impetus and insight. Keep it up!


May 01, 2012 10:17 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

The issue is more that there are a lot of people with a strong interest in cameras and lighting gear, but little to no interest in art itself.

So they just make stuff that they think looks cool.

May 01, 2012 1:31 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

David, you lost me at ecosystem. Images of birds and food chain came to mind. I will come back to this post though when I am more awake. I have been thinking lately about creativity when it comes to pictures. I find myself in the creativity gifted/technical challenged side.

May 02, 2012 12:26 AM  
Blogger Uncivilized Photography said...

Great post, Iv been reading your stuff for a while now. and Also a fellow from MD. Iv been shooting for about 3 years now as a hobby plus trying to make some money.. Recently Iv falling into the Lack of Creativity... but this post makes me wanna to keep pushing to get better~

May 02, 2012 12:46 PM  
Blogger Bamboo Production said...

Great Post!

May 03, 2012 6:58 AM  
Blogger bronney said...


Believe it or not, I find your site puts ME into a positive feedback loop. Without this knowledge, I won't be able to visualize things I am seeing in my head now. I believe I've always been a hybrid (a polite term for master of none), handling the technical stuff and have good ideas all the time. But without this new knowledge, I wouldn't see light as I see it now. Which in turn, feeds back into the head to create more stuff, which asks more questions on how to solve that technical problem in order to make it a reality.

So yeah, it might be a little project for you, but your site actually inspired many people and opened many people's eyes, and minds. Thanks buddy.
- bronney

May 17, 2012 3:34 AM  
Blogger Clueless Wanderer said...


David, your talking where i am right now. Im sorry to say but.. Its good to hear that someone of your experience and talent suffers from these matter's too.

Then Rick Bennett comes along and describes me in a nut shell.

Im a plumber. The Boss hits me with the days jobs and i go out and make it happen using the materials and tools at hand, with a certain amount of 'my style'. ..a problem solver.

10 years of walking the streets of various country's (Ive always had itchy feet)and shooting the interesting things i came across means I have only ever taken shots of what unfolded before me or what i stumbled upon. I have never 'created' a shot

I have learned soo much from your Dvd's and techniques. And yeah, the wall paper in the room where you filmed the lighting seminar Dvd WAS hideous, Ha,ha.. First thing i noticed and cracked up laughing when you mentioned it too.

Before finding out about and learning from you i was such a flash a'phobe. I hated on camera flash and every time i tried off camera, i didn't have a clue why i couldn't make it work. "Hey the thing fired (sb600), the book says i-TTL communicates, so why is my f22 500th of a second iso100 shot not correctly exposed? The inside of this barn wall is still dark".

So yeah; Thank you. And er.. Yeah, you touched a real point with this subject.

Thanks for sharing ...So i can keep on learning.

May 21, 2012 8:41 AM  

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