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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