In a discussion following a recent article I posted, we were talking about setting limits on our creativity, and how that much that frees us to be more creative.
I was asked how I actually decided on the limits I impose on myself, and how I put them into practice. So I’m going to talk a bit more about that here.
The example I’m going to use is how I currently approach photography.
About six months ago I bought my first “proper” digital camera. The previous three I’d used were phone cameras, and whilst I’d got some pleasing photographs and learned a great deal, it was time to raise my photography a level.
So after much research I bought a sleek new Nikon. I downloaded the instruction manual. It was 200 pages.
If I’d have sat down and tried to read about every last feature and function of my new camera, I would have been completely overawed by about page five.
I would not have known where to start actually using it, and most likely would’ve dabbled with one setting, taken not even a handful of shots, before trying something else for a few shots, moving on again, and so on.
I’d have ended up with a batch of disparate, somewhat random photographs that didn’t give me the chance to get know any one feature or setting very well.
Equally likely I would have been frustrated that I was able to take a perfectly adequate photograph in a variety of different modes, but not a great or memorable photograph in any of them. And who wants their art to be merely adequate?
So here’s the first place I set limits.
I saw there was a monochrome setting, and due to a long held love of black of white photography, I decided to pick that and take as many photographs as possible in that mode.
By choosing one setting, it means I was not choosing about 25 others. I’d let go of the pressure I would otherwise impose on myself to master 25+ different settings in the first weekend of owning the camera.
Within that setting, I soon found that it was giving the most interesting results with more detailed, up close shots. I then found the macro setting, and switched that on.
This is the second layer of limits. Layer one – monochrome. Layer two – macro.
Now I was starting to see some really pleasing photographs.
The third limit was subject matter.
I’m a nature lover, and with my previous cameras the majority of photoshoots have been in woods, across fields, and beside lakes. I rarely photograph people, or urban scenes, or anything that can be dated (for example a scene where there are billboard adverts or cars that easily give the era away).
Timelessness is an important aspect to me.
So my next few photoshoots with the Nikon were in the nearby woods, and a few other favourite natural haunts. Being woodland, of course the majority of subject matter becomes trees, leaves and plants.
So this was my third layer – the subject matter – leaves, plants, nature.
Another layer still was informed by the time of day I usually went out to photograph – early in the morning when it was still partially dark.
Being the winter months when I began these explorations, the ground at this time of the morning was graced with a wonderful layer of either dew or frost, as if a glamorous queen had cast her jewels across the entire landscape whilst we all slept.
This gave my fourth layer – the time of day, and therefore the appearance of the landscape and surroundings.
A quick recap.
Layer one in limiting my creative options was to take only monochrome photographs.
Layer two was to use macro for close ups.
Layer three, explore the woods and fields and photograph leaves, plants and nature.
Layer four, photograph early in the morning when there’s a magical, hushed layer of dew or frost across the land.
Once these limitations had been set (and they all came about quite organically – these are the type of photographs I most felt drawn to take) I began photographing in abundance.
By setting such strict limits, I was able to start to (try to) master that particular kind of photograph.
My focus was greatly narrowed by my choices, which meant I wasn’t having endless debates each time I wanted to go out with my camera about where to go, when to go, what to photograph and using which settings. I’d made those decisions beforehand, so I was freed up to just go and find the beauty that was awaiting me.
This doesn’t mean that I will never use any other setting on my camera.
It just means that for me, choosing a set of limits helps me focus entirely on capturing the best photographs I can of a specific type.
As I said before, I’d rather take some great photographs of one specific type, than mediocre ones across a range of different subjects and settings.
Another point to add to this apparent strictness of rules. By setting them as a guide, it doesn’t mean that if I’m heading back from an early morning, monochrome macro photoshoot and the sun begins to rise, filling the sky with glorious tinges and blushes of purple and orange, I won’t take a few shots of that. In colour. I will, because my eyes are always open to whatever beauty I find around me, and sometimes I happen upon it spontaneously.
I chose this example of how I photograph, as it gives some clear, definable limits.
It’s easy to explain the layers of limits I used. I do a similar thing in many other areas of creating, and indeed in other areas of my life.
We cannot do everything, and we’d be foolish to try. In our entire lifetimes, if we created for 23 hours a day and slept the other one, we would still not have time to bring all our best ideas to life. We couldn’t in ten lifetimes!
But once we start to set limits, we give ourselves a chance to focus, and to increase our passion and our competence within those limits.
By saying no to vast swathes of options as to what we could create, we’re saying yes to one or two things and just getting down to creating.
We go from being dabblers in a dozen artforms, to becoming focused and fantastic in a few.
In the movie Adaptation, Meryl Streep’s character comes to a realisation as to why the guy she’s writing about is so incredibly obsessed with orchids.
“There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.”
It’s the same thing we’re talking about here. Whittling down our creative options to a manageable focus.
If we try to choose everything, we end up choosing nothing.
And your creative talent and potential is far too precious and valuable to produce nothing from.
Set some limitations, any limitations, focus your passion and energy and talent, and start creating within those boundaries.
Then let us know how it’s working out for you.
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