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Making the best of the creative process as a photographer...I am fascinated by the creative process. I want to understand it so that I can be creative myself and share my knowledge with others. In my quest to better understand creativity, I recently signed up for an online drawing class.

I’m hoping to learn what other visual arts have in common with photography… and what things are different.

I also read all I can about being creative, where inspiration and great ideas come from, and I keep a file of article clippings unimaginatively labeled “Creativity and Inspiration.” My file is filled with articles discussing the creative process of musicians, comedians, fashion designers, architects, bakers, and more.

Although every artist and craft is different, I’ve found threads of commonality among their approaches to creativity.

Here they are:

1. Don’t wait for inspiration.

All the artists I’ve studied are hard workers. They don’t sit around waiting to feel inspired before putting pen to paper, paint to canvas or… you get the point.

Here are the words of painter Robert E. Colvin: “…forget about whether or not you have focus, energy, or inspiration. Let those old guides go so you are not dependent on them… just continue making work without being too critical of what it is you are making”.

Photographer Chuck Close put it more bluntly: “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

2. Being creative is messy and non-linear.

You have to figure out what stimulates you into coming up with good ideas.

Wallpaper designer Neisha Crossland constantly collects fabric scraps, ribbons, postcards, candy wrappers, and other materials, which she then pins on a large board she calls “the bush,” and uses as a source of ideas for her work.

As a photographer, I’m constantly looking critically at picture books and magazines, thinking about composition, lighting, etc.

Sometimes I get ideas I can apply to my own work—sometimes I think of an even better way to approach a subject, and sometimes I come up with bupkis.

3. You need space and time to be creative.

Comedian John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) calls these “boundaries of space” and “boundaries of time.” In other words, you need time to think, and you need a place to do it in. Like most writers, he often finds that the second (or third) drafts of a work are better than the previous one.

Novelist Helen Schulman’s workflow is as follows: Write. Rewrite. Obsess. Repeat.

And Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes, using a woodworking metaphor, writes that “all craft… proceeds in stages: conception, material selection, rough shaping, detailed shaping, sanding and finishing.”

As photographers, we need to take our time, if possible, in carefully composing an image, making sure the exposure and all settings are where we want them to be before pressing the shutter.

4. You need to practice.

You knew this was coming. Nobody starts out being good at anything.

Creativity assumes a certain degree of technical expertise, and this can only be achieved through practice. Baker Alice Medrich once spent six months testing various recipes of tuile cookies for a recipe book.

In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that you need about 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient at anything. Whether this estimate is accurate or not, the point is the same: you need to get out and shoot something. Creativity will follow.

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