“Creativity loves constraints, but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible.”
--Melissa Mayer, CEO, Yahoo!
A sense of freedom and flexibility can be good for the creative process. And yet, though it may at first seem contradictory, without constraints of some kind, we have a tendency to wander rather aimlessly. It helps to have a specific challenge to solve or certain constraints to frame our thinking. A challenge both motivates and gives direction; combined with productive constraints, we are much more likely to look for new and unique ways of accomplishing the task.
In my current botanical series, A Bowing Acquaintance With Plants, I placed two technical constraints on myself that would force me out of my usual approach to photographing plants for books and magazines. First, I am shooting in black and white. I must see monochromatically and think in terms of contrast and tone rather than color. This means that I'm looking at light in a very different way. And second, for purely aesthetic reasons, I chose to shoot these on a black background. That's relatively easy to control in the studio, but if I’m shooting in a garden, which is often the case, I must select subjects and compose in ways that will give me a simple, dark background to work with during image processing. It has forced me to look at plants in new ways and led to many interesting discoveries.
Some photographers have built their signature style (at least in part) around a set of constraints. Sally Man shoots portraits and landscapes on glass plates with an antique 8x10 field camera. Michael Kenna creates his black and white landscapes after dark or just before dawn with exposures that often last many hours. Susan Burnstine recreates her dream-like visions with handmade film cameras that have been pieced together with random parts from broken camera parts (often with duct tape). Constraints take many forms.
As photographers, we can keep our creative juices flowing and improve our shooting skills by routinely tackling exercises that provide constraints. Perhaps we shoot for a day (or throughout a project) with only one lens—a fixed-focal-length prime lens, not a variable-focal-length zoom lens. Or we shoot only subjects that are a certain shape or color. Or, one of my favorites, we shoot just one object—but do so in as many ways as we possible can with every trick and tool in our bag.
I suspect this is one of the reasons I love having a camera phone. I generally set it to shoot square (my preferred format). I don’t worry about zooming or depth of field settings, and spend only a minimal amount of time correcting for exposure. This frees me to concentrate solely on composing square images. I learn to work the frame and develop my own visual language—one that continues to serve me when I later pull the big camera and lenses out of the bag.
Whether you are a photographer or not, what kinds of constraints or challenges do you face or place on your work that force you to think creatively? How