This is a continuation of a group of essays I am writing that explore how photography can be creative in spite of being a process of mechanical reproduction of pre-existing objects in front of the lens.
In our creative journey we climb a pyramid that starts with technical skills that are mastered to the point of forgetting which affords us the time to explore concepts that will ultimately lead us towards a personal point of view in the work that expresses our creativity.
This is our pathway towards becoming more creative. We climb to the top of a pyramid that has a base level of technical skills followed by concept development which leads to insight and creativity.
Our foundation of creativity is good technical skills. We need to master the medium of photography we have chosen to the point of forgetting so that we can focus our attention beyond the camera.
With photography we have many possible processes to master. These range from various film based processes and what are now considered alternative processes such as Cyanotype and Platinum-Palladian printing, to digital photography and the spectrum of techniques that medium affords us.
We start out needing to master the operation of a camera. These can range from 8×10 large format, Twin Lens Reflex, Single Lens Reflex, and Mirrorless digital cameras. For every moment we are looking at the camera to set the exposure or some other setting like white balance or picture mode, our attention is pulled away from the subject in front of the lens. Whatever conscious thought we are putting towards operating the camera is robbing us of the opportunity to interact intuitively with the subject that is out beyond the camera.
This is why a lot of photographic workshops and classes really focus on building technical skills without ever talking about how to be creative. The problem with not talking about creativity is that many photographers never develop beyond applying their technical skills towards emulating or copying the work they have already seen.
This is often the challenge I see with camera clubs that have monthly contests with a subject or theme that everyone is supposed to photograph. These are good technical exercises but this does not lead towards creativity because there isn’t enough repetition of a concept to develop new insight.
Only after we have mastered the technical processes can we move towards developing some concepts and start experimenting with a theme and genre of photography. Over time we’re able to move into a pure creative mode that allows us to play. Picasso said to be creative is to remain a child. it’s that childlike wonder that allows us to do our best work.
Ansel Adams was an undisputed technical master of B&W film photography. His development of the Zone system epitomizes mastery of technique and was the foundation to his creative practice. This mastery enabled him to make the image Moonrise Over Hernandez New Mexico with absolute precision and haste. The light was changing so fast that he had to act fast. When talking about that image he describes reaching to the front of the camera to adjust the exposure settings on the lens without looking. He was so practiced he was able to correctly set the exposure and make one perfect exposure.
In his famous image Monolith, The Face of Half Dome Ansel demonstrates how technical precision leads to creative epiphany. With his last sheet of film he had a thought of adding a red filter to darken the blue sky. He was able to pre-visualize the effect of the filter as a means of translating his emotional response to the scene into a photographic image.
In each instance it was mastery of technique that led to a creativity that produced these iconic images.
The steps to mastering photographic technique include:
- Exposure Calculation – Expansion and Contraction of Scene Brightness Range
- Lens choice – Angle of View
- Focus – Depth of Field
- Framing – Open and Closed Compositions, Light Direction, Juxtaposition, Visual Storytelling
These steps just reflect the act of operating the camera. Once the latent image is recorded there are a whole range of technical processes that can be used to recompose the image in the darkroom or on a computer, or a combination of the two.
I think mastery of technical skills are imperative. However I want to encourage us to look beyond technical mastery to explore how these tools work in service to concept and ultimately to creativity itself.