It’s like I hit a wall. Not hit, actually… fell through. And everything on the other side was magic. This past year has been the most creatively transformative year I’ve had since I first picked up a camera.
Rewind to the start and you’ll see me, fresh off of a creative rut, desperately grasping at anything I could to pull myself out of it. I’m going to save you from hearing the long, boring story of why I was in a rut (you’re welcome), and instead I’m going to share the thoughts that brought me out of it.
We’re all artists and we need to be celebrating the hell out of it. We need to be making so much creative noise that it shakes our core and rattles our neighbors’ windows. We need to wake something up in anyone who hears us, and we need to remind ourselves why we chose this path in the first place. We’re all walking around with oceans of creativity crashing around inside of us and only so much time to let it out.
What you’re about to read are 10 things that have absolutely changed who I am as a photographer. I wholeheartedly believe in what I wrote here so I hope you read it with weight. It’s for me as much as it is for you. Enjoy.
Aesthetics make pretty pictures; emotions make powerful ones. Moments matter. Heart matters. Feeling something matters. Let’s create work that reminds us what humanity is—happiness, desperation, serenity, fear and the galaxies of feelings in between.
Let’s search for emotions more than we search for perfect poses.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about gorgeous visuals and I know that we can use aesthetics to draw out a certain mood, but we often lose sight of the emotions for the sake of the way we want an image to look and that’s where I think we (myself included) can take a powerful step forward. Let’s step forward. Let’s create heart.
If 50 people are running in one direction and one person is running the other way, who do you think will stand out? Lately it seems like I’ve been inspired by weirder and weirder things. I’m assuming it’s a byproduct of seeing countless images every day and realizing that it’s only the strange ones that stand out. The ones that run the other way.
I look at more images each day than most people do in a week and it’s filled me from head to toe with a boiling urge to see something unique. The reason that originality is a rare thing is because it’s not the easy thing. It (usually) doesn’t come naturally. Originality requires thought.
Good images are common place, great images take effort.
Think about what you’re creating. Don’t stop at your first idea, that’s the easy one; push farther until you find something that runs the other way. I’m not claiming to always create the great images, but you’re damn right that I’m going to try.
Our most meaningful work is the work we put our heart into. It’s the work that comes from a place of personal vulnerability or inspiration. Consider yourself lucky that you’re a human. You have emotions. Some days, freaking all of them. Feel them. Understand them. Use them.
Put what you’re feeling into your images—conceptually, symbolically, spiritually, who cares… just get it the hell in there. If you want to create powerful work, it needs to come from a powerful place. Look inside, you might like what you find.
In my first year of shooting, I started every shoot with a lie. I’d show up on set with my “professional photographer” mask while I left my sarcastic, introverted, pun-making personality at home. I had myself convinced that I needed to act a certain way if I wanted to be seen as a professional by my clients. Please, don’t make my mistake.
During my first few years, I never felt creative because I was too worried about being professional.
Yes, you have to be a trustworthy businessperson, but be yourself. If you’re goofy, let it out. If you want to say “that’s what she said,” say it. Dress how you want to dress. Talk how you want to talk. Be who you want to be because it will allow you to create how you want to create.
Don’t waste your down time wondering why your work isn’t moving forward, spend that time shooting personal work and trying new things.
If you’re always working with a paying client, the pressure is always on. Your clients hire you because they love your style, and that’s what you should deliver but personal work is your time to let loose and experiment. Try the things you’re afraid of. Try that one technique that you always wanted to try but never had the guts to. This is YOUR time.
If you try something new and it doesn’t pan out, no problem! You don’t have to show that junk to anyone. If it looks killer, bam! You have something new in your bag of tricks and your style just got pushed forward. Progress.
Seriously. Give it up. It’s okay! Don’t worry about having tack-sharp focus every time. Embrace grit and grain. Don’t you dare toss that frame that makes you giddy just because it’s a bit blurry.
If you have the choice between a technically correct image (correct exposure, sharp focus, etc) or one that makes you feel something, choose feeling every time. A “perfect” image isn’t worth much if it doesn’t have any life in it.
Seriously people. Don’t be like I was. Don’t assume that every moment you aren’t shooting, your subject is wondering why you’re such an idiot.
I really used to think that if I wasn’t shooting on set, my couple or model would think that I was having trouble coming up with an interesting pose or was having trouble finding the light. Truth… I was. I do. We all do. It happens. Sometimes we just need a second to step back, breath, and look at what’s in front of us before we start shooting again.
That’s okay! You’re an artist. Art requires time to think. It’s absolutely, 100% okay to let your subject know that they can hang out for a second while you look at light, or find your next shot.
Your client hired you because they love your vision. If you need a second to make that vision happen, TAKE A DAMN SECOND.
I didn’t enjoy my math class, so I didn’t do well in math. That’s called cause and effect. There’s a huge lesson to be learned here. You grow the most when you’re doing what you love. Want to grow at a snail’s pace? Pursue a style that you think will make you the most money or will be the most popular. Want to propel your work forward? Create work that inspires you.
Shoot what you enjoy shooting. Edit how you love to edit. Pursue the things that your heart is being pulled towards. Otherwise, your work will become tedious and you won’t want to invest in it. You’ll improve the fastest by creating work you love.
Yes, education is important. It doesn’t need to be formal education (I actually dropped out of college), but knowledge of your craft and your gear is a powerful thing. The more you know about images and how to create them, the more opportunity you have to control the look of your own. Study your gear. Know what the buttons do. Know what each setting affects.
Study the greats that came before you. Don’t just look at the greats, actually study them. What makes their work stand out among the rest? How do they use light in interesting ways? How do you feel when you look at their images and what’s making you feel that way? Know their work so you can know more about your own.
If you’re anything like me, you have those maybe-too-weird ideas that you leave quietly buried in your chest. When you’re at your most creative, they pump excitement through your veins but then you reluctantly fall back to that thought: “maybe they’re too weird.” Let me stop you right there. For the sake of art, don’t miss the point of being an artist.
This is one of the only careers out there that lets you run wild. Run. Get weird. Open up. Show the world what you love and embrace your weird.
We’re artists! We’re lucky enough to have a career that allows us the freedom of creativity and every time you push your weird ideas to the side because you’re afraid they won’t be “popular,” you’re slapping that freedom in the face. Creativity is only a beautiful thing if we actually use it.
Always leave something to discover.
If you found this, congratulations! You just found the joy of discovery. Hide things in your work. Put a reflection of yourself in a someone else’s portrait. Place a prop in the shot that has personal meaning to you. Art is about discovering something beautiful and it’s up to the artist to create that something.
This last bit is just for you. Read into it and let it soak in:
You have oceans of creativity crashing around inside of you, and you only have so much time to let it out. So please, open up and share what makes you, you.
About the author: Ben Sasso is a photographer and educator based in Los Angeles. He’s all about nature (camping, climbing, hiking and running around), and has an unmanly love for cats. He’s a firm believer in fostering a close knit photo community and encouraging individual progression. You can find more of his work and writing through his website, Facebook, and Instagram. This article also appeared here.