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Three R’s For Creative Photography

February 25, 2014
Calico Hills, Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Prior to my first trip to Iceland in 2012, I did some research to orient myself to some of the fabulous locations there. Fortunately, we spent nearly a whole day at one of my top desired spots – Landmannalaugar. I knew I wanted to capture something about the unique colors & patterns of the rhyolite hills. When clouds began to mass late on the day of our visit, I was ready to photograph with some compositions I already had in mind.

Last year I published this article in The Camera Store’s newsletter. I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and photography over the past while, and specifically I’ve been practicing my own approaches to the “three R’s”. What are they? Nope, I’m not talking about readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic. Instead, I’m talking about research, repetition and responding. Here’s the article again for anybody who is also getting back to the basics. Enjoy! 🙂

Photography is a creative pursuit. Many people photograph just for enjoyment, but many others do so based on certain goals… often creative goals, not just ones like learning equipment & technique, or developing business & financial results. Perhaps you have some creative goals in place and already know how your gear will help you make those images. Now you need an approach to actually get out there and do it. For situations where the photography effort is casual, and the costs and risks are low, you can get away without a lot of preparation… just head out and see what develops.

But in cases like travel destinations, one-time events or limited-access locations, you may want to prepare a little more. Especially if you’d like to get some photographs that are less like snapshots, and more like stories or distinctive works that really stand out in your portfolio. In these kinds of situations, how do you get your head in a creative space and give yourself more chances at satisfying image-making? Here are three R’s to try out.


Research is a good starting point, and something that most of us usually think of already, especially for travel destinations. Between the blizzard of material on the Internet and a wealth of printed photo magazines and travel guides, there’s an almost overwhelming amount of information available. To sort through it all, it can help to be a bit more directed in researching.

Think in terms of subject, composition and light, three key elements to better photography that I often emphasize. What subjects do you enjoy photographing? Are you pulled in by markets or vibrant civic centers? Will you get up extra early to explore seashores or fishing villages? Do you prefer to explore downtown architecture or wilderness locations? Do you look for abstract or conceptual material, or do you stick with concrete subject matter?

Also consider the light you may encounter. What time of year will you be on location, and what’s the weather likely to be? How might the prevalent conditions affect lighting – clear skies, fog, clouds, snow, heat haze, full moon, long twilights or anything else of interest? Will you be inside or outside, dealing with artificial or natural light? A great deal of success in photography rides with the light you have to work with, so be ready for it.

Subject and lighting are mostly beyond your control; they will be what they will be. Your job is to work with what you encounter using choices in composition. So with some ideas about the subjects and light, think about your photographic style. Do you gravitate to sweeping vistas framed in wide angles? Or do you favor carving out detailed cameos with a long lens? Perhaps you’re visually drawn to bold colors, powerful lines, swirling action, or structural or textured scenes that really shine as black and white images. Do you photograph methodically using a tripod and careful composition of the frame, or do you hand-hold and compose in a fast and fluid way?

Research with an idea of the strengths of your style, and look for opportunities that offer a rich match-up of subject, light and composition. Or, if you feel you’ve been in a rut and want a challenge, research to find something the opposite of what you’d normally do! Either way, think through the kind of images you could make once you get on location… not to put on creative blinders, but to have a bunch of photography scenarios warmed up, so you’re ready to go when you encounter opportunities.


Golden Light On the Matrix, Reykjavik

This photo was taken inside the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik. The concert hall was a nearly brand-new building; in fact the outside landscaping wasn’t finished when I was there first in 2012. Even though the location hadn’t been on my radar during my earlier research, I found I really liked the interplay of light with the architecture. Since we were in Reykjavik for a few days, I went back to Harpa for several repeat visits to capture a variety of compositions in different lighting.

The next tactic is repetition. The research you do should NOT be mistaken for what’s really going to happen on location. All the planning in the world may go out the window when faced with reality on a given day. So what’s the best thing to do — bet everything on one roll of the dice and hope for the best? Perhaps. It depends on how flexible your schedule, budget and other factors are. And whether you like to survey a lot of opportunities even when they don’t work out, or (like me) prefer to dive deep into a smaller number of situations and work them more intensively.

Either way, there are probably going to be situations where you really, really want to get something worthwhile. Don’t be a victim of circumstance, but spin fortune in your favor: plan in some repetition. Don’t give yourself one shot with only a brief time. Rather, for high-potential opportunities found in your research, actively structure your schedule for several visits to those prime locations.

Also, scout early on and lock in some specific opportunities to follow up on the next visit(s). Go to a location several times at the same time of day to work the good light or weather conditions; for example do 3 sunrises or sunsets at that old abandoned farmstead. Or plan several visits at different times to get more variety. For example go to that market square early one weekday morning before anybody arrives, and again on a weekend afternoon when it’s packed with the hustle and bustle of vendors and shoppers.

No matter how good you are and how much research you’ve done, it’s probably true that you’ll often get more, better and greater variety of work if you give yourself more than one shot at a rich location. So plan to be there when good luck happens, not just once but several times.


The final idea I want to describe is, in a lot of ways, more important than both of the others — I call it responding. I’ve met a small number of photographers (as well as other creative folks) who seem to have an innate heightened sensitivity to things going on around them. It’s as if their skin is super thin and their eyes are wide open, like a child’s – the potential of a situation sinks right in and makes an immediate impact on their imagination. As they take in the experience and somehow get to the heart of it, they have the ability to express it back out as photographs that are personal, insightful and creative. That’s what I mean by responding. Even if you haven’t researched a destination or event all that much, or you don’t have a chance for repeated exposure to it, having the ability to respond while you’re there can be a trump card.

Fallen Rock and Falling Water, Skaftafell National Park

During my research of Iceland, I learned some things about the active geology of the island, produced by plate tectonics and many live volcanoes. One visual feature I knew I wanted to work with was the multitude of hexagonal basalt columnar formations. But I wasn’t prepared for the physical impression of some of the locations. We visited a cool waterfall called Svartifoss, but only once and not for very long. Despite the brief contact, I was really struck by the other-worldly feel of the surroundings. I went with it and tried to just respond in a creative way that showed something of what I felt… something mysterious and otherworldly. One viewer of this photo asked, “Where are the hobbits?” That’s the kind of fantastical feeling I had, and I’m glad some of it comes through the image.

Now, besides advising that you rediscover a childlike curiosity about things, this isn’t something I can give you easy tips on. Heck, it’s not something I can reliably or often do, myself. There are plenty of times when I’m in a place where I know there must be something interesting, and yet I just can’t get past the obvious. That’s okay; this is about creativity, not pressure. The good news is I believe that responding isn’t a mystical state restricted to a few gurus of the craft. We can all learn to develop that inquisitive nature, to be more aware of and open to possibilities. We can slow down the spinning complexity in the old noggin, and really pay attention to what’s developing around us. Then, when something does click out there, we’ll be better able to make it click in the camera, too.

Galen Rowell, a master whose photography and writing has been very inspiring to me, talked about developing a “saturation of awareness” of a place, and making really distinctive images in that moment. This is also what’s meant by learning to make more powerful photographs by really seeing what’s there, and intuitively understanding how it will look as a photograph. It comes from experience, and for most of us also as a result of research and repetition. But based on some people I’ve met and worked with, and a few “ah ha!” moments I’ve had myself, I believe that responding is something that can happen without a lot of preparation. We need to be tuned in to whatever possibilities fortune may send our way, and then be ready to creatively react to them.

So there you go, 3 different ways to get your head in the game of creative photography, especially in situations like travel or limited access, where you don’t want to rely on a more casual, hit-or-miss approach. You can use any or all three of these ideas in different combinations. Next time you’re getting ready to go out, think in terms of researching, repeating and responding. See what works for you!

Question for the reader: Of these three tactics, which ones work best for you? Are you a researcher, a repeater or a responder? Do you mix & match all of them at different times? In each of these areas, do you have any effective habits that you’ve developed and would recommend to others?

If you’re looking for creative travel / learning / photography opportunities this year, I’m involved in leading several photo tours and workshops that currently have spaces available. Click through the links below or contact me for details if you’re interested in these events. Deadlines for many of them are approaching fast!

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