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Get rid of the photographer’s blank page

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Have you ever taken a walk with your camera, in a foreign city or a nice patch of woods, intent on finding some good images, but nothing looks really that greats and you can’t seem to get the creative juice flowing. After a while, you just shut off, put the lens cap on and gloomily head back home. Yeah, I thought so.

It used to happen to me with alarming frequency, and it sometime made me feel like the only way I could obtain half-decent photographs was to stand next to a landscape so jaw-droppingly beautiful that pointing my camera in the general direction of the scene would be all that was really required (thankfully, mountains often provide such landscapes).

But it doesn’t have to be, of course. Many, if not most great photographs have been created when the photographer’s unique vision transformed what might have looked like an average scene into a beautiful and moving work of art.

The question is how to get into this wonderful creative mood that challenges and pushes you to create great images even in uninspiring places? Fortunately, there is one tool which I have found very useful in the past: shutter warm up.

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The idea is simple: start your walk by taking a few dozen bad pictures. You should of course not randomly aim the camera and take a high speed burst, but instead go through the usual “looking for a photo” process but, when you reach the stage where you have found a potential subject, evaluated it and decided that it would be too poor, take the photo anyway. Sure, they will most likely be crap, but it doesn’t really matter. You can even delete them if you want, though I would advocate keeping them on the card until you have a chance to review them at home. You never know.

The point here is double: on one hand, it puts you in a productive mood. You are making images, even if not very good ones. Now you can stop worrying about not producing anything, and start worrying about the much more important task of producing better images. The second use is to tell your inner editor to shut the hell up and let you work in peace. Most artists are perfectionists, and it often gets in the way of the creative process, especially at its beginning (the infamous “blank page” feared by all writers). Nobody expects you to output the perfect photograph on your first try, or even on your second or third, and the only way to learn is to produce thousands of poor to average images. What shutter warm up does is tell your subconscious that it is ok to create photos that aren’t that great. And by cutting yourself some slack, you will get more freedom, more experience, and ultimately more fun.

Here is an illustration from my recent trip to the Bretagne region of France. None of these images has been processed, and I normally wouldn’t show any of them, but here goes anyway.

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The first image of the day. Nothing much is going on, composition and light are both poor. This could be deleted without an afterthought, but at least it got me started!

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With a crop and some post-processing, it might look half-ok, but it is still not very good at all. At least it has a proper subject, though.

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I saw the girl walking next to the attractive logs, but didn’t have time to compose properly, and had a wrong point of view. I still took the shot, even though I knew it would be crap (and it is).

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A bit more thought went into composing this one. It’s still far from a good image, but it was better than anything I had produced so far.

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Hah, getting somewhere. It needs some work in post, but at least this image has a soul and a story. Still not an award winner by any stretch of the imagination, but the image standard is getting much higher.

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When I got to the infamous Mont Saint-Michel a couple of hours but few photos later (I was too busy eating marinated mussels and chips), I felt a bit depressed as I was afraid of not being able to step out of the standard postcard view. I however felt confident enough to start experimenting right away and got this image that I quite like, with interesting light and story.

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Finally, one of the many semi-abstracts I took from (instead of of) Mont Saint-Michel. I had lots of fun experimenting with all sorts of ideas, and some of them turned out to work fairly well. I have no doubts that the crappy images from the morning played a big role in pushing myself to take these!

Just give shutter warm up a try next time you go for a photo walk. You might be surprised of how efficient it is at getting your creative juices flowing!

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11 thoughts on “Get rid of the photographer’s blank page

  1. Thanks Dan. The last image was simply taken from the abbaye (the monastery) on top of Mont Saint-Michel. It rises a couple of hundred meters above the sands of the bay, a really cool place.

  2. I really like the idea of “shutter warm up” I will start putting this into practice!

    I have to say I’ve been really impressed with your blog so far, great advice and interesting content!

  3. Glad you guys are finding the information useful. It’s a somewhat surprising practice, and it may not work for everyone, but I find it very effective myself, so it’s probably worth a try.

  4. Chris says:

    I have definetly experienced what you are talking about. Walking around not having pressed the shutter once desperatly looking for the “perfect” shot. It does help to just start shooting as once you do you are engaging yourself more and more likely to get a bit of inspiration. And as always, practice makes perfect.

  5. Marlon says:

    Thanks for this idea! I’m in Berlin this whole week and definitely going to try this one in practice :)

  6. I can’t claim to produce anything like the images you do, but I have to say having set myself the goal of taking a picture every day this year, I am always on the prowl for good subjects.

    Often I find myself at a loss for inspiration but after exercising the trigger finger a bit, somehow I manage to regularly end up with a decent shot (by my standards :)

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