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How I kick-start my creativity

Very few of the photographs I make are planned for. I much prefer to have no pre-conceived ideas when I arrive at a location and strive instead to create the opportunity for serendipity to take its course. If it’s after sunrise then there is no sense of feeling rushed and as a consequence I relax and a creative frame of mind soon follows. Having enough time to thoroughly explore a location, while also being able to tune in to my own imagination, is such a pleasure. To be honest, it is probably the aspect of my photography that I enjoy the most.

But it was not always this way. There have been days in the past when the task of kick-starting my creativity was a constant source of frustration. So much so that I would often bring a day’s photography to a close and feel that I had still not discovered the location’s potential, and more importantly I hadn’t been able to achieve my own.

In the very early years I set off on the same route as many others before me, believing that the task for a landscape photographer was straightforward enough: I was there to record the view. Included in my apprenticeship was a devouring of all the photographic magazines. Through glossy adverts and repetitive articles they managed to convince me that after my camera equipment it was the light and the weather that were the most important ingredients in determining whether my photography was successful or not.

Thankfully, further into the journey I discovered photographers such as David Ward and Michael Kenna. Their work fascinated me and made me realise that a very different type of photography was possible. This was self-expressive photography of the highest quality. It went significantly beyond simply turning up before dawn with a wide-angle lens and then pointing it to where the sun was rising and making sure there was enough foreground to fill the frame. I sensed there was a greater factor at play determining the high level of creativity inherent within their photographs, and it wasn’t the gear or the light and weather as the magazines had tried to persuade me.

Could it be that their photographs and the striking individuality they displayed came most of all from how their mood was at the time they made them? Was the biggest influence actually their imaginative state of mind? Excited, I set off in a different direction to explore this idea and endeavoured to make photographs that also strayed from the conventional path and hoping my new pictures would be just as creative and unique.

It came as quite a shock to discover that it was not quite as simple as that. I really struggled. Technique was not the problem; it was something far more fundamental. In my naivety I had not realised that the real skill to making photographs that have a genuine spark of individuality comes from knowing how to ignite that creativity in the first place. Put simply, knowing how to get into a responsive state of mind so you actually see the creative possibilities rather than walk right past them.

I began to ask myself if it was possible for a photographer to warm up their eye before making pictures? I started to think it was. After all, Andy Murray doesn’t go straight on to Centre Court and win Wimbledon; he has been warming up on the practice court for hours before the match. Ben Stokes doesn’t walk down the steps at Lord’s and score a century without turning up early and batting in the nets beforehand. Footballers, rugby players, in fact all sportsmen and women warm up before they perform, none of them start cold.

How do I warm up? It’s not complicated, not for me anyway. After arriving at the location I don’t begin by looking for a photograph. I don’t even start looking for a subject. All I simply do is look. If there is a curve in a boulder that is a similar shape to the curve of a cloud, I make a mental note of it. If the blue on the surface of a rock pool matches the blue of the sky, I mention it in my mind. I take notice if the orange oxidisation on a rock matches the colour of the autumn fern that stands next to it.

Composition is often about making connections for the viewer that they do not see unless you arrange the frame in a certain way, so identifying these connections in the first place for yourself is helpful. It’s the compositional flow inherent within a shape that drives most of my initial ideas about a potential photograph, so before the camera comes out I force myself to look long and hard at a whole variety of shapes, large and small, around me. I go through this sequence for roughly 15 minutes and nearly always I then start to see more potential and the spark of an idea nearly always follows.

The photograph I have included here is of water flowing over the riverbed of the Dundonnell River in the North West Highlands of Scotland and is a good example of the type of picture I make after using this method. At first I didn't detect any substantial improvement in what I saw when I tried warming up my eye. But after about a year of repeating this simple exercise I sensed that a cognitive process had become established and I cannot overstate the impact it had on my photography, especially the abstract aspect of it.

Just like Andy Murray going on to the practice court and activating his muscle memory, my mind recognises that I am going through a sequence of repetitive actions and it is surprising how quickly this opens the door to my imagination and the creative side of my photography.

How I kick-start my creativity

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