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Expecting the Unexpected

Becoming a More Creative Photographer Column by Harold Davis, May 2009 (updated October 2010)

Introduction | I: Expecting the Unexpected | II: Focusing on What Matters | III: Becoming Composition Conscious | IV: Making the Unseen Visible | V: Knowing When to Quit | VI: Setting Limits | VII: A Spiral Model of Creativity

Life is full of surprises. The best photography is not sterile and removed from life because compelling photography takes advantage of the serendipitous and messy nature of the world. If you are prepared, and expecting the unexpected, your photography will be more creative, imaginative, and richer than if you are rigid in the way you see the world, and in how you go about taking photographs.

Many people ask me why my approach to photography is so imaginative. They want to know what I do to come back with creative imagery on most occasions.

One answer is that I wasn’t always such a creative photographer. I’ve learned to be more creative and flexible as I’ve gone along. I believe that to a great extent creativity can be learned. And I want to teach you what I’ve found out.

This is the first in a series of articles about becoming a more productive and inventive photographer. In these articles I’ll share some of the techniques I use to boost my creativity and I’ll show you how I’ve learned to be more imaginative with my photography. My goal is to help you to become more creative, too.

Each of the articles in this series will present assignments that will help you hone your creative approach (should you choose to accept them!).

I photographed the water drop shown at the beginning of this column in bright sunshine with my macro lens stopped all the down for maximum focus within the drop. I was surprised to see a complete world reflected upside down and backwards, including water drops within the water drop, and so on, to infinity.

Your assignment: Photograph a reflection (in water, in a mirror, etc) so as to convey an entirely different world.

This article presents six approaches that will help you use your vision to enlarge and extend your creative potential:

  1. You need to understand there is no “one size fits all” recipe for creativity, and use the tools I provide to find your own path to becoming a more creative photographer.
  2. Technique matters. The truly creative photographer is a technical virtuoso who has learned to move beyond issues of technique into the realm of creative interpretation.
  3. Creativity starts by seeing things for what they really are; you need to look beyond what you expect to see.
  4. Photography is a quest, but the ultimate prize is often different from our initial expectation. The truly creative photographer learns to quickly shift gears to take advantage of unexpected but wonderful things that come up along the way.
  5. It’s important to move beyond your comfort zone, even if that means venturing beyond the things you know and have photographed in the past.
  6. Serendipity, chance events and ideas, are an important part of creativity in photography. Rather than futilely struggling against luck in the world, you should learn to embrace serendipity and make it your photographic friend.

1. There’s No Recipe for Creativity

Becoming more creative cannot be approached like an assembly line. There is no cookie cutter way to enhance the imaginative component of your photography. At the same time, with the exception of a few kinds of precision photography, creativity is the great differentiator between merely competent and inspirational photographers.

Several photographers can shoot the same subject and all come back with technically competent captures. But one of those photographers might produce results that will outshine his or her buddies—all because of the creative X factor.

We’ve all seen this kind of disparity of result, and we’ve all likely experienced another phenomenon. Some days you’ve probably felt in the photography “zone”, ready to rise to the challenge of improvising gorgeous creative imagery. Other times, everything seems dull and flat, and there are no acceptable solutions to the visual challenges that arise. Nothing seems worth photographing.

My creativity is not the same as your creativity, nor should it be.

My eyes, and the filter of my experiences and my brain, are different than yours. Part of what is wonderful about viewing photography is that we get to see the world as others have seen it.

There is no recipe for creativity. We each much learn about our own path. That said, there are ways of seeing and thinking that can benefit everyone. You can learn to increase your creative X factor, and to boost your batting average. You can increase the percentage of times that the photos you take are in that wonderful and mysterious creative zone.

Image notes: I photographed the reflections in a pot on the stove shown above in our kitchen, and then worked on the image in the Photoshop darkroom to create the effect you see. It’s hard to tell if this is a photo or a painting, and at first glance you may not be sure what the image depicts, but if you look at it carefully you can definitely see my kitchen.

Your assignment: Pick an everyday object where you live. Make your mind a blank and forget everything you know or associate with the object. Try to see it with new eyes. Find out what is interesting about the mundane object, and create an image based on this interest.

Text ©2009 Harold Davis.

Article revised October 2010.

Readers' Comments

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Frank Eleveld , May 20, 2009; 02:37 A.M.

Thanks for this excellent article. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series!

Hans ter Horst , May 20, 2009; 06:08 A.M.

Thanks Harold, this is great information!

Alice Fraas , May 20, 2009; 03:14 P.M.

This introductory information and advice was very interesting. I'll look forward to the next installment!

Marie S , May 20, 2009; 07:19 P.M.

Wonderful and interesting article. Got my creative juices flowing. I'm also looking forward to the next installment.

Cindy Poch , May 21, 2009; 02:34 P.M.

Just because someone is great at something doesn't mean he can teach that skill. Not only is this author an excellent photographer, but he has the ability to explain it to others. Love his examples and assignments - I will come back to this column!

Noelle Smith , May 22, 2009; 09:07 A.M.

Wonderful and inspirational advice! Thank you!

Muhammed Ghafari , May 22, 2009; 07:31 P.M.

Thanks a lot for this superoir article. Even though, there is something I already have knowledge about and have experience in, but the way you shape the article and your methods for explanation make the ideas and the lessons really very valuable. I just right down the assignments you mentioned on a piece of paper and kept it with me when ever I go. Sure with the camera on my shoulder.

Many thanks.

Homo Novus , May 22, 2009; 11:31 P.M.

Thanks you!

Venice Reflection Mirror, mirror... Thank you for a wonderful and inspiring article! Assignments are great, I started exploring and enjoying with first one, reflection. It is amazing how many reflections are around us and we never notice them! Thanks a lot again! Looking forward to see next article!

Harold Davis , May 26, 2009; 01:57 P.M.

Thanks everyone! I appreciate the comments. Keep photographing with passion.

Best wishes,


Christa Binder , June 07, 2009; 11:20 A.M.

Thanks Harold for this awesome article, I cant wait to read the next installment, and get started on the assignments.

Danny Deckers , June 13, 2009; 06:50 A.M.

Thanks a lot!! Looking forward to your next.

Peter Barnes , June 16, 2009; 07:27 A.M.

Thanks Harold. Good stuff. Is there a way of being notified when the next instalment goes up?

Harold Davis , June 16, 2009; 12:19 P.M.

Next article, Focusing on What Matters is up. Best wishes to all! Harold

Hannah Thiem , June 18, 2009; 12:52 P.M.

Also, if you're subscribed to the photo.net newsletters (if not, go to "My Workspace" to sign up), you'll get notification regarding all new editorial, including Harold Davis' column installments. Thanks for the enthusiasm--we're excited about this column!

Gabriele Hefer , June 25, 2009; 02:17 P.M.

Inspired by Jean-Claude Silbermann a Surrealist Experiment.......

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Martin Ticas , July 05, 2009; 07:07 A.M.

Thanks for the wonderfully provocative insight, moving me to push through the rut I'm experiencing of not seeing anything worth photographing. The style which you deliver your message is refreshing and inspiring.

Thanks for that!


Thadd . , September 13, 2009; 09:16 A.M.

This is a great article! So much of it is common sense, but it's presented so as to make one think deeper. I had been in a rut, and had already tried some of the assignments on my own. Seeing it presented here validated the whole process....I can't wait to continue on!

Raina Van Cleave , October 21, 2009; 10:53 P.M.

Your article really helped me get a better understanding on photography. I'm back in school and taking a class and completely intimidated by where to begin. Very informative and helpful.

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