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Knowing When to Quit

Becoming a More Creative Photographer by Harold Davis, August 2009 (updated November 2009)


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

This is the fifth 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 presents assignments that will help you hone your creative approach (should you choose to accept them!)

In the first article in this series, Expecting the Unexpected, I explained that:

  • There is no simple formula for creativity;
  • It’s important to learn to see what is really there, as opposed to what you expect to see;
  • Great photographs can only be made when you strike the right balance between planning and “going with the flow”.

The second article, Focusing on What Matters, moved on to take a closer look at what you photograph. As I noted in the article, “Don’t believe those who think of photography as something than can always be done casually.” As with life itself, it is often (but not always) the case that the more effort you put into your photographic work, the more you will get back.

The point of the second article was to help you focus on what really matters to you and your life, to better be able to integrate personal passion with your photography, and to progress on the life-long journey of discovery that true artists make.

The third article, Becoming Composition Conscious, took a look at photography from a completely different perspective. My opinion is that photography is applied graphic design, so to make an effective photograph you’ve got to start with a good composition. But good composition is not a matter of rigidly following rules. This can lead to photographers who have passion and know what they want to photograph, but can’t quite get their images to jell from a compositional viewpoint. Becoming Composition Conscious provided a framework for working through these problems.

The fourth article in the series, Making the Unseen Visible, showed how photography can reveal things that are unseen. This article explained that revealing things to people that they haven’t seen before is one of the main goals of the truly creative photographer, and provided some techniques to support your own revelations via your photography.

This article, Knowing When to Quit, tackles the surprisingly difficult and important topic of stopping creative work while you are still ahead. “But wait,” you may say, “What does quitting have to do with creative photography?”

Plenty, it turns out. Stopping, pausing—and sometimes even quitting—creative work is often a wise move that helps you to recharge creative batteries and find greener creative pastures. Read on to find the five signs that it is time to move on, and tips and techniques related to creative quitting!

Why Quitters Sometimes Win

The clichés of our society are geared to not quitting. And it is a “true fact” that successful photography requires a great deal of hard work, persistence, and just plain old ornery stubbornness. As the great photographer Edward Weston wrote in his Daybooks, “A real artist is nothing if not a workingman, and a damn hard working one.”

Granted that good photographers are hard working craftspeople who do not spend the bulk of their time as party animals, it is still important to consider the benefits of “working smarter, not harder.”

Some shots just won’t happen, no matter how hard you try. If you spend a day and a night waiting for things to come together exactly right, and they never do, then you have waited too long, and likely missed other opportunities. This is important enough to be worth repeating: the true cost of never quitting is missing lots of alternative possibilities.

Photography is hard work, and a demanding craft; creative photography is also fun. If you aren’t having fun, you are probably trying too hard.

If you beat a dead horse, you can say to yourself, “At least I gave it all I got.” And yes, the sense of not settling for half measures is truly important. At the same time, I find that my best work happens when I am having fun, and working with fluidity and flexibility. Flexibility means being able to move on when the time is right—which, of course, begs the question, how do you know when the time is right to quit?

The photographs shown at the beginning of this article and to the right are of Bixby Bridge, a classic 1930s structure spanning a chasm along the Big Sur coast of California. It took considerable planning to get me into position at the right time for these shots. I waited for hours in a cold fog with my tripod poised over a dark drop for the light to be low enough and for the right combination of car lights to pass by.

During the time I was waiting, I made hundreds of captures, mostly just to pass the time, as I knew they weren’t right. Only the last few captures were interesting; once I had them on my memory card I saw the clouds were closing in, I packed up, and went for a hot bath and bed. I trusted myself to know that there was no point in lingering. If there had been some way to get inserted just at the right five minutes, I could have dispensed with my earlier waiting; but, of course, this kind of precision is not possible in real life, and the lot of every field photographer is to spend time waiting with—or without—patience.

As opposed to film, digital captures are essentially free. Most of us take advantage of this fact to shoot tons of exposures. However, when I analyze my results, I find that most of the usable captures from a session are right at the beginning or (a bit less frequently) right at the end. Sometimes this gap spans hours. I could have gone out for dinner in between and not missed anything.

In fact, a stronger statement is possible. My first shot is often very close to the best of any session. There are a number of possible reasons for this, including the extra care I’m taking early on, my excitement at the shot, the fact that the scene is fresh for me and so on.

Your assignment: spend a day shooting different scenes, but only allow yourself one shot of each scene. Be tough: you must truly move on to something different after each exposure.

Then, on another day stick to one general subject. Spend a great deal of time and make hundreds of captures. Analyze your results to see where in the session you did your best work.

Which day was more productive? And when, during each day’s shoot, were you most productive?

Five Signs it is Time to Move On

How do you know if it is time to move on? Here are five signs that you should watch for. When you notice them, stop your current direction of work and move on to new challenges. Or simply take some time to rest, relax, and recharge. If two or more of these signs apply, you should definitely switch gears.

Reasons to Quit List

  1. You are physically feeling tired, cold, hungry, and grumpy.
  2. You are frustrated and bored with what you are photographing.
  3. You no longer remember why you wanted to take photos. Even thoughts of that new lens or camera body fail to inspire feelings of lust.
  4. The images you see on your LCD seem boring and uninspiring.
  5. When you look around, other subjects seem much more interesting than what you are photographing. When this happens, there is no excuse for not getting you and your camera off your respective duffs and moving on to greener pastures.

I was photographing an egg using a studio setup to demonstrate the difference between backlighting and front lighting on a white subject for my Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (due out from Wiley in the next few months). No matter how I moved the egg, or fiddled with the lighting, the results on my LCD looked insipid and boring to me.

At least two of the five items on the Reasons to Quit list applied to me. So I stopped working, and made an omelet for lunch. (Yes, there’s an egg theme to this story!)

Looking at the shells from one of the eggs I had just prepared and eaten, I realized I had a new and intriguing direction for my photo (see finished image above).

Your assignment: Take the six words “exciting, sexy, happy, boring, dull, sad.” The next time you are photographing, for each setup or shot, in your mind very quickly choose one of these words without thinking giving it much thought. If your word choice was “boring,” “dull,” or “sad,” then move on to photograph a new subject.

Creative Destruction

To shine a harsh light from behind a glass straight at the camera (as in the photo to the right) is to destroy any chance of delicately rendering the glass. But a harsh light directed this way makes new possibilities: in the photo above the shadow resembles an interesting shell, and intrigues me far more than a straight shot of glassware.

If you’ve decided that it is time to move on, but don’t know exactly what to do next, it is time to practice creative destruction. You can often witness creative destruction in children’s play, where (for example) a train track is decimated by an outer space alien invasion, leading to a more involved and intricate subsequent play space and structure.

For a photographer, creative destruction is a very useful technique with many possible guises. You can turn lighting on itself to create the opposite of the normal effect (for example, the shadow of the glass that resembles a shell). In the field, you can rotate, and photograph whatever is behind you, whether or not it seems like a valid subject for a photo.

I was shooting off a bridge as night came on, and got bored. I swiveled the camera in an act of creative destruction. The photo to the left shows the lights on the sidewalk of the bridge behind where I was shooting—as it turns out, a far more interesting photo than any I took from the bridge!

Your assignment: Make a list of the ways you might practice creative destruction in photography. (Hint: I’ve only mentioned two, there are many more.) The next time you get bored with a photo session, intentionally choose a method of creative destruction from your list, and proceed to shoot based upon it.

Maintaining Balance

For me, knowing when to quit is a challenge when shooting. It may even be more of a challenge when I post-process in the Photoshop darkroom.

In the years when I was a painter—you know, applying physical messy substances smelling of turpentine manually to a literal surface, the canvas—many times I had the experience of beginning to get something interesting. Then I would keep on working at it, my painting would go muddy, and the light and interest would go out of it.

In the Photoshop darkroom, this is partly an issue of workflow—and, as with my painting experience, partly an issue of maintaining balance.

Good workflow means never having to say you’re sorry. If you practice good workflow by saving the stages of your digital darkroom creations, when you go too far and your image starts to get “muddy,” you can always go back.

Maintaining balance means learning to listen to yourself. Often, my unconscious knows that a direction I am going isn’t working long before I’m conscious of the fact. So I take my time.

If a painter produced a great work of art every week, we’d think this was the most productive artist that ever lived. Somehow we expect more from photographers and digital artists, but this is neither realistic nor fair.

My steps in digital compositing are deliberate, and I’m very prepared to walk away from a partially finished version of an image and come back to it later. The digital composite to the right was assembled from three photos taken over the course of three years.

Your assignment: Combine three photos shot at different times to make an interesting photo composite.

Towards a Spiral Model of Creativity

There’s a lot to suggest that photographic creativity works best on a spiral model. Here’s what I mean. When you first approach a new subject or technique, you are filled with passion and enthusiasm. Much good work ensues. Hours, days, weeks, or perhaps months go by.

Eventually, you begin to get bored. This is the time to move on—sooner rather than later if you are following the advice in this article.

You find a new love, and a new enthusiasm, and the cycle starts again.

The time will come when you spiral back to the original work. You’ll bring renewed enthusiasm to it, as well as a richness gathered from the other work, interests, and passions that have occupied you along the way.

And so the spiral goes.

Your assignment: Go back through your archives to find images that are of radically different subject matter or use different techniques than your current work. Now try to make images of the “old” subject matter or that use the “old” technique—but more richly and deeply, bringing to the table some ideas that are more recent than the original work.

Conclusion

Persistence is an admirable quality, and necessary for success in photography. It turns out that flexibility, and knowing when to move on, may be even more important.

In this article, I’ve given you a number of approaches for boosting your creativity as a photographer by becoming open to the idea of “quitting.” These approaches include:

  • Shooting with “moving on” mandatory to get a sense of just how good your results can be when you don’t overshoot.
  • Remembering that photography is fun. This means fully internalizing the fact that you do your best work when you are having fun.
  • Practicing techniques that help you become conscious of your true attitude to a specific subject or photo session.
  • Using creative destruction to turn photo subjects on their heads.
  • Moving to a new subject that is radically different from an original subject.
  • Maintaining balance by taking your time.
  • Understanding that creativity comes and goes in a spiral fashion.

Note: Knowing when to quit is a good thing for creative photography, and it is also important when writing about creativity in photography. November’s column will be my last in my monthly Becoming a More Creative Photographer series. Don’t worry, there are still two more Creativity columns, and you haven’t heard the last of me. In December, I’ll be starting a new monthly series on Photo.net about working creatively in the Photoshop darkroom.

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About the Author

Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase. Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. More »


Text ©2009 Harold Davis.

Article revised November 2009.

Readers' Comments


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Stephanie Maks , September 17, 2009; 04:06 P.M.

Interesting article, thank you! I've also noticed when I take a dozen or so digital shots of the same subject, it is almost always the very first or the very last image that is the best. Re. shooting one frame then moving on, I've recently started shooting film again, that's a good way to enforce the excercise - I went out of town last weekend with a roll of 36 in my camera, came back with no two pictures alike and every frame was either carefully planned or fun. Cheers!

Patrick S , September 18, 2009; 09:24 A.M.

If we all shot more film, we'd have to think more. Thinking leads to discovery. Alas, thinking, film use, reading and literacy skills seem to be a thing of the past. Instant gratification is what rules.

Alberto Dall'Oglio , September 20, 2009; 08:42 A.M.

...I agree with Wolfeye and Stephanie and this is the reason I still shoot film and use digital advantages only in post processing... My portfolio is all film-based!

Alberto.

Donna Bolstorff , February 08, 2010; 07:02 A.M.

Thank you for your great thoughts. As a beginner photographer the ideas that you presented about knowing when to quit are important to me as I begin my journey for the 'best' shots.


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