One of the biggest hurdles I got over in my journey as a photographer was following too many rules. There are two very different areas in photography you can spend a lot of time studying: the technical end consisting of your gear, exposure, aperture, lighting, and of course the trusty (or dreaded) histogram, and the artistic side where you focus on the look and feel you want to express. You think about the style you want to emulate or portray. Regardless of which side you focus on, you can really get lost making sure you have followed every suggestion correctly.
If this becomes too important you may not even realize you are taking some technically perfect but lackluster photos. This is where the creative editing comes in. You need to hit mute on the technical and artistic rules you are used to, and explore what outside the box techniques might interest you.
Photos that look the same don’t stand out. That statement may sound obvious, but photo sharing sites are filled with jaw-dropping shots that look similar enough to have all been taken by the same photographer. In the words of comedian-turned-musician Steve Martin, if you want to be noticed you must "be so good they can’t ignore you."
I would offer a comparison of this concept of "good" from photography to basketball. There are a lot of people really good at shooting three pointers. The best outside shooter you can think of from your area is probably not even one fourth as good as an average college player. This relativeness takes another huge leap when talking about shot accuracy of an NBA player. Now don’t get me wrong, I get there is a big difference between the two, but stay with me. If you decide tomorrow that you really love basketball and want to be the best like you see on TV, it’s probably not very realistic if you plan on taking the traditional path to get there. Namely years and years of practice, some unteachable height, and a lot of experience. Just like the photographers with insane travel budgets, time to capture exactly what they want, and thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of gear.
The only way it might happen in basketball is if you excel at shooting all your threes as a hook shot. Obviously you’d need some basic dribbling building blocks and a stage to showcase the amazing sky three on. But something this crazy might just work. This may sound ridiculous but it’s this drastic outside the box approach that is the point. Find a way to be different with your photography. At least being different will separate you from the crowd. Or in the basketball case, might get you swatted into the crowd.
Find a Way to Do Your Own Thing and Create Something Fresh
The first time I really decided to break things was with a long exposure shot of Niagara Falls taken on a very drab day. Since the original capture was kind of terrible, I had little concern for ruining anything.
My main goal in editing the image was to focus all the attention on the edges and ripples in the water. Sometimes the best way to bring out highlights can simply be to darken the shadows. I also threw in a pretty flat gradient adjustment right at the horizon darkening the exposure on the sky.
Learning to See in Monochrome
The header image for this article is titled "Learning to See in Monochrome." It was still one of the first times I went completely off script with editing and was very happy with the results. Sunsets can be very unremarkable when the color is taken away. The trick is finding the light and featuring it. Did I need to completely change the sky? Probably not. But that is part of the freedom that is therapeutic. It’s 100 percent up to you what to do with it because you’ve released the tether of rules and expectations.
If It Isn’t Working, Erase It
In one of my favorite edits I have ever played with I ended up completely blacking out the sky and drawing my own motion blurred clouds behind the light post. I also added a few feet of water to the left to give the dock some breathing room from the edge of the composition. In the end, following suite of my previous creations, it received the dramatic title of "Tomorrow’s Whisper."
Enhance the Mood and Create Your Vision
One of my most fruitful single day of capturing shots was when I was without my trusty Canon 6D and was using our third body, the older Canon T3i. This cropped sensor meant my only wide angle, a Tamron 10-24mm would let me take advantage of the lens’ full 10mm of wideness. Even though the lens fit fine on our full-frame cameras, it would show the inerts of the lens anywhere beyond 14 or 15mm. This shot of the French Castle had a great leading line that swooped right to the castle. Nothing was too great about the original shot. The mid afternoon flat blue sky would have just made this another OK shot, but the contrast and heavily light sculpted final product stands out.
Do Some Experiments and Have Fun
No matter what kind of photography you specialize in, there are norms you’ve probably been following or styles you strive to replicate. Find ways to still create for your aesthetic, but maybe from a completely different angle. Flank it. Shoot the hook shot.
In the below shot titled "Equal and Opposite" there was a conscious decision to make the water a light source to accentuate its glass-like surface from the long exposure.
My first "Toronto Skyline" barely had Toronto visible at all but it was my first stark high-contrast horizon.
Don’t Go out of Town and Come Back With the Exact Same Photo Everyone Gets
After filling a memory card walking the streets of Chicago I needed a way to show off some of what I had captured in a way that stood out against the thousands of active,and talented photographers based there. This photo titled "Now More Than Ever" was a decent capture. But until the edit focused on the visual tension between the street level graffiti and the shiny corporate Trump Tower, the photo wasn’t post worthy to me.
Shadows Are Your Friends
Finding interesting shadows has been near the top of great things to photograph forever. The HDR craze of 2008 threatened to remove them from popular photography all together, but logic and good taste prevailed. This building I saw during my self-guided tour stood out because of the harsh sunlight it was catching just above a completely shaded section. The light had a very common chart looking upward slope leading to the photo’s title "Trending Upward."
The last photo I’m sharing was actually a do-over of a previous favorite. Buffalo City Hall has a tall obelisk called McKinley Monument right in front of it. Lining up this monument with the picturesque art deco city hall behind it is a classic shot. My creative freedom on the edit led me to brighten the foreground and really make it the main subject of the shot. In case you are not tired of my titles yet, this one is called "Seeing Things My Way."
Now that I feel less restricted, I use the same approach on other less experimental work too. I really think practicing with outside-the-box editing can help you find ways to stand out from the vast sea of talented photographers out there today.
Have you done some experimenting with edits or something else off of the beaten path? I’d love to hear about it. Up the same alley, be sure to check out the article "The Art of Overcoming a Creative Block as a Photographer" by Fred van Leeuwen. I think any form of breaking up the monotony helps you grow as an artist. Outside the comfort zone is where the magic happens.
Check out some more photos below that threw out the rulebook.
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