113 - A practical approach to the creative process

A practical approach to the creative process.jpg

Ever feel like just screaming when you download your photos from a shoot?

You wasted so much time fidgeting with your camera rather than shooting. And the photo you thought would be the money shot? You’d go broke.

To make things worse, everyone else from the same shoot is posting these amazing images. The whole experience has you wondering, "What am I doing wrong?"

If this sounds like you, I created a lesson for you that I planned to begin teaching today. But then there more I thought about it, the more I felt that to help you, we have to deal with a few issues before we even touch the camera.

Here is my practical approach to the creative process.


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When I worked at Canon, my philosophy about photography was sometimes at odds with theirs. Once on a workshop, I made the mistake of saying, "quit looking at your camera. The camera isn’t important right now.” I think I heard an audible gasp from my colleagues.

Canon's purpose is to sell cameras. My calling is to help you take your Canon DSLR and create images you’d be proud to show, share, or sell. To make us all the kind of photographers who can use our images to change our world.

But that process begins long before we touch the camera.


You are the creator

Without making it too grandiose, photography is more than just pics to me. We are creating. As a photographer, you have the power to create. Where something doesn’t exist, you can make something tangible. It will be there long after you are gone. Something that can touch someone. Teach them. Make them angry. Make them feel love. Make them remember. Make them think. You get to create.

So the first step is to think of what you are doing as creating. What do you want it to say? What do you want it to do?

I also learned this during a touching moment with my family.

There’s a reason they say a picture is worth a thousand words.


"In the hands of an artist, a camera is a powerful instrument. The camera has the power to teach, to show, to change minds, indeed, to change the world."

Kendra Okolita & Sarah Wilkerson, Click Magazine


How do we create?

My favorite turnaround story/client. Jake stood there and asked, “what should I shoot? What settings should I use?”

It depends. Before I can help you with your camera, you have to figure a couple of things out on your own first. Then I can help you use your camera to make the magic you envision.

We walked through this creative process. By the end of the workshop, Jake was creating amazing images. He was doing it all himself, and he didn’t have to ask me any questions.

To get the best results, you will ask the questions to yourself. That’s the creative process I want to begin with you today.


Creative Process.

Great photography happens in three phases:

  • Vision - What you see

  • Imagination - Ideas of what can you create

  • Technical translation - Bringing it to life — you and your camera

Too many photographers only focus on the technical translation and wonder why our photos are not interesting. The best photographers I know, have mastered the first two. Many of them have a basic understanding of their cameras. They know enough of the first two phases of the process to bring their photos to life.



There’s a saying - you can’t see the forest for the trees. In photography, your frustration comes when you only see the forest and not the trees. You should be looking at the trees. At the patterns of the trees and in the trees. Of the colors and texture. Of the sizes and shapes. And you should be looking for THE tree. Which is the tree that stands out to you? Which tree is your eye drawn to first?

What that means is to take a visual inventory of the elements in your scene. What are the parts of the whole? What strikes you as more interesting or consequential? What can you build around?

You can do this without your camera. Start doing this every day as you walk around. Start picking things apart. Look for what is interesting about them. About everything. Do it until it frustrates you not to have your camera.

If I had a camera, what would I show? What do I want my viewer to see first? What do I want them to remember?

This process is how you build your vision.

I can’t help you take a photo until you know what you see.



What you see doesn’t have to be what you get. You can start there and with some creative touches, make something even more memorable. You don’t have to eat the whole elephant in one bite. You don’t have to photograph the entire elephant with one exposure.

When I taught teen photography camps, we had a saying: The first place is the worst place. The first place you stop when you walk up to a potential subject is probably the worst place to photograph it.

How can you build your creative imagination?

  • You get it by experimenting. Try 100 images of the same subject.

  • You get it by taking more photos over time and seeing how your choices affect the final product.

  • You get it by looking at tons of images and creating a visual database.

  • You get it by wondering what if….

  • You get it by thinking about what you want to say. What story do you want to tell?

  • You get it by asking, “what’s the story?”

Over time, your database of ideas and images will grow. Now you have to learn how to make it work with your camera.


Technical Translation

This is where you pick up the camera.

This is when you can make good decisions about what settings to choose. What lens you will use.

How and from where you will take the photo.

This is where we will begin our lesson.