Getting Outside of the Box

For several months and dozens of lesson posts we’ve been concentrating on the basics of photography – with occasional excursions based on “bending the basic’s standards, guidelines and rules“. I thought that maybe it was time for a reminder that the ultimate objective of this course is to learn to make creative images that reflect a personal style. Achieving this goal requires one to occasionally “think outside the box“.
I don’t know how to teach anyone to think outside the box but maybe an example or two might help. These are not examples of great photography. They are examples of the types of things one might try in order to create images that aren’t knock-offs of the same images that have been made & seen countless times. There’s no payoff  in making images that look like everyone else’s.
You now have the tools to make every image in this post. If you’re using camera motion techniques with floral subjects that’s a great way to start & to learn but you should realize that those images have all been done countless times. The question is – Can you apply that technique outside the box? Your mission is to explore strange new worlds, …. (Star Trek fans know all about this). After reading this post, upload some images that show us your new worlds.
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The genesis of this set of images is my disdain for camera club competitions – especially unenforceable rules coupled with rule-bound judges some of whom don’t seem to know which end of the camera is which. (PS – I was an ultra-successful competitor as well as being a judge; my previous sentence isn’t sour grapes but telling it like it is.)
I was no longer competing but still made a set of monthly competition images to share with fellow club members. One month was a themed competition with the theme of Still Life and a definition/rule that read

“Still Life – Two or more inanimate objects arranged by the photographer.” This seems straight forward enough with not too much room for interpretation. Or is there?

Predictably, every entry was some minor variation on the same theme and produced images like this next one that I made as the 1st in my progression of still life’s headed for “outside the box”  (or to explore the boundaries of the box). A friend, who was the club’s Competition VP, agreed that my opening salvo was in total compliance.

The still life competition ended up being not a photography competition but, rather, a flower arrangement competition. It was a variation on my complaint about portrait competitions which devolve into beauty contests where an extraordinary photograph of a homely male will lose to a ordinary (or worse) photograph of a beautiful female 99.9% of the time. It is difficult for viewers (including judges) to separate the beauty of any subject from the quality of the photographer’s work. Part of the reason can be explained by this quote by world famous photographer, Dennis Stock – “Bear in mind that a large portion of our critics, educators or historians cannot take a good picture or recognize one.”
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My 2nd step heading out of the box was this next one. It also got a “pass” from the competition VP but he was obviously surprised because the normal thought is “table top arrangements” when thinking “still life” (and I arranged these two leaves in a parking lot knowing this wasn’t the “standard expectation”). Nevertheless – two inanimate objects arranged by the photographer.

With a good judge, this one stood a chance once the “table top” mentality was overcome. Compositionally it’s good, it is simple, and it’s original (way more so than the 100+ table top arrangements that were entered). Unfortunately there aren’t that many good judges. Entering this image would have been “true to myself”. Entering the first would be “shooting for the judge”. When competing I did the judge-thing 90% of the time because I hate to lose – and the “true to….” part is why I ultimately stopped competing and have never looked back.
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Taking one step out of the box at a time, I next presented this one.

It might seem like a silly image, but I was carefully constructing my box – for thinking outside of. I titled this one tongue in cheek – Breaking the rule of thirds – or is it? It got a quizzical look like “why would you?” but a pass.
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Now came a real test with three variations of the same theme –

Even though each of these built directly on the previous image and was done simply by zooming the lens the VP wasn’t sure whether they complied. Why not? Dunno. So, in order to think outside the box, I built a box – and boxed the competition committee into it. The message from inside the box was – “tradition….” (imagine hearing the Fiddler on the Roof sound track).
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And if the VP had doubts about the previous three images, there was no doubt about this next one (which he agreed followed every club rule regarding unaltered images and also the Still Life definition as well – but its acceptability was doubtful).
This is a double exposure (or could also be done as a montage – overlaying two images) – both legal in the club’s rules (but not all clubs). Both are doable in-camera with some Nikon models such as my D300. It is a lot of tooth picks side-by-side. Imagine taking one shot and then flipping the 2nd over top of the first at right angles. Once again it’s two or more inanimate….
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So what have we learned here? – apart from my cynicism about photography competitions. If you want to distinguish your work from that of others, there must be something distinguishing (read original or different) about it. That’s where creativity comes in. However, depending on the audience, there may be limits. That said, the best audience is yourself. If you like it, that’s all that really counts. Finding an appreciative outside audience is just icing on the cake. Have fun with photography – and the best fun isn’t imitating your favorite photographers or shooting to please judges who regularly prove Dennis Stock’s quote above. Develop a personal style and shoot to please yourself.

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