Photography is one of the most accessible forms of art available to us today. With the rise of smartphones, almost anyone can capture a moment and share it with the world.
But there is a difference between taking a snapshot and taking a photo. The former is simply an account of what happened, while the latter is an expression of the photographer’s vision and creativity. To really take a picture, you have to give yourself permission to play with your camera and experiment, and accept that sometimes you fail.
When we learn a new skill, we often feel the pressure to get it right on the first try. We are afraid of making mistakes and we worry about what other people will think of us if we fail. But the truth is that failure is an essential part of the learning process.
Every great photographer has made mistakes, taken bad shots, and experienced moments of self-doubt. The difference between them and someone who gives up is that they didn’t let those failures stop them from experimenting and pushing themselves to improve.
So if you want to take your photography to the next level, you have to give yourself permission to play. That means making time to experiment with your camera, try new techniques and styles, and take risks. It also means accepting that not every shot will be a masterpiece, and that’s okay. The more you play, the more you learn and the more your skills will grow.
Create a challenge
One way to give yourself permission to play is to set yourself a challenge. Choose a theme or a style you want to explore and give yourself a certain amount of time to take a series of photos.
For example, you can challenge yourself to take 10 black and white street portraits in a week or create a series of abstract images using only natural light. Setting a specific goal gives you a framework to work within, but also gives you the freedom to experiment and play.
I wanted to capture some creepy vintage looking paranormal footage of haunted ghosts. Using techniques like double exposure, with vintage wet plate look. My camera Sony A7RIII does not do a double exposure in the camera, so I had to be creative. I used two different 80mm lenses to capture the original footage, the Sony 85mm portrait lens (beautiful dreamy sharp images) and the Lensbaby Sweet80, soft, hazy, dreamy ethereal images). I then blended them in Photoshop and added some Nik analog effects also with the Double Exposure, added the Weplate look, some light leaks and dust and scratches.
Breaking the rules
Another way to give yourself permission to play is to break the rules. Photography has a set of conventions and guidelines that we are often taught to follow, such as the rule of thirds or the importance of sharp focus. Sometimes breaking those rules can lead to more interesting and dynamic images.
Try deliberately breaking a few rules on your next photo shoot and see what happens. For example, you can deliberately blur your subject to create a sense of movement. Or you can frame your photo in an unconventional way to create a more abstract image.
Of course, giving yourself permission to play also means that you are willing to fail. Not every experiment will result in a great photo, and that’s OK. In fact, some of the best learning experiences come from mistakes and failures. Don’t get discouraged if you take a photo that doesn’t turn out the way you wanted. Instead, take the time to analyze what went wrong and think about how you could do things differently next time.
I chose with my challenge not to get perfect focus, to deliberately miss the target. I wanted soft, blurry images that only hinted at a solid shape. From a professional portrait photographer, that is certainly breaking all the rules. I positioned my model and took a photo with my 85mm lens, then swapped cameras and lenses and captured my sweet80 shot, then moved the model out of frame and took the same photo with each lens with no model.
Sure, sometimes I liked having the face sharp, but old habits are hard, as they say. Try to get as sharp as possible this time. The 85mm was much better suited to this task. The Sweet80 failed at this task, but was perfect for the model shot.
Ask for feedback
One way to learn from your failures is to share your work with other photographers. Joining a photography community or sharing your work on social media can be a great way to get feedback and constructive criticism. Be sure to look for communities that are supportive and encouraging (such as our Photofocus community) rather than communities that focus solely on technical excellence.
The most valuable feedback is often the kind that helps you grow as an artist, rather than just pointing out your mistakes.
I was pleasantly surprised that my colleagues (and students) really liked my final photos. They commented on the fact that I don’t take myself too seriously and am willing to challenge myself, which often inspires them to try. Once I would belittle myself for not getting things perfect on the first try, but now I consider everything a learning experience. The good and the bad.
Giving yourself permission to play with your photography is essential if you want to grow as an artist. It means being willing to experiment, take risks and break the rules. It also means accepting that not every shot will be a masterpiece, and that’s okay.
By playing and experimenting you will learn new skills and techniques and develop your own unique style and vision. So go ahead, give yourself permission to play and learn and grow. If nothing else, it can be fun.