Creativity and the Art of Slowing Down

By Geoff Harris

Working Your Subject: Maximising the Pictorial Opportunities

Variety, it is said, is the spice of life. And it’s true. Can you remember every last detail of your regular journey to and from work this past week? I suspect you can’t. Unless of course something extraordinary happened. Such as being kidnapped by a passing UFO or spotting a herd of elephants casually roaming across the motorway.

Traditional Dhow, Jambiani, Zanzibar

It's easy to be inspired photographically by travel, when new visual stimuli are in abundance.

Dull repetition is the…well, the opposite of spice. It's the porridge of life. Now don’t get me wrong. I like porridge. On a cold winter’s morning it’s just the ticket. But porridge for every meal? No thank you. After a month or so of such a restrictive diet I’d be dreaming of Chicken Jalfrezi and would probably sell my own grandmother to get my hands on one.

Another cliché from the same school of thought would have you believe that familiarity breeds contempt. And again there is a certain ring of truth to this statement. Photographically it can be difficult to get motivated by subjects close to home. Been there. Done that. Seen it all before. Next. But visit another town or county or, for those with a larger travel budget, another country entirely, and suddenly there are lots of fresh subjects worth pointing a camera at.

'Sycamore Gap' on Hadrian's Wall in the Northumberland National Park, England

This is one of the most photographed trees in my home county of Northumberland...

New stimuli excite the eye assisting the creative process. However, in a new location, it’s all too easy to become a photographic magpie, pulled to and fro by the wondrous variety of new, bright, shiny things in front of the lens. From personal experience, I know how easy it is to rattle through a memory card on the first morning of a trip, and then, sadder and wiser, realise that strict rationing needed to be enforced to avoid running out of space before the end of the day.

Foxgloves growing on rough ground near Sycamore Gap and Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England

...However, it's always possible to find new ways to photograph it.

So, lesson number one for today is to show some restraint in an unfamiliar location. Let the newness of a place work its magic creatively, but harness that creativity, slow down and direct it purposefully rather than blindly. A camera isn’t a machine gun despite the fact that you can shoot with both.

Lesson number two is slightly more subtle. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to visit a new location every time the urge to create a photograph takes hold (if you’re anything like me, you’ll get twitchy if you’ve not picked up a camera for a few days). So sometimes the familiar is all that there is to work with. The trick in this situation is to look harder. To see differently that which is seen frequently. To boldly go somewhere you’ve been before.

Leaf on a pavement in the village of Askrigg, Yorkshire Dales

Even the simple act of looking down can provide inspiration for a photograph

It’s at this point that you’re probably thinking that it’s all very well to say ‘look harder’ but, well quite frankly, how do you do that?

My way of doing this is simple. I don’t take any photographs. Or at least not straight away. Instead, I’ll wander round my familiar location first. Perhaps I’ll then squat down. Sometimes even lie down. Then I will try to find a way of looking down at the location from a higher vantage point. Essentially, I will try to see the location from all angles and in doing so, introduce unfamiliarity to a familiar place. If I’m lucky (and it happens more often than you’d think), I’ll spot something I’ve not seen before and only then will I consider making a photograph.

View of the Drake Stone from the grounds of Harbottle Castle, Northumberland National Park, England

Another Northumbrian scene, this is the Coquet Valley. It's a place I return to often and still find inspiring.

Actually, now that I come to think about it, lesson number one and lesson number two have the same message, only they come at it from two different angles. In both lessons the moral seems to be look first, contemplate and then and only then create the photograph. Which is satisfyingly neat and tidy and still leaves me time to try and work out just where that missing hour went this afternoon and why my car seems to have what looks like trunk-marks on the windscreen.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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