Does technical mastery stifle creativity?

One of my camera club members raised this question on our recent London meetup.

I was quick to jump in with, “No! no! no! Knowing what your camera can do is essential to be more creative!”. Ever since, I’ve been wondering whether he wasn’t right.

Why technical mastery increases creativity: becoming fluent

My initial reaction was based on the fact that you need to be fluent with your tools before you can use them properly. When you first start to drive it feels awkward and stilted. You have to tell yourself what to do with your hands and feet. You have to remember where to look. If you’ve played a musical instrument you will recognise the same feelings: to start with you are all fingers and thumbs until your muscle-memory kicks in and you can start to make the instrument work for you.

With photography you need to know how to use a small depth of field before you can use it to create background separation:

f1.2, 1/5000th, ISO100, 50mm, full frame

f1.2, 1/5000th, ISO100, 50mm, full frame

You can’t blur a waterfall unless you know what you’re doing with your shutter speed:

0.6 sec, f16, ISO 100, 50mm, full frame

0.6 sec, f16, ISO 100, 50mm, full frame

Much like learning an instrument though, the camera will get in the way of your creative expression until you can use it intuitively. Of course you can be creative without shooting off auto. But there’s no doubt that being able to use all the controls on your camera expands your options and opens your mind.

So what happens to us when we are at one with our camera? Why does it sometimes feel like it has got in the way of our creativity?

Why technical mastery decreases creativity: put the camera away

On reflection, I think that increasing technical skill can indeed get in the way of creativity and I was wrong to jump in immediately and say you need to be technical before you can be truly creative.

Learning new technical, composition or lighting skills means those ideas are naturally at the forefront of our minds. But you run the risk of putting the cart before the horse - putting skill before vision. You may find yourself of shooting in a particular style because you can blur the background, not because you want to. When I first got Photoshop I was as guilty as the next person of putting crazy filters on everything just because I could. Or when your kids first use a word processor they put every sentence in a different font just because they can.

When you are next out shooting, take a moment to think: am I taking this shot because I want to use a large aperture/a small depth of field/a low viewpoint/contrejour/juxtaposition (… insert your latest new thing here)? If you slip into this mindset you need to stop and be in the moment without your camera. Put the camera back in the bag, sit down and just look at what’s in front of you. What do you want to say? What can you see? What draws your eye? What do you want to remember? What do you want to show the folks back home?

Only then should you bring your gear into the process. Now you can think about how best to use the tool you have to realise what you want to say.

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MindsetEmma Davies