Dubai, 2014
Dubai, 2014
Dubai, 2014

I always thought to myself: the day I had unlimited money, unlimited time, and unlimited cameras was the day I could truly be creative.

Funny enough, I found out that wasn’t the case. Out of all photographers I’ve met, the ones that are most creative are the ones that are strapped on resources– the ones that have constraints.

For example I met a photographer named Julie Eirich in Berlin a few years ago. When she was in university studying photography, she was dead broke and had a cheap Yaschica TLR and could only afford to take one photograph a day (medium format film). So she would carry around her camera dutifully, and only take one photograph a day when she thought it was really really worth it.

She ended up creating a really strong body of work while in Korea, all from her constraints– both in terms of her finances, and her gear (she only used one camera).

I once read a quite on creativity: “To step out of the box, you must first step into the shackles”. Meaning, to step out of the box and be creative, you must first lock yourself up into shackles (chains).

I have found that it is hard for us to have all the time in the world. Even though I am a “full time photographer”– I still find if hard to make time to shoot. I also sometimes make excuses to myself: I don’t have enough inspiration, not enough cameras, lenses, etc.

However I’m starting to realize more and more that it is constraints which really inspires us to be creative.

There is a saying in Vietnamese I learned: “From hunger, emerges the wise”. This kind of goes in saying with Steve jobs, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” It also goes with the saying, “Hunger breeds sophistication”.

I think all of these meanings remind us: less is more. Having constraints in our circumstances force us to be more resourceful and creative.

One of my good friends Charlie Kirk used to work as a lawyer in Tokyo and quite hated his job. He worked a lot– but all of his frustration he would channel into his street photography after work. He had limited time, but he ended up creating a very strong body of work in Tokyo of beautiful women and strange people/moments.

Josef Koudelka is another photographer who really inspires me. He literally hasn’t had a “job” the last 50 years of his life. He has simply lived like a vagabond, only working on photography projects he was passionate about. He was constantly broke, borrowing money from friends, even borrowing film and darkroom time. He would crash on the floor of friends, and there are tons of stories of him even crashing on the floor of the magnum offices.

For myself, I also found that adding constraints to my photography has helped me be more creative. For example, I stick with only one focal length (35mm). I remember when I started street photography on my Canon rebel XT, I had a 18-200 sigma zoom lens. I thought to myself: this lens is awesome, because I am able to capture any moment possible. I thought having more options in terms of focal length would make me more creative.

But the opposite was the case. Having too many options in terms of zooming hurt me creatively. I had too many options. My images didn’t look consistent. And my “super zoom” lens made me lazy. I didn’t actually “work the scene” by taking a step closer to my subject. I didn’t shoot different angles (left, to the right).

The biggest change in my photography starting off was when I switched to a prime lens. By having a prime lens, it restricted the other focal lengths. At first I was frustrated by this, but I discovered it forced me to be more creative with my framing. Since then, I have stated consistent with a 35mm lens the last 6 years– and I think it has helped me tremendously. I now know my focal length inside and out. I know what my framing looks me before I take a photo (by lifting my camera up to my eye).

Another good example of constraints helping creativity: I am currently typing this out on an iPad. I find when it try to write on my laptop, I get too distracted. I have too many options of things I can do. The benefit of writing on an iPad is that I am forced to focus on one task at a time. My writing application (iA writer) takes up the full screen. There are few options for formatting or anything else– so once again, I’m forced to type.

I used to think with cameras having more camera made me more creative. But for me, I found it to add unnecessary stress in my life. Before I would go out to shoot — I would ask myself: which camera should I bring today? I would then have to stress over what cameras to bring. Eventually I decided on bringing all of my cameras. And of course this would cause my bag to be super heavy. And when I would actually be out shooting, it caused me to be tired more easily (bag is heavy) and also I would try to switch cameras when out and shooting.

I find the same to be the case when shooting both digital and film. I find it stressful going out with both a digital and a film camera. I’m not sure which to shoot a scene with. So I’ll try to shoot the same scene on both digital and film. But once again, this causes wasted time and more stress. Now what I do is this: I choose to work on a certain project on a certain camera, film, and lens.

For my “Only in America” series, I’m doing it all in color Kodak portra 400 film on my film Leica with my 35mm lens (only lens I own). Same goes for my “suits” project. However for my “Saigon diary” series, I ended up shooting it all on digital on a Fujifilm x100s and in black and white (albeit I made the choice to switch it all to black and white towards the end).

The same goes with traveling. I find having too many places to photograph hurts the photographic process. I end up being a tourist in many different places, rather than getting to know one place really really well. When I see the work of other photographers, I feel the best work is done in one certain location for a very long time. I know it is good to travel to be inspired, but the best photography projects can be done in your own backyard (over many years).

So what I propose with creativity in photography is this: limit yourself. Create artificial constraints. Realize that the more stuff you get rid of, the more you will be creative. Creativity isn’t having more tools, more money, or more opportunities. Creativity is about closing doors, and limiting your options.

So for me, I find myself being more creative owning fewer cameras. I therefore make it a point to sell or give away my cameras when I accumulate too many. I also try to avoid shooting any focal length that isn’t 35mm. Furthermore, I try to limit the amount of photos I include in a project (I try to kill my babies ruthlessly). I’m also trying to travel to fewer places, but spending more time in each place (to get to know it better).

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17 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know who said it but “Necessity is the mother of invention”.
    During the winter of 2012, I was working in a day job, stuck in the middle of nowhere with very few options for daytime photography in my lunch breaks. And with the daylight being so short, it was dark by the time I left work. So I had to shoot at night if I wanted to do any street photography. I didn’t want to drag a tripod around with me and I didn’t want lots of noise in my shots so to keep my ISO low I started pointing my camera at the only source of strong light – lit windows – and a project was born! I’m still looking through windows and going out in the dark far more than in the day.
    I also shoot with a 50mm prime lens. I don’t want to carry heavy lenses or more than one lens around with me. In narrow streets it’s not wide enough to get a whole window frame in and in wide streets or with high buildings it isn’t close enough, but it forces me to be creative – and to move.

  2. I love that you are tackling the creative process in this article. Everyone goes through it and it really sucks. I noticed in other articles you talk about having too much gear with too many options and that kills your creative process. The one thing you don’t mention is using something as simple as a mobile phone or even a disposable camera to help spark your creative process. By using something as simple as a mobile phone, I think one would be able to come up with better shots because they are not worried about settings, lens, or whatever.

  3. Thanks Eric for insisting on this point, I agree it’s vital.
    At the end of the day, the real advantage of the minimalist approach, 1-lens-1-camera, is that the equipment gets out of your way, you can focus on the shooting without second thoughts and minimizing technical distractions/mistakes. The camera should do what you think it’s doing, the lens shouls show what you think it’s showing BEFORE you take the shot. Switching field of view and switching operational modes guarantees that you’ll be focusing on stuff rather than the subject, and more often than not you will not anticipate technical mistakes. So, keep it simple. If you still need a bit of GAS from time to time, at least ROTATE through your equipment and never bring two of anything. Your neck/shoulders/back will thank you by the way, and the happier they are the more you can keep going. The best shot is always the next one.
    And just decide if you are shooting BW or color, for any given shoot or, better, for any given YEAR (life?). There’s NO way you can decide AFTER, no matter what photoshop would like you to think. Because you will be shooting DIFFERENT things in a DIFERENT way. Surf and turf rarely works in my menu…

    1. A photographer may very well be able to use more than one camera or just a single camera with a zoom. Not every photographer is bound to become so confused by his equipment options that his work suffers more than it gains from having the options.

      The “one camera, one lens” advice may be fine for some people but not universally.

      /

      A photographer may very well benefit by putting off committing to color or black/white until seeing the RAW files. Sometimes shots just look better in black/white even though the camera has recorded color and even though the photographer may have been thinking mostly of capturing the action no matter whether it will finally be rendered in color or black/white or even sometimes when the photographer was shooting for color but sees that the image is actually better in black/white, or vice versa.

      Sure, usually it’s good for a photographer to think in terms of color or black/white while shooting. But it doesn’t always work out that way, and there’s no need for a proscription against a photographer deciding later that the image is better in color or in black/white.

      /

      This applies also to cropping. Sometimes an image is made better by cropping.

      Yes, usually better to shoot so that cropping is not needed, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

      /

      Also, looking at playback (“chimping”). There are many benefits from looking at playback. And it is not a true generalization that well trained photographers rarely preview.

      Yes, there are many times when looking at playback or looking at it too much can hurt your shooting. But there are times when it doesn’t hurt and when it can be extremely helpful.

      /

      Another item of terrible advice about “street photography” propagated by Kim is this stuff about “marinating”. I addressed that in a post a while ago.

      Yes, some photographers may feel it helps to wait a long time before looking at their digital files or even negatives/contacts, but in the main, it very much behooves a photographer to see what he’s getting fairly soon – both for inspiration as one sees possibilities that can be used in subsequent shooting and also to see mistakes that can be avoided, as well as to be on the lookout for equipment or processing problems. Indeed, not looking at your results can leave you with months and months or years and years of files or negatives with quite unfortunate technical (not to mention, artistic) problems that could have as easily been fixed if the photographer had not been mindlessly following the mindless advice of Eric Kim.

      /

      Kim seems to equivocate over the course of his blogging. Sometimes he mentions that there are no hard fast rules. But usually he harps so much on these items of “advice” that they come out sounding pretty much like rules, or at least, universal advice anyway. It’s a lot of very very unfortunate unnecessary over-generalization, seemingly the result of terribly shallow thinking on the subject and motivated by the professional need to always present as a “teacher” of some sort, thus ever simplifying things for prospective workshop students.

      1. Ok, so Grand Minnow is so Grand that he doesn’t get confused with his multiple cameras. Good for him.
        Ask any great photographer out there if they mix and match…
        Ah, yes, they are not Grand.
        I definitely am not, and developing automatic reflexes helps me shoot better. But then again, it’s a big planet, there’s room for everyone.

    2. I agree that your back and shoulders will thank you. I did an aperture priority workshop with beginners last night and using zoom lenses really got in the way of using the camera’s settings creatively. It was really interesting. Just too much going on in their hands.

  4. Aside from the content, about the writing in this blog article: One does not need to insist on perfection or even excellence to note that it seems that Kim is barely paying attention to his writing. Here is just one example among many from articles rife with such examples:

    “Having too many options in terms of zooming hurt me creatively. I had too many options.”

    That’s not a mere typo. It’s an example of someone typing without thinking. And that’s not even the worst example, but just one that happened to strike me.

    My purpose is not to gratuitously pick nits with Mr. Kim, and it would be be hypocritical for me to begrudge him occasional lapses, but it is worth remarking that his very sloppy and childish writing seems to me to be a manifestation of the lack of careful thought he gives to the subject of photography itself.

    1. Okay. Are Grand Minnow (GM) and Giovanni Maggiori (GM) the same person? Their observations seem to always coincide and usually they agree. Though the writing styles differ this could just be a clever effort on the writers part to portray two different people. Hmmm…

      Also it’s ironic how Eric has become such a subject of debate on his own blog where he studies photographers. From the way Grand Minnow dissects “Kim” as he says, you’d think he is going to write a thesis about his fascination with taking to task almost everything Eric writes about.

      It’s a blog dude, lighten up!

      1. No, I’m not Grand Minnow, first of all because I don’t cowardly hide my opinions behind a nickname.
        If I disagree with Eric from time to time, I’ll say so. But no, I don’t share Grand Minnow’s antagonistic approach and I’ve told him once already that if he hates Eric’s blog that much, he should go blog himself…
        And, I disagree with most of Grand Minnow’s points above, though of course, to each their own….

    2. Grand Minnow, really: you’ll be welcome to rant in some other corner of the World Wide Web. Wide enough that you don’t need to pester this blog with your spiteful comments.

  5. Great observation! Strikes a cord as I’ve been lately in a dry spell and had been convincing myself I needed new or different equipment, that the creativity somehow existed outside of me. Thanks for the reminder to just get out there and shoot (thoughtfully)! BTW, found your site because of your piece on Atget – well done!!

  6. Professional photographers have to be creative and efficient all the time every time. Otherwise their living, the family they support is in trouble. And what do they do? They carry two cameras and a spare lens or two to make sure they get the shot and have the options if they need them. They chimp to make sure they got the shot and the exposure is right. Why not use the tools you have? They shoot raw to maximize their options in post processing. They crop if it improves the image they send to the client. They process the job as soon as possible and move on.
    Why? If it really is better to not do any of these things then why all those whose life depends on it do so. If you try to do the best job, shouldn’t you try to follow the best practice. If you can get better pictures some other way and therefore make more money as a professional, shouldn’t you do so?

  7. The idea of “constraint” is not something we know very well in the land of plenty. We are told that happiness and satisfaction come once we have all the things. As consumers we have the fear of buyers remorse. That once we purchase something the newer, faster, fancier version comes out and we are left wallowing in the shadows of our materialistic discontentment.

    As photogs we have the fear of shooters remorse. That once we get out on the street our gear will limit us and our work will suffer for it. That we will miss the decisive shot if i don’t have all our lenses or bodies with us. So we sit inside saying “I can’t go out and shoot. I don’t have (insert gear here).” When we do go out and shoot, our imaginations and creativity are so occupied with the thought of ”what lens should I be using” or “my work would be so much better if I had this lens/camera” that we are not able to be present in the moment.

    Until we learn that creativity comes from inside of us and not from our gear, we will always limit our potential.

    “There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” Ernst Haas

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