Creative Constraints are Freedom: Abstract Street Photography by Maarten Rots

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Restricting to open up. How less can be more when going out to shoot.

I am strongly convinced that creating restrictions leads to more freedom and development when it comes to creativity. This may sound very counterintuitive but I have experiences to back up my claims. I just finished an intense week of photographing which led to an exhibition opening last night. It was a great experience and I would like to share some of the things I came across and learned during this week.

I think we all know how it sometimes can be hard to go out and shoot. We’re all very good at coming up with excuses and it can be tough to break the cycle of non-activity. Next to that it may sometimes feel like we’ve gotten used to a certain way of working which slows down our development so much that it feels like we got stuck and keep coming home with different but the same photographs time after time.

Work within a frame

What I like to do to work around this is to set up some rules and make agreements that involve others to push myself a step further. This past week I did exactly that, really enjoyed it and think this can be of help to others as well.

My project

I came up with the plan to shoot within a 1000 meter radius only, then pick one photograph each day to be printed and finish up the project by showing the outcome in an exhibition. I pitched the plan – Siting: Qlick Editions – to the nice people of photo gallery Qlick Editions in Amsterdam who were very enthusiastic about the idea and we set a date for the project to happen. As the moment to start came closer I made sure I had nothing else going on during this week and dropped all of my other routines so I could fully focus on this one-week project.

Each day of the past week I walked through the area, accompanied by my camera, for about 8 to 9 hours and would come back into the space to make my selection. Not always an easy task, but very rewarding as the photo would be printed and delivered to the gallery the next day. As you may know from your own experience it can be very tough to choose that one photo on the day you took it. That’s why I worked together with Eric: every day I would send him my final selection of around 8 images and he would get back to me with constructive criticism; very helpful in order to get to the pick of the day.

I also devoted a blog to this project on my website so anyone interested could be really involved in the process. I attempted to keep it as open as I could by sharing a lot of the images that did not make the cut, to give some insight into my way of working. Also I used geotagged images to place on a google map to make it possible to see where each image was taken.

I developed this project with the intention to explore different areas in different cities all over Europe and hopefully on other continents as well.

My experiences

Restriction leads to digging deeper into the possibilities that are at hand which may lead to some exciting new discoveries. I truly believe you can find beauty and interesting subject matter anywhere as long as you force yourself to look for it. By limiting the area to work in I did just that and it really gave me a clearer idea of what I’m looking for when I go out searching for interesting photographs. I had to look harder, but also learned to faster recognise the situations that trigger my attention. I had to pull myself through moments when I felt nothing was good enough and exterminate the fear of ending up with a shit picture getting printed. I had to go on when the weather was not as I prefer it when I go take pictures and learned to shoot when it’s a rainy day. I narrowed my scope but didn’t become closed minded, this project actually opened my view and made me see (and capture) things I wouldn’t have seen a month ago.

Make decisions

Dealing with the time constraint is a challenge but it keeps you from procrastinating to make decisions that have to be made regardless. Most of the time it really doesn’t help to postpone a decision. Do it now and you are relieved of one more thing that’s in the back of your head messing with your focus and concentration.

Develop your own project

I don’t think the boundaries I set myself are necessarily the right ones for you. Restriction can come in many forms and it’s only a matter of applying one or more simple rules to your workflow. For example shoot only between 6 and 7 am, use only one camera and one lens (less really is more and healthy for your back and wallet as well), shoot only in portrait orientation, shoot only one photograph of each scene (edit before shooting) etcetera.

Also think about restricting yourself in the process that follows a shoot: choose the one best image within an hour after coming home, don’t crop any of your images, make a print of your favourite image once a week and hang it someplace where others can see it (or give it away, people love getting a printed image). Involving others is a very good way to keep things going and stay sharp anyway!

Change it up

I believe setting up rules is a very effective way to boost your creative qualities, but it only works when you change it up. Don’t stick with the same rules and restrictions forever, in the end the most important things is to enjoy it and shed a new light on your photography.


By restricting you have less to worry about and more energy to focus on what you really want and love to do: make better pictures. It makes you look for other ways to achieve the result you have in mind. It also forces you to get better at working with the smaller amount of tools and possibilities you have left. You will learn to exploit what you have at hand and become better at what you do.

Go for it, I’m sure you will get something out of it!

About Maarten

Maarten Rots is an artist working with photography based out of Amsterdam. In his photographs you can see a sense of abstraction and surrealism found in everyday situations, captured by the camera. He loves printed photography and one of the ways he shares his work is through his self-published quarterly photography magazine March & Rock.

The exhibition with the results of his one-week project Siting: Qlick Editions will still be on show during the coming week atQlick Editions in Amsterdam.

Follow Maarten on Instagram: @maartenrots