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The Beauty of “Creative Constraints” in Photography

Amsterdam, 2015
Amsterdam, 2015

My friend Josh White made a great point to me about cameras in photography: why is it that we as photographers always talk about the camera we want (that will apparently make us more “creative”) rather than using the cameras we already own to create art?

I’m currently re-reading “Letters From A Stoic” by Seneca in which he tells a story of a sculptor who was able to make a beautiful statue regardless of the material; marble, stone, wood, or gold.

I think this is a beautiful analogy for our photography. I think we can make beautiful art regardless of the tools or instruments we have. Rather than goading for what we don’t have, let us try to make the best with what we have.

I know a lot of photographers who wish that they had expensive digital Leicas or some other camera. But these photographers are better off using the cameras they already own and going off and making images, rather than wasting valuable time, attention, and energy into wanting what they can’t have.

The best example I think in street photography is the emergence of “mobile street photography”, in which photographers from all around the world are only using smartphones to make beautiful images.

But some people say: “Oh, but a smartphone isn’t a ‘real’ camera and that it has limitations. It has shitty low iso capability, you can’t print it big, and it isn’t as responsive as a ‘real” camera.”

But these limitations can actually help our creativity. They call it “creative constraints.” If your smartphone has poor image quality, then it forces you to only shoot in good light. If your smartphone has a slow autofocus, you can focus on just shooting people who aren’t moving.

Let me take this analogy further; let’s say your camera has a long minimum focusing distance (a Leica can only focus up to 70 centimeters). Sure it would be nice if it could focus closer, but that constraint forces you to be more creative with your compositions.

The prime example of creative constraints in street photography are prime lenses (sorry for the bad pun). By limiting your field of view, you are forced to capture reality into your limited frame in an interesting and novel way.

Also if you think about it, the art of photography itself is about constraining reality into a single frame. What you keep out of the frame is more important than what you decide to leave in the frame.

I recently got my laptop stolen in Paris, and I first was upset. But it is probably the best thing that happened to me, as now I’m restrained to doing most of my writing on my smartphone (I’m typing this on my smartphone as we speak). I’ve found the restriction of not having a laptop has helped me be more creative to use my smartphone in novel ways.

Let’s take this idea further: restricting yourself to either color or black and white is another great “creative constraint”. By only shooting in color, it forces you to try to make images that have good color combinations. By focusing only in black and white, it forces you not to be distracted by colors.

Another great creative restraint is by restraining the area in which you shoot. Very rarely are world travelers the best photographers. All of their photos end up being touristy “National Geographic” shots of landmarks in Asia and other “exotic” countries. A photographer who is doing a long term documentary project in his or her hometown generally ends up making more interesting photos, as they are forced to create more interesting images out of “boring” subject matter.

Creative constraints will set you free in your photography and life.

See what other constraints you can create for yourself, like only shooting one type of subject matter, or focusing only on one project. Strip away the superfluous and extraneous, and you will create beautiful art.

By ERIC KIM

Artist-Philosopher