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Tips & Tricks

12 Ways to Boost Your Creativity & Inspiration. Try Cross-Training For Photographers!

By Michael Henson on January 5th 2015

Cross-training, it’s not just for athletes anymore!

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If you’ve done much in the way of preparing for a sporting event or stared in confusion at your college requirements (Why exactly do I need to take calculus?), you’ve felt its effects. Cross-training is engaging in activities tangentially related to what ability you are attempting to improve. By engaging in these activities, your area of focus improves. This is why runners lift weights, weight lifters run, and accountants study history. In athletic cross-training, the process is physical. In the creative environment, the effects are assimilated intellectually. It’s not a passive process.

To successfully cross-train, you must know why you are doing what you are doing. Instead of passively engaging in something, examine the benefits provided. How does a different style of photography improve your portraits? How does reading a new book improve your style, composition, or process?

Photographic Genres

So, engaging in genres outside your specialty boosts creativity and inspiration? Yes! Here are some ideas to get you started…

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1. Take Stock

Look through your photo library. What category do most of your photos fall into? Portraits? Environmental? Street? This will help you understand your own preferences and tendencies better. Once you’ve done so, think about another type of photography to try. For example, if you’re a landscape photographer, get out and take photos of cityscapes or street scenes. Portrait photographer? Try product photography or a conceptual shoot.

As you begin, you’ll see changes in your process and the way that you engage your photography. There are countless ways in which working outside your comfort zone might change your approach. It is likely going to be different for everyone, but these are some of the areas that seem to be impacted the most.

2. Inspiration/Creativity

Engaging in different areas, you will have flashes of insight or ideas that you would like to try out in another shoot. You might see how the hustle and bustle of a street photo creates tension or tells a story and decide you would like to recreate that in a senior portrait session. Or, you’ll begin to see light a bit differently than you did before and start to incorporate “street-esque” (yes, it is a real word…starting now!) lighting into your product photography. If your memory is like mine, I’d recommend keeping a pen and notebook handy or finding an app for your phone that you trust to keep your newly minted inspirations handy.

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3. New Eyes

You will begin to see things differently within your sessions. Maybe the motion captured in some of your action shots inspires you to do something crazy with a wedding shoot. The bride in mid-spin with her dress floating around her like a cloud and her veil trailing behind her smiling, glowing face sounds like a cool shot to me! Perhaps, the patience required to capture a stunning landscape works its way into street photography and you recognize the perfect backdrops for capturing more decisive moments. Regardless of the scenario, you’ll see your shots, subjects, and lighting differently, and your creations will take on a life of their own.

4. Technical Improvements

Shooting more, things you used to spend energy considering will become second nature and you will notice a consistency that you may not have previously had. Your focus or lighting will start to be on point all the time rather than having the occasional missed focus or weird shadow. This might not be the most exciting or even the most noticeable benefit of cross-training, but technical skills are invaluable and by having them locked into your muscle and photographic memory, you can truly begin to devote time and energy to the creative process behind the photographs.

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5. Tangential Subjects

Random, seemingly unrelated…or at least only partially related subjects. There are countless photographers out there that are incredibly popular, wildly successful and don’t give a second thought to some of these things. However, in order for me to progress as a photographer, I have to put in time, energy, and study into these subjects so I have the best chance possible for success.

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6. Light

Photography is all about light. Studying the properties of light can open your eyes to new ways of using it.

7. Psychology

Understanding human behavior and thought processes are a vital piece of a photographer’s job. Knowing how to present a portrait or how a street scene is likely to unfold are invaluable tools to have in your arsenal.

8. Marketing

Massive corporations spend millions studying what color plastic to wrap around soda bottles and what music to play in the grocery store to get us to purchase more items. If we, as photographers, can learn lessons that help us market our photos better, why wouldn’t we? Not only that, but learning how colors, composition, and subject matter impact the viewer gives you a huge advantage over your competition!

9. Writing

Emotions, landscapes, battle scenes, love stories, and hope have survived generations because someone put pen to paper. Breaking down a story into its basic elements can be incredibly revealing. Applying elements that make something timeless, evocative, and inspirational can be revolutionary! Providing a senior portrait that embodies the story, passion, and potential of a student is the pinnacle of achievement in that genre. Capturing a landscape that inspires emotion will turn heads. Impacting our viewers is the goal…understanding the lessons found in writing can help achieve it!

10. Artistic Mediums

By studying art forms that have been around for much longer than photography, we are able to learn what works and what doesn’t. Is something timeless or a passing trend that will cause only snickers and derision five, ten, or twenty years from now? (Hello, mullet!) The rules learned here help us determine that.

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11. Painting/Sketching

These particular mediums are familiar and have been around since the dawn of creativity. As such, they have had thousands of years to establish rules and guidelines. From these mediums, we find our photographic rules like, the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio. The more you understand why an image captivates emotions and imagination, the more you can replicate those principles in your photos.

12. Dance

Look to dance, both classical ballet and modern, to learn how body motion, shapes, and postures evoke emotion or tell a story. Simply turning a hand, the flowing line of a leg, or a tilted head can tell a story that would otherwise be left out of an image if you don’t understand how these impact the viewer. What movements denote grace, strength, fear or hesitation? Once you learn these, apply them. Helping a high school girl with self-esteem struggles appear strong and graceful in her photos can provide her an eye opening and potentially life changing view of herself. Consistently doing this gets you clients, win-win!

Go Forth and Cross-Train!

We’re inundated with images day in and day out. Constantly bombarded by the mundane and cliché. We have an opportunity to change the course of our art, but in order to do so we must elevate our game. So, get out there! Cross-train until the mundane is behind you and your art is created from within. You have the tools…the rest is up to you!

Michael Henson is a St. Louis based photographer obsessed with everything creative. His photography interests span genres from still life to sports. When he’s not running around with his face to the camera or behind a keyboard writing, you can typically find a guitar in his hands or catch him out enjoying life with his family and friends.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Basit Zargar

    Great article

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  2. David Hall

    #6… it’s all about the light.

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  3. Christopher Fuller

    A really good read. I especially liked that research (I have to put in time, energy, and study into these subjects so I have the best chance possible for success) was involved. I think it is critical for beginners to read/view areas that can inform and improve their skills level.

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  4. robert garfinkle

    Cross-Training? Where does video fit into the picture? (whoa! was that an oxy-moron, jumbo-shrimp, paradox of a question or what?)

    Seriously, though video shooting is not photography, our hardware is definitely fortified / geared with the power to create wonderful videos (although it’s probably the editing (post-production) more or less that makes the video, am on track here?). Or is this really a different animal altogether…

    I do not want to distract from the article, just thought I’d bring it up. More and more, photographers are taking advantage of what their gear has and coming out with full blown, appearing to be professionally edited, productions…

    and, a weak attempt to reel it into the discussion, does video shooting help add to photographic skills?

    any takers in thought here?

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  5. Greg Urbano

    I was good up until the “Dance” suggestion!!

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    • Michael Henson

      Haha! I’m not suggesting you get out there and try to cut a rug, Greg. (Although, if you do, please video it and share it with me…) The way dancers use their limbs to convey emotion or message is something that can be applied in our photographic posing if you do portraits, conceptual photography, etc. Whatever your feelings on the matter, just let the music move ya! :)

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