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Are You Getting in the Way of Your Own Creativity?

Published: 10/02/2020

Recently, I had a very interesting conversation with one of my coaching clients (let’s call him Jake) about creativity. Jake shared with me that he’s made a very good living doing real estate photography, including making a six-figure income over the past three years. To do that though, he’s shot multiple houses a day and quite often, shooting at least one day on the weekend; and while his decision to outsource his editing a couple of years ago made his life much easier, he’s still very tired! He came into coaching with the expressed desire to slowly start moving into shooting for interior designers.

So, I assigned him some homework aimed at gauging the type of shooter he aspired to be. For most of my coaching clients, this particular assignment is a lot of fun because they’ve never really thought about what types of images get them excited and going through the homework usually ends up making them feel more hopeful, if not purposeful, in moving toward their desired state for their photography and/or business. For Jake though, the assignment was a struggle. After exploring the reasons why, Jake shared that his ultimate fear about approaching designers was that he didn’t think he was “creative enough”. When I asked him why he believed this, he said that, after years of shooting corner-to-corner for his real estate work, he didn’t think that he had it in himself to be creative enough to shoot in other ways and certainly not creative enough to find the detail shots/vignettes that he presumed most interior designers would be looking for.

So, our session turned to exploring certain beliefs around the question: What is creativity? Jake and I ended up having a very provocative discussion on the topic and I found out that he had certain stereotypes about creativity and, it was those beliefs that were actually getting in the way of him moving forward to achieve his goal.

I thought that examining some beliefs--perhaps even myths--about creativity would make for an interesting post. So, here goes:

Myth #1 - Not everyone is creative. Generally speaking, this is the belief that I think truly limits a person’s capability. Indeed, whether it be a senior manager in a corporate setting trying to figure out ways to have her division become more profitable or a real estate photographer who’s trained himself to believe that shooting corner-to-corner is all he can do, I believe, with every fiber in my being, that everyone has some level of creativity, even if it’s just a spark that happens every now and then.

Myth #2 - Unless you’re doing something completely original, you’re not truly a creative. This is the belief that was most getting in the way of Jake achieving his goals. Creativity is not relegated only to those who can take a blank canvas, so to speak, and use it to paint something that no one has ever seen. If you look at a landscape painting and think to yourself, “I wish the artist had painted a few small birds flying off into the distance, in the top-right corner of the painting," then that shows creativity. In our line of work, finding a unique shot is going to be extremely difficult. That said, creativity can come up for us, in many ways. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of walking into a room and having a “gut feeling” that there was a great composition to be had there. Well, that gut feeling--and you can call it intuition or instinct--is creative thought. It doesn’t have to be an original thought for it to be considered creative.

Myth #3 - Creative thinking is all that’s required for creativity. Thought, without tangible execution, is simply thought... it’s mental gymnastics... Cirque de Soleil in your head! Creativity has to be manifested somehow. In the previous section, we talked about having a strong gut feeling that there was a great composition in a given space. Well, guess what? That gut feeling can’t be used as a shot on the agent’s listing! It’s up to us to make that thought a reality, in the form of a usable photograph.

Myth #4 - A positive, calm environment is essential to being truly creative. Hogwash! As the old-saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Sometimes, the stress of needing to meet a deadline and/or customer expectations is what causes us to look at things in a different way, which in turn, prompts a creative spark. One of the great stories in the history of product marketing happened with the soft-drink, 7-Up. In the late-60s, sales of the lemon-lime soda were lagging well behind the long-time industry leaders, Coca-Cola and Pepsi. A top advertising agency (J. Walter Thompson) was hired and given a deadline to present a new campaign. Advertising industry folklore has it that this advertising team was struggling and, with just a few days left to develop a campaign, literally had nothing developed for the client. Late one night, after days of trying to come up with ways that showed how 7-Up was similar to the cola giants, someone on the team asked how it was different. After a bit of back-and-forth, someone called 7-Up the “Un-Cola” and, with that, one of the greatest advertising campaigns in the history of 20th century marketing was born!

I hope this post has been helpful to you--especially if you’ve been recently feeling stuck, creatively. I also hope that you will use the comments section, to share a story of how you came up with a creative solution at a shoot, as it might inspire others to come up with their own creative solutions in future!

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.

7 comments on “Are You Getting in the Way of Your Own Creativity?”

  1. The other part of the Un-Cola was the upside down "cola" glass. I wish I still had some of those. A perfect example of taking something and turning it on its head.

    Myth #5, you have to do it all by yourself.

    If you are working for an interior designer, get them to talk about their thinking for a layout. If you can have them tell you what aspects of the design they built from or the story they are trying to tell, that could give you the light bulb moment. It's also tells you the images they are going to be looking for even if they can't take you to the spot and show you what composition they want.

    If the designer already has a vision in their head of the image they want, it's just the matter of cutting out the pattern rather than sketching it yourself. I think that starting out, that could be an ideal customer to have. Your job is more technical than creative at that point. It's REP inside out. With real estate photography, the subject is the container, not the stuff inside. With an interior designer, it's the stuff inside and the container is just providing boundaries and mounting surfaces.

    I occasionally have jobs where the cabinet maker or another trade is a client at the same time I'm shooting the home for an agent. When I talk to them, I get them to tell me what they see as unique or the main feature. I'm no expert on cabinetry so I'll take all the guidance that I can. If they want me to make specific photos of pull-outs and other custom features, I'd like to know that before I show up. The sales agent may want those photos as well but normally I'm not opening up cabinets to see what's inside so if I wasn't told, I wouldn't have known.

    If I walk into a home and something wows me, that's a detail photo or a strong subject to focus on. I remember one house (vacant, darnit), that was a lofted two story that had really stunning wrought iron work on the stairs and upstairs railing. I spent a fair bit of time just playing with different angles, depth of field, lighting. Since the house was vacant and I was by myself with no time constraints, I took the opportunity to experiment. I find vacant homes a great place to try out new techniques and explore the best ways to get detail photos. Nobody is looking over my shoulder or tapping their foot and looking at a watch. If Jake's new niche is going to be work for interior designers, using the opportunity on regular RE jobs to take a chair table and lamp in a corner and make up a story visually can be very good practice. Whether the image(s) is delivered to the agent or not is no big deal. It's just practice, to critique your own work and spot things you wouldn't have considered when shooting straight RE.

    It doesn't hurt to subscribe to some interior design magazines and take apart the images. Print is best as the photos can be cut out and pinned to a bulletin board for study. I like that far more than doing it on the computer. The images can also be organized and spread out on the dining room table, reorganized, deleted, restored, etc. Hopefully, you can find some good images to review. Standards are dropping everywhere.

  2. I've also found individuals or companies that do renovations want a lot of creative / detail shots and usually tell you some of the shots they want. Look for some of those types of clients to get you started on other types of shooting and 'seeing' creatively and not just corner to corner. There should be smaller/newer ones that are happy to guide you to get you going.

  3. Try the wealth dynamics test by Roger Hamilton and see if your a natural creative or not. Tony is spot on, everyone does has a level of creativity. The difference is someone who after a full day of being creative finishes the day off energised from the process Vs someone who is not naturally creative comes away from the process drained of energy because its not their natural strength.

    Most photographers i'm guessing are the former which is why they're attracted to the profession in the first place but many photographers are not too. But we all do have creativity. I do urge you though take the test, for a small cost maybe $100 these days its certainly worth finding out what your true strengths are.

    This test comes from an entrepreneurial perspective and Rogers work i've been a big fan of for many years. I went as far as to be trained it in all, without putting it to use as a coach in the end, but I do love this personality/talent/best role in your business type stuff and know it well.

    Be warned, if you take the test and your not a creative it can play with your mind being a photographer. But at least you know for sure and can work out how to best utilise your new found natural talents and what role you should play in your business due to that. You might actually be much better off creating & running a team of photographers, but not be the photographer.

    Good luck!

  4. I think much too much is made about being “creative”. So much so that it scares people. Few actually stop to define the term. My clients tell me I am creative but frankly I done see it. But I approach every job by first deciding what story the property has to tell and marry that with what my client has told me the want as the selling points. All photography tells a visual story and we just use the tools at our disposal to tell it. Each property I’d different. Some have architectural detail that need to be captured and God help us others you sure would not want to show any details. All you need to do is stand back and think of the story first. Then decide what tools you are going to use to tell that story. What light, what equipment, what framing and so on. You cannot approach each property with a preset approach or you will just force each property into your mold rather than let the property direct you. It is just a question of opening your eyes first and letting the property speak to you. But if you are shooting multiple properties a day that is really hard to do.

    If you are trying to maximize you return on investment rather than maximizing your job satisfaction, the demands of income generation can burn out any creative streak. A balance needs to be found or burn out can take place. I know when I was doing a lot of studio product shootin a few decades ago, I hit that point where if I had to shoot another beige electronic box I would attack it with a chain saw. So I started shooting travel stories for practically nothing since it took me back to my roots of photojournalism and gave me great pleasure and reinstalled in me the joy of shooting which had dissapeared over time. I still do this to this day. And it also developed a different part of the brain that can cross fertilize the property photography. So shoot something you are passionate about whether it’s sports or sailing, climbing or animals.

    I don’t think you can teach someone to be creative. You either have it in you or you don’t. It can be brought out. It is simply a way of making connections through subconscious inspirational. So starting to allow your gut to guide your thinking can help. But you can’t just race through a property so you can rush off to the next one and expect that your creativity will come to bear on the shoot by itself. It needs to be given the time and space to work behind the conscious mechanical mind. And we are all different in how creativity comes to us. But I don’t think it is something we can control. It is just a part of allowing the mind to find parallel paths to problem solving that result in an image or a series of images that communicate about a house or property. Of capturing the soul and nature of a structure.

  5. Peter.... well stated!
    As commercial photographers our first priority is to accomplish the purpose of the assignment. The purpose of the real estate photographer is to be first edit competing against other images to draw buyers to the house. Buyers have a limited amount of time and do their first edit by looking at pictures to choose 3 to 4 houses that will visit first. For me I analyze the buyer and I try to make my photographs for real estate match the first impression first view of the buyer as they walked through the house. This builds continuity and trust.

    The majority of my client base our interior designers, large subdivision track developers, high-end builders (building in the 750K to 5M range) and architects.
    Interior designers are most interested in capturing how the room makes you feel.
    Having worked the majority of my career with advertising agencies I can tell you firsthand that the word you can hear out of an art directors mouth or creative director is how does that make me feel or this makes me feel good or it's got a good feel.

    Like Peter articulated above you've got to be in touch with how you feel and feelings visually come from the subconscious. You've got to open yourself up and see the room but pay attention to what you're feeling and isolate what's making you feel that way then use all of your tools to maximize the aspect that makes you feel.

    One of my photographs recently for one of my favorite interior designers just passed over 1400 likes on Instagram. The bulk of the comments are that photograph makes me feel so good. For such detail really makes me feel good.

    The really fun thing about photography is you can control how a person feels with your imagery. I control how a person feels with all of my photographs. What they feel is created by me intentionally. If you want to know how I do this study Alfred Hitchcock. I had the pleasure of studying under his first assistant who laid out exactly how Mr. Hitchcock controls the audience of his films. It's transferable to still photography.

    Pay attention to how you feel, and maximize that with the tools of aircraft. Hint it's all about lighting and framing.

  6. Advertising photography is ALL about creative, nothing to do with documentation or details - and barely anything about features and benefits.

    A buyer enters the 'sales funnel' somewhere above signing at the title office. Our job is to ignite their emotion to draw them into that funnel. Emotion drives that decision. I think we can all take a lesson from one of the greatest and most creative advertising companies in history... How do they advertise their company? Here's Goggle's latest ad that ran during this year's Superbowl and Academy Awards:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xSxXiHwMrg

    I have yet to talk to anyone that watched it without tearing up a little. Off-the-chart creative.

  7. As someone who came from an art background, I'm always stumped by how many people are so drawn to defining art or creativity instead of just acting on their impulse or desire.
    Is Led Zeppelin more creative compared to the Metallica?? Is the local woodworker who makes fine furniture creative compared to a Catholic Cathedral in Rome?
    Who cares?!
    if only the top talented engaged in creative enterprises, then no one would. I'm going to teach you aa secret of great artists. They copy and copy and copy until they perfected their technique and then they start to branch out into their "own" style. But it takes YEARS. Do what you think is best while learning without ego. Dedicate yourself to your craft and abandon judgment of the product. Imagine a woodworker who judged himself by his first works. He never do it again. GO OUT AND FAIL!
    and learn some more. then go do it again.

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