A huge part of my photo practice is not taking photos. Photography is an inner game. What comes out in our photography is the total expression of who we are, how we think, and what we see.
I realized a few years ago that to create good images I need to feed myself with ideas that really inspire me and help me grow.
Henry Miller describes being a writer in this way:
Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.
I think the same is true for photographers. We need to look outside into the world and find ideas that ignite our imagination and our energy.
Sometimes I find listening to music or seeing the work of an artist makes me want to pick up my camera and go out to shoot. Sometimes it’s something else entirely — things I read about, such as developments in science or nature, philosophy or personal development.
I don’t care where inspiration comes from, as long as I am always using it to develop my photography and enjoying this creative journey.
One of the great joys of life is creativity. Information goes in, gets shuffled about, and comes out in new and interesting ways. —Peter McWilliams
Here are some ideas that really made a difference to me this year, helping me as I traveled the world with my family creating new photo projects, and in my teaching of photography.
#1. New experiences slow down time
There is this idea that time speeds up when we get older. I mean it feels that way, right? When you were a kid, a boring wet Sunday afternoon felt like it lasted for days on end. Whereas now, time vanishes in a “who knows where?” kind of fashion.
But science tells us that this actually has more to do with familiarity than age. The more familiar we become with things – our environments, routines, habits etc – the less information our brain has to process, and this makes it work quicker. Hence time goes faster.
Interestingly, when we are in new surroundings the brain has more information to process, and this makes time seem to go slower.
I have found that it doesn’t have to be brand new places or brand new experiences that create this sensation of time going slower.
There are hundreds of changes you can make to your life right now that can bring in the new. Take a new route to work, visit a new area of town – or one of my favorites, go out very early in the morning or very late at night.
I spend a lot of time photographing dawn – not just because it’s pretty, but because there is rarely anyone about. It’s amazing to be up when people aren’t around – you get a totally different experience of the world at first light – the birth of a new day.
Similarly, I spent several nights this year going out at midnight to photograph the full moon over the sea. A beautiful and a totally new experience for me — one that is marked in my memory forever.
How many experiences of your experiences this week can you say that about?
It doesn’t matter how habituated you are to your environment, there are always new ways to experience the world and life around you.
#2. Bring the unexpected into your life with silence
We all know how important it is to not have a life so full of work and distractions that you don’t get time for yourself for being creative.
I recently came across a quote that puts a new dimension on why silence and having undistracted, unscheduled time can bring unexpected things into your creative work and life:
Silence is not only the space in which there’s no sound, but there’s no program. Nothing is there so that whatever is essentially unprogrammable can happen. How does anything new happen? In a world where everything is scheduled, everything is listed, everything is programmed, the first thing one needs is space… You have to be open.
It doesn’t mean something enormous will happen, but nothing can happen until you clear that space… Nobody has time to even receive anything that is actually new, including their own thoughts. —Ursula Franklin
Perhaps you want to create a new photo project, or are looking for ideas on what to shoot next – becoming quiet, and doing nothing, is always my first step. Stopping all the rush and busyness of life, and instead allowing your mind to wander instead.
Being quiet isn’t an absence of activity, but a whole other activity entirely. One where new ideas can unleash, without the distraction of your daily thoughts and habits that make your mind an often too-crowded place.
#3. Do it now. Often later becomes never
Last year my wife and I left London with our kids for a long-term travel/work adventure to teach photography online and create new photo projects.
When we started to tell people about it, so many people said things like, “Oh, I almost did that with my kids, but we never managed it.”
Hearing that breaks my heart a little. Because I know at the time the barriers to doing what you really, really want often seem insurmountable. I know. It’s easy to say — later, later, later. Usually when you have a better camera/ more time / more knowledge etc.
Here’s a thought, though — what if that magical time never comes and you get to an age when it becomes impossible. What will you feel when you think back about the obstacles that were in your path at that time? Will they seem that impossible from afar?
It’s rare that obstacles for doing something you love are totally insurmountable.
People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them. —George Bernard Shaw
Which leads me nicely onto:
#4. “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” –Jack Canfield
The subtle presence of fear is everywhere in our lives, including our creative pursuits – photography.
Think about when you are out and about and see a very cool looking stranger. I’d love to shoot him, you might think. But then something stops you.
Instead of plunging ahead and taking that shot, you might just freeze and walk away. Or you might get the courage together and shoot them, but you are so fearful that you don’t get close enough and are too self-conscious to keep going until you get the best shot.
Fear can inhibit our creativity in so many ways. It can stop us from going to full manual because we think we fear we’re not technically adept enough. Or we don’t wander down that road in a strange town because we aren’t sure what we’ll find (but we want to because it looks intriguing.)
Or perhaps our innate self-consciousness stops us from lying down on the floor in the street — it’s the best possible angle for the shot we want, but we feel weird with people all around us and we are worried about looking stupid. I see this type of thing so much in my workshops.
I believe that obstacles, for the most part, are actually just fear. Fear of the unknown, of making a mistake, of messing things up, of losing something.
Yet if we think that fear is just an emotion, I like to think of it almost like a mist, that if I can accept it, and allow it – all I need to do is allow it to pass through me and then on the other side is that awesome thing I wanted!
What we often think about when we are considering taking a risk is what we have to lose, but really shouldn’t we be thinking about what we have to gain?
For me in photography – it’s the shot no one else got!
#5. The magic of wonder
Awe for me is the beginning of everything with photography. I need to be in awe, in some way, of my subject otherwise it’s unlikely I’ll get anything that looks great.
It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering awe – it can be the small awe we feel when we notice a bee doing its busy work, and wondering how it has that innate knowledge to know what to do.
Or it can be some incredible evening light after a rainstorm, lighting up a beautiful valley. It doesn’t matter what fills you with awe because we are all attracted by different things. But getting yourself into a state of wonder of your subject will help to create more compelling and exciting images.
The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper. —W.B. Yeats
Look around with intense curiosity and you will always find subjects that will bring forth wonder and awe in you.
#6. “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working” –Pablo Picasso
I love this quote because to me it doesn’t matter how many techniques you have up your sleeve, how awesome your camera is and how well you know how to use it – you need to get out there regularly if you want to improve.
Don’t wait for perfect circumstances or amazing light – which is one of my weaknesses. I’ll tell you, though, that I have got so many awesome shots on days I didn’t expect to and had literally to shove myself out the door.
#7. “If you want something you’ve never had you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” –Thomas Jefferson
I really like this quote – because quite frankly most people I know, myself included, can get a little stagnant and habituated in our lives. As we get older we stop seeking out what is exciting and thrilling to us, we stop trying new things.
But if we love photography and making photos, then we are people who are excited by the visual world around us. We are mesmerized by beautiful light, interesting people, color, shadow, and shapes.
We love to find ways to translate this infinite world into the tiny moments of photographs.
We are people who see the world and not just want to pass through it. We want to explore and discover.
That’s what I have to remember when I am going about my daily life. To keep trying things I can’t do, to keep reaching beyond capabilities so I can evolve as a photographer.
About the author: Anthony Epes is a photographer whose work has been featured internationally; including on BBC, French Photo Magazine, Atlas Obscura and CNN. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Epes is also a teacher – writing in-depth free articles on his website. Receive his free ebook on the two essential skills that will instantly improve your photos, and sign up to his weekly newsletter providing inspiration, ideas and pro-photo techniques. This article was also published on Cities at Dawn.