on limitations as a creative tool

A few days ago Mike Johnston of TOP (The Online Photographer) ignited a firestorm of controversy by espousing that beginning photographers should spend a year shooting with nothing but a Leica, one lens, and one (black and white) film in order to hone their skills of observation, composition, and vision. 

This generated such a slew of comments he had to write two followups, clarifying his position.

Now, without starting my own debate, I agree with what he is saying – and it got me thinking.   Essentially this exercise boils down to the value of limitations as a teaching and creative tool. 

Nowadays taking a photograph is easy.  Point and Shoot, nothing too it.   But we don’t want to just take photographs.  We want to take *good*, nay *great* photographs.   And *that* is very, very hard!  And often,  the very things that make it easier to take a picture, make it harder for the beginner to take a Great picture.  They become crutches, and the learner goes along relying on said crutches which is fine for a while, but hamstrings him when it is time to “move to the next level” as it were. 

And I think that much as Mike is saying – a great way to move past these hurdles, is to actually impose limitations on ones own work.  Limitations force us to figure things out.   They don’t allow us to rely on crutches.  The make us use skill to compensate for limits.  And of course, no one is saying you have to limit yourself forever, but it can be a valuable teaching tool.  On this very blog, I’ve espoused taping up your zoom to a single focal length to improve your compositional skills and learning to “see” in a particular length

I’ve espoused shooting a whole roll of film in a single enclosed space to force yourself to look beyond the obvious and find images outside your comfort zone. 

And yes, I’d even say it’s not a bad idea to spend an entire year shooting with nothing but a leica and a single lens. 

These things are all limitations – self imposed limitations – but they all serve the same purpose: to push us beyond our reliance on the camera as a tool, to force us to use our eyes and our brain to compensate for the shortcomings of our gear rather than our gear compensating for the shortcomings of our eyes!

So before you knock it, try it.  Stick on a prime lens and shoot with it instead of a zoom.  Turn off your autofocus and auto exposure.   Heck, put on an old manual lens that won’t do ttl metering and use the sunny-16 rule to train yourself to estimate exposure.  And shoot with a leica for a year. 

It’s the limitations that we impose on ourself that train us to overcome the limits that our gear imposes on us. 

4 thoughts on “on limitations as a creative tool”

  1. First…

    Okay sorry, had to do it. Anyway….

    I agree with about half of this. I have worked at a university teaching freshmen to senior college students for my faculty adviser. I have created lesson plans and taught lectures and I see a lot of benefit for doing this. I taught a freshmen news writing class for visual productions and would only allow my students to use 100 words. No more and actually no less, well give or take a couple of words. Anyway, by doing this, it forced them to create short, news bites. These are very important as they grab the viewers attention. It forces the student to decide what is important and how to express it. However, it is far from what is needed in the real world.

    Flash forward three years and I find myself producing some Video News Releases (VNR). I just started my own agency and was consulting for some decent paying clients. I had just enough budget to hire a pair of writers to help create the copy. Neither of them had a lot of experience, one was fresh out of college and one was about a year out. Neither of them could hobble out a decent script longer than a 150 words. I ended of firing them both and hired a production manager and did the writing myself.

    There is a problem with setting limitations, specifically for longer periods of time. When the limitations are removed, you can’t always thing beyond them. This becomes critically important when the job requires you to remove them.

    If you do make it as a photographer, you are not likely to get work that would allow you to use a Leica film camera with a 50mm lens and shoot in black and white. If you have thought that way for a year, your not likely able to move beyond it.

    Lets rewind back to when I was TAing. After about a whole semester of teaching a bunch of sophomores how to do 100 word sound bites I was pretty sick of it. I as asked to take over on the next in the series of classes. Essentially it was the same but with more advanced production techniques. I was sick of counting to a 100. So I let them go. Frankly, what they produced was horrible. It was really bad. My faculty adviser got wind of it and told me to get back to the syllabus.

    Those two experiences taught me two very important things. Limitations are good. Learning only to work in limitations is bad. I see nothing wrong with a photographer spending a couple of weeks or months with a Holga, or a Leica, shooting black and white. Learn the challenge, understand how it limits you, but helps you. Then move on to a new challenge. Constantly find something to challenge you. Maybe you are a horrible black and white photographer, maybe you would be a genius if you had a D300 with a few expensive telephoto lenses. By limiting yourself for so long you do one of two things, you can either learn a lot, or you can get sick of it. I would rather someone find something they are good at then learn to deal with a bunch of false limitations.

    I think I’m going to sum this up with a chapter from my life, where I made a mistake like this. During high school I was primarily a musician. I at one point was a nationally known and ranked cellist. When I got to my senior year I spent hours and hours working only on the Back Cello Suites. To me, and most cellist, they are the holy grail of cello music. I spend anywhere from 40-60 hours a week practicing. My first cello suite was amazing and won awards. Then my big break came, an orchestra offered to have my play a concerto with them. They gave me two options, the Elgar or the Shostakovich. I was no way prepared for them. I spent a year limiting myself to the Bach Suites. They taught me nothing about how to play the Elgar, let alone the Shostakovich.

    So that sums it up. I would rather a photographer constantly be extending themselves so that when the big break comes, they won’t fail.

    I think what it really comes down to is a bunch of inexperienced photographers creeping in on the territory of “experienced” photographers. Stop pissing on trees and starting learning to extend yourself as a photographer.

    I am not singling anyone out with that last comment.

    1. Stephen, I hear what you are saying, but let me offer another perspective… I think you are looking at it from the perspective of an experienced artist, not as a beginner. Consider your musician analogy:

      How much time did you spend when you were learning practicing scales, or fingering technique or all those other “limited” but crucial fundamentals.

      Now let’s say that there is a magic instrument invented, say a piano, where all you have to do is press a key in the right octave and it plays the “correct” note for you. Now let’s say we have a new musician learning to play the piano – he this this new piano is great! a few keypresses and he can crank out a pretty good rendition of Mozart. But now he’s frustrated. He sees that his playing, while technically “correct” is lacking something. “Why doesn’t my piece sound like when Vladimir Horowitz plays it?” he wonders… so he gets a different piano. Then he tries playing Beethoven instead, or Chopin. But still he finds “something missing”

      Finally some “old fart” tells him: try playing some scales. So he goes back to the basics. He learns the proper fingering positioning, he plays scales until he can run up and down the keyboard without thinking. he learns how to use the pedals etc… (apologies if I’m butchering my music terminology, I’m not a musician 🙂 And he practices these exercises over and over and over.

      Now he goes back to playing Mozart – except now, when he’s playing he doesn’t have to think about hitting the keys. Instead of worrying about the “right note” he’s thinking about the emotion behind it, he’s thinking about the phrasing, the intonation… all those subtleties that separate great playing from merely “technically proficient” playing. Why? because of all those “basics”.

      Anyway, I think the analogy is clear – these exercises are about training the basics (and Mike’s example may be a bit extreme, but…) – the things that technology cannot ever replace – things like seeing light and shadow, like composition, tonality, anticipation. These are the things that separate a great photograph from a “technically proficient” one, and are things that no amount of technology will ever be able to reproduce. No camera will ever be able to anticipate “the decisive moment” no matter how advanced it is.

      Nowadays it’s easy to make a “technically proficient” picture thanks to technology, but the other edge of that sword is that it makes it equally easy to let those critical skills fall by the wayside. These types of exercises are about stripping away the non-essentials and practicing the fundamentals. That way when you bring the bells and whistles back in, you can truly utilize them in a conscious fashion rather than as a crutch.

      Does everyone need to do this? Of course not. But for lots of folks who are searching for that “next level” sometimes going back and working on the basics can yield the greatest results. I certainly don’t think its about anyone worrying about creeping in on territory… certainly not for me – I write this blog solely for the purpose of sharing whatever knowledge/experience/opinions I have to help folks make better pictures, as so many more experienced photographers have helped me over the years. cuz in the end that’s what it’s all about – making better pictures!

  2. I agree with the original premise, and with Stephen. I’ve been planning a few self-imposed limitations in hopes of stretching myself. But any exercise like this can be overdone, and that leads to staleness.

    One the other hand, if anybody wants to give me a Leica, I’ll suffer with the possible staleness that little “limitation” might cause.

  3. See, the problem is the example is not just a bit extreme, it’s a lot extreme. Don’t get me wrong, buy me a Leica rangefinder any day.

    Let’s go back to my music example. I have taught cello as the occasion arises and usually beginners. Now, there are two general philosophies in music teaching, they are the Suzuki method, and then everyone else. Yes it really does fall on those two lines and I teach both.

    The Suzuki method is most like the example provided here. Restrict the learner, use rigorous scale and fingering exercises and use music that simply reinforces that. It is a great program that has churned out a lot of wonderful musicians. However, mainly it churns out young students that are competent musicians but who are bored stiff of what they are doing. If they make it past that initial 6 years or so, they can become good but are usually ill equipped to capture a musics essence.

    The method I end up using is a mixture or scales and fingerings and combining music that will capture a students heart. Now, which one is harder, well it can go either way, but the latter requires more discipline and effort buy the student.

    This is the problem with using extreme examples. He claims it helped him, and it probably did. I think of it as the Suzuki method of photography. For the most part it will create a bunch of stiff and stale photographers. What works better is to combine rigorous exercises with projects that inspire.

    So there you have it. I don’t mind self imposed restrictions. That’s fine, so long as it doesn’t stop the learner from becoming inspired. Once you start doing something like photography, and it becomes boring, you are doing it wrong. If you can spend a whole year with a Leice or any other simple Black and White Camera and never get bored, good on you. But if you find the limits simply uninspiring and only limiting. Well by all means find another way of doing it.

    Now to this is all said with one great caveat. If doing any exercise makes you stale, it should never be done.

    Once again, sorry to be the voice of opposition, but I think this attitude of not using modern technology is wrong. I think modern technology is there to make us better. If we can’t become better because of the modern technology, we are doing it wrong. If we learn to rise above it and let it do the things we no longer have to think about, then it’s a good thing. We can focus on new things. That’s true creativity.

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