Monday, May 23, 2011

Lensbaby and Creativity

The Path

A couple of weeks ago I was in a creative funk. I photograph nearly every day, mostly by walking around the neighborhood or the UC Berkeley campus and shooting what I see. While the changing of the seasons and even variation in weather every day provides some novelty, it seemed like I was taking the same shots over and over again. There are only so many angles one can shoot a daisy before the whole exercise becomes rather routine. I used to look forward to the next great shot each day when I went out, but now it felt like I was stuck in a routine. I needed a way out.

As aside: I post my best work on he photo sharing site Flickr. It's a great site and the community aspect to photography has unquestionably allowed me to improve a great deal, but there are some pernicious aspects to Flickr feedback. Clearly, the goal of posting an image is to attract attention, usually measured in the form of comments and faves. But to attract this attention, you are competing with lots of other pictures in thumbnail form. The size effect matters. Low key images filled with subtle details tend not to get much love as the details get lost in the thumbnail. On the other hand, brightly colored images with well-defined subjects get more attention even though they might be boring or even poorly focused at larger scales. The system leads to incentives to create images that translate well in thumbnail size. This, however, stifles the creative possibilities for some types of images.

End of Aside.

About 10 days ago, I acquired a Lensbaby Composer. I didn't really intend to buy a Lensbaby. It wasn't on my list of most coveted lenses. But I ran across a couple of images that were compelling and, in searching for how these images were made, found that they were shot with a Lensbaby. The ad copy for Lensbaby promises nothing short of opening up a new world of creativity. Promising improved creativity is certainly alluring but hard to deliver upon. There are tons of self-help books out there to unlock your creative potential. Most of these are a mix of common sense, platitudes, and some zen phrases full of apparent import yet devoid of any meaning. Rarely will these books make you more creative.

Photography creativity books are the same way. If you're a beginner, they can be helpful. Indeed, I really enjoyed Bryan Peterson's book Learning to See Creatively. Rereading during my creative lull was not helpful. Most of Peterson's advice is pretty obvious to an experienced photographer. For instance, while it is good advice to seek out unusual angles, get closer to fill the frame, and try panning shots, hearing this same advice repeated did little to re-ignite the fire of creativity.

But the Lenbaby is something altogether different. It creates a sort of radial blur around the subject of the image. Now one could do the same sort of thing after the fact with Photoshop, though it is a bit involved to create exactly the Lensbaby effect, but the difference is seeing the possibilities during the shot. By controlling the size of the aperture, you can control the amount of blur. At f/4, you get a small focus point and quite a bit of blur. By f/8, the blur is pretty subtle. I suppose if you stop down enough you get rid of the blur entirely.

Now why is this more creative? Well, it's just a technique so it's not per se more creative. But it did get me to see familiar things in an unfamiliar way. More importantly, by forcing you to commit to the subject of the photo in advance, you must think carefully about composition. Where this makes the biggest difference for me is in landscape shots of various ranges.

For instance, the sample shot at the top of this entry is a path that I've walked down many times. I've shot this path reasonably often and normally that's the subject of the shot--the path itself. Rarely are these shots compelling unless their is some sort of unusual atmospherics, like fog, to add interest. The Lensbaby requires that you offer a more detailed answer as to the subject of the composition. Simply saying "the path" won't do. In the case of the image above, the large oak trees on the right are the subject. And, in this shot, it is the first large oak tree with the extending branches that is the subject. Knowing the subject and thinking about the possibilities for new and unusual subjects really does enhance creativity.

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