Finding That Balance

I want to pick up the thread from my last post about finding the right balance between the conscious and unconscious mind in the creative process. This time, though, I will try to be somewhat more concrete by drawing on my own experiences in trying to find this balance.

I believe most people often find it hard to combine the two forces of the mind. Some have a problem using the rational part in the creative process and just flow over with inspiration without thinking too much about craftsmanship or technique – the conscious part of the process. For others it’s the other way around, they know all the ins and outs of using a camera (if speaking about photography), but lack the creative vision to bring a picture into being something more than a plain reproduction without any depth or emotional or visual interest (this is by the way where I started out long time ago).

In a more general perspective I think most people are able to somewhat easily learn the craftsmanship, the technique, how to plan and execute an idea – and yes, just learn. Some might find an inner inhibition or a lack of interest for this conscious part of the creative process, but they would have no problem doing it, if they decided to do so. On the other hand finding inspiration or opening up for the unconscious mind at will is much more difficult; it’s like being consciously unconscious. So let me start here, with some strategies for opening up the unconscious mind.

It’s all about letting loose, not letting the rational mind take control when creating. One trick to boost the unconscious part of the process is – again if we talk about photography – to put your camera on all automatic and let it handle the technical parts by itself. Then go out on the street or in Mother Nature or wherever you feel drawn to and start shooting without thinking. Whenever something makes you react, photograph it in that same moment without any analysis or considerations as to composition or technical aspects. Just do it. Or pick a colour and go out and shoot anything with that colour that makes you react – and shot the same way as just mentioned. Plain reactive shooting. Or go to an event where lots of activity is going on and again react with the camera. And don’t ever look at the screen on the camera to check what you have gotten, that turns on the conscious mind! Of course you will come home with lots of unsharp, badly exposed and uncomposed pictures. But by carefully looking through the whole bunch you will most likely find jewels and strong emotional loaded pictures that you would normally not have taken. Takes these and put them in your mental notebook for later use.

The more you do it, the more you train your unconscious mind to take control during shooting. How then do you get the rational mind to play alongside so that exposure and composition will actually be part of the picture? By training of course! But now you only practice the craftsmanship without worrying about necessarily making inspiring pictures. The more you shoot practising this part of the photography process, the more it will become ingrained in your backbones, too. And the more you learn and put into practise the more you will improve upon your craftsmanship. The point is to get the rational part of the shooting becoming almost as unconscious as the reactive part of it. Whenever you need to stop the process of photographing to think about lens or aperture or composition or light, you break the flow of the unconscious mind and you lose that very important part of the creative process. So if you are starting out as a photographer you will have to train each mindset separately and let time and practise make them merge together.

For writers, doing morning pages is one way to boost unconscious writing, but it’s also good training for photographers and everybody else who is creating even if they don’t believe they can write. It’s not necessarily about writing, but about getting those unconscious processes to flow and become an integral part of creating. For painters, starting to paint on the canvas without any prior planning and just paint whatever comes to mind is a way to practise using the unconscious mind. Again it most likely won’t end up being a masterpiece but it’s all about training to be unconscious almost at will.

This is often the hardest part for most artists, being inspired at will. We have all experience the agonising vacuum where inspiration seems to have vanished. And the more we try to make it happen, the more it just slips away. Inspiration is a play by the unconscious mind and you can’t really force it to happen. But you can make circumstances favourable for inspirations to come (for more about this I recommend the book The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice by Todd Henry). And to some extent you can push on by just starting to photograph, write, paint or whatever you do. I often experience when I am photographing and I feel uninspired, that if I still start shooting, at some point if I just keep going, the inspiration or the vision will come.

To round it up: My usual way of working and balancing the powers of the unconscious and conscious mind is like this: I will start to plan the project by doing as much research as possible. I will think about what kind of pictures I need to get and just pick up ideas from anywhere about how to resolve the challenge in a best possible way. This part is mostly conscious. Then the shooting starts and the unconscious mind takes over. I might have to force the shooting process into momentum by conscious control, but the sooner I can let go of the rational control the better, and usually when I get caught up in the shooting process, I lose this control. At this stage I don’t think about technique or light or composition, but trust my backbones so to speak. I don’t even think about all the research I did but let my unconscious mind play with it at the moment of shooting. It’s really all instinctive play at this stage of the process. Afterwards when the editing starts, I turn to my conscious mind again. Now it’s about analysing the result, to understand what worked and what didn’t work, so I can do better next time – and of course to pick out the pictures that will become the take of the shoot and sent to post-processing. And here again the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind starts all over again. But that will have to be for another time.

84 thoughts on “Finding That Balance

    1. A problem to turn the artistic eye off? I would think it would be a blessing, but I guess you are saying you might want to have a little bit more of the rational part into the equation? For me at least, emotional impact is more important than technical excellency.

      1. I mean sometimes I need to do other things Otto.. Like when I go into the garden to garden and get distracted by something I just HAVE to photograph.. then I get no work done !
        and I agree about emotional impact.. I think I am learning that I like to do a sort of photojournalism.

        1. I still think it’s great you have this kind of passion for photography. But I can see that it might get in the way if you want to do something else…

  1. Very well explained. I find most difficult to get inspired at will. Although sometimes having a glass of wine helps to let yourself go and wind up into creative juices! 🙂

    1. I am not sure if stimulations from alcohol or drugs for that matter, necessarily and in itself triggers creativity. But I think it might relax your rational mind and of course any inhibition you may have, so that the circumstances for creativity is improved. Or maybe I am wrong…

  2. Although I didn’t think it possible upon reading your previous post I believe you’ve improved in defining the point creative process here.

  3. Such an interesting topic…I call it developing the “inner eye”—somehow things happen when you are shooting and you don’t consciously seem them until later…so magical…

    1. It is indeed magical. The moment of editing is always a fascinating process. I never really know what I have gotten before I actually have time to go through a whole shoot.

        1. The way I work I rarely ever use an assistant. It happens during workshops, though, so if I ever plan one around your place, I will certainly keep you in mind.

  4. Thank you so much for this very knowledgeable information. This is how I approach my photography. I shoot the things I see sometimes without thinking. Something may catch my eye and click I photograph it. I take a lot of pictures all the time because I don’t want to miss what could happen. I have been very lucky in capturing some wonderful moments. The only downside I find is in reviewing all the photos I take, but the time is worth it because I am learning all the time. This process helps to train my eye. I have learned so much from your post for which I am thankful to you.


  5. Here you go again, reading my mail (mind):-) If I didn’t know better, I might believe you have powers that allow you to mind read…….because you are writing for the unasked questions I have… wanting to let go of the technical. I so appreciate your ability to put in words concepts that I can only understand when you write them in your blog. What a talent you have for putting into words what you have learned and what others, like myself, need help understanding. Thank you again for reinforcing that I am on the right track.

    1. Mind reading? Of course, what’s the big deal… Thank you for those wonderful words, that makes blogging all worth while doing. Looking at your blog you have quite talent yourself, so if we can help each other develop our vision and craft, nothing is greater than that.

  6. I love your suggestion for not looking at the display after taking a shot as a way to prevent the technical side of us from turning back on. Great post! (and photo of course) 🙂

    1. I think most photographers generally spend too much time looking at the display. You might miss that one picture while checking the last image you took. I have made it into a habit to only check once to see if all is fine, and then keep at it shooting without checking the display again before I am done.

  7. Reminds me of oft-repeated words from my old painting mentor, “Don’t think, just do”. These words were especially common when we were beginning a painting, to keep from getting tangled up in details and process. In other words, turning off that conscious mind you were talking about in this post!

    1. I think your old mentor was very wise. Instead of getting our mind tangled up in all kinds of thought, worries and concerns about what we are doing, just do it, and things will start to happen. Thank for throwing those words into the equation.

  8. You’ve done a great job of helping us understand and visualize the need to be able to balance the two. I will have to find “The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice” as this is not the first time it has been recommended to me.
    Thanks, Otto.

    1. Thank you, Michelle, for the inspiring words. “The Accidental Creative” is not about creativity as such but about making and encouraging that creativity to happen.

  9. Thank you for suggesting how to exercise ones creativity both in photography and writing. I recently started the morning pages and at times it feels like a waste of time but I ‘get over it’ and persist. 🙂

    1. Morning pages are quite a challenge, but if you keep at it, eventually you will see the value, and not the least see some amazing ideas pop out of those words written without thinking. Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way” is of great help to keep the motivation high – if you don’t already have it.

      1. Yes, Otto, some days I completely miss the morning page, *sigh* like today but I will persist…sometimes it has to be evening pages!

        I recently went to a 1/2price bookstore & yikes, cleared the Julia Cameron books off their shelves…:)
        Have a great week!

  10. Speechless as always with your analysis of the workings of the mind in tandem with creativity and art. It is not just with photography, but with all forms of creativity.

  11. Thank you, Thank you… nothing could be explained well more than this, dear Otto, Your thoughts and experience are always so precious for me. Love, nia

  12. Well explained. You are right. Whenever we plan too much the end product may be just a technically perfect thing but lacking that unique touch of creativity – as you have said in one of your previous posts. This is very much so about writing, something which we all experience often.

  13. Love the debate you ‘create’ and as always enjoyed your analysis of the process. I do sometimes think that people stress too much about getting each stage (if there are indeed stages) of the process right. You can of course argue that the tech side has to be correct, may be so. But a creative appreciation and visualisation is very much an individualsown vision it should natural and allowed to be so. Yesterday we looked at a 3D art instalation. Some just loved it others thought it a wast of space…you could agree or disagree about the laws of design and balance with in the installation but as to liking or not, seeing as a piece of art or not, finding hidden meaning or not….well that is very much down to the individual.

    Look forward to your next Blog…..soon I hope

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, David. For me it’s not about getting things “right” but trying to understand and more importantly developing myself as an artist. And, yes, taste comes down to each individual, but again, for me it’s not so interesting what somebody likes or not, but why the person likes or doesn’t like a piece of art (in whatever form). It’s very easy to say “I like” or “I don’t like”, but by articulating whatever it is that makes you like or dislike, your learn so much more about your own creativity. Again it comes down to understanding and developing.

  14. Just about the time I think that my work sucks, not a very literary word but I like it, you lay down a post like this and I get drawn back to reality. I particularly liked the post. Now all I need is the discipline to start a project like that. I am living proof that you are never too old to learn. The gift is that I know that and there are people like you around to help with the journey.

    1. Nobody is every too old to learn. On the contrary, the older I get the more eager I am to understand. So yes, use that gift of yours, and keep develop your creative expressions. Thank you for the comment.

  15. Bravo! In the old (?) film era it happened me many times that the best pictures were the two or three I took just to finish the roll I had in the camera, for the very same reason: I was not thinking too much about the technical aspect of the photos.

    1. The same has happened to me many a time. Or even the first couple of pictures, before I started to concentrate on the task at hand. Thanks for the input.

  16. Excellent post as usual Otto. I think I’m very similar in my process…I like to plan things out before I go out on a shoot but not to the point that the plan is so rigid that I can’t let the unconcious take over. Then again sometimes the unconcious takes over more then I’d like…lol.

    1. I don’t think the unconsciousness can take over too much in the creative process. I know from your blog that you are technically savvy enough to still have some sort of control over the camera.

  17. Beautiful… I’d love to get to that place of balance someday. For now, I take a class here and there and take tons of pictures; some good and some not. 😉

    1. Sounds like you are on the right track. As a matter of fact I think we all work with that balance, it’s not cut out in paper, but a fluid process. Go with it and don’t worry about getting it “right”.

  18. Well written, Otto. It speaks to me about the spontaneity of the shoot. I know a photographer who is the opposite of this. He will spend several minutes analyzing the ‘subject’ before taking a picture. It seems as if he can’t let go of the conscious part of his mind. Personally i don’t find that works – and why not take images as you move around the subject. In the digital era there is no cost in a few extra frames.

    1. We all have different approaches to the creative act, but sometimes too much analyzing may destroy the feeling. I used to just shoot wildly, too, but now I tend to hold back a little with the trigger finger. It becomes a different process if you try to stay more alert and on your toes, instead of just relaying on the speed of the camera. Not better or worse, but different.

  19. I find your approach really helpful! I think I’ve spent a long time just snapping away. I have a good automatic setting and for a long time I simply thought that the best I could hope for was just capturing moments, and so I’ve done that well. And I think I’m very glad for that since I have hundreds of photos of the family in action.

    But this past weekend I took my first class. And now I’m really eager to learn some technical steps. I’ll probably “overthink” for a while, just because it is such a new way of relating to my camera. But I really do get your point, and see that the balance, especially for me as primarily the “family photographer” may be to simply increase my technical ability without losing the spontaneity. You always encourage me to think about the process, and to get excited about it! Debra

    1. Great feedback. And it’s only right to get more technical competent whenever you feel it’s time for it. Yes, maybe there will be a period of overthinking, but just push on and get those spontaneous pictures of your family.

  20. What a wonderful post, Otto – you have really gone to the heart of the matter. I love your suggestions for unleashing the creative side; I try similar techniques with my composition students for exactly the same reasons. Your description of your creative process is wonderful; not many are that aware of what works. And morning pages – I’ve been doing them for about twelve years and they have transformed my creative life. Now I will have to look for “The Accidental Creative” book. 🙂

    1. Thank you for a wonderful feedback. Writing this blog makes me learn more about the creative process myself – as does all the feedback. 🙂

  21. Godt skrevet! Inspirerende og lærerik lesning – takk for bok tips! (Har akkurat bestilt meg to av Michael Freeman; “The photographer´s mind” og “The photographer´s eye”) ; )
    Jeg planlegger sjelden fotografering, det blir for det meste spontane/øyeblikks bilder. For meg er den manglende tekniske kunnskapen en stor utfordring, “mister” nok mange gode bilder pga det.

    Ønsker deg en fin dag!

    1. Begge bøkene til Freeman er bra lesning. Kanskje noe teoretisk, men ikke desto mindre veldig lærerike. God lesning! Og takk for hyggelig tilbakemelding. Ha en fortsatt god helg.

  22. Otto, I’m not exactly sure were I find or calculate my own balance, I usually carry around my camera everywhere I go. Sometimes a couple weeks will go by & nothing inspires me. If I’m running errands & I see something of interest I will chase after the inspiration. When I do have designated time for photography, I guess I do consciously choose a location & once I’m out there I leave behind responsabilty, worrys & become very creative..

    Great post Otto..

    1. I think that is a great approach to you photography. And obviously you get some good pictures out of it. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  23. I make sure my pictures are technically perfect, then creativity comes in. I suppose it also depends on the kind of photography you’re doing, I just can’t stand it when things aren’t perfect, but I don’t think it has ever come in the way of my creativity… maybe I’m balanced without knowing it myself 🙂

    1. I used to disregard any picture that wasn’t technically perfect. If the technique was off, then it didn’t matter how good the rest was. Nowadays I am probably at the opposite end of the scale. I don’t care so much about the technical qualities of a picture as long as it transcend the subject in a way that makes me react. Emotions and content has become more important than technique. Of course in my own photography I still strive to get the right technique for the right picture, but I don’t let it take control over my work.

  24. I think I work much the same way as you describe here in your fine post. For me, planning is to find places, where I think I’ll find great (or small!) experiences for me. When I am in these places, there are often one or many things, people, situations that I can shoot. For me, my feeling “to be” in a place and experience this and what is there is the most important. Experience is everything – and is often good photos! Editing and technical stuff does not mean much to me, usually I crop only slightly and change a bit in light or color. And using a simple and free program – Picasa…..

    1. Seems like you have a very good approach to you shooting approach. I wouldn’t disregard the post-processing, though, it can really open up for complete new doors into the labyrinth that is creativity. Although looking at your pictures, you seem to be doing quite well without much post-processing.

  25. Once again, I learned something new, something invaluable, something priceless today. Beautiful thoughts about “Balance.” And the image, simply breathtaking. Thanks for sharing . You are an inspiration to us all. Have a great weekend.

  26. Your ability to dig deep inside and share your thoughts is admirable. This commentary reminds me of Eastern philosophy where the yin/yang is constantly playing into and throughout our choices. If we chose this path, then we eliminate or redirect to another: not ever being able to take the path as it once was envisioned. It will be different. It’s the positive/negative of life’s decision making and of everyday living. To allow oneself fully to embrace the moment (as well as one’s intuition) is a true challenge. The seesaw seems an apt metaphor: trying to keep the energy flowing and still gain balance.

    1. This is what I love about blogging. You get all kinds of added insight to your on thoughts on an issue. Thank you for this lovely piece of input. And, yes, I think in many ways the balance I am talking about can be compared with yin and yang. 🙂

  27. Couldn’t agree more about morning creative “catches”, be they writing, photography, blogging or other artistry, being a marvelous tool to further understanding one’s self and creative process. Love the way you think (and write!) Otto 🙂

    1. I haven’t done any “morning photography”, but I have actually thought about it as a possible exercise for getting lost in some kind of unconscious shooting. I don’t know if it would work, but I will certainly give it a try. Thanks for the nice words, the mean a lot.

  28. Interesting and inspiring post Otto. It’s wonderful that, you always share your knowledge of creativity with us. “It’s all about letting loose, not letting the rational mind take control when creating.”- This line spoke to me with a great deal.Because I do get distracted by being emotional or any other reason while I try to create something. Thanks a lot for today’s lesson. Have a great Sunday!!

  29. I didn’t think about it at the time but when I was walking the Camino my best photos were taken by my unconscious mind. I’d see something that moved me – a mountain or a tree or a person or a house – and without thinking why I just knew I couldn’t walk past without stopping to take the photo.

  30. You are absolutely right! My best work, whether it is designing, photography, writing are the ones where it’s an instantaneous passion – and I am relishing the moment – which doesn’t happen often. That’s why in these moments you have to make the most of it while you’re still “in the moment”!

  31. That was Great! I’m going to have to re-read this post there was so much helpful information! One thing I realized is that I have trouble going through photos picking out the best of the best. The idea that it is the conscious mind that should do the work makes a lot of sense to me. That is very helpful. Also the idea of shooting photos in the morning is probably a really good idea for me as it is a lot easier for me to write in the morning to tap into my unconscious creative mind. Thank You for such a helpful post.

  32. “It’s not necessarily about writing, but about getting those unconscious processes to flow and become an integral part of creating.” – I find this to be a very good insight. Thanks a lot, sir Otto. hello! 😉

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