Trust Your Instinct



To be creative implies – to some extent at least – to discover new solutions or new ways of expressing one self or finding new territory for the mind to explore. Creativity implies expansion, openness and mentally a willingness to go beyond the beating tracks. We often talk about thinking outside of the box – which means exactly that.

I believe true creativity can only be accomplished by letting go. Lose control. Set aside the established rules. Go where you are not supposed to go. Be curious. How do we discover new ways of expressing ourselves? As far as I see it the solutions lies in the unconscious mind. I think the creative person needs to be able to connect with his or her unconscious mind. We – at least traditionally in my Western part of the world – have come to almost exclusively trust our rational thinking. In most situations it comes in handy, but not when trying to expand our creativity. We cannot find new ways by rationalisation. Using the same rules or established believe systems – which is what rational thinking in reality is all about – will not make you go beyond the framework of the rules. Two plus two will always be four no matter how creative you try to be – as long as you stick with the established mathematical thinking.

Particularly for us photographers our rational mind has a tendency to get in the way. There is just so much rationality around the process of photography that we get caught up in f-stops or shutter speed, camera technique, classical compositional rules, the Golden triangle, S-curves – you name it. But sometimes we just have to let go of it all, take a chance, and just be more impulsive and trust our instincts and unconscious capacity. Like when we react to something worth photographing and we try to impose some compositional rule to make it look good, we actually make it look like something we have already seen before, something we already like. It’s not breaking through into a new dimension so to speak. I am not saying that technique and composition is to be avoided, by far, but it should work as means for our creativity – not as obstacles by taking control of our way of photographing.

Tap into you unconscious mind when you photograph, is what I try to say. And by you, I more than anything mean myself. I am certainly too caught up with technical perfection and the «right» composition. All too often. But it’s hard to let go, it takes some guts. And even then it’s hard. That’s why I have been working to find ways to force myself to let go, to let my unconscious mind take over. And I have found a few tricks that work. Not because they produce anything spectacular, but because they give me new ideas and new tools to play with that I would not have seen otherwise. One way is simply to go out breaking the rules. Like centre the composition instead of making use of the all too perfect Golden rule. Or using a long shutter speed and move the camera around – like I did in the images accompanying this post.

Trusting the unconscious mind also means trusting your intuition or your gut feeling. I see it so often, particularly in street photography. I go around and shoot something and suddenly I have a feeling something is going on right behind me or next to me. I raise the camera, turn around and shoot without really seeing – and I often get something I would never have thought of capturing otherwise. I saw the same when I worked in the studio for the renowned documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark many years ago. When looking through her contact sheets after she had returned from an assignment, I often noticed that one frame that came out of nowhere, I believe because Mary Ellen Mark had sensed something around her and just captured it on the fly.

How do you break out of your customary way of expressing yourself? How do you expand your creativity?

80 thoughts on “Trust Your Instinct

  1. I have been trying to find the answer to this. Right now we are in a very uninspiring place. I haven’t had my camera out for a week, because there is nothing to shoot. But I miss it, and I need to find something. Especially since we will be here for a while. My brain is definitely in the way.

  2. My problem is more to FIND a customary way of expressing myself. Or rather, I’m not to happy about someone saying “Oh – that must be Rune’s picture”. So in trying to find myself, I do a little bit of everything – in other words: I spread too much.

  3. I love your second photo in its wonderful abstraction; I think I see what’s there…but you leave that up to us. Our creative selves can really fly when we let go.

  4. Yes…I agree wholeheartedly..not follow what clubs teach us is ‘right’ about photography, but get in touch with your emotions and translate those into photos..easier said than done and a project that will last for ever and a day! Good post, and well illustrated.

  5. What a timely post Otto. My last two posts were about creativity. Some people liked the images and some didn’t but sometimes you just have to stretch your wings and try something a little different 🙂

    1. It is indeed part of letting go – and just be with the flow. It might not work if you are conscious about it – but by trying to let go and be open to whatever happens in your mind.

  6. Someone asked me how did I know what to photograph and what not to photograph at the wedding reception this past weekend… I smiled and said that the camera, for me, is an extension of my eyes. I know the camera well enough that I rarely look at it – I look thru my eyes and spot something, then aim and focus the digital camera and forget about it until the person I am watching hits the right pose. It might take two or three attempts to capture what I see, and sometimes what I see is never caught on the camera.. Usually this is the way the light and shadows play on someone’s face.. I take the image, and it’s sorely lacking from what I am seeing… Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t..

    Most of the time I photograph for my own reference material for drawing/painting, but it also helps to record the moment.

    I’m still wading through photos from Holy Week and the wedding!

    1. I like your way of approaching the photographic process. It’s quite similar to my own, in that I don’t really think about the fact that I have a camera in hand. I just use it and follow whatever is going on around me. I am sure you will have some amazing images, both from the wedding and the Holy Week. I once shot Semana Santa in Guatemala and it was quite an extraordinary experience. 🙂

  7. Io mi sto accorgendo che se cerco sempre di seguire le regole per ottenere una buona foto, spesso ottengo il risultato opposto, anche perché mi viene a mancare la spontaneità e il gusto di scattare la foto. Molto meglio quando agisco d’impulso, quando qualche cosa attira il mio sguardo e subito mi viene voglia di fissarlo nello scatto.
    Saluti, Patrizia

  8. Tak for endnu en fin post med kreative ideer og inspirationer.
    Jeg er ved at læse bogen “Asger Jorn – rastløs rebel”. Hans ideer, billeder ,kunst og kreativitet har jeg beundret i mange år.
    Og som han siger: “Hvis man ikke går til yderligheder, er der ingen grund til at gå!”
    Det kunne han – jeg håber blot jeg lykkes med det engang imellem.

  9. I tend to be conservative when taking photos, so after just taking a few and thinking “I’m done”, I tell myself to take more AND play more. It’s surprising what you can capture when you don’t overthink the process!! Great post!

  10. Your post reminds me of some one said to be good at something you need to play with it … empathize “play”. I think “play” implies you can go out of your boundary; tries new things without expectation and simply just to have fun. I guess this perhaps allows creativity to raise.

    Seems like you had good times with the pictures in this post. I like them!

  11. ~”Trusting the unconscious mind also means trusting your intuition or your gut feeling”~
    What a beautiful sentence!… Your post as a whole is stunning, nicely penned too.
    Thanks for sharing your artistic experinces dear Otto! ⭐
    Wishing you a wonderful day ahead! Aquileana 😀

  12. taking our minds and hearts on an adventure! !start by slowing down and looking, really looking….or, being reckless and jumping in with both feet. I like your article and colourful spring photos!

  13. I like your description of trusting the unconscious. Too often we say “think outside the box” and that doesn’t necessarily tell us much. But listening to our intuition is tapping into a source we all have. We may need to increase our attention to the inner voice, but we know what it feels like to sense that direction. Creativity is so unique to each person and I have such admiration to artists who stay true to their personal sense of creative style. This should be an encouragement to us all. Thank you, Otto. I really like the idea of noticing what is perhaps not directly in my line of sight, but maybe just a little off to the side!

  14. I was almost always shooting in manual mode, which meant having to take a moment to check the metering to make sure the exposure was correct, but sometimes lately I’ve been shooting on Aperture mode, which lets me be more spontaneous! I love the first photo!

    1. Thank you, Sherry. I always have my camera set on some automatic mode. This way it’s always ready. If I need to do manual adjustments I will anyway have time to do the necessary changes.

  15. The Spirit must have something to say to me. This is the second blog post in two days that I’ve absolutely needed to print out and commit to memory. Let me ask you this, Otto: What do you think of capturing the images in ways we feel comfortable but letting the artistic creativity run in the postprocessing? (At least for starters.)

    1. Nothing wrong with at that all – for starters or seasoned photographers. Let the creative mind run free wherever you feel like it! Thank you for the nice words, Nancy.

  16. I have a friend who is doing just this, blindly taking pictures of trees, leaves, grass. Sometimes she uses the repeating sequence and overlaps. It’s amazing what she comes up with. Love the advice. The same is true with writing. The best comes up when we release control and let the subconscious mind take over. Bravo, Otto.

  17. Nice post Otto. I feel powerful art is also produced when rationality and creativity complement each other. Rationality can indeed get in the way of creative thinking but it can also make you better equipped to see the tensions and contextual nuances that makes any form of creative expression so powerful and enjoyable. It think it’s about striking a balance where rationality and creativity are put to use in a mutually inclusive manner.

  18. Nice post Otto. I feel the beauty of art is truly revealed when rationality and creativity complement each other. Rationality can indeed get in the way of creative thinking but it can also make you better equipped to see the tensions and contextual nuances that makes any form of creative expression so powerful and enjoyable. I think it’s about striking a balance where rationality and creativity are put to use in a mutually inclusive manner.

  19. I need reminders to trust my instinct in every aspect of life, so I appreciate your post on many levels. But I also think with art in general it takes a level of confidence in your technical skill and in the habit of your process to allow you to revert back to that raw enthusiasm and lone instinct that drove you to the art to begin with. 🙂

  20. Yes, I agree, no sense in overthinking it. Maybe it is just my process as an artist. I over-focus and then I let go…

  21. Due to posts you have written concerning creativity I’ve been preparing an article about this subject! So you see your effect on people. I really appreciate it. Thanks:)

  22. In the old film days I noticed that many times my best photos were the last two or three of the film, the omnes I just was taking in order to finish it. Without any expectation, without the fear to make something wrong, In that way I slowly, very slowly learned to think and shoot “out of the box”. But again this needs practice…otherwise we fall back in the usual routine…

  23. A tiny story for you… Just now, I’m somewhat limited in what I can do visually. I have cataract surgeries scheduled for both eyes in the next month or so, and certain preparations mean that I’m not seeing as well as I’d like. That means I can’t drive to our prime wildflower territory to take some photos I wanted for a future post.

    When I saw one species of flower blooming right across the street, I decided to walk over and try to capture a decent photo. There was one little “hill,” about eight inches high, covered with flowers. But, to get only flowers in the photo and not the surrounding signs, trash bins, and so on, I’d have to lie down on the ground, right next to a well-traveled street.

    To make a long story short, Little Miss Inhibitions decided to go for it, and I got a usable photo. The best part? While I was on the ground, a car pulled up and a lady called out, “Are you all right?” She thought I had fallen while out for a walk. We laughed, and I got up, a little more comfortable with doing whatever’s necessary to get the shot that I want. Self-forgetfulness is as important as understanding f-stops, I think.

    1. I’ll take self-forgetfulness over understanding f-stops any old day. Thank you for sharing your lovely, little story, Linda. And what a lovely photo which came out of this little happening. I wish you all the best with the cataract surgeries. It will be exciting to get better eye vision once it’s all done!

      1. it took me a WEEK of solid work to put in the subliminals to free your mind to safely consider new and better possibilities and ideas, this is no easy task hahaha

  24. I like the definition of creativity you give in the opening paragraph. One of the triggers I’ve explored frequently in recent years is using archive pictures to play around in Photoshop. It opens up a whole range of possibilities and interpretations I would never otherwise have contemplated and stimulates new ways of looking and seeing – and also new ways of shooting.

  25. There’s endless material in this world for subject matter– much of which begins as doodling– whether it’s with photography or sketching or computer enhancements… or even writing projects. Then it’s the courage to break away from rules and let imagination take over the physical. Peace, brother.

  26. Mycket intressant post Otto, för mig känns det bra att ha införskaffat en viss mängd faktakunskaper för att kunna ta ut svängarna och ändå ha något att luta mig mot.
    Dina inlägg ger mig styrka i att fortsätta fota på mitt sätt.
    Tänker inte så mycket på om jag är kreativ el inte men så gör jag ju detta bara för att det är så roligt och givande.
    Allt Gott till dig!!!
    Bästa Hälsningar

    1. Intet er brede enn om du ikke tenker på å være kreativ eller ej, men bare gjør det. Det viktigeste ved å skape noe er nemlig følelsen av at det er gøy og at det er givende i seg selv.

  27. Very interesting as usual, Otto. I do go by instinct a lot, but there something ingrained in my approach that I feel more often than not results in a quite disciplined look to my images. I guess that’s just me…

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