Finding That Balance

I want to pick up the thread from my post two weeks ago 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. Instead they 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 flow 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 becoming 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 flow 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.

81 thoughts on “Finding That Balance

  1. Great post Otto. I’m in full agreement that anyone can learn the practicalities and technical skills if that’s what they choose to do.

    For me, and as you say, the most important thing is to get out and shoot. Go to an area that I don’t know and have my camera over my shoulder and shoot. Go out in new conditions, such as the snow we’ve just had, slow right down and look around. I noticed so many things that I hadn’t seen before.

    If my cameras in my bag I’m more reluctant to shoot. If it’s over my shoulder I will take photos. The more I take the more passionate I am about photography. That joy honed my creativity.

    Great post Otto. Thank you.

    1. Good point, to encourage more shooting, it’s always better to have the camera over the shoulder or around the neck – with lens cap off – than in the camera bag. Thanks for commenting and sharing your experience.

  2. Love this post Otto. As a writer I find my best work comes when I stop thinking so much and just write from my heart. As an amateur photographer I find that just reacting to scenarios and following instinct produces some great results.

  3. My thoughts exactly …’instinctive play”’ the closest we get to feeling transcendentally at peace – both energised and relaxed.

  4. Top article…creativity is a personal thing and difficult to teach…one man’s creativity is another’s ‘rubbish’!! For me , I sense a theme I am grappling with and try to find a way of finding a photo to fit, or the other way round. It can be a very therapeutic process. Thank you for your excellent post(s).

    1. Yes, one man’s creativity is indeed another’s ‘rubbish’. For that very reason it should be easy to respect even artwork that we don’t find interesting ourselves. Thank you for the lovely comment, Paula.

  5. for another time?? do tell about my technique of squinting at thumbnails to pick the one that speaks the most… since you can’t see consciously, it will be the unconscious mind choosing what goes to post production 🙂

      1. yes, part of the upside of the digital age… no longer do we have to catch our dream picture in one frame of film… see the dream, take a 100 pics of it, and your unconscious mind will see which is the right one

  6. Great post. Most people are either, right or left brained. Trying to merge, just like you say, is the tricky part. I know it is for me. I know sometimes with wildlife, I am shooting at whatever is happening, no time to think.

    1. It is hard make the two brains work together, isn’t it (although new research suggests that the creative and the rational centers aren’t really located in the right and left half of the brain respectively).

  7. It’s never easy to juggle technical aspects with consciously taking great photos. I love the idea of randomly shooting things that are the same colour – I’m going to try that out. Full of great advice as always Otto.

  8. An excellent follow-up to the previous Post. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about this eros/logos, conscious/unconscious connection. I know I am an impulsive, spontaneous photographer who will fire off shots without thinking, but I also understand the need to be organized particularly with regard to camera settings. I suspect that shooting with the wrong camera settings is the cause of more failures than most other errors. Certainly it is for me. I now try to think ‘settings’ before I switch off the camera after a shot – have I changed something, wound up the ISO, significantly altered the aperture? If I have, then I try to re-set my settings to a sensible setting for the next shot, and ‘Auto’ is a pretty good place to start. t’s not easy to remember to do that, but it certainly means I am more likely to have usable the next time I shoot.

    1. I do struggle with the same, although I have become much better at resetting the camera after every shoot. But if I forget and then suddenly something happens, it’s all too easy to just pick up the camera and start shooting without checking the settings.

  9. Another brilliant post, Otto! I love your statement that, “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 …”

    Beautifully said.

  10. Hi Otto, I admit to a small amount of confusion. My question is about setting the camera controls beforehand. Don’t we know, prior to shooting, what the light will allow? Don’t we set our cameras accordingly? Other than occasional exposure compensation or drastic light change, my camera is already set and I leave it alone. Maybe that’s not usual?

    1. It really depends. If you set the camera for automatic exposure control, you are right. But if you want to have manual control, you need to adjust settings for each occasion.

  11. Oh Otto, this is so spot on and just what I needed. Your words jumped off the screen with so much conviction, thank you. And thank you for the suggestion of the book by Todd Henry. Letting go can be difficult…

  12. Such great advice Otto! I like to compare it to the life of musicians. Practicing all those scales and standard exercises are never fun, but so necessary in order to be able to let the muscle memory take over when playing a concert piece or composing.

  13. I love the image you put with this post. The morning pages idea seems similar to free writes (which I hate) and/or journaling, which I should do. Several years ago, I think I stumbled onto a social platform called Project 365 (I think). Once signed in, I was committed to posting one photo per day for a year. I posted a lot of throw-away photos during that year. But also, that underlying knowledge that I had to come up with an image, kept my eyes and mind open to possibilities during the day that I might have walked past without thinking. This is not exactly what you are talking about, but I think it is similar.

    1. It is similar in many ways. As a matter of fact, I am working on a book about photographically seeing and how we can train ourselves in seeing and observing better in order to discover potential images more freely – and a project 365 is one of the ways to train ourselves in that regard.

  14. Great post you are presenting here, Otto. Particularly your last paragraph get’s my most attention, that’s how I visualize too in my art photography. Yet when it comes to my clients in wedding or portrait photography, I have to check almost each image to be sure I got the exposure etc. right than. On the other hand at the same moment I leave myself room ( if the time schedule allows that) to just let go of my expectations and shoot freely with out clinging on and often I get some fantastic images totally unexpected, it may a different angle, getting on my knees or just shooting right into the sunlight or other unconscious circumstances. Well again as you say, it’s all about finding the right balance. Most importantly to me is having fun and finding much joy as possible in what I find as a successful image.

    1. Working for a client is definitely different than shooting for yourself. You can’t take chances in such a way that you have no results to show for. Still, it’s possible to cover yourself and then keep going more freely.

  15. Yes to this: “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 flow will come.” That is very true for me. Not only that, but it will usually lift me out of a bad mood, too — which may be why I was having trouble feeling inspired in the first place. Thanks for another great article, Otto.

  16. I really like how you describe the process, Otto. I started completely on the side of the creative, unconscious mind, but have willed myself to plan (at least a little) and master the techniques so I can now shoot in a fully manual mode. But can’t say it sits in my ‘backbone’ as yet.

  17. Enjoyed this post Otto and like the way you approach your photography. With the newer versions of programs like Photoshop, it is much easier to compose an image in post-processing even if the original shot was not correct. The main thing to worry about it getting a sharp image, which is not always that easy when hand-holding.

  18. It’s interesting to me that no one commented about the importance of pace: allowing time for the unconscious to rise to the surface. I experience that most often with my writing. Quite often, when I’m “stuck” on something at night, if I just let it go and “sleep on it” as they say, in the morning the word, the title, or the paragraph I was looking for suddenly has appeared. I like to refer to the process as my brain working the night shift.

    In the same way, if I set out at lunchtime with the thought that I have only an hour for photography, inevitably I begin thinking more about taking pictures than about making pictures. I sometimes stumble over myself, trying to move too quickly, and end up making bad decisions about settings, composition, and so on. If I adopt a different attitude, and allow both body and eye to wander during that hour, inevitably I find something that makes for a more appealing, or even unique, result.

    Another way I’ve approached the issue you raise here is to limit myself to one lens during a given outing. I may even explore a prairie first with my 18-135mm lens, and then, having noted what’s out there, go back with my macro. So many decisions are already made when we choose one lens over another, and I think that sort of limitation actually expands the possibility for good photos.

    1. The brain working night shift, as you say, is a powerful way of letting the unconscious mind find new solutions. As for time constrains, I notice the same. It’s always harder to see, when I can’t let go of looking at the watch. And, yes, setting boundaries for your creativity is always a good way to encourage more creativity.

  19. You briefly touched upon the creative process of writing but from what you describe, there is a remarkable amount of similarities between the process of photography and writing. From idea generation to post production I see the parallels: fast writes = shooting from the hip and reflective writing = post production. Your article was an enlightening read, thank you!

  20. Great post. I’m thinking that I could benefit from your suggestions for photographers to just shoot and see what comes from it even though I’d probably turn the results into paintings. I just like the idea of seeing what I capture and how that might send me in new directions. I’m also thinking I need to get back into the habit of morning writing to siphon off the surface thoughts. In the end, perhaps it isn’t our technical abilities that get in the way so much as our inhibitions? We get comfortable with whatever it is we do and being creative requires us to be vulnerable and open to failures. Keep writing and posting!

    1. No doubt our inhibitions get in the way. It’s always complicated mechanisms at play, inhibitions, fear, performance anxiety and for some technical abilities. Anyway, I think you thought of just shoot and see, will brings something new into your art making.

  21. You are an inspiration, Otto. Although I do not photograph as much as I use to, as you pointed out, all of these thoughts could apply to writing as well. In fact, this could apply to most creative aspects of life. Thanks, Otto.

  22. I missed this post before somehow…in any case, it would be fun to hear about the mix of conscious and unconscious decision-making in post processing. I think it may be a challenge to tease it apart! But it’s a good point, both are important.

    1. I think it would be much like any creative process. The more you know how to work the tools in post-processing the more you may trust your intuition or unconscious mind.

  23. As a hobby photographer and since I am not very technical, it is important to me that photography remains a relaxation (as I have said in previous blogs) and that I do not have to worry about technical details! I also feel that if you think too much about the technical aspects, you lose a lot of nice opportunities !? It is as you say: “it’s all about letting loose and not let the rational mind take control when creating”! By keep on trying again and again and to practice your skills… By taking many pictures and learn from your mistakes, to take some tips from other photographers, and have a lot of patience! 🙂 Every day is a chance to create… Take the chances as many as you can! I have always had the knowledge that the experience is the best teacher!
    Great post, Otto!
    Best regards, Heidi

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