Get Out of Your Rut: Tips for Creative Photography

Photography is a combination of technical and artistic techniques. The more techniques you master, the more opportunities you’ll have to create your vision.

Photography combines technical and artistic elements and allows me to express my creativity. Today, just about anyone with a cell phone has a camera on-hand. So how do you go beyond just taking pictures of your food and your cat?

As with all things, you should have a grasp of the basic fundamentals of exposure. Sure, you can put your camera into Program Auto or “Scene” mode, but doing so can sometimes restrict your creativity. Program Auto mode is great when you’re just looking to get snapshots, and it is well-suited for those just starting out to allow the user to concentrate on composition. But at some point, all your photos will start to look the same, and you’ll probably want to expand your horizons. Here are some techniques you can experiment with once you have the basics down.


Degree of difficulty: Low
What you need: Any camera with any lens 

Anyone with any camera can experiment with composition. Simply put, composition is where you choose to place the subject in the frame. Instead of centering the subject, try putting it in different places in the frame. Consider the use of empty space in your frame, too.

Tip: Before you pull the trigger (shutter), check the four corners of your frame in the viewfinder or LCD panel for distracting elements.

Depth of Field

A fast lens (in this case the 85mm f/1.4 AFS G Nikkor) can really create interesting subject isolation.

Degree of difficulty: Low
What you need: DSLR or interchangeable lens camera with a fast (wide aperture) lens.

If there’s one thing that stands out between compact cameras and DSLRs, it’s depth of field. Depth of field is the range of perceived focus in the scene both in front of and behind the actual plane of focus. Depth of field is influenced by three primary factors: Distance to subject, aperture, and sensor size. With a cell phone camera or most compacts, you’re limited by a very small sensor and lenses that have relatively small apertures. That means just about everything will appear in focus. To explore depth of field, you’ll want to get a lens that has a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or wider. A great inexpensive option is the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens or the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens. Explore what happens when you use wide apertures (small f-numbers) to isolate your subject in the frame.


Try getting low with a wide-angle lens for a totally different look.

Degree of difficulty: Low
What you need: Lenses with different focal lengths or a zoom lens.

As lens focal lengths get shorter, the angle of view gets wider. Perspective distortion occurs when you use wide lenses to photograph very close subjects. Try changing your shooting angle. Get low. Get close. See what happens. After all, it’s just pixels that we’re using and nobody has to see your mistakes.


Use monochrome to accentuate textures and tones in images that are otherwise lacking in color contrast.

Degree of difficulty: Moderate
What you need: Software to convert your files to black and white

I love using monochrome to explore textures and shapes. Black and white images are perfect for overcast days, or when there isn’t a lot of color contrast in your scene. While most cameras offer a monochrome mode, I recommend shooting in color and converting to black and white with software. Depending on your needs, most image editors offer a basic black and white mode with some options to help you adjust contrast. If you are serious about monochrome, I suggest using Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2.0 as a plug-in to Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture. If you want to print your black and white images, make sure your printer has more than one shade of black/gray ink to help minimize color casts, or try using a custom print service like Digital Silver Imaging.

Long Exposures

I used a Lee Big Stopper filter to allow a 25-second exposure during the day and create the soft blur effect in the moving clouds.

Degree of difficulty: Moderate
What you need: Neutral Density filter, remote release, timer, tripod

When most people think of long exposures, they imagine photos of car headlights or star trails. While those images are fun to do, if you have the right equipment you can capture long exposures during the day. Early morning and early evening are the best times, but a partly cloudy or semi-overcast day can work well, too. The whole point of long-exposure photography is to capture some form of subject motion to create a unique effect. Ideal subjects are water and clouds. You’ll need to set up your camera on a tripod, stop down, and use the lowest possible ISO setting. For really long exposures, you’ll also need a solid neutral density filter, like the Singh-Ray Vari-ND or the Lee Big Stopper 10-stop solid filter. Once the exposure time exceeds 30 seconds, you’ll need to set your shutter speed to bulb mode and use a timer to calculate the correct exposure.

Light Painting

I used a spotlight to illuminate the rock formation in this 30 second exposure.

Degree of difficulty: easy to moderate, depending on the subject
What you need: Tripod, powerful flashlight or spot-light

Light painting is a technique where you use a flashlight to selectively illuminate your subject in darkened conditions. With this technique, you’ll need to have your camera on a tripod and use exposures between 15-30 seconds (or longer, depending on conditions). Practice on small objects first, then work your way up to larger subjects. If you’re going to light paint outdoors, you’ll need a fairly powerful spotlight. Get one that has a trigger switch to help you control the light output by flickering it. You can also try putting some orange (CTO) gel on your light to give it a nice warm cast.

Tip: You’ll get the most powerful results by lighting your subject from the side, instead of straight-on.

High Dynamic Range (HDR)

I used HDR Efex Pro 2 to combine three bracketed exposures for this landscape image.

Degree of difficulty: Moderate to difficult, depending on your software
What you need: HDR Tone-mapping Software, tripod

High Dynamic Range images are either some of the coolest or most awful images you’ll ever see. When executed properly, you can create images that capture a wide range of tones for incredible realism, or images that are textured and highly artistic. The fundamental technique for creating HDR images is two-fold. First, you capture a series of exposures of the same scene; some over exposed and others under-exposed. Next, you combine the images in software to create the final image. My HDR software of choice is Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro 2. I use it to create a variety of creative styles. For the best HDR images, use a tripod to prevent camera shake.

Infrared Photography

Infrared images can create wonderful portraits (image courtesy Vincent Versace).

Degree of difficulty: Moderate
What you need: IR cut-off filter or IR-converted DSLR body

Infrared photography allows us to capture light from a part of the spectrum our eyes cannot naturally perceive. Infrared images can make ordinary subjects like landscapes or portraits take on other-worldly qualities. To capture infrared images, your best bet is to get one of your older cameras converted to IR. The conversion process involves replacing the normal low-pass filter on your sensor with one that allows IR light to pass through it. You can also use an IR cut-off filter on your lens, but exposure times become excessive and pre-focusing (without the filter) is required. Once you have your IR images captured, you can experiment with different processing techniques to produce color or monochrome images. Monochrome IR portraits, for example, can be truly spectacular because the IR spectrum does not show most skin imperfections, like freckles. I recommend converting a smaller DSLR, as you’ll likely be bringing it as an extra body.

Recommended Reading: Digital Infrared Photography (Photo Workshop) by Deborah Sandidge

Special Effects

Use special effects software to create your own artistic styles. I used Color Efex Pro 4 to add mood to this image, taken in overcast light.

Degree of difficulty: Easy to difficult, depending on the technique
What you’ll need: Photo editing software such as Photoshop or Elements, and (optional) plug-in filter effects 

I’ve deliberately left special effects for last, because I think that this is a tool that should be used as a creative technique after you’ve mastered your camera. While it’s certainly easy to snap a shot and click “old photo,” doing so won’t make you a better photographer. The best images still require good exposure and strong composition, no matter what other effects you choose to apply. However, special effects can save the day when light conditions are not ideal, or you just want to explore other forms of digital artistry. One of the simplest ways to add special effects to your images is by using a third-party software package that includes dedicated filter effects, such as Nik Software Color Efex Pro 4 or Tiffen Dfx3. There are other options out there, but these are two of the best. Advanced users who have a layer compositing application, such as Photoshop or Elements, may wish to explore texture blending. Textures can help add artistic flair to images taken in mid-day or overcast light. You can also combine multiple techniques, including HDR, plug-ins, and textures, in the same image if you have Photoshop or Elements.

Finding Your Creative Side

All of these techniques are just examples of different ways to explore photography as an art form. What’s really nice is that you can combine multiple techniques to express yourself to the fullest extent. As you master each technique, you’ll add more flexibility to your creative arsenal and expand your opportunities for shooting.

If you really want to explore these techniques further, I recommend total immersion. Go out and spend a day or two just working on one technique. Don’t worry about making mistakes! As you become more proficient with each technique, you’ll learn what does and what doesn’t work out. Then you’ll be prepared for just about any situation when you’re out shooting something that really counts.

2013 Instructional Photo Tours

A small-group photo tour lets you immerse yourself in your passion while learning new techniques.

Join me in 2013 for a small-group photo tour, where you’ll be able to immerse yourself in photography for several days and get personal instruction. In 2013, I’ll be taking photographers to some really great places!


5 thoughts on “Get Out of Your Rut: Tips for Creative Photography”

  1. Great ideas for another new year of photography. How about a “Get Out of The Rut” workshop to learn these techniques?

  2. A wonderful reminder to jump start 2013, Jason, thank you! I wish I could join in you and Deb in Colonial Williamsburg but I’ll be just returning from vacation then.

    Happy New Year!


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