Precision and Predictability: Killing Creativity

I recently attended a meeting where local photographers delivered brief presentations about their favorite mobile photo apps. There were a handful of interesting editing tools discussed that I could see myself using. Other apps have tools designed to facilitate being in the right place at just the right time to execute a specific image. One example cited was a feature that would tell you precisely when the sun would be peeking over the famous Half Dome at Yosemite National Park, so you could snag the shot.

I ran across this old country store a few years ago as I was returning from a tomato festival. It ended up being my favorite image of the day.

Now I’ve played around with similar apps in the past - in particular, a couple of different apps that predict the golden hour and blue hour for a particular place and date. It can be helpful to have a general idea of when I can go outside and catch some great lighting conditions. I sometimes find myself wondering when I can catch the golden hour to grab some nice portraits outdoors.

As useful as these tools are, though, there’s something about the high level of precision using them provides that chips away at my enthusiasm for the craft. Fundamentally, I’m not interested in making technically perfect (as if such a thing exists) images of anything, nor do I want to know that I need to be standing in spot “X” at a specific time in order to make a photo that looks like… well, everyone else’s photo who may have stood in that same spot in the same conditions.

This “canned” approach to getting the shot reminds me of the “Peak Bagging” trend in hiking, where the goal is to check off as many mountain tops as possible from a list. I love hiking, and there are few things in life more satisfying than ascending a high peak and being rewarded with a beautiful view and a well-deserved sense of accomplishment. For me, the goal isn’t to “bag” another peak; I hike to be in nature, and so I take my time and drink it all in. I’d rather climb fewer mountains, and spend more time connecting with the soul of each place. Mountains are not objects that I collect or conquer; they aren’t a commodity, but a beautiful gift to savor. At least that’s how I look at them.

Much of the joy in making photos - at least for me - is in spontaneously seeing something not altogether expected, and pressing the shutter as fortune delivers that moment to my sensor or film. Yes, the photographer chooses where to go and when, but many of my best photographs owe their existence to serendipity. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve gone to a particular location, planning to photograph one thing, and then suddenly noticing something else that is more interesting. On the way to shoot some over-photographed waterfall, I might see a nicely lit patch of moss in the woods, and I end up treasuring that photo above every other shot I took during that outing.

I don’t mean to suggest there’s never a valid use for many of these apps, but I worry that over dependence on them may tend towards creating boring, cookie-cutter images, and in some sense ultimately devalues the craft.