Art and Culture of Photography – Expectations kill Creativity

I used to pride myself on being a photographer who could visualize a photo in my head and then go out in the field and make it happen. When it all came together I felt really creative. For example, the cover of our latest eBook 50 at 50 features a canoe at sunrise on George Lake in Killarney Park in Ontario. I had the idea of a sunrise photo of a canoe on a lake in the Canadian Shield for long time. Once I saw George Lake, I knew this was the place to make the image I had in my head. So I rented a canoe and scouted the shoreline for a spot that lined up with sunrise and the next morning I paddled out to the location in the dawn light and made two compositions of my idea.

Much of my photographic career was based on expectations. I made trips planned around flower blooms, full moons, prime fall colours or spring thunder storms. There was always something I expected and wanted to capture. If the flower bloom failed, the moon was hidden by clouds, the leaves had blown off the trees, or the storm cell never formed, I felt personally affronted… might as well pack up and go home… it ain’t gonna happen! Of course, if it all came together I took full credit for the result and patted myself on the back for being so clever.

©Darwin Wiggett -  The first composition of the canoe on George Lake. The second composition is the cover of the 50 at 50 eBook.

©Darwin Wiggett – The first composition of the canoe on George Lake. The second composition is the cover of the 50 at 50 eBook.

©Darwin Wiggett - I planned time of year and time of day to get this shot of Peggy's Cove. It took threes days of waiting out the rain to get the photo I expected to make.

©Darwin Wiggett – I planned time of year and time of day to get this shot of Peggy’s Cove. It took three days of waiting out in the rain to get the photo I expected to make.

But of course over the years I learned that where one opportunity is taken away a myriad of new ones are given to you, if only you are open to seeing them. And the latter really only happens if you can let go of expectations. It took me awhile to learn this lesson but once I did, I found a whole new world opened up to me and the creative energy flowed. No matter what the light or the conditions, there are always great things to photograph everywhere if we just learn to see beyond our expectations.

©Darwin Wiggett - I went to the Columbia Icefields to make a photo of the blue ice of the glacier. The glcier was snow covered and so a new creative opportunity emerged for a minimalistic image.

©Darwin Wiggett – I went to the Columbia Icefields to make a photo of the blue ice of the glacier. The glacier was snow covered and so a new creative opportunity emerged for a minimalistic image.

The rise of photo sharing on the internet has really ramped up photographer’s expectations. Now we see amazing images from everywhere and when we go to visit these places we expect we are going to see and capture images like we see on the net. I was reminded of this phenomenon this past weekend when a slew of photographers descended on Abraham Lake to make images of the famous ice bubbles. Well nature did her thing and deposited a covering of fresh snow on the lake. The bubbles were buried; the photographers were bummed out. Many went home dejected that the weekend trip was a waste.

For photographers who let go of expectations, the fresh snow magically transformed otherwise mundane scenes into magic. Now we had sugar-frosted river shorelines, pen and ink etched mountain tops and a canvas of white laid out beneath the forest. The new opportunities were exciting. The creative photographers in the crowd came away with cards bursting with fresh images, the photographers with expectations left with only disappointment. I am glad I finally learned the lesson that expectations kill creativity. I hope this post gets you thinking about your expectations.

©Darwin Wiggett - No bubbles, no problems, shift gears and search for other gifts in the area!

©Darwin Wiggett – No bubbles, no problems, shift gears and search for other gifts in the area!

©Darwin Wiggett - Snowfall adds mood and mystery to the shores of Abraham Lake

©Darwin Wiggett – Snowfall adds mood and mystery to the shores of Abraham Lake

©Darwin Wiggett - Fresh snow, low sun and long shadows.

©Darwin Wiggett – Fresh snow, low sun and long shadows

©Darwin Wiggett - There is magic everywhere if we are only open to seeing!

©Darwin Wiggett – There is magic everywhere if we are only open to seeing! 

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

26 Comments

  1. Jeff Cruz
    February 24, 2014

    My only expectation when I go out to photograph is to not get killed :)

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 27, 2014

      Now that is an expectation I can ‘live’ with!

  2. Donnie
    February 24, 2014

    So very well said and often hard to do. Unless I consciously remind myself of this when I head out with the camera, my paradigms, powerful things that they are, will lock me out of the possibilities. Thanks for the reminder and the beautiful proof in your shared images.

    Reply
    • CW
      March 12, 2014

      I agree Donnie, I find its a strange balance. Sometimes you need that idea to get you motivated and out of the house. But when your out you need to be able to forget…. sometimes.

  3. Rob Tilley
    February 24, 2014

    I agree completely Darwin. Of course the best of both worlds is when you go out to shoot the shot you previsualized and after you bag it you turn around in the opposite direction to find an even more interesting image. (That actually happened to me at Abraham Lake.) I think it is great to set goals for specific images before a trip, but when you are traveling you have to go with the flow. You can never predict what the light is going to be, but you can always take advantage of the cards you are dealt.

    Reply
  4. Ron Jerome
    February 24, 2014

    That was one of the best summaries I have read for just showing up. The photos were engaging and unique and the personal satisfaction in the accomplishment comes through. Well Done!

    Reply
  5. Garry Black
    February 24, 2014

    In the early 1980’s when I was starting to learn the craft and art of photography I took a week long workshop with Sherman Hines in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. One thing that he taught and that stuck with me all these years “was not to have any expectations or preconceived ideas when photographing landscapes”. All these years later it is still as true now as it was then.

    Reply
  6. Steve
    February 24, 2014

    Brilliant…!

    Reply
  7. Ian McGillvrey
    February 24, 2014

    Very well put Darwin. I couldn’t agree more with this philosophy. Most of my favourite images have come as surprises to me when I found myself looking past my initial expectations. I find the whole process much more enjoyable too without all the disappointment that comes along with not getting what you were hoping for.

    Reply
  8. Jeff Sinon
    February 24, 2014

    Well said Darwin. I set out with a goal as far as location goes, but keep a very open mind, and eye, once I get there.

    Reply
  9. Alister Benn
    February 25, 2014

    Really great article Darwin… and a lesson I agree 100% with… I used to measure my enjoyment of my days out in the wilderness by the images I made – based on those same preconceptions of expectation.

    Thankfully that is ancient history. All the best.

    Reply
  10. Rafael Rojas
    February 25, 2014

    Wonderful post Darwin. As you mention, me too I used to be a control freak. Nowadays, I prefer to avoid all planning and visit banal places in all kinds of conditions. There are always tons of new things waiting out there to surprise us. In fact, having preconceptions is equal to avoiding all surprises and unexpected things… since one cannot pre-conceive or imagine things unless they are already known. Living life as an adventure and using photography as exploration is just at the opposite extreme of “getting the shot”…

    Reply
  11. eyeguy
    February 25, 2014

    You hit the nail on the head, Darwin!

    It’s all to easy to fall into the trap of being goal oriented in our photographic pursuits especially in current times where the flood of digital imagery is overwhelming and everything is screaming for attention. Consequently, this may be partially to blame when photographers’ pre-conceived expectations aren’t met, and disappointment ensues. (One may feel compelled to “beat” what’s already been created for a given subject or situation…all part of the goal oriented disease).

    Instead, I find the real challenge is to stay in the mindset of remaining process oriented throughout the creative experience. This often involves just stopping to study a subject and discover/explore it’s essence. It may lead me down a different path than either what’s obvious at first glance or what expectation was waiting to be fulfilled.

    Ultimately, the process oriented approach frees up the mind to remaining open to everything that the subject has to offer. The slavish-laden goal oriented approach might give “results” but it comes at the expense of sacrificing the experience along the way.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 27, 2014

      A fantastic summary and I like your process vs goal orientated dichotomy – more and more I am attracted to the process and discovery and exploration of a subject. One is about engaging and learning about the subject, the other is just selfish superficial goal.

  12. Allison
    February 25, 2014

    Darwin, this is probably my favourite post of all!

    Reply
  13. Stephen
    February 25, 2014

    Especially true if travelling alone but do you see a difference in expectations between workshop attendees and tour attendees?

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 27, 2014

      On tours we see more trophy mentality – they come for the iconic shots in great light – as a guide I am supposed to deliver stunning scenes in great light.

      In workshops people are more interested in self discovery and about learning to be expressive.Samantha and I have exercises and assignments to get people thinking outside of their expectations. This is the main reason we went to workshop format; the joys of helping someone discover their creative vision is awesome! And Sam and I learn so much from people who are open and try new things.

  14. Spencer Dykstra
    February 25, 2014

    This situation just happened to me this last weekend. I went to one of my favorite photographic locations looking to image either a unique orchid, the Calypso Bulbosa or the rare Ojai Fritillary and came away with neither. What I did find was a flower that had eluded me for 5 years, the Fetid Adders Tongue. My initial disappointment turned to elation in a matter of seconds. My thought pattern went from “Dang, this is where they were last time, not a leaf in sight… maybe if I walk back on a different… OH MY GOD!” My wife ran over and we both marveled at the tiny bloom finally discovered.

    Cheers

    Spencer

    Reply
  15. Jane Chesebrough
    February 26, 2014

    Good article, Darwin, and so true.The first time I went to Abraham Lake the water was a rich turquoise. I waited two years to return and was so disappointed that it was more of a green colour, it was around the same time of year just the silt had changed. Yes I was disappointed but took photos anyway and they were better than the first time. I keep going back because I keep seeing something new.Even in one day with the changing light you can get very different colours on the lake. I know a few people, including myself once they see images of the bubbles they obsess about getting images of them.Perhaps add a disclaimer in your ads for workshops that the bubbles may be a possibility, but all is up to Mother Nature?? It is spectacular country nonetheless, and the images I have seen from your last excursion say it all.

    Reply
  16. Robin Black
    February 26, 2014

    Great post–I couldn’t agree more. I was watching the photo sharing and whiny comments (from some, not all) in real time last weekend as a LOT of acquaintances were at that spot. My first thought was, “you’re in the Canadian Rockies, and could only find THAT ONE THING to shoot?” My second thought was “cross Abraham Lake off the list for a (long) while–instant cliche.” It’s SO easy to fall into that me-too approach of going out to get That Shot from whichever location-of-the-moment has captured your attention. It’s not so easy, but is incredibly creatively liberating, to avoid that trap.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 27, 2014

      Well said! This area is amazing and offers so much – to be fixated on bubbles so much that you are sweeping the snow off the lake is a bit obsessed!

  17. Ursula Abresch
    February 26, 2014

    Well said, and without too many words. And … the photos with the article are just beautiful! You’re an inspiration.

    Reply
  18. Randy Centner
    February 27, 2014

    This post speaks to me.
    Over the years I have found expectations sour almost everything. That special present and the anticipation of the ‘opening'; the special vacation and the stuff that ‘will’ be done; and definitely that one shot that I had to have when traveling so far for so much. Rather than enjoy what unfolded I would lament what fell short.
    I’m not sure how or when it happened, but that was then and this is now… now the moment, however it comes, is welcome. I’m certainly happier, content even.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 27, 2014

      Sure takes the pressure and stress away when you have a ‘what is will be attitude and rejoice in what gifts you are given (instead of what gifts you feel have been taken away).

  19. Jay Gould
    February 28, 2014

    My observation has been that most photographers that I go out to shoot with go with the intention of “I am coming home with some great images; otherwise I wasted my time going to the location”.

    I used to be that way; go somewhere photographically oriented because I NEEDED to add more images to my website, and have more images to demonstrate to others (not to myself) that I was a good photographer.

    Not too long ago either!

    I went to a TSE workshop with conducted by a very famous photographer. In advance of the workshop I, in my usual anal way, did lots of research on where we were going and what had been previously captured. That research created lots of expectations about what I was going to capture. The result is that I spent a fair amount of time at the beginning of the workshop looking for what I intended to capture. Kinda like looking around through a narrow rifle scope, or in photographic terms I was walking around looking through my 300mm lens instead of my 24TSE. “Where is that damn image I pre-visualized?”

    Things have changed for me; attitudes changed during that workshop simply through a process of interacting this particular amazing person.

    Today, I have just arrived in the Canary Islands (off the Coasts of Morocco and Western Sahara; “owned” by Spain) to spend three weeks within my physical limitations enjoying the Canaries: Gran Canaria and Tenerife. I have no idea what I am going to find each day when I go out after breakfast (I do not have the energy to chase sunrises) and simply move to various locations and sit and look at the place, experience the location, and in my mind become one with the location, as I look through all of my senses and not through a narrow lens.

    What I capture I capture, and if I keep a few of what I captured (I am ruthless when I review my images) that is simply a bonus – the cherry on the experience.

    Thanks Darwin; you certainly help my growth.

    Reply
  20. Morkel Erasmus
    February 28, 2014

    All has been said above – excellent post (and some cracking images to boot), Darwin. Thanks for reminding us to be in the moment and make the most of any opportunity, and to leave expectations at the door…

    Reply

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