The Power of Play for Creative Expression

©Darwin Wiggett - oopoomoo.com

©Darwin Wiggett – oopoomoo.com

Many photographers have an agenda when they go out to photograph. Whether it’s to capture a portrait, a destination or a representation of a specific subject we often have a preconceived result in mind before we even press the shutter. We know exactly what we hope to capture and what we want the final result to look like. This is not necessarily good or bad; many of history’s best images came as a result of the photographer seeing the photo in their mind’s eye before the camera was ever lifted to the eye. When I look at my own favourite images, a significant portion were visualized in advance and my job was to make that visualization a reality on film or the digital sensor. But just as many of my favourite photos came about from serendipitous discovery and the most creative and refreshing of those discoveries came when I was just goofing around and playing with the camera, when I was experimenting with no serious intent in mind. I think many of us would benefit from not taking photography too seriously and just going out open-minded and ready to have fun. My best results at photographic play have happened when I leave the ‘serious’ gear behind and just respond with a point-n-shoot or small dSLR. I also abandon all the ‘should do’ photographic rules and techniques and just respond organically. It’s so freeing. Many times I just get junk photos, but just as often a gem emerges. I have no expectations either way but simply go out in the world in joyful play. Let me give a couple of examples.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - oopoomoo.com

©Samantha Chrysanthou – oopoomoo.com

Sam and I used to lead photographic workshops and tours in the Canadian Rockies based out of the Kootenay Plains and Abraham Lake. In the early years most photographers were just happy to be in this amazing locale and make photos of all the things that inspired them. Later on, images of the methane bubbles on Abraham Lake started to circulate on the internet and all of a sudden making images of the bubbles was on the bucket list of most photographers. Our job then became one of leading photographers to the bubbles in sunrise and sunset light so that they could achieve their preconceived result. Amazing images resulted but frankly they all looked pretty much the same. There was a sudden loss of desire to explore the area for all the other visual delights there.  Instead there was a fixation on getting bubble images. I also kept repeating the successful bubble formula images because it helped sell workshops.

©Darwin Wiggett - The image that started the bubble craze.

©Darwin Wiggett – The award-winning image that started the bubble craze.

One day in between winter workshops I went out for a mid-afternoon walk with just a camera and a zoom lens slung over my shoulder. I remember walking the shoreline of Abraham Lake just chilling. I was beach-combing, picking up stones, pieces of ice and pine cones just like a kid. I spent some time balancing myself on one leg on big stones and then rock-hopping stone to stone. In short, I was in goofing-off mode. I was not even remotely thinking about making pictures. In fact, I wanted to escape ‘having to make photos’. I saw some fins of ice along the shoreline and wondered if I could squeeze my way under them. I managed to get under the plate-like slabs of ice and just lay there looking up fascinated with the texture of the ice. Every slight move of my head revealed a new kaleidoscope of wavy distortions. It was mesmerizing. I must have spent twenty minutes just jostling my head around before it dawned on me that I had a camera. A couple of snapshots later and I had some of my favourite images I ever made of Abraham Lake ice. The power of play revealed its creative power.

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett - oopoomoo.com

©Darwin Wiggett

Here is another example of the power of play. I am a huge fan of dogs and so as a photographer it was not a big stretch for me to end up photographing ‘man’s best friend’. Anyone who has photographed dogs knows it can be tough unless you have an obedience-trained dog that will take your directed commands. Most dogs are not well trained which says more about the owners than the dogs, but that’s another story. I had some early success with my own dogs that had basic obedience training and, when people saw the images, some of them asked me to photograph their dogs. My expectations of how a dog photo session should go, well orchestrated with trained dogs, went out the window fast. I was frustrated, the dog was stressed and the owner was not happy with the results. The whole thing was not fun. The solution to the problem came when I dropped expectations, and just started playing with the dogs. Forget the damn camera! I worked fun back into my time with the dogs. And then I tried something unorthodox. I put the camera on program mode, turned on the auto-focus and the motor drive and just pointed the camera in the general direction of the dog while we played together. Most of the results were terrible but occasionally magic happened! In the film days this was an expensive experiment, but once digital came along, the fun was cheap and I could play even more. Samantha and I refined this ‘play with the dogs’ photographic approach into a more predictably successful technique which we discuss in our dog photography eBook, Sit, Stay & Smile. In the end it was play and the loss of expectations that resulted in fresh imagery of the dogs.

©Samantha Chrysanthou

©Samantha Chrysanthou

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Samantha Chrysanthou - The making of the previous image.

©Samantha Chrysanthou – The making of the previous image.

©Darwin Wiggett - oopoomoo.com

©Darwin Wiggett – oopoomoo.com

So… the moral is not to take yourself and your photography too seriously. Make room for play and go out and act like a kid. If you want more exercises in play and in creative discovery be sure to check out our Learning to See Workbook and free Born Creative eBook.

©Darwin Wiggett - oopoomoo.com

©Darwin Wiggett

Darwin jumps in a puddle

©Samantha Chrysanthou

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.

6 Comments

  1. Diane Varner
    March 3, 2016

    Very fun post, you two! Enjoyed the variety of images…

    Reply
  2. Leo Ridano
    March 4, 2016

    Excelent post!!! Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Judy Hill
    March 7, 2016

    This is me all the time. I am just a beginner to photography and even though I go with my hubby on his photo adventures I am usually off just doing my own thing. I have had that experience where most of my photos are just weird but every once in awhile I get something I wasn’t expecting. Thats what I love. My hubs has followed you for a few years and knew all about the bubbles from your articles etc. We went to Aurum Lodge Valentine’s weekend and there were no bubbles on the lake. The weather had been too warm so once we talked to Alan and realized we weren’t going to find any, we headed off on a hike to the falls on the Cline River. We had an awesome day photographing the ice at the falls all on our own. After our hike we drove down the highway to the burn and got some great shots of the clouds, sun and trees. Almost magical. We were amazed at how many “bubble people” were out on the lake hunting for their prize photo (which they probably didn’t find) and that they could be so set on one thing when there were so many other subjects and ways to get amazing photos of an amazing place.
    We are already planning to go back next winter – Madeline and Alan are such wonderful hosts – and maybe we will see bubbles and maybe we won’t. But photography to me is always an adventure and you need to be open minded to the world around you. Just have fun I say!

    Reply
  4. Derrald
    March 21, 2016

    Darwin,
    It’s been a while since I’ve visited your blog, but when I do I always appreciate the articles. When I attended your spring workshop in 2007 I loved the areas you took us. It was more than just wanting to get that one trophy shot. You really helped us explore the area. One of my favorite photographs from that trip was an intimate shot of pine cones and rocks, something that is not usually considered the “trophy” shot. From the way this article it sounds like do you not lead the workshops anymore?

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      March 24, 2016

      Hi Derrald, we do not lead photo tours or location based workshops anymore but we will be coming up with some exciting immersive, creative mentorship programs in the near future. Stay tuned!

Leave a Comment

Top