In the author world, they call it “writers block”: that period when a writer hits a theoretical wall and is unable to produce new work, lacks inspiration and experiences a creative slowdown.
In photography, we call it – you guessed it – “photographers block”. Very original. It’s when your photography (and editing) plateaus and you start to feel like you’re no longer creating standout images. Almost as if your wheels are spinning but you are not progressing as fast as you used to when you first started out. Sadly, it can be a common place to find yourself in. And, admittedly, it’s where I found myself not too long ago.
In this article, I’ll share a simple method you can use today that will help you to recognize strong compositional elements so that you can overcome a creative rut, continue to create interesting shots and compose better images in camera.
Recognize compositional elements
Strong composition is a key ingredient in a good photo recipe. It’s likely you’re familiar with the “rules of composition”, like the rule of thirds, filling the frame, leading lines, etc, so I won’t bore you with repetitive content.
It’s great having these rules and structures in place, but what happens when you can’t see a good photo to apply these rules to? How far will these rules and structure get you then?
Creating beautiful images relies on you being able to see and arrange an interesting assortment of photographic elements such as tone, light, lines, contrast, shapes and texture. You’ll find that the sooner you start to recognize these compositional elements the easier you’ll find it to compose stronger images and continue on your quest to create beautiful photographs.
Here’s that simple method I promised that will help you to easily recognize these strong elements and begin to see better photos.
We’re going to take a look at removing distractions. Now, you may have heard me harp on about removing distractions in your images during one of my own library videos or articles for Digital Photography School. If so, you’ll be well aware of how distractions make it so much harder for the viewer to connect with your photos. And the same applies to you when taking photographs.
When you’re taking a photo, there is one particular nemesis that causes a huge distraction for you and can make your job of composing stronger images that much harder. And its name is Colour.
Set Your Camera to Monochrome
There is something freeing about shooting in black and white – perhaps it’s because it removes the distraction of colour and reveals the core elements of your image such as tonal contrast, lighting, and texture.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you turn your focus entirely to producing black and white photography. However, by setting your camera to black and white and removing colour, you’ll be able to instantly recognize the tonal contrast, textures, lighting and shapes that pull your images together.
It’s a way of working with and focusing on the core structure of your compositions, so you can start to “see better” and create interesting images.
Another benefit of switching to monochrome mode is that your camera will display your images in monochrome on its LCD screen. In some of the more recent cameras it will also display a black and white preview in Live View mode, which almost feels like cheating in truth. You get to see precisely how the elements of your images interact live, which makes it super easy for you to evaluate what is going on inside your images.
By shooting in this way you may also find that you’ll begin to take photos of subjects that you wouldn’t ordinarily take a photo of if you were working with your camera in colour. This will definitely help you to overcome “Photographers Block”.
“But what if I want my photos in colour?”
Just before you go all gung-ho, set your camera to Black and White and start calling yourself Ansel Adams, there is a particular way you can set your camera up so it gives you the best of both worlds.
Your camera makes it possible to strip away the colour as you are shooting, so you can enjoy all of the compositional benefits of shooting in black and white, and at the same time capture all of the colour information. This means that when you import your image into Lightroom or Photoshop you will still be able to process the image in full colour despite shooting it in black and white.
Here’s precisely how you can do it.
Step One: JPEG and RAW
Go pick up your camera and hop into your camera’s Settings menu. Navigate to the setting that allows you to change the size, format and quality of your images. Set your camera to save your pictures in both RAW and JPEG. It should look something like this.
Step Two: Monochrome
Staying in your camera’s menu system, navigate to the setting that allows you to apply a “picture style” to your images. Different camera manufacturers refer to this slightly differently. There is a list below that may help you to find the setting in your camera. Once you have found it, set your “picture style” to Monochrome (or black and white).
Canon – Picture Style
Nikon – Picture Control
Sony – Creative Style
Olympus – Picture Mode
Fujifilm – Film Simulation
Step Three: Have fun shooting!
By completing steps one and two, you have essentially told your camera to do two things:
- Record a RAW image of every photo you shoot (this RAW image will contain all of the colour information); and
- Record a JPEG image of every photo you shoot (this JPEG image will be the Monochrome version).
You will now be able to view your images in black and white as you’re shooting. This will make composing and “seeing the shot” easier.
And because you’re also recording a RAW image, this will load into Lightroom or Photoshop in full colour.
Step Four: Importing
By default, Lightroom will handle your JPEG+RAW images as a single RAW file when you import them into your library.
Note: If you would prefer Lightroom to import the RAW + JPEG files separately, navigate to your Lightroom settings and check the “Treat JPEG files next to RAW files as separate photos” checkbox prior to importing the files.
Well, there you have it. A pretty straightforward method that you can use today to help you “see the shot”, overcome your “photographers block” and continue on your merry way to crafting beautiful images.
Let’s take a few seconds to recap.
- Use this method to practise recognising strong compositional elements such as texture, tonal contrast, shapes and lighting.
- Make it easier for yourself to see these elements and compose stronger images by setting your camera to Monochrome (black and white) mode.
- Be sure to set your camera to capture each image in both JPEG and RAW so you are able to evaluate, on-the-go, in black and white whilst retaining a full colour RAW version of each shot.
By shooting in black in white first, you’re working with the core elements of your photographs. I encourage you to give it a try. Grab your camera, go for a walk around your house and notice how shooting in monochrome encourages you to capture shots you might’ve overlooked in colour and helps you to “see the shot”.
The colouring in will come later – a little like a colouring-in book. Practise getting the outlines and core elements right and then hop into Lightroom and Photoshop to bring it all to life.
PS. I had so much fun walking through my home capturing some of the shots in this article and processing them in black in white. If you’re curious, login to the library to download 10 of my favourite black and white Lightroom presets for free.
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