Expecting the Unexpected

Introduction | I: Expecting the Unexpected | II: Focusing on What Matters | III: Becoming Composition Conscious | IV: Making the Unseen Visible | V: Knowing When to Quit | VI: Setting Limits | VII: A Spiral Model of Creativity

Life is full of surprises. The best photography is not sterile and removed from life because compelling photography takes advantage of the serendipitous and messy nature of the world. If you are prepared, and expecting the unexpected, your photography will be more creative, imaginative, and richer than if you are rigid in the way you see the world, and in how you go about taking photographs.

Many people ask me why my approach to photography is so imaginative. They want to know what I do to come back with creative imagery on most occasions.

One answer is that I wasn’t always such a creative photographer. I’ve learned to be more creative and flexible as I’ve gone along. I believe that to a great extent creativity can be learned. And I want to teach you what I’ve found out.

This is the first in a series of articles about becoming a more productive and inventive photographer. In these articles I’ll share some of the techniques I use to boost my creativity and I’ll show you how I’ve learned to be more imaginative with my photography. My goal is to help you to become more creative, too.

Each of the articles in this series will present assignments that will help you hone your creative approach (should you choose to accept them!).

I photographed the water drop shown at the beginning of this column in bright sunshine with my macro lens stopped all the down for maximum focus within the drop. I was surprised to see a complete world reflected upside down and backwards, including water drops within the water drop, and so on, to infinity.

Your assignment: Photograph a reflection (in water, in a mirror, etc) so as to convey an entirely different world.

This article presents six approaches that will help you use your vision to enlarge and extend your creative potential:

  1. You need to understand there is no “one size fits all” recipe for creativity, and use the tools I provide to find your own path to becoming a more creative photographer.
  2. Technique matters. The truly creative photographer is a technical virtuoso who has learned to move beyond issues of technique into the realm of creative interpretation.
  3. Creativity starts by seeing things for what they really are; you need to look beyond what you expect to see.
  4. Photography is a quest, but the ultimate prize is often different from our initial expectation. The truly creative photographer learns to quickly shift gears to take advantage of unexpected but wonderful things that come up along the way.
  5. It’s important to move beyond your comfort zone, even if that means venturing beyond the things you know and have photographed in the past.
  6. Serendipity, chance events and ideas, are an important part of creativity in photography. Rather than futilely struggling against luck in the world, you should learn to embrace serendipity and make it your photographic friend.

1. There’s No Recipe for Creativity

Becoming more creative cannot be approached like an assembly line. There is no cookie cutter way to enhance the imaginative component of your photography. At the same time, with the exception of a few kinds of precision photography, creativity is the great differentiator between merely competent and inspirational photographers.

Several photographers can shoot the same subject and all come back with technically competent captures. But one of those photographers might produce results that will outshine his or her buddies—all because of the creative X factor.

We’ve all seen this kind of disparity of result, and we’ve all likely experienced another phenomenon. Some days you’ve probably felt in the photography “zone”, ready to rise to the challenge of improvising gorgeous creative imagery. Other times, everything seems dull and flat, and there are no acceptable solutions to the visual challenges that arise. Nothing seems worth photographing.

My creativity is not the same as your creativity, nor should it be.

My eyes, and the filter of my experiences and my brain, are different than yours. Part of what is wonderful about viewing photography is that we get to see the world as others have seen it.

There is no recipe for creativity. We each much learn about our own path. That said, there are ways of seeing and thinking that can benefit everyone. You can learn to increase your creative X factor, and to boost your batting average. You can increase the percentage of times that the photos you take are in that wonderful and mysterious creative zone.

Image notes: I photographed the reflections in a pot on the stove shown above in our kitchen, and then worked on the image in the Photoshop darkroom to create the effect you see. It’s hard to tell if this is a photo or a painting, and at first glance you may not be sure what the image depicts, but if you look at it carefully you can definitely see my kitchen.

Your assignment: Pick an everyday object where you live. Make your mind a blank and forget everything you know or associate with the object. Try to see it with new eyes. Find out what is interesting about the mundane object, and create an image based on this interest.


2. Creativity and Photographic Technique

Photography is inextricably bound up with technique. There’s no such thing as a great photographer who is oblivious to photographic methods. That said, we should aspire to virtuosity: like a gifted musician who has practiced scales five hours a day for years, our mastery of photographic technique should free us to concentrate on the aesthetic aspects of photography. Technique should be second nature, which lets your imagination soar.

Mastery of technique is part of what allows some photographers to capture extraordinary and unexpected images apparently effortlessly. The lack of apparent effort is likely an illusion, but technique is very important.

You’ll possibly be surprised to learn that the process of becoming more creative also makes a photographer more technically proficient. Creativity implies experimentation and trying many different approaches, which in turn fosters learning new techniques and honing the edges of those you already know. If you are doing the assignments in this article, you are spending time practicing photography, which will help to make you a virtuoso.

Cameras and lenses don’t take photos, photographers do. That said, we can’t make photographs without a camera, and we need to use a lens. Actually, it can be said that many photographers not only need to use a lens, they love lenses and photographic gadgets.

There’s a spectrum of photographers, from those who see hardware (cameras, lenses, etc.) as a necessary evil to those who greatly enjoy their toys. The first kind of photographer in their heart would like to be able to visualize images straight out of their mind’s eye; the second kind would lose interest if new hardware weren’t involved.

No matter where you are on this spectrum—and there’s nothing wrong with either end—your lenses do define the photos you can make. A lens is to a photographer as a paintbrush is to a painter, and the lens is the literal and figurative lens the photographer uses to “see” the world.

Ah, but which lens to use, and what exposure, and what focal length (if the lens zooms)? Those are the questions. I have stood baffled in a beautiful scene, trying to overcome my inability to choose the best tool to use for the moment.

Sometimes less is more. It’s a great feeling to go shooting with one lens. The single optic experience simplifies and clarifies. Like the Zen mendicant, I am often richer as a photographer when I cut my choices down to the bone.

Your assignment: Wait until you are feeling no inspiration and stuck in a rut. Choose a single lens, set it at a single focal length, and use aperture-preferred metering to choose one f-stop. Start taking photos. I guarantee that you will be surprised with what you come up with. This exercise is a great way to reinvigorate your photography generally and get out of a rut.


I believe that digital photography is one part photography and one part digital post-processing software. I have absolutely no shame about the fact that many of my images are substantially enhanced in the Photoshop darkroom. I often photograph with Photoshop in mind, and I think the ability to digitally manipulate images greatly enhances the creative scope of photography in general.

Image notes: It was a dark and rainy day. I went outside with the idea of photographing water drops on flowers, but there was too much wind. I looked down in our recycling bin, and saw the red soda can shown earlier in this section covered with rain drops. Back indoors I loaded the red can image into my computer and started playing in Photoshop. The wind and rain howled outside, and by the time I was done I had a completely new abstract image.

Your assignment: Shoot a commonplace object with digital post-processing specifically in mind. Using your favorite image editing software, transform the photo of the commonplace object into something new and abstract.


Standing near a swimming pool, I contemplated the ladder. This seemed about as boring an object as could I could imagine. As I cleared my preconceptions and looked at what was really there, I saw that the pattern of reflections in the ladder were actually quite intriguing. I used a tripod and a macro lens to photograph the ladder, combining several exposures taken at different focal points to maximize the sharpness of the ladder.

3. We See What We Expect to See

I’m a great reader of fantasy and adventure novels, and I went through an extended period of reading naval adventures, mostly set in the Napoleonic era. In many of these stories, the hero, always a daring and dashing captain of a small but powerful frigate, realizes something that every photographer should know: we see only what we expect to see. This very human failing was dangerous to the frigate captain because it was easy to miss anomalies, such as enemy ships where no ship was supposed to be.

The single most important trait of the creative photographer, like the frigate captain, is that he or she has learned to put aside expectations and see “what is really there” without preconceptions.


When you wander in an empty stadium like the one shown in the photo below, do you see seats and bleachers or horizontal lines divided by diagonal lines? Which interpretation is more real, which is closer to what is really there, and which is more interesting?

Your assignment: Without a camera, observe a scene closely. What abstract pattern or patterns can the scene be boiled down to visually?

Your assignment: Pick something that you’ve looked at often, and that you think is visually boring. Now, let go of your preconceptions about your subject. Study it carefully. Find something you haven’t observed before about it, and make an interesting image using this new aspect of your subject.

4. Lemonade from Lemons

Photography often involves a goal. If you are a professional, you may be on assignment. Amateurs go someplace to photograph, take on projects, give themselves assignments (maybe even the ones I’ve suggested in this article), and take workshops. These are all good things.

However, as I started this article by pointing out, life is full of surprises. It’s important to have a plan, but things often don’t work out as planned. And this is also a good thing.
Here’s how I think of this tension between an assignment (whether self-assigned or otherwise) and the inherent changeability of life.


A photographic assignment is a quest, in the sense that medieval knights undertook quests. So my first job is to accept the quest (assignment) and plan to do it successfully as best I can.
But medieval knights understood that by accepting a quest they were accepting the adventure that would be given to them, which was not necessarily the adventure originally undertaken as the quest.

This is another way of saying that if you are dealt photographic lemons, turn them into lemonade. Being too rigid about your original plan means that you will lose the wonderful images that appear, serendipitously, only along side roads.

Image notes: I was leading a night photography workshop at the famous Point Reyes Lighthouse. The night was extremely wet and foggy, and didn’t seem like good conditions for photography. Instead of giving up, we wrapped our cameras in plastic bags and set out to capture the fog itself. This is one of my photos from the night, of the lighthouse mysteriously wreathed in fog.

Your assignment: The next time something goes wrong with a shoot, grab the problem, turn it into a possibility, and make it the basis of a photograph.

5. Beyond the Fields We Know

It’s a thin line indeed between the everyday and commonplace world that we think we know very well, and magical worlds where anything photographic can happen.

In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Victorian fantasist Lord Dunsany wrote about slipping over the line from our world beyond the fields we know into faerie. On returning, years had passed, and nothing was ever the same again.


This is another way of saying that once you find your creativity and inspiration you can’t go home again. But why would you want to?

Image notes: I was thinking of Dunsany’s novel when I slipped out before dawn to photograph dandelions covered in the morning’s dew (image below). As the morning sun started to rise, the droplets of dew were colored with magical colors and I was transported to a new and strange land.

Your assignment: Starting with a place you know very well, find a way to “slip through the cracks” so you are looking around you with new eyes. Create a photographic image that conveys what you are now seeing.

6. Embracing Serendipity

If I know the answer in advance, there’s not much fun in it. Mysteries are mysteries because they contain mysteries.

I never know where my photography will take me. I also don’t know in advance how I’ll figure out which way to go to get there. This means I need to be open to possibilities and to embrace serendipity.


On a trip to photograph Oakland, California’s Chinatown, I got sidetracked by reflections in the skyscrapers of one of the few modern office buildings in downtown Oakland. The combination of the windows in the reflections called out to me, and I added colors to the old and new buildings to construct a radically new version of Oakland.

Did I know I would do this in advance? No.

I listened carefully to an idea in my mind’s eye, and executed it as best I could. There are many reasons to think this might not have worked as an image, but I didn’t let myself be stopped because I thought it wouldn’t work. I went ahead anyway, played, had fun, and came back with an interesting and creative image.

This image might not have been workable. Don’t be afraid to fail. If you never create an image that is no good, then you’ve been playing it too safe.

Don’t let the voice in your mind stop you from trying things. There are enough people out there in the world that will be critical. You don’t need an inner critic ganging up on you before you even really get started.

Your assignment: The next time you have a visual idea, however fleeting or unlikely it seems, pursue the idea to the end, as far as it goes, and come back with an image. Good, bad, or ugly it doesn’t really matter. The point is to teach that nasty voice in your head that you won’t be stopped from unleashing your creative imagination.


Creativity is the key ingredient that separates technically competent photos from stunning imagery. The ability to take advantage of life’s surprises is part of the essence of being creative. You can’t use the surprising to your advantage until you learn to expect the unexpected.

This article has provided some assignments to help you jump start your creativity and discussed some key concepts related to photography and creativity, including:

  • There’s no formula, or recipe, for creativity (although the techniques I’ve explained can help get you on the right creative path)
  • You need to master photographic technique as part of becoming a photographic virtuoso
  • It’s vital to learn to see what is really there, not what you expect to see
  • If the situation doesn’t match your photographic plan, be flexible and switch plans to “make lemonade from lemons.”
  • Learn to stretch beyond what you know and are comfortable with; this will change you as a photographer, and all change is scary, but it is the only way to truly grow
  • Take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that chance provides

The next column in this series, Focusing on What Matters, takes a close look on what you photograph. Your choice of subject contributes immensely to the creativity of your imagery in a couple of ways. First, great images are passionate. You need to truly care about what you photograph. Second, as you conceive, visualize, create, and compose photos, you truly need to understand what matters in the photo—or you won’t be able to perform these tasks with élan, enjoyment, and quality.


Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.

Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.

Text ©2009 Harold Davis.

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    • Thanks for this excellent article. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series!
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    • Thanks Harold, this is great information!
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    • This introductory information and advice was very interesting. I'll look forward to the next installment!
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    • Wonderful and interesting article. Got my creative juices flowing. I'm also looking forward to the next installment.
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    • Just because someone is great at something doesn't mean he can teach that skill. Not only is this author an excellent photographer, but he has the ability to explain it to others. Love his examples and assignments - I will come back to this column!
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    • Wonderful and inspirational advice! Thank you!
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    • Thanks a lot for this superoir article. Even though, there is something I already have knowledge about and have experience in, but the way you shape the article and your methods for explanation make the ideas and the lessons really very valuable. I just right down the assignments you mentioned on a piece of paper and kept it with me when ever I go. Sure with the camera on my shoulder. Many thanks.
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    • Venice Reflection Mirror, mirror... Thank you for a wonderful and inspiring article! Assignments are great, I started exploring and enjoying with first one, reflection. It is amazing how many reflections are around us and we never notice them! Thanks a lot again! Looking forward to see next article!
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    • Thanks everyone! I appreciate the comments. Keep photographing with passion. Best wishes, Harold
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    • Thanks Harold for this awesome article, I cant wait to read the next installment, and get started on the assignments.
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    • Thanks a lot!! Looking forward to your next.
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    • Thanks Harold. Good stuff. Is there a way of being notified when the next instalment goes up?
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    • Also, if you're subscribed to the photo.net newsletters (if not, go to "My Workspace" to sign up), you'll get notification regarding all new editorial, including Harold Davis' column installments. Thanks for the enthusiasm--we're excited about this column!
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    • Thanks for the wonderfully provocative insight, moving me to push through the rut I'm experiencing of not seeing anything worth photographing. The style which you deliver your message is refreshing and inspiring. Thanks for that! Martin
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    • This is a great article! So much of it is common sense, but it's presented so as to make one think deeper. I had been in a rut, and had already tried some of the assignments on my own. Seeing it presented here validated the whole process....I can't wait to continue on!
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    • Your article really helped me get a better understanding on photography. I'm back in school and taking a class and completely intimidated by where to begin. Very informative and helpful.
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