Setting Limits

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

This is the sixth (and penultimate) 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 presents assignments that will help you hone your creative approach (should you choose to accept them!).

In the first article in this series, Expecting the Unexpected, I explained that:

  • There is no simple formula for creativity;
  • It’s important to learn to see what is really there, as opposed to what you expect to see;
  • Great photographs can only be made when you strike the right balance between planning and “going with the flow”.

The second article, Focusing on What Matters, moved on to take a closer look at what you photograph. As I noted in the article, “Don’t believe those who think of photography as something than can always be done casually.” As with life itself, it is often (but not always) the case that the more effort you put into your photographic work, the more you will get back.

The point of the second article was to help you focus on what really matters to you and your life, to better be able to integrate personal passion with your photography, and to progress on the life-long journey of discovery that true artists make.

The third article, Becoming Composition Conscious, took a look at photography from a completely different perspective. My opinion is that photography is applied graphic design, so to make an effective photograph you’ve got to start with a good composition. But good composition is not a matter of rigidly following rules. This can lead to photographers who have passion and know what they want to photograph, but can’t quite get their images to jell from a compositional viewpoint. Becoming Composition Conscious provided a framework for working through these problems.

The fourth article in the series, Making the Unseen Visible, showed how photography can reveal things that are unseen. This article explained that revealing things to people that they haven’t seen before is one of the main goals of the truly creative photographer, and provided some techniques to support your own revelations via your photography.

The last article, Knowing When to Quit, tackles the surprisingly difficult and important topic of stopping creative work while you are still ahead. The article suggested some strategies for maximizing creative energy.

This article, Setting Limits, confronts the horror of the “blank page.” Almost every artist in almost every medium—not only photographers but also novelists and painters—has confronted the horror of the blank page. In a nutshell, this creativity killer wakes up when that voice in your brain says, “But I have nothing to photograph.”

Part of the problem is the vastness of the blank page. When you can write anything, paint anything, photograph anything, why is a particular subject worthwhile? And, where do you start?

The very vastness of the array of possibilities can be paralyzing. Thinking about this potential paralysis leads to the solution to this dilemma—the subject of this column—setting appropriate limits.

Scope of the Problem

As I’ve noted, throughout the ages—in whatever their choice of medium—artists have confronted blank pages, empty canvases, and trying to figure out what to photograph. The scope of this problem is immense.

Particularly when it seems like nothing interests you, how do you know what to photograph? The universe is a big place. A photo is a two-dimensional representation of a “chunk” of this vast visual sea and space. Paralysis can set in when you think of all the possibilities.

The full range of possible captures using the equipment in an average camera bag is far beyond the capacity of the human mind to visualize all at once.

An answer to this “analysis paralysis” is that it doesn’t necessarily matter so much what you choose to shoot. But you don’t want to spend time staring into space or gazing at your navel. So get out there and start photographing! It doesn’t matter what you choose to photograph so long as you are photographing something.

A technique for avoiding fear of the blank page—in photographic terms, this might be fear of the empty frame—and analysis paralysis is to set limits for yourself. I’ll get to some detailed suggestions later in this column, but for now think about what I did one week not so long ago: I limited myself to photographing common vegetables found in the supermarket. My results include the onion shot at the beginning of this column, and the green mustard leaf and red pepper photo below.

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Your assignment: Pick a subject, such as my example of vegetables at the supermarket. Spend an entire week only photographing your chosen subject.

Limitation as Signature

In my workshops, I often point out to participants that we may expect too much of photographers. If a great painter did one great painting a week, we’d say that painter was incredibly prolific. However, as photographers we expect to get great—or at least interesting—images every time we go out shooting.

You should practice photography often. In some respects, getting good at the craft of photography is like becoming skilled as a musician. You need to know your instrument, er… camera, and practice until controlling the camera is second nature. The way to get to Carnegie Hall or get that great print on the wall in a gallery exhibit is to “Practice, practice!”

If you take my advice and take photos all the time, you’ll shoot many times in any given week. It is simply not realistic for anyone to expect to get great, or even interesting, or even good, images out of all this material.

In fact, the reputation for greatness of some artists is burnished by the fact that they only created a small number of works. For example, there are less than thirty known paintings by the great painter Vermeer.

Even when an artist has been relatively prolific, limitation to a particular subject matter, style, or way of seeing is part of what builds artistic reputation. We recognize the particular way of seeing of Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. The heroic black and white landscapes of Ansel Adams are undeniably great photos, but if you think about it, these photos are subject to a number of strict limitations of style, subject matter and technique.

For most well-known artists, limitation of some kind serves two purposes. It is a signature that allows the work of the artist to be recognized. Also, limitation allows these artists to work within their comfort zones. Because they have limited themselves, they have also set themselves free to soar within the parameters of their signature limitations.

As you consider the suggestions for self-limitation in this column, think about how you might work limits into your own work to create a signature style.

On one photographic trip, my time was severely limited. I had two days to cross the Sierras, photograph the ancient Bristlecone Pines, and get back. So I decided I would ignore everything except the Bristlecone Pines. One of my photos from the trip is below.

Your assignment: Choose a place that is some distance from where you live with something interesting to photograph (like my example of the Bristlecone Pines). Travel there as quickly as you can. Do not take photos on the way or the way back. Just photograph the subject matter you have targeted.


Motivating through Limitation

Many of the professional assignments that I’ve worked on have helped me grow as a photographer. Although sometimes assignments can be mundane, or even distasteful, I’ve been fortunate that this has seldom been true for me. Assignments have provided external limitations, prodded me to move in unexpected directions, and pushed my comfort zone.

If you don’t have clients to provide these benefits, you should give yourself assignments to help yourself become a more creative photographer.

Here are some general ideas about giving yourself assignments (although you could just start with the suggestions in this column, if they appeal to you):

  • Make sure the self-assignment really does limit you (see “Choosing Limits” later in this column for some suggestions).
  • Choose something you find difficult, either technically or in terms of subject matter.
  • Consider choosing something very different from your usual choice of subjects: if you usually photograph nudes, try flowers instead.
  • Start by using limitations to pare your self-assignment down to the very minimum. Then gradually add alternative techniques, approaches, and subject matter.
  • Be sure to get outside your comfort zone.

For a publication project, I needed to photograph city lights at night. The problem was that I kept getting ejected by security guards from promising locations because of my tripod. I was finally able to wait long enough on this tramway platform with my tripod to photograph the moving lights of a departing train.


Your assignment: Photograph someplace dicey, where you are not sure you’ll be allowed to take pictures. (Please note: I am not suggesting you put yourself in physical danger. Be careful and use good judgment.)

Choosing Limits

I’ve suggested assignments that limit subject matter and where you photograph. Other possible self-limitations include:

  • Limiting by lens
  • Limiting by technique
  • Limiting by setting
  • Limiting by time

To take the two photos shown below, I limited myself to using a fisheye lens shot up at the ceiling of public buildings. The two photos show the Cathedral of Light in Oakland, California, and the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

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Your assignment: Choose a single lens. If it is a zoom lens, pick a focal length. For an entire shoot, only use that lens (or focal length).

When I was photographing the rocky fog-bound coast shown below at twilight, I knew I was only interested in dark, low-key photography that showed the surf as white against a dark shore. I assumed that I would limit my final work to black & white.


Your assignment: Choose to photograph only overall dark subjects, with the idea of using low key lighting to bring out the details in selective parts of your images.

Limiting yourself by setting is really easy and fun. Simply choose to stick with a particular aperture or shutter speed setting.

Your assignment: For one day, set your camera to shutter-preferred metering and choose 1/125 of a second. Do not change the shutter speed. The next day, set your camera to aperture-preferred metering and choose f/8. Do not change the aperture. What different qualities do the images have from your shoots on the two days?

Time is one of the most interesting variables to use in self-limitation. There are many ways to go about it. I’ve heard of a photographer who shot only one picture a day for a year. That’s a heck of a self limitation.

Another way to limit yourself using time resembles the technique of speed drawing. The idea: see how many photos you can take in five minutes.

My point with time limitation is that ways to limit yourself are themselves unlimited! Use your imagination. Self limitation can be great fun and help you come up with a unique viewpoint and style.

Avoiding Inadvertent Self-Limitations

Intentional self-limitation is not the same thing as inadvertent, or unconscious, self-limitation. This is a very important distinction. Do not limit yourself without making the choice to do so.

There are many ways you can limit yourself without even being aware you are doing so. One self-limitation of the bad kind is to think that a photographic challenge is too tough or that you can’t do it. Don’t limit yourself by assuming failure in advance.

In my book Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley Publishing, 2010), I explain that the well-known rule of thirds means placing important elements of a photo composition on the grid of an image split into thirds. As I note in my book, I am skeptical of trying to apply the rule of thirds rigidly. In fact, I don’t believe in following any rules rigidly when it comes to photography.

So if you dogmatically follow compositional rules without experimentation, consider that you may be practicing self-limitation without recognizing it. Loosen up!

Self-limitation is about intentionally accepting restraints to avoid artistic blocks and to achieve artistic freedom. It is not about being stuck without consideration in a rut.


For me, exercises that limit the scope of my work in a particular time and place help me define my work, create signature styles, stretch my creative muscles, find joy in my work, and avoid getting stuck. I invite you to join me in finding freedom in restraint.

The key points that I have covered in Setting Limits include:

  • Paralysis in the face of unlimited possibility is a creative problem in all the arts. One solution is self-limitation.
  • Self-limitation can lead to new and different work, and help you create your unique style.
  • A good use of limitations is to help you work beyond your comfort zones.
  • Effective self-limitations I’ve discussed include limiting subject, place, style, technique, lens and photographic settings.
  • Self-limitation is not the same things as being rigid, dogmatic, inflexible or blocked.


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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    • What a fantastic article;I've been flagging lately,unsure where to go and what to do and generaly loosing interest and getting somewhat frustrated with my photography;this article has inspired me with a new enthusiasm ,the possibilities are endless! Just the spur I needed, thanks.
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    • My favorite essay in this most excellent series! So many great ideas to try. Thank you.
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    • Hi Harold, I've read all the articles of your very interesting serie. I'm starting in photography and I found them very interesting, and very helpfull to make concient progress. So I take the time to thank you for your generosity to help people and share your knowledge ... it's not so common or "normal" as one would expect! Sincerely, Piet
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    • great scheduling for expansion, i will partake to see how my skills improve
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