Self-imposed constraints: the key to creativity

Most people will argue that gears don’t make you a good or bad photographer. And they are right. But gears – your choice of lens, of camera body, of filters if any – determine what you can do, and define limits within which to operate your art. And in that sense, it is bound to make you a better photographer in the long run if you operate long enough within those given constraints. Besides gear itself, an artist can impose on himself many constraints, whether knowingly or not. Take for instance landscape photographers. Their constraint is time-related: they will wait until the light is just at this perfect point before taking a picture, maybe a few more, and then go home. A portrait photographer will be constrained by natural light, which he will try to complement with artificial light as able. Still, evolving within the constraints that we give ourselves shape us as an artist. It stretches us to achieve more with what we have and can do. Because the room of possibilities is reduced, our attention is way more focused that it would be otherwise. And this, in essence, is liberating.

I have been using my Canon 60D with a 17-55 zoom lens with f2.8 in continuity. This camera and this lens totally shaped my photography of the past year – literally defined what others call my style (even if I am unsure what this means!). Let me explain: zooms are versatile, but in street photography, only one variable can be adjusted before the target goes away. Mine was the focal distance. Everything else was set. Aperture priority at f2.8, as I felt that smaller apertures were not fast enough. And, the ability to rely on autofocus (or to miss my shots because of auto-focus).

Image taken with Canon 60D @ 55mm

Image taken with Canon 60D @ 55mm

I thus spent my entire year dealing with autofocus, maneuvering my frames between 17mm and 55mm alternatively, and getting something out of it. I operated within those constraints, knowing what shots would work, what would not. Knowing perfectly what I’d get at 17 vs. 55 in my frame (all other focal distances were never used for that matter). Learning to point the focus where needed before recomposing etc. Why it was liberating: I knew perfectly well what I’d get and I did not need to worry about anything else. My resulting shots were soft, with shallow depth of field at 55m, and pretty large depth of field at 17mm. Because my subjects could see me coming from far away, I was also constrained by the types of scene that I could take – and the distance at which I could assumedly go without having their expression change. I thus alternated between long-range shots of solitary figures vs. stolen street portraits of one individual (right in his face type of shots).

Image taken with Canon 60D @17mm

Image taken with Canon 60D @17mm

When I started to use the Leica M with a 35mm lens, the constraints stayed, but they changed in nature. And thus has my photography. It is still very early to describe that change, and how it evolve in the past months or so that I have been using this wonderful combo. But that change is clear, evident. I can experience it throughout the way – from the way I see the world, to the last post-processing touch that I would apply on an image. It is transforming me, slowly, but effectively. It is opening doors that I had never seen before. It is also frightening, because I don’t have a clear sense of the direction that it is taking. I know what I am leaving behind, but not where I am headed at.

  • I am now forced to see within a specific, fixed frame – 35mm – whether or not it is appropriate to what I see. This is forcing me to change the way I see, to make it appropriate to the frame. I thus need to reverse the thinking: and the way I feel my environment. The window is blocked, I cannot extend it neither can I reduce it. My creativity needs to adjust to this new state of things. As a result, I feel that my compositions are getting a little sloppier, less rigorous, more chaotic. My subjects are well centered, but the borders are non-defined – continuing to extend to parts of people, parts of faces. And it seems that I am not ready to crop them out, since in a way, they belong to the frame just as much as my subjects.
Image taken with Leica M @35mm

Image taken with Leica M @35mm

Image taken with Leica M @35mm

Image taken with Leica M @35mm


  • While in hyperfocus mode (anywhere from f6 to f9), which is the most liberating of all modes as a street photographer, the constraint of subjects and scenes become very real. On the one hand, nothing is ever out of focus, which is a novelty to me (used to have f2.8 as my go-to aperture). On the other hand, it requires me to understand everything happening in the frame. The simplicity that I used to achieve with f2.8 is definitely over – I capture a world of complex interactions, foreground and background exploding of details, opposing and yet, continuing one another. There is no clear separation anymore. This state of affairs forces me to consider my background much more carefully for street portraits, and generally, mid-range shots. In other terms, I now need to consider layers – layers of people and things. When everything is in focus, you need to see in 3D, not in 2D. And this is a big change for me.
Image taken with Leica M @35mm

Image taken with Leica M @35mm

Image taken with Leica M @35mm

Image taken with Leica M @35mm


  • If constrained by the need for speed, such as at night, manual focusing requires me to anticipate much more than what I used to do. It forces me to go upfront of people, almost chasing them to get at the right distance. My brain is wired on measuring: measuring the distance between me and the subject. Measuring the steps that it’d take to get closer, the risk of being seen – and thus changing the expression, the risk of missing the moment forever. It becomes an evergoing assessment of risks and possibilities. Yet the results can be stunning. The different mechanisms behind manual and autofocus lenses dramatically alter the experience, each having their sets of requirements to follow. It is like taming a new animal – it is all new, difficult, foreign, yet full of possibilities.
Image taken with Leica M @35mm

Image taken with Leica M @35mm

Yes, constraints shape our artistic vision. They shape who we are, as an artist, as a photographer. But the key to success is to persevere within a given set of constraints - not to give up too early, but to let the time for the mind and the body to understand those limits, and, later on, to overcome them with greater creativity.