Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thinking Inside the Box

Thinking outside the box is a notion that means thinking differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. It's a phrase that's been around a while, certainly since the early 70s. It usually refers to creative thinking as it applies to business, art, or almost anything. Unfortunately, thinking outside the box is a catchphrase that has become more than a little cliché.

In photography, thinking outside the box, and applying those thoughts to the processes of picture making, sometimes yields cool, dynamic, and big-time wow-value results. Other times, it yields results that, for lack of a better word, suck. But hey! You don't try you don't get, right?

If you're a photographer, you can apply thinking outside the box thinking to lighting, composition, post-production, almost any aspect of the photographic process.

Interestingly, and as this catchphrase applies to photography, we're often advised to think outside the box (by mentors, instructors, and know-it-all blog writers) as we make pictures: Pictures that remain, well, that remain inside a box!

The box, of course, is the geometric shape of the vast majority of photos that are snapped, regardless of the aspect ratio utilized. That's why I like telling shooters to think inside the box rather than outside the box. Why? Because, when it comes down to it, photography is all about what goes inside the box--that square or rectangular shape that constitutes the image's canvas--even when photographers are straining their brains thinking outside the box, or trying to.

Could thinking inside the box be the new thinking outside the box? Wow! Maybe I'm setting a trend here? Or maybe I'm simply starting to think and sound a bit Master Po-ish?

You cannot see.

You think I cannot see?

Of all things, to live in darkness must be worst.

Fear is the only darkness.

On second thought, this inside/outside the box stuff ain't nearly as inscrutable as Master Po's take on things and I doubt it's remotely trend-setting.


Here's the deal--

Don't become obsessively caught up in a thinking outside the box mindset until you know what goes inside the box, that is, what should go inside the box. You know, as in how to put, photographically put, things inside the box in a competent and appealing way. And please! Don't use thinking outside the box as an excuse for pics that suck.

If an image sucks it sucks. It doesn't suddenly not suck because you, the self-proclaiming thinking outside the box photographer, believe your viewers are too dense or simple or unsophisticated to grasp the artistic merits of your thinking outside the box masterpiece when viewing it. It is what it is. And if it sucks it sucks. End of story. Sometimes, when photos suck, you get points for effort but you still don't get points for results.

Another way of looking at this is from the perspective of rules: You know, those pesky, old-school, Rules of Photography. Yeah, I know, rules are made to be broken, especially rules that apply to things of an artistic nature. But it's been my experience, as both a viewer and (occasional) creator of artistic things, that the artists who break the rules best are the artists who know the rules best.

You think Picasso couldn't draw and paint in a classical style that adhered to the tried-and-true rules of drawing and painting? You think he didn't fully understand those rules? You think he didn't spend a big part of his life learning the rules before he broke them? Before he broke them in ways that secured his lofty place in art history?

Think again.

So before you go all renaissance-shooter with your thinking outside the box approach to photography, pretty girl shooting or otherwise, spend some time thinking inside the box. Learn how to make thinking inside the box photos shine. Then start thinking outside the box, developing your own, unique, style and approach to your work. Odds are you're not going to effectively break the rules until you know those rules and can consistently apply them in capable ways.

Personally, I've been doing this photography thing for a long time. Regardless, I'm not often overly comfortable taking too many liberties with the rules and breaking them with my thinking outside the box ideas. More so when I'm shooting on someone else's dime.

It has also been my observation that a lot of what's passed off as thinking outside the box creativity ends up being ideas that have already been conceived and executed by someone else. They're like recycled, thinking outside the box, ideas. Ideas someone else has already thought of. Ideas that were created by someone who was thinking outside the box before you or I were. Most importantly, someone who made their thinking outside the box ideas work.

Some people say, as it applies to artistic things, there's nothing new. I'm not sure that's true but, then again, I'm not sure it ain't true.

The pretty girl at the top, poised like a cat, is Nautica. I've shot Nautica a bunch of different times over the past 4 or 5 years. This one is from three years ago, shot in my studio when I still had a studio. I used my Mola 35.5" Euro beauty dish for the main light with a couple of kickers behind her, both of them strip boxes. I also used a white bounce board or two for some subtle front fill.


Lee said...

I really like that shot ... very animalistic. I think your lighting is more appreciable when viewed in black and white too.

muakansas said...

Well versed Jimmy.

Anathaema said...

I've also gazed at the lighting in the photo for more than 5 minutes, but the only thing I could think of was
"how many pornstars have you photographed?"

jimmyd said...


Thousands! Why? Does it show? LOL!

John said...

Funny. You're saying what the best shooters always seem to say - learn to shoot, shoot often, and your style will come. But there's always a sizable percentage who don't seem to hear it.

David said...

A little off topic, but something that I was interested in. Today's announcement about Kodachrome brought it up.

In your early days, did you use slide film for your pretty girl shooting? Do you use slide film at all now? I've toyed with the possibility, but would be at a loss to where to send it to get developed.

I don't know...if I had the choice of being Paul Simon or you --- I'm picking you. You get to shoot pretty girls for a living.

Thanks for the fascinating content.

jimmyd said...


In my REALLY early days, when I was shooting lots of actors for their headshots and portfolios, it was all about B&W. I had my own darkroom. Usually shot Plus-X and processed myself. When I started shooting pretty girls, i.e., glam, it was always chromes: Fuji Sensia or Provia.

Tim said...

Regarding the "If an image sucks it sucks... end of story" part, I'm just wondering: couldn't it be that it rather is all about the viewer, and that any almost piece of cr*p could be turned into not-sucking gold if only it was boldly promoted to the right audience? For example, I'm sure everyone of us can recount seeing photos on Flickr which clearly lack any conceivable quality, yet still generate rave comments?

jimmyd said...


Some people dish out those "attaboys" and "attagirls" with little regard to whether they're deserved or not. Why? No clue. Guess they're just trying to be nice. Go figure. Don't think those people are helping shooters become discriminating editors tho.