#151 – Creativity – ‘What If’ and ‘How Can I’

Questions – don’t you just love them?

My day job involves asking a lot of questions, either requesting people to do things or requesting information. Sometimes when doing audits, I have to ask several questions to elicit the information or response I want, and I often find myself saying ‘I’ll ask it a different way’ or ‘I’ll ask a better question’ . But these are questions asked of other people, the most important questions we ask are of ourselves, and two of the most empowering questions are ‘How can I…….?’ and ‘What if….?’

Now these can be asked in many situations, but in the context of photography and this blog, they are important when it comes to creativity. Creativity is a huge subject although there isn’t too much written about it in relation to photography, or at least there hasn’t been much creative written about creativity in photography. That’s because creativity is a somewhat nebulous thing, and as photography is all about taking an image of something that is already there, then creativity can often simply be bypassed. Of course, this all depends on the intent of the photograph, i.e. whether it is just a record photograph of something you are selling on ebay, or a model shoot with a set and umpteen different lights and reflectors, etc.

I’ve found that an aid to creativity are the questions ‘What if……?’ and ‘How Can I….?’  How can I questions are a good way of coming up with alternatives, especially when you’re stuck:

  • How can I compose this scene to tell a different story?
  • How can I use just  the lens I’ve got on, which is far from ideal, to make this photograph work?
  • How can I compose this scene differently to the obvious? 
  • How can I use the bad weather to my advantage?
  • How can I light this scene / person to make them look better / more flattering?

WhatiIf questions are great follow ups to How Can I’s, and also as stand alone questions.

  • What if I got in really close?
  • What if I stood two miles away? (No use if you’re into macro photography of ladybirds!)
  • What if I cropped off the side?
  • What if I shot into the sun rather than against it?
  • What if I used a telephoto lens instead of a wide angle? Or a wide angle instead of a telephoto?
  • What if I climbed up there and looked down on the subject?
  • What if I put something in the foreground?
  • What if I composed the photo with that juxtaposed next to that?
  • What if I left all my gear at home and took just one camera and one lens?
  • What if I just used a compact? Or a camera phone?
  • What if I used a really slow shutter speed?
  • What if I just used a single light source rather than 2 or 3?
  • What if I underexposed it 2 stops?
  • What if I ditched the tripod and used a really high ISO?
  • What if I composed this landscape rather than portrait? Or vice versa?
  • What if I tilted the camera at an angle?
  • What if I used a very small Depth Of Field to isolate the subject?
  • What if I looked down? Or up? Or behind what I am photographing? Or turn round and look behind me?

I love the photos in this blog post http://justcreativedesign.com/2008/03/22/56-creative-photography/. What ‘How Can I’ and ‘What If’ questions must have been asked to come up with these photos?

Here’s a few of my own examples to illustrate how questions can be used:


I took this and edited it on my mobile phone (which I still find amazing that that you can do that on telephones, but that’s a blog post for another day), and the editing software is somewhat limited in what it can do. So using it’s limited tools (Lomo offect, colour balance, brightness, etc) I created this to turn an already icy scene into a near infra red looking winter. So the questions would be How can I use the limited tools that I’ve got to improve the image? What if I made it look REALLY cold? What if I gave it a vignette to hold the eye in the picture?

 The same thinking can be applied to the creative process before the shutter is pressed.


Here, the questions asked were, how can I make the most of this scene now and later? What if I underexposed this 2 stops? And in Photoshop, what if I burn out all the detail in the buildings and sky, then dodge the rails to make them really stand out?

When I parked my car up near the beach at Redcar, I noticed that there was potential in this scene – a holiday caravan site with a steelworks in the background. The questions I asked were – how can I capture the surreal nature of this scene? What if I stood up on the sand dunes to overlook both? What if I put on a telephoto to compress the perspective to make the steelworks look nearer than it actually is? What if I converted it to black and white to make it look grimmer than it actually is?


In the viewing are at the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, I took some quite agreeable pictures, but decided if there were any alternative views. Questions asked inluded  ‘What if I got down low and took the photo behind these railings, like a child would see it?’ Does the photo work? No it’s rubbish, but I didn’t know that unless I tried. 

Here’s another one, which I blogged about a few weeks back. I’d not managed to get anything remotely creative on my visit to the Great Central Railway, but my attention was drawn to the crisp black shadow cast by the engine as we steamed down the line. ‘How can I photograph this and capture what I’m seeing?’ I didn’t manage to capture what I saw somehow – maybe I should have held the camera at arms length to get more of the engine in the frame.

And that’s the thing with this – it doesn’t always work and the results can be dismal. That’s a good thing. Dare to be different, and at least if you fall, you fall forward.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Very thought provoking.


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