Limitations and creative blocks are the bane of photographers — but learning to overcome them can be a transformative opportunity to grow creatively. As photographer Chiara Zonca discovers when she tests the Urth ND Selects Kit Plus+, all you need is the right tools and an open mind.
Words and Photography by Chiara Zonca
Inspiration can come on a whim and sweep you off your feet, heart racing, pursuing an image or an idea in feverish excitement. Lack of it drains your motivation and leaves you doubting your own creative abilities.
I am not going to lie, the past few months have been tough on me in that regard. While facing yet another month unable to travel or explore much beyond the confines of my backyard, I started to experience the dreaded inspiration dry patch. With it came the familiar wave of dissatisfaction and feeling unfulfilled.
As an artist, I need inspiration more than ever to continue my practice. If I don’t take a photograph for an extended period of time, I feel like something isn’t right. I also am quite guilty of feeling the way I do. I live in a stunningly beautiful place and I consider myself incredibly lucky to call a tiny, rural island off the coast of British Columbia my home.
I do, however, have a nomadic spirit. My heart ultimately belongs to the open road. I was just so reliant on travel and moving around for inspiration that I am struggling to adjust to being confined to one place for such a long period of time, no matter how stunning it may be.
So how do you create when inspiration is dwindling?
You either have to change yourself or the toolkit at your disposal.
Changing your vision usually happens over time. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a location you photographed with brand new eyes after years have passed. It’s one of the main reasons I chose to be a photographer in the first place.
But in order to appreciate the change in your vision and mindset, you need to come back to somewhere you haven’t been for a while. Sadly, this wasn’t a realistic option for me. That left me with the second option, changing the tool kit at my disposal. By that, I mean experimenting as much as possible with different ways of taking a photograph, using flash, trying different filters, focal lengths, distortions, flares and long exposures.
“By experimenting with new tools and techniques, I hoped to unlock new ideas.”
This is a technical approach rather than a conceptual one and, I’ll admit, I was not entirely comfortable with the idea of changing my technique to get myself out of an artistic roadblock instead of tackling the issue creatively. I am not a technical photographer. Techniques and gear are just tools to me and secondary to my creativity, vision and ideas. A purely technical approach to solve my issue felt slightly like cheating at first.
But the purpose isn’t to create groundbreaking imagery from the get-go, it’s to get myself out of a creative rut and back to shooting. By experimenting with new tools and techniques, I hoped to unlock new ideas and reduce my reliance on travel for inspiration. At the very least, I’d learn a few new techniques I can integrate with my creative process moving forward.
A fresh approach in a familiar place
To start, I tried the three different ND filters from Urth’s ND Selects Kit Plus+ to see how they can help me achieve a different rendering of my beautiful, yet over-explored, backyard. I made a point of shooting in harsh light because it is more difficult for me, and it was about time I got acquainted with all the ways I can use ND filters to my advantage in harsh light conditions.
ND filters are great for when you are trying to reduce the light coming through your sensor in a variety of conditions, like when you are shooting in harsh light and still need a shallow depth of field, or perhaps you’d like to slow down your shutter to photograph choppy waters and the light is just too much for the camera.
In the spirit of creative exploration, I used ND filters with a hint of flash during a sunny, daytime portrait shoot in my garden. This combination resulted in harsh shadows that created interesting smoky textures on my subject. I also wanted the flash to selectively fill part of the shadows on the face. To get the right balance of light and shadows, I used the ND8 filter to reduce the amount of light coming in. This, in turn, made the shadows more dramatic and gave an overall warmth to the highlights.
The ND filter also allowed me to keep a dreamy, extremely shallow depth of field that wouldn’t have been possible with the amount of light flooding the garden.
While going for a walk on a nearby beach, I used this same technique with an ND filter and noticed that my flash was highlighting the textures and colours of the foliage. Plants appeared more unusual and exotic, which I definitely loved. Yet the harsh afternoon sun was aggressively peeking through, making my scene way too bright to be able to use flash effectively.
So I tried the more extreme ND64 and 1000 filters, which cut out even more light, to see how far I could change the intense light conditions to my advantage. The results were incredible.
Some of the photos, particularly those taken with the ND1000, looked like they had been taken at dusk or even at night. This exciting discovery could allow me to achieve a nighttime look without the extra grain and hassles of bringing a tripod along. I also noticed that under strong sunlight, my flash wasn’t overpowering the natural light as it would have done during dusk. This gave my photos a far more natural look where the flash wasn’t so dominant, which I personally prefer.
With just minor tweaks, such as using flash during the daytime or adding an ND filter, I was able to completely change the landscape in the photograph and my own perception of the place along with it.
My search for inspiration may not have cleared my creative block for good, but when I eventually step out of my beautiful backyard, I will have new tools at my disposal to take the photos I want no matter the light. And when inspiration runs dry again, I’ll know exactly what to do: get out, try new things and do the work.
I’ll take that over feeling uninspired any day.