Idea – Rachael F at Light Stencils event at Ian’s Studio.

In addition to doing photography, I am involved in other areas of the creating arts such as theatre, writing and in years gone-by I used to write and draw a regular cartoon strip for a local newspaper.

If you have been involved in the anything creative for any length of time someone will ask you one particular question:  “where do you get your ideas from?”.  It is a question that is actually almost impossible to answer.  But I am going to try all the same.

90% Perspiration

There is an old saying that writing (and any other form of creative work) is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration.  There is a lot of truth in this.  Coming up with ideas is hard work, they don’t just ‘come’ fully formed.  There may be a little germ of inspiration and then it takes hard graft to make that into a fully-fledged, self-sustaining idea.

Welcome to the world of Escher

Take this blog post as an example.  As I type this I am currently writing the fourth paragraph.  When I started writing I had about two or three sentences worked out, a vague idea for a photograph to illustrate the blog, and list that may or may not appear later in this article.  So how have I got from that to paragraph four?

I started with a title: “Where do ideas come from?”.  So I opened my word processor and starred at the blank screen.  Blank screens and blank bits of paper are amongst the most terrifying things in the world to writer/blogger.  So I typed the title.  The act of putting that on screen, taking the first step, is the first hurdle overcome.  I can relax a bit now, and start to think about my first paragraph.  There is a formula for writing a blog post so this is easy.  Your first paragraph (or section) is your hook.  You want to hook the reader and tease them so that they will read the rest of the blog.  My hook is that I am going to attempt to answer an impossible question.  To put that question in context I set out my creative background.

So that’s the first section done.  Now it gets tricky.  Having written the opening section (two paragraphs as it turns out), I now need to turn my attention to finding and writing an answer.  It’s time for another writer’s fall back.  The cliché.  Clichés are clichés because they work.  Use them sparingly and use them as spring boards and they will help you on your way.  A cliché should never be your destination just a signpost to it.

In my case, I picked the obvious one about 90% perspiration and quickly typed a couple of sentences about it.  Now time to move on from it.  What next?  An example from my own experience, all good blog posts need to be rooted in real life experience.  What have I done recently that I can use as an example about ideas?  Something like… like… erm… well like writing this blog!  Oh, yes, that would be fun; to write about how I am writing what you are currently reading.  That’s new.  Very recursive.  Just like a drawing by Escher – (google him).  And that gives me an idea for the title for this section.

Now I’m in trouble, I have written about how I got to this point and if I not very careful I am going to describing the very words I am typing now.  So what next? It’s time to apply this to photography.  And that can also be my next heading.

Applying this to photography

Ok, so let’s break out the recursive, self-referential loop, and apply this to our photography.  What can we see from the above?

  • Start with a germ of an idea. Such as a question
  • Use a cliché as a springboard
  • Build on your experiences
  • Don’t be afraid to try something new

Let’s unpack each of these and relate them each to our photography.

Getting the germ of an idea

For this blog the germ of an idea was the question “Where do ideas come from?” for photography that might be something different such as “How can I shoot an autumnal image?” or “What happens if I turn off the key light in the studio?” or “What can we do with this prop?”

If you struggle to get those initial ideas, you might want to join Ian’s Studio Photo Academy as we send out two different inspiration sheets each month to get you thinking.  This week it all about Autumn.

Cliché springboards

Once you have that initial germ of an idea, don’t be afraid to copy or take inspiration from others.  Find images online that you like, copy them.  If you are an academy member, by all means copy the images and setups that you find in the Inspiration Sheets and Lighting Sheets – that’s what they are there for.

If you think this all sound very unprofessional, you couldn’t further from the truth.  The only difference is that top end photographers and professionals call them mood boards!

Build on your experiences

Have you shot something similar before?  Then start with what you have previously done and use that to trigger ideas for the next shot.  Let me give you an example.


Interior of the Basilique Notre Dame de Montreal, Canada


Perhaps you are photographing a church you are visiting on your travels.  At a previous church, you took a shot down the aisle from the back of the church and it worked, this time take the same shot now move to the front of the church and take a shot looked up the aisle towards the entrance of the church.  That worked too.  At the next church you do the same but the now you think that the image looking towards the entrance might work if you just concentrate on the organ that’s over where people come in.

The organ in the Basilique Notre Dame de Montreal, Canada

Try something new

I’ve said many times on this blog: don’t restrict yourself to just what you normally do.  Put yourself outside your comfort zone and try new things and don’t worry if it doesn’t work.

If you only ever did the things that you have done before you won’t improve and develop.  That’s why I produce the Inspiration Sheets for my Academy Members, to encourage them to try new ideas.  By shooting something new you will exercise the creative bits of your brain.  And even if it doesn’t work it may be the grain of an idea for the next thing to shoot.

Let me give you a very practical example of this in practice.  I often hear photographers say that they get stuck for ideas when shooting with a model in the studio.  Believe me it happens to all of us.  One of the things I do is to grab a prop, it doesn’t matter what kind of prop it is, or how ridiculous it is and between me and the model we brainstorm lots of different ways it can be used.  We don’t worry about the lighting or the composition too much.  Spend just two or three minutes doing this then review the images.  Most will be rubbish, but one or two well maybe there’s that germ of an idea.  If we move the lights here, shot from there, cropped in this way… and we are off again.

It was just that kind of experimentation that led to this image:


Well, when I started writing this I wondered if I would have enough to create a blog post.  As it turned out I needn’t of worried.  Once I got started the ideas just kept coming.  And it has sparked off a few germs of ideas for possible blogs in the future.

The blog started off being very recursive, writing about how I was writing this blog.  And it has finished with a recursive theme too;  ideas spark more ideas.  So where do ideas come from?  Well, mostly from other ideas.  The biggest hurdle to getting them is just getting started in the first place.

Until next time, keep MAKING great images,


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