A Photographer’s Kit for Getting Out of a Creative Rut

For photographers, creativity is the difference between a great shot and a great shot. But what if you’re not feeling very creative? That’s when I like to dive into what I call my “photographer’s creative kit”, a bunch of different things to try.

This might mean using accessories, taking advantage of my camera’s unique menu options, trying different exposure techniques (like shallow depth of field), or just something I remember another photographer doing well. Here are some examples of how I used this creative kit during the four-day workshop I recently led in North Georgia.

Sometimes being creative means being able to see past the obvious problems. When we hiked Cherokee Falls at Cloudland Canyon State Park, it was quite mixed due to full sun on one side and heavy shade on the other.

Nikon Z 9, manual exposure, Natural Auto white balance, ISO 64, 1/2 second at f/22 in matrix metering, +0.3 EV, Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S lens at 16mm.

However, as I told the band, most cameras today can have huge dynamic range when used at low ISOs. This means that if you expose to protect highlights, you have a good chance of overcoming this problem later on when editing.

Here’s that same image, edited in Adobe Camera RAW, picking up the overexposed highlights in the upper right and bringing detail to the dark areas:

Nikon Z 9, manual exposure, Natural Auto white balance, ISO 64, 1/2 second at f/22 in matrix metering, +0.3 EV, Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S lens at 16mm.

This tree in the shade, on a sunny background, caught my attention. But for it to really stand out, I needed a fast aperture lens. That’s why I often carry a quick and “normal” lens with me. The f/1.4 models can be quite large (and expensive), but the f/1.8 or f/2.0 are much smaller (and cheaper).

Nikon Z 9, aperture priority, Natural Auto white balance, ISO 64, 1/2500 at f/2 in matrix metering, -0.7 EV, Nikkor Z 40 mm f/2 lens.

If I’m trying to pack light, but think I might want to do some close-ups, I’ll bring an extension tube or two. They are small, light and inexpensive, and can turn almost any ordinary lens into a close-up lens. You’ll have a more limited focus range, but for occasional use they’re great.

This Iris was at Finster’s Paradise Garden, the second stop on our first day.
Here is the pair of Meike extension tubes, for Nikon Z cameras, that I brought to Georgia.

I tend to shoot (or process) in black and white if the scene in front of me looks old or the color is off. It was also at Finster’s Paradise Garden:

Nikon Z 6, aperture priority, sunny white balance, ISO 100, 1/200 at f/11 in matrix metering, -0.3 EV, Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S lens at 15mm.

My cameras have a built-in multiple exposure feature, which I sometimes use while zooming the lens while taking photos. This is an exhibit of seven images where I did just that, of a ribbon at Myrtle Cemetery:

Nikon Z 9, aperture priority, sunny white balance, ISO 1000, 1/320 at f/4 in matrix metering, -0.3 EV, Nikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S lens at 63mm.
Here is my multiple exposure menu, which allows me to take anywhere from 2 to 10 images and also gives me options on how the camera merges those images.

Here is another multiple exposure shot I took at Barnsley Gardens and ruins, this time using the “Overlay” feature offered by my camera (the “ghosts” option of the first photo in the viewfinder, to show me help to compose better when creating the image):

Nikon Z 9, manual exposure, sunny white balance, ISO 200, 1/800 at f/8 in matrix metering, -0.7 EV, Nikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S lens at 75mm.

About 15 years ago I had one of my cameras converted to infrared, and I’ve done that on a few other cameras since then. When I bought my Nikon Z 6 II, I sent my original Z 6 in for conversion to make “false color” infrared photos like this, to Barnsley Gardens:

Nikon Z 6, aperture priority, preset white balance, ISO 100, 1/160 at f/11 in matrix metering, +1.0 EV, Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S lens at 17mm.

We spent about four hours in Old Car City USA, and I knew a photo I wanted to take would be taken from a high angle. Having no drone or tall ladder, I simply mounted the camera on my fully extended tripod and held it aloft.

To take the photos, I set the self-timer to ten seconds, then went further in the settings to have it take five images at three-second intervals. That way I could move the tripod around between shots to make sure I got at least one with the composition I wanted.

Nikon Z 9, manual, natural auto white balance, ISO 200, 1/250 at f/5.6 in matrix metering, +0.3 EV, Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S lens at 18mm.
Here I am using my Peak Designs travel tripod as a poor man’s drone. Photo by Michael Schwarz.
My camera’s self-timer menu allows me to choose a delay of two to twenty seconds, take 1 to 9 frames, and have a delay between those frames of up to three seconds.

I’m a big fan of handheld shooting because I can work faster and get the exact framing I want with less hassle. But even with excellent image stabilization, when I want to shoot with a small aperture and low ISO, which results in very slow shutter speeds, I take the time to get my tripod in the right spot.

Nikon Z 9, aperture priority, Natural Auto white balance, ISO 64, 1/2 second at f/16 in matrix metering, -1.7 EV, Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S lens at 15 mm.

After a few hours wandering the acres of Old Car City USA alone, we met for an optional flash lesson which I introduced. To have less light in the sky (so the flash could compete), I had paid extra for our group to stay later. That, combined with a Godox AD200 flash on the side, creates shots like this:

Nikon Z 9, manual exposure, Natural Auto white balance, ISO 100, 1/200 at f/9, Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S lens at 14mm.

Here’s what that scene looked like a few minutes earlier, using only available light:

Nikon Z 9, aperture priority, Natural Auto white balance, ISO 64, 1/80 at f/7.1 Matrix metering, -0.3 EV, Nikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S at 24mm.

And here is part of the group, trying a different angle with the light in a new position:

While exploring the New Echota State Historic Site, I decided to take advantage of my camera’s focus stacking feature (“Focus Shift”, as Nikon calls it). With the camera on a tripod, I then have it take a series of photos from near to far, and then stitch them together in the Helicon Focus software. It gives me a sharper image with more depth of field than I could otherwise get, even when shooting the smallest aperture.

Nikon Z 9, aperture priority, auto white balance, ISO 125, 1/2 second at f/5.6 in matrix metering, -0.3 EV, Nikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S lens at 84mm.
Here is the “Focus shift” menu that I used to create the photo of the padlock.

During a landscape trip, I always take a few filters with me. Here at the same location I decided to use the ten stop neutral density filter. This, combined with my tripod, allowed me to make an exposure that showed both the movement of clouds and the branches of trees blowing in the breeze.

Nikon Z 9, manual exposure, Natural Auto white balance, ISO 64, 60 seconds at f/22, Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S lens at 26mm.

We arranged private cave time in Rolater Park in Cave Springs, GA. It gave us the freedom to set up a few Lume Cubes, turn off the installed lights, and take photos like this as part of a light painting demonstration I led.

Nikon Z 9, manual exposure, Natural Auto white balance, ISO 500, 10 seconds at f/5, Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S lens at 21mm.
This is what the cave looked like under the lighting there. Disabling them allowed us to do something special.

We also planned to be at Old Mill College in Berry after sunset for another light painting session. I used a Lume panel, hidden behind a tree, to illuminate the paddle wheel. Then a Lume Cube on the ground in front of the house to light it up, one to the left to light up the green tree next to it, and another small panel behind the building to separate it from the background.

Nikon Z 9, manual exposure, sunny white balance, ISO 4000, 30 seconds at f/4.5, Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S lens at 19mm.

Our final morning was spent at Gibbs Gardens, a large and spectacular botanical garden. Always looking for something a little different, I settled on this reflection, which had an impressionistic edge to it.

Nikon Z 9, aperture priority, sunny white balance, ISO 100, 1/100 at f/5.6 Matrix metering, -0.7 EV, Nikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S at 103 lens mm.

The final shoot of our week was at Amicalola Falls. Finding this scene with a good focal point (the rock) and some color, I again pulled out the tripod and ten-stop ND filter for a classic “cotton water” look.

Nikon Z 9, manual exposure, sunny white balance, ISO 100, 2.5 seconds at f/8, Nikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S lens at 94mm.

About the Author: Reed Hoffmann is a photographer and photography teacher who has been in the photo industry for decades and has used every Nikon DSLR (and taught most of them). The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. Follow Hoffmann’s latest workshops here. You can also find more of Hoffmann’s works and writings on his website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This article was also published here.


Picture credits: Header illustration based on a photo by Depositphotos

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