I've been thinking about this the last few days. It's a challenge, to say the least, and it's not just limited to photography. Think of every creative service industry that's been affected by a transition to digital: photography, music, art, advertising, etc. They've all been inundated with new talent that's able to learn and produce at a rapid pace. If you can see the results of your work right away, you can progress through those 10,000 hours much quicker. The baseline for what is considered acceptable work changes as well. As an example, look at audio. When the digital revolution started, audio professionals slammed MP3 for it's crappy compression and frequency response. And where are we now? The pros still slam MP3. And MP3 is the dominant audio format. Not "cd quality" files. Not HD audio. This kind of market 'attitude' adjustment has happened in every field affected by digital. And it's not completely a bad thing. It's great, for example, to be able to get a beautiful print out of today's printers without worrying about CMYK or color separations or any of that stuff. So how can you stand out in your field among all this change? I'm going to focus this specifically on photography, although there are aspects that apply to other creative disciplines. The first thing to recognize is that we as photographers MUST push our creativity in order to survive. Technical knowledge isn't enough. It probably hasn't been for almost 10 years.
Let's say that you've got your technical stuff down, and you're looking for ways to explore what's inside your head. Here are some things that I've tried, all with varying levels of success.
1. Sketching/Drawing. First off, stop right now with the "I can't draw" comments. Have you seen Joe McNally's sketches? Just get a pencil and draw what you are thinking. And then draw it again with something different (the angle, the light, etc). My sketches, as crappy as they can be, are the basis for many of my shoots. If you want to go further and learn about composition, lighting and drama in sketches, check out Feng Zhu's videos where he breaks down his concept art for games.
2. Using Current Events As a Springboard. This is an approach that can give you new ideas almost every day. Check the news. What stories are people drawn to? Why are they drawn to them? Is it the emotion? The characters? The setting? Is there a feeling or idea from a story that could translate into your work?
3. What Would Happen If. This is a fun one. It comes into play a lot when I draw out new humor shoot ideas. For example, what would happen if a woman was in the delivery room giving birth, and yet she was so tied up in her iPad that she wasn't even paying attention? Maybe something like this. This technique is great for bringing together disparate ideas and concepts. The most obvious would be the standard 'fish out of water' idea. But you can go further than that by refining your ideas to be closer together/more feasible. Don't go for the obvious setting or situation, but rather start there and then put your spin on it.
4. Bedside Ideas. Chase Jarvis interviewed a photographer who wrote his dreams down and then turned them into photo shoots. How creative! Try keeping a paper and pen by the bed in case you wake up at 2am with a crazy idea. I really need to do this more - I know I've missed some good ones that I didn't remember the next day. I also laugh sometimes when the ideas seemed so perfect in the middle of the night, but are utter crap in the morning.
5. Test. Take the lighting and modifiers you have and spend several hours testing combinations. How does relative flash power affect the look? What about mixing ambient and flash? What modifiers work good with certain body/face types? Zack Arias did this and posted the results a while back.
6. Recreate & Move On. If you find an image/technique that you are really drawn to, try to recreate it. I know that we often get caught up in 'it's that other photographer's image, so Ill never post something similar because I don't want to be copying their style.' That very well may be true. But that's not the point. The point is to get the technique down, so that you can mix those skills with your own for your own unique vision. Keith Richards once said something along the lines of 'there is no unique music. It's just a player's interpretations of other musicians they've heard before'. That wasn't the actual quote, but it's the general idea. Recreate what you like, and then move on.
7. Keep track. Store images that you like in a place that you can reference easily. I use Evernote for this. So does Jeremy Cowart. My collection is tagged in various ways, like men, women, group, standing, seated, etc. I also have a "photos I want to shoot" category where I store some of my favorite images.
So there you go - 7 ways to help stay creative in today's digital world. If you have your own technique, I'd love to hear it in the comments. I'm always looking for new ideas :)