Creativity vs. Equipment

I’ve been reading a lot of photography blogs and, while they’re full of valuable advice and fascinating ideas, they’ve also been making me a little depressed. The blogs are full of “key source lights with fresnel lenses” and “LED spotlights with gels” and “full frame cameras with 25mm f/.95 lenses”. And these people have produced some amazing creative works. And this is the very reason I read these blogs. But the fact that I don’t have any of this enviable photographic equipment sometimes kind of hits my confidence. I started to wonder if I needed all that stuff to take a good photo.

So I decided to try to do a portrait without all the fancy equipment just to show myself it can be done. I went with a Game of Thrones theme because I’m a geek and it’s fun.

Equipment:

  • a bedspread hung from a curtain rail (for the backdrop)
  • a reading lamp attached to an exercise bike’s handlebars (key light)
  • a few A4 sheets of white paper stapled together and blu tacked to a kitchen chair (reflector)
  • tripod
  • camera with 18-55mm kit lens
  • remote trigger.

I didn’t have anyone to model for me (which would have made things easier and maybe the final photo look a bit better) so it’s a selfie. The costume is just an inside-out, back-to-front coat, some black fabric, feathers, a belt and sweatpants*. I happened to have the sword prop already—probably the only ‘professional’ part of the costume.

So you can see that the set up is anything but professional, using only the most basic and cobbled together equipment, but I was really happy with the final photo:

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I guess I need to keep reminding myself that creativity doesn’t rely on having the best equipment or most experience.

* I planned on only a medium or head shot but in the middle of the shoot I realised that I had to go for a longer shot and totally forgot in the creative frenzy that I hadn’t planned a full-length costume.

An unexpected end to writer’s block

I’ll be honest: I haven’t done any writing lately. I’ve been out photographerising a bit. I even entered my city’s Lord Mayor’s Photographic Awards (my shot is here). I find out on Monday if I did any good with the official judges and then the People’s Choice judging opens next month. But as far as writing goes, there’s been nothing.

I’ve barely been able to muster any enthusiasm for writing and on those odd occasions when I managed some interest, sitting down at the keyboard instantly extinguished it. I reached the point the other day where I was seriously considering whether or not I should be a writer at all.

Everyone has down times and creative dry spells and, according to other writers I know, they can sometimes last a really long time. But for some reason this one made me question whether I had the drive and determination to actually be a writer at all.

Also, a writer friend of mine (who should have known better) introduced me to Guild Wars 2 and that’s been taking up an awful lot of time. I’m not a huge or regular computer gamer but when I find a game I like I tend to get obsessed for a really long time. And this one’s a pretty good game. It’s got awesome graphics and storylines and mythology and puzzles and challenges. You get to customise your character’s appearance, skills, weapons and clothes/armour. And you get to team up with people from all over the world to fight giant monster jungle wurms, shadow demons and dragons. I know, right?!

I’ve got a bunch of different characters because I wanted to try as many of the options as I could, which involves hours and hours of game play time. So, yeah, I’ve spent a lot of ‘writing time’ playing this game. And then the other day I realised that, even though these characters are just avatars for me to interact with the game world, I was making in-game choices based on the personality of whatever character I happened to be playing at the time. My computer game avatars had developed their own personalities and back stories well outside of the parameters of the game. They had come to life in my head and had teamed up as a semi-classic fantasy adventuring party.

And that made me realise that my creative, story-telling well had not dried up. It just needed a break from the gloomy post-apocalyptic world of my storm chasing story. Instead it seems to be vacationing in the violent and deadly digital world of Tyria. Go figure.

Has anyone else experienced their game avatars taking on personalities and lives of their own? Or is this something I should see a professional about?

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When a wizard dies…

Like many people, I read a lot. However, there are three authors who have had a huge impact on my life.

My childhood was defined by Enid Blyton and the Famous Five. I collected almost the complete set and spent hours marvelling at the maturity and audacity of those kids and the amazing grown-up adventures they had.

When I was eleven I discovered Tolkien–first the Hobbit and then Lord of the Rings. I was blown away. A whole new and detailed world was opened to me, so totally unlike anything I had ever experienced. Tolkien gave me my absolute love of fantasy, magic, the natural environment, language and linguistics. And possibly also my enduring fear of what lurks in the dark–those Black Riders scared the bejeezus out of me.

The thing about Tolkien and Blyton, though, is that they both died well before I was born. I never felt a truly personal connection to them. Unlike them, the third author–the one who had the greatest impact on my life and self–lived during my lifetime and so was a part of my world. As you probably should have guessed by now, that author was Terry Pratchett.

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I discovered Pratchett’s Discworld when I was 13 or 14, just when I was beginning to strike out on my own, develop my own personality and question the world around me. Pratchett taught me how to think for myself, to question generally accepted knowledge and, most importantly, to laugh at the beautiful madness that is humanity and the world. I read his books over and over again every year from the moment I found them. I even met him once at a book launch. He read part of his new novel, Carpe Jugulum, and afterwards he signed a book of mine and spoke briefly to me.

When I found out yesterday that he had died, I cried for a while. At first I was surprised that I was so affected by the death of a man I’d only met once for a few minutes. But then I realised that I had spent so much time over the years with him through his books that he was like someone I was close to–even if that wasn’t who he was in real life. Not to mention the impact his writing had on me as a person.

As sad as it is to lose such a skilled writer, it has also made me more determined to become a published author myself. Not because I believe I am in the same league as Terry Pratchett, but because (to paraphrase the man himself) what makes us human is that we are Pan narrans, the ape that tells stories.

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Clouds but no storm

I think I’ve worked out why my storm chasing novel has stalled. It’s bugged me for ages because I’ve got all the characters and an outline of all the things I want to happen to them but when I sit down to write it I become disengaged really quickly and struggle to put anything down on paper.

And now I know what it is: in all my planning I’ve somehow managed to leave out all the character arcs. I’ve got all the outside events plotted out in a way that should rise to a very exciting climax but I don’t have any notes on how these events will affect my characters internally…you know…that really important part of a story that actually engages the reader.

Whoops.

Minor oversight there. Especially since from the start I’ve wanted to make this a character-driven story.

This is probably something that’s generally been missing from all my writing up to now. I tend to get so caught up in creating new and amazing worlds and exciting and terrifying events that I forget that all the emotion is still just inside my head. Not that it’s completely absent or anything. I just need to put a whole lot more work into bringing out my characters’ internal journeys to make my stories resonate better on a human level.

This means that I’m going to have to go back and write histories and life stories for all my storm chasing characters and fill in all the stuff that readers of the story won’t ever see but that I need in order to bring the internal worlds of my characters to life. Only then will my actual story be able to take off. Or, in meteorological terms, the atmosphere has enough moisture and wind shear for a severe storm, but the convectional lift is missing and the clouds just aren’t getting enough punch.

It’s surprising how much writing this story feels like trying to lift a couple of tons of air. The end result will be amazing, though.

Plenty of nice clouds but not enough for a storm.
Plenty of nice clouds but not enough for a storm.

Getting my geek on

Another day, another costume…

A friend of some friends is running a LARP (Live Action Role-Playing game) and they needed another player. I’m pretty excited. The only other LARP I’ve played was where I met some of said friends and it was a lot of fun. In this one I’m playing no less than the King of the Wood Elves. It’s going to be great.

GEEK LEVEL: EPIC!!

And not only am I playing a fairly epic character, some of the other players are experienced cosplayers. So I need a moderately epic costume. I had some ideas that I’d never put into practice and when I gave them a go, it turned out even better than I thought it would.

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It’s all actually made out of cheap buckets from the local hardware store. Just slit a bucket down the side, cut off the rim and base, blast it with a heat gun to flatten it and remove the shine and you end up with a sheet of plastic that can be cut up, shaped, stuck together and painted.

The black bucket strips actually looked pretty close to leather once I’d finished ‘treating’ them. I had to spray paint it, though. The King of the Wood Elves probably wouldn’t dress like an assassin. It did look awesome all in black, though. A couple of cheap belts and a bunch of little split rivets and the whole thing came together really easily. I’m adding a green bed sheet cloak and faux-fur mantle to hopefully make it pop a bit more.

And that’s where my creative energies have been directed lately.

Finding my vision

I’ve been reading a lot about photography lately and something that really hit me was the advice (from many professional photographers) that, in order to become a professional, you have to specialise. At first I resisted because I didn’t want to lock myself into one style or subject. I liked the freedom of creativity and being able to do whatever I wanted. So much about photography fascinates me and I feel that I’ve created great images of lots of different subjects. However, the more I thought about it, the more specialising makes sense. In order to become really good at something, you need to devote a significant amount of time and energy to it. And while photography may seem like a single discipline to be perfected, the techniques required for landscape photography are vastly different to portraiture, which are vastly different to still life and so on. Spreading my time and effort across these varied subjects means that my growth in any one will be that much slower. Also, working without passion means that my work is much less likely to capture the sort of inspired beauty and fascination that I want from it.

That got me thinking because, of course, that immediately eliminates some areas of photography for me. For example, I will never be a wedding photographer because, for me, photography is a little too personal. I want to create and capture my vision, not someone else’s. I’m pretty sure that view wouldn’t sit well with many brides and grooms. Thinking further, I more or less stumbled on what I think I want my photographic focus to be: fine art, with a hint of fantasy. I want to take ‘ordinary’ beautiful scenes, preferably natural ones, and be able to add just a hint of fiction, fantasy and story. That captures everything I love about photography and creativity, from landscapes and weather (you need great settings) to stories and magic and interesting characters.

This will mean that I have to get better at Photoshop and post-processing, so I’ll have to start taking courses this year. I will also have to start developing my costuming and prop-making skills, because sometimes that’s all that would be needed to push a scene towards the fantastic. Luckily, I already really love making those sorts of things.

Steampunk self-portrait
Steampunk self-portrait

This photo is my first conscious pursuit of my vision. I dragged out the costume I made for my steampunk Christmas murder mystery and assembled a few props from around the house. It took quite a long time because I had to keep getting up to run around the table and check the images in the camera–this sort of thing would be much easier with a model. I’m extremely happy with the result, though.

So, a fancy dress party here, a bit of cosplay there, drop it into a beautiful landscape and add a touch of dreamy post-processing and I think I’ve found my vision.

Chasing an ending

2014 ended in an incredibly appropriate way for me…with a storm chase. It was only a few kilometres from home but it still counts. I saw the cumulus towers going up on the horizon, checked the weather radar and warnings and raced off to get a good position to watch it coming.

NYE storm 1

It wasn’t a very big storm, it didn’t get severe-warned and it fizzled pretty quickly.

NYE storm 2

But it still looked impressive and the chase took me back to the endless days driving across the endless plains searching for supercells in the American Midwest.

NYE storm 3

Because that’s what started all this for me. I found my passion for writing and photography and creativity on the plains, looking for storms. The swirling vortexes sucked me in, blew apart my old life and set me on a new path–into a dark forest, lit by lightning.

Tense atmosphere

Storm season again in Brisbane has put me back onto my storm chasing story. Reading back over my planning, I’m actually really excited about this story. I feel that it will work really well. It has a lot of great elements that will, with enough work, go together to create a great narrative.

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I’ve been caught in a couple of the big storms recently and for this story I want to capture the tension of the season–of always having the weather hanging over your head, no matter what you are doing and where you are. I want to capture the reluctance to drive anywhere in the afternoon in case your car gets wrecked by hail; the drama and excitement of a severe storm impacting the city and totally disrupting routine and timetables; the nagging fear that you may not have a house to go home to at the end of the day.

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It’s one thing to chase storms but quite another, I’ve discovered, to watch a rotating updraft base form right over your house. That’s probably the best place for it, all things considered, because that means it’s unlikely to cause damage before it moves on. But the ominous swirling clouds, the deadly stillness on the ground, the oppressive heat and the faint hail roar are enough to trigger a very primitive awe and fear. And that sort of tension is gold for a story.

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Steampunk Christmas Murder Mystery

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Lord Abraham Pennington-Smith has once again invited his family and friends to his annual Christmas party aboard the skyship Astral Ranger. Of course, this year might be a little…tense.

There’s a rumour that Lord Abraham is planning on revising his will. And there’s his recent acquisition–the most powerful focusing crystal in the world. And the fact that every one of his guests has a secret might also complicate things. But it’s sure to be a wonderfully festive event…

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My steampunk Christmas murder mystery party went better than I expected. We ended up with 9 players/characters–each with their own backgrounds, motivations, secrets and goals–aboard a drifting, sabotaged airship trying to solve the murder of a wealthy old man. Valuable game items were stolen and traded; secrets were uncovered; people were double-crossed and betrayed; the murderer accidentally fell to her death trying to escape at the end.*

What really surprised and pleased me (aside from everyone having a great time, obviously) was that the twist I tried to put in at the end even worked.

In case you’re wondering, the reason why I’m being so cagey with the details is that, at the end of the night, one of my friends suggested that I should publish the game. That was something that hadn’t occurred to me, despite the amount of work that I put into it. I was just doing it because it was fun.

Now, though, it seems like a great idea and I’ve added it to my list of projects. In some ways I think a game might be easier to finish than a full novel. A lot of the work is already done–I wrote almost 5,000 words just to make it playable. Now I just have to explain the mechanics so that anyone could pick it up and play, set up all the material that needs to be printed in a sensible format and commission an artist to make it look a bit more special.

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The game itself is designed to be very free-form. Players are given a character, some information about what’s happened, their relationship to several other characters and a list of personal goals. The host then reveals the situation and it’s basically up to the players to unroll the story from there. Not all of my characters were interested in finding the murderer; some were actively hindering the investigation and others were just out to create chaos for their own ends. It’s designed so that you could play it with different groups of people and get completely different experiences each time.

Once I’ve got a draft together, I’ll have to run it again (or get someone else to run it) to iron out any issues, sort of like a drafting process. By Christmas time next year, I plan to have a murder mystery game on the market. And that is a sentence I never imagined I would ever utter. It’s as exciting as it is unexpected.

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* In-game, of course. Only fictional characters died.