Why Expectations Are Killing Your Creativity

The internet has no shortage of stories about photographers behaving badly: screaming matches at Maroon Bells over whose spot is whose; pitchforks and torches appearing at Delicate Arch when an unwary hiker stumbles into the frames of hundreds of photographers; and recently I read another tale of woe from the famous Wanaka Willow which involved shouting, physically moving another photographer’s gear, and even inappropriate comments being made toward a girl who simply wanted a quick picture with the tree.

As I pondered why some photographers behave so atrociously in these situations it occurred to me that it all comes down to expectations. As I’ve realized more and more over the past few years, expectations are dangerous things, especially when it comes to creativity photography. They are blinders, preventing you from seeing and experiencing. When you have expectations of a specific photo you want to capture, you close yourself off from the world around you. And instead you pin all of your photographic hopes on the one idea, concept, or shot you’ve already captured in your mind’s eye.

JCripps Wanaka Willow Sunrise

All that fuss over getting “The Shot” of this tree, and yet there are endless possibilities for different photos.

So what happens when that shot fails to materialize and your expectations are unfulfilled? At best you are disappointed and go home unhappy with your photos. At worst you start screaming at everyone and everything that is “getting in the way” of your shot. Hence the bad behavior of these photographers. But perhaps even worse than leading to screaming and shouting is what your expectations are doing to your creativity. What incredible creative photos are you missing out on because you have tunnel vision? What wonderful moments are you not seeing because you’re so tied into the expectation of taking a particular photo? In other words, instead of being able to adapt and change with the situation to capture different -possibly better- photos, you are being held hostage by your expectations of a single shot. Which leaves you in a very creatively limited place: either you got the shot, or you didn’t. And in either case, you missed out on everything else that was happening at the time.

For example, last year in New Zealand I was shooting sunset at Milford Sound. Now, I am a wide angle junkie so naturally I was hoping to see a magnificent show of light and color I could capture above the Sound, along with some engaging foreground I could use to pull the viewer into my photo. But as it turned out, it was heavily overcast and the interesting foregrounds were being quickly swallowed up by the rising tide. So my wide angle photos were looking fairly uninteresting.

JCripps Milford Sound New Zealand (2)

Beautiful location, bland photo.

And here is where my expectations (or lack thereof) became so critical. If that wide angle shot was the only thing I was willing to see, if my photographic hopes were pinned on that expected image, all or nothing, well then I tell you I would’ve started kicking the dirt, shouting at the clouds, and yelling at the people in my frame. I would’ve been crushed, and gone home disappointed, without any interesting photos to show for it. I also would have failed to notice the smaller-scale, but nevertheless breathtaking meteorological event happening around the summit of Mitre Peak.

Clouds were shifting and swirling about the top of the mountain, alternately revealing and concealing it in 30 second bursts. It was an ethereal, ghostly dance, absolutely beautiful to behold, and I NEVER WOULD HAVE SEEN IT if I was stuck in the proverbial mud, expecting my wide-angle shot to pan out. If I had been jostling other photographers and arguing about whose tripod legs were there first I would have completely missed that beautiful occurrence. But by being open to the scene and letting it show me what was amazing in that moment, instead of imposing my expectations upon it, I was able to capture a far different and far more interesting phoyo.

JCripps Milford Sound New Zealand (1)

Letting go of my expectations, I let the scene speak to me, and my creativity responded to take this photo.

When you’re out shooting are you open to the scene, or are you guided by expectations of a certain shot? And when the photo in your mind’s eye doesn’t happen in reality, are you disappointed because you didn’t get what you want, or do you let the scene show you something else amazing and unexpected to photograph? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject, so leave a comment down below!

About Author Joshua Cripps

Joshua Cripps started making remarkable photos while he was still in the womb. His first significant image, titled Sonogram, was praised for its graininess, deliberate blurring of details, and gritty black and white mood. Earning two thumbs up from his parents, this photo only hinted at things to come. Since then Josh has won countless awards and accolades, including more than one “Certificate of Participation,” dozens of “Good Sportsmanship” plaques, and the coveted “Busy Bookworm” award. His mantel long ago collapsed under the weight of gold-painted, plastic trophies.

Currently Josh spends over 700 days every year in the field seeking out the finest landscapes on earth. He has a mighty beard and sings in a rich baritone. Hiking at least 45 miles to capture every photo, Josh ensures that every image he crafts represents the very heart of the wilderness. While you were reading this Joshua Cripps did 93 push-ups, won more awards, and became internationally re-renowned.

  • Thibaut

    Interesting thoughts Joshua, thank you. I have known both situations. I have already been disapointed as my shot wasn’t as excepted. I feel more confortable when I prepare my compositions but I already went on the field without any preparation and I think sometimes it’s useful, because you have to analyse the scene (even if you already went there) to get a good, fresh or new composition.
    And sometimes, even if you prepared your shots, you find yourself change your composition to integrate interesting clouds or something unexcpected, like flowers or birds. It sometimes hard but we need to stay open to changes, even during the shoot, to get good results.

  • Fay

    Wonderful article Joshua! I haven’t witnessed the truely ‘uglier’ side of photographers to the degree you have discibed (yet) but but I certainly have found when I seek to explore and capture an image, getting lost in the ‘wonderment of life and creativity zone’, I seem to ‘see’ the life and capture far better shots.
    Mind you like others I’ve fallen into the pit of expectation, disappointment and despair at times too. So to read an article such as yours can sure pull me back to ‘enjoying the journey’ of exploring with my camera and being open to the wonderment of life! … Even when the scene is dark and gloomy!

  • Isabelle

    Guess I’ve been lucky or my expectations aren’t solidified. I’ve had good experiences at Maroon Bells, all three days that I was there and it was tripod to tripod. I knew I wanted to shoot Maroon Bells, but other than that I had no set expectations and just let the scene talk to me, guide me in the creation of my image. Mother nature has a way of shooting down ones expectations and you really need to learn to just go with the flow…otherwise you’ll just stress yourself out.

    Joshua, you’ve got me beat, my longest single day hike for a shot is a poultry 18-miles…but, it was uphill both ways 😉

    • Just 18 miles up-hill? Ha!! I do that before breakfast twice a day. 🙂

  • Excellent points and so easy to forget why we really do this (or most of us anyway), to be out in the world, in nature and to see it’s beauty.