When Complexity Kills Creativity

photography by dan james
photography by dan james

When we come to create, we want to ensure that the tools and equipment we choose for the project in hand are up to the task.

You wouldn’t want to paint the exterior of a house with a miniature model paintbrush, for example. Likewise the opposite would be equally useless – trying to paint lines mere millimetres thick with a six inch wide paintbrush.

Often though, we tend to go too far, purchasing equipment that is clearly overqualified for the role.

We get carried away and invest in tools capable not only of helping us bring our ideas to life, but doing so whilst playing our favourite music, washing our hair and serving us fresh tea and cake.

In short, our equipment becomes overly feature laden, and needlessly complex.

Which most of the time means we get lost in the settings, the possibilities (and maybe the instruction manual), rather than getting lost in the joyous flow of art making. Yes, remember that experience?

A case in point –

As you know, my main creative outlet is photography, mostly film photography.

A few months back I decided to get a digital SLR camera, so I could have all the benefits of a film SLR camera, plus more – specifically, instant feedback and the capacity to take and save virtually unlimited shots.

Turns out, it didn’t work out so well with the DSLR, even using the vintage manual lenses from my film cameras. It was complicated, clunky and clumsy.

So after further research, I chose a far smaller mirrorless camera body, which could take a variety of lenses.

For a while this was very enjoyable, and seemed to be working out.

But a few weeks in, it kind of fell face first in the ocean between two continents.

For rural and nature shots, as capable as the lenses and the camera are, it wasn’t giving me the look, or more importantly the immersive experience that film and film cameras do. I soon realised I’d rather use a film camera. So I’ve reverted to doing that.

For urban/street photography – an avenue (pun intended!) I’m exploring more recently – it was still too cumbersome and indiscreet. I could be spotted a mile of, so little chance of capturing the kind of candid and fleeting moments I was hoping to.

Plus, though it didn’t have the 314 page (in small print!) manual of the DSLR, I was still somewhat overwhelmed with the possible functions, settings and adjustments.

In the end, I went back to basics, and back in time.

Since picking up a seven year old Sony Cybershot digital compact (for a tenth of the cost of the mirrorless camera), I’ve been having a blast with it.

It’s simple enough that once I’ve chosen a few basic settings I can just point and shoot, concerned only with the composition I’m trying to capture.

And it’s tiny and unobtrusive enough that I can hide it in the palm of my hand and gather these moments without anyone noticing, exactly what I wanted for urban and street work.

So not only has the simplicity of the old Cybershot been liberating in the experience of using the camera, it’s actually sent me off in an exciting new direction too.

I’ve been shooting with it hidden in my hand at hip height, without even looking at the LCD screen (I switch this off for further anonymity) let alone composing through a viewfinder.

This is probably the most clear reminder I have ever had – and will ever have – in my creative life that complexity kills creativity.

As we spoke about before, using equipment that has the potential we need to be able to bring our ideas into being, is essential. The Cybershot’s able Carl Zeiss lens and 7.2MP sensor is plenty capable for the photographs I need.

But we need to freeze the feature list right there.

I don’t need a camera with hundreds of adjustable settings and ridiculously high specification to be able to make photographs I’m proud of.

Most of the time the complete opposite is true.

The most recent film camera I bought is similarly rudimentary – you can’t adjust the aperture, shutter speed, or even precisely focus, you just choose the zone that’s closest (1m, 1.5m, 3m or ∞), compose and press the shutter button. The camera does the rest.

Already in the first roll it’s given me some photographs I’m very happy with. Not bad for a cheap, simple, predominantly plastic, 34 year old piece of kit, that cost less than the cup of tea and slice of cake my DSLR used to try to serve me…

Enough about me and photography, let’s get back to you and your creating.

How do you feel about your main tools for creating?

Are they just capable enough to help you create in the way you wish, without endlessly tweaking and adjusting? Do just pick them up and get to work without even thinking, as if they’re an extension of your own fingers, your own body, your own mind?

An important point to note here is that another form of “endlessly tweaking and adjusting” is “endlessly deliberating and choosing.”

If you realistically need three or four paintbrushes to do the work, but have 33 or 34, this kind of complexity of choice can be just as debilitating as having equipment that’s in itself too complicated.

If you’re feeling intimidation from the sophistication of your equipment (and indeed materials), then it’s an issue, and one that’s holding you back from creating your most important work.

Which needs to change.

So, maybe it’s time for you to take an honest look, simplify and kill the complexity of your kit, then enjoy the subsequent liberation of your creativity?

Come and join the conversation to share your thoughts about how complexity kills creativity.


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