Photography, Creativity, and Aphantasia

Master photographer shares tips for expanding your photographic talent with aphantasia in this article on photography, creativity, and aphantasia.
photography and aphantasia
Chris Wooley Photography

Table of Contents

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a photography workshop for artists with aphantasia at the 2021 Extreme Imagination (Virtual) Conference. It was a fantastic opportunity to connect with other artists and creatives while we discussed photography as a medium for creation and imagination.

In this small group format, I shared my experience as a full-time photographer actively working in the industry – and how I embraced my total aphantasia – and leveraged its advantages to strengthen my work. We also explored some training techniques anyone can do to expand their photographic talent.

Photography and Aphantasia

Before we delve into the techniques of the workshop, I think it’s important to understand how most other photographers approach the image making process – as we’ll be deviating from the norm. From my experience, most photographers at the top of their game have some form of above average visualization, with many having hyperphantasia – seeing things more vivid and real than in real life. Almost every photographer I spoke with would create an image in their mind – and then set out to recreate it in the real world. In its most basic form, they’d visualize what their final product would look like and then start on the task of creating it.

As you may have guessed, I can’t do that. And chances are if you’re reading this, neither can you. Instead, I take a different approach to create pieces of artwork – embracing my strengths and abilities as an aphantasic artist.

Let’s dive into my process – and hopefully you might find a few techniques that work for you.

Start With A Concept

Just like my visual friends, I start with an idea – a concept of what I want to photograph. I’m drawn towards storytelling illustrative subjects. And I love pirates. So I’ll come up with an idea of having a pirate holding a bottle with a mini-mermaid in it. I can’t see that idea in my head, but I have a basic idea of what I want to do. I now have a concept.

Mermaid by chris wooley
Mermaid by Chris Wooley Photography

Nurture The Idea Live

Over the years, I’ve tried several approaches to the next step. I used to sketch out the idea, playing with composition, position, and coloring. I’ve had exactly 0 of those ideas ever work out in the final project. It used to frustrate me to no end – having an idea but not being able to execute it how I’d hoped it would look in my crude sketch. Too much planning made me a worse artist.

I finally found an approach that worked really well for me. I’d start with my base idea as a starting point, using it for guidance rather than as a strict template to follow. It is a seed I plant, not knowing how it will grow. I take that idea and nurture it, adding what it needs to come to life, and removing things that hold it back. I don’t force it; I let the piece tell me what it needs (using classic design elements as my tools).

See What The Image Needs, Give It To It

This is where having practice and perspective comes into play. I use analytical thinking, design rules and theories, and intuition to help shape and nurture the artwork. I want to use browns and blues as my primary colors; they are complimentary, and fit the sea/ship color palette. I want my pirate to be looking towards the right because the viewer’s eye will enter from the left and go right. I want to motivate the light from a lantern (off camera). I’ll use a sword to keep the viewer’s eye locked into the frame. Lots of tiny elements that all come together to help tell the story. Each decision is motivated by what it adds to the final image.

Mermaid 2 chris wooley 1367x2048 2
Mermaid 2 by Chris Wooley Photography

I combine elements, experiment, and play. It is this process that allows my concept to come to life in a natural and organic way. It’s a technique I’ve embraced after trying so hard to do things how other artists that visualize. I embrace my strengths.

Expand Your Design Vocabulary

The key to this approach is to expand your design vocabulary – either formally or casually. I do a mixture of both. I love reading design books and taking art classes (even outside my genre). The core concepts are the same, even though the medium may vary. But more practically, I find artwork that inspires me and save it in an inspiration folder. Cool use of color – SAVED! Strong composition – SAVED! Awesome perspective – SAVED! Great retouching – SAVED! I find images that speak to me and save them. I have a folder on my phone and on my computer filled with inspiration. 

Captivated by Chris Wooley 1536x1536 1
Captivated by Chris Wooley

Experiment With It

This next step is the important one – I then go through the images and start evaluating them. WHY do I like them? What is working? I take mental note of what I enjoyed about the image. It is the critical thinking on the WHY that helps expand your design knowledge. Then, when it comes to creating a new piece, I pull inspiration from MULTIPLE sources. I like these colors. I like this composition. I like this processing. Those are all tools I use when crafting an image – seeing what will play well with my core concept. Some work really well. Others don’t. But it is the experimentation that helps the final piece come alive.

You now know my strategy for creating photographic artwork with aphantasia: start with a concept and then nurture the idea live, pulling from inspiration and classic design. See what the image needs, and give it to it. See what is holding it back, and remove it. Experiment with it. And once you follow this process you’ll see your original concept come to life in a new and unique way.

Video of Chris’ Creative Process

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Hi Chris. Great article. Thank you for sharing your process.

Question: Do you find your process takes longer than your visualization-abled colleagues?

I ask because I am a writer. I take much longer to write my prose than my colleagues who can visualize.

Thanks 🙂