I’ve been thinking a lot about improv lately, and how it has changed my life since I started in November 2002. Improv made a lot of sense to me at the time, and continues to do so today. So many of the lessons I’ve learned in improv, I’ve been able to apply to other areas of my life too, not the least of which is photography.

For those of you who don’t know, improv is the “art of spontaneous theatre.” We take an offer from the audience, and spin it into a drama with characters, relationships and plot. We don’t use scripts or props or sets. Everything is done on a plain black stage, sometimes with a couple of chairs, and no plan at all. It’s high-risk theatre.

I’m not exaggerating when I say improv changed my life. It did. It gave me a whole new framework for how I want to live my life, and has made a lot of things easier for me. It accelerated my creativity and helped me become a better photographer too. I’m not always sure why this happened, but I know there’s a relationship between what I do on stage and what I do with a camera. Here are some of the key things I’ve learned from improv, and how I apply them to photography.

  1. Take risks. Risk your heart. Risk your dignity. Risk your money. Take these risks to the edge of your comfort level, then take a step beyond. Take these risks smartly; don’t take stupid risks. Remember that rewards come from taking risks. When I’m taking photos, I always try to push the image to the furthest limit. After you get the image that you originally intended to get, what’s the harm in trying new things? Maybe you’ll find a new angle, a new composition, or something else innovative that you’ve never done before. Maybe that new thing will become an adjunct to to your style.
  2. Live in the moment. You have no control over what happened last week. You can be frozen by anticipating what will happen next week. Focus your energy and attention on what is happening right now. If you do that, you will see so much more, experience things in more detail, and react faster when necessary. When I’m traveling and taking photos, I try to get myself lost in foreign cities. I get on buses, wander down unknown streets, and get myself generally turned around and disoriented. It makes me hyper-aware of my surroundings, and new photographic possibilities open themselves up to me. In studio, it’s possible to do this too. Just be aware of the time in between shots. If you stay present at all times, you can spot spontaneous moments that are worth capturing, even if you hadn’t pre-planned them.
  3. Do it now. So many things die from over-planning. There’s no time like the present to do something you’ve always wanted to do, or at least make a commitment to do that something. Obviously this isn’t practical for all things, but you’ll be surprised how many things you can do. Right. Now. There isn’t any other way to write this about photography. Just take the shot. Something better may happen later, but you can take that shot later. Take the shot that you have now.
  4. Take care of yourself. You can’t take care of anyone else unless you’re taking care of yourself first. By taking care of yourself, you are stronger and more capable of helping those around you. If you focus all of your attention on others around you, you become scattered and weak. Once you’ve established your own position of strength, reach out your hands and support others.
  5. Have a goal. Your goal may be very distant, or even very abstract. Your goal may be something like, “I want to be happy.” Keep working towards that goal. Evaluate if you are moving in the right direction, and adjust course if you are not. You don’t need to make huge steps towards your goal. Small ones will do. You can even take side trips off the path towards your goal to break the monotony. But if you are always generally moving towards your goal, you will get there eventually. I use goals as guides in photography too. Sometimes the goals are concrete, like “I want to replicate Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in a photograph.” Sometimes they’re abstract, like, “I want a photo that creates an ethereal moood.” Goals are helpful though. Just remember to stay in the moment.
  6. Be positive. You can go a lot further saying “yes” than you can by saying “no.”
  7. Seek patterns. Often things that happen, happen again. And again. Themes develop in all aspects of life, and even in history itself. Use the patterns you spot as guidance as to what can or will happen again. Don’t be afraid to be the one to perpetuate a pattern that works to your advantage.
  8. Accept and let go. Sometimes things will not go your way. Sometimes unexpected things happen. Accept them, and let go of how you expected things to turn out. Once the past has passed, it’s gone. Let it go. Focus on living in the moment and you’ll see new opportunities everywhere. In the end, you may even get what you originally wanted.