Limitation Exercises or: How Playing Guitar Saved My Photography
Before I was a photographer, I was a musician. I was the “practice for 10 hours a day until my fingers bleed” sort of musician. About 8 years after I picked up my first guitar, I found myself a graduate of Berklee College of Music. I had a wealth of musical knowledge, and a ton of sweet gear – from custom shop guitars to collectable amplifiers and a small army of effect pedals and accessories. It was up to me to take all of that knowledge and gear and make something amazing happen. Something earth-shattering. Something that would set me apart from all other musicians and propel me through the stratosphere and into stardom. Except, that didn’t happen. Instead things just kind of…stalled out. You know?

So, why am I talking about music on the world’s most popular photography blog? Have you figured it out yet?

My photography career (and maybe yours as well) mirrored my experiences with music almost exactly. Luckily, there has been one big exception. This time, instead of remaining stalled I’ve been able to reboot my photography in a big way, and I’d love to talk to you about it. If you don’t mind listening, that is.

A few years into my photography career I found myself with several camera bodies, nearly a dozen lenses, a cavalcade of flashes, strobes, modifiers, stands, backdrops, and endless miscellaneous accessories. Hadn’t I been here before?

Every time I made a photo, it was a huge undertaking. If I was creating a simple portrait, I would try to use as much gear as possible in a constant attempt to reinvent the proverbial wheel. I was also trying my hand at every style – from simple black and white portraits to elaborate composites.

Before I knew it, what started as a passion had become a job. I was photographing weddings to pay the bills and, while I didn’t hate it, I certainly didn’t love it. Things got to the point where I didn’t want to take my camera anywhere if I wasn’t getting paid for it. Taking a photo was simply too much work to be bothered with. The transition from passion to work also coincided with the quality of my photography beginning to plateau. I felt uninspired and unmotivated. I’d hit a wall, and I knew something needed to change.

One evening last spring I was sitting in my living room playing my black Fender Strat (lovingly nicknamed Malificent), when the answer suddenly came to me. Limitation exercises.

You may be asking – what the heck is a limitation exercise? If you’re musician, you’ll get this analogy immediately. If you’re not a musician, hang with me anyways. I’m sure you’ll pick it up.

A guitar has 6 strings and roughly 20 frets. We’re talking 120 total possible notes from which endless combinations can be made! When presented with so many options it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

What do I do with all of this? Where do I even start?

Is this beginning to sound familiar?

A limitation exercise involves limiting some aspect of your creative process. It’s a concept I had used for years whenever I felt my guitar playing had grown stale.

The limits you choose to set upon yourself are arbitrary, but here’s the guitar example I was working with the night inspiration struck. I had limited myself to using just 4 notes to create an epic rock solo. So, what could I do with only 4 notes? Quite a lot, it turns out. To top it off, I found myself playing all sorts of cool and different things I would never normally play, and I was having a blast doing it! Have I hammered this metaphor in enough yet?

I thought to myself – if limitation exercises can get me this excited about my guitar playing, maybe I can apply the same concept to my photography. Maybe I could take just “four notes” and make something worth talking about.

I knew I needed to make a change and commit, so I made a pact with myself to dive in and not look back.

So what limitations would I set? Should I try to shoot exclusively at f/22? Should I make portraits only at noon? Should I shoot everything on a yellow backdrop?

Here are the limitations I decided to apply to my photography:

  • I would choose only one lens and one camera body to shoot with.
  • I would use only one light source.
  • I would photograph only individual portraits.
  • I would keep each portrait session to under 5 minutes.
  • I would photograph “normal” people; friends, family, and interesting people I met.
  • I would shoot with these limitations for 1 full year.
  • I would do it all for free.

So, let’s all nerd out for a minute and talk about the gear I chose and why I chose it.

For my camera body, I wanted to shoot with the Fuji GFX50S. I’ve always had a fascination with the look of medium format cameras, but their cost has always been wildly prohibitive. When this camera was announced with it’s (relatively) low price point, I knew it was my moment to make the jump. So I went for it. Luckily, I love it.

For my lens, I decided to shoot with the Fuji GF 63mm (basically a 50mm equivalent on a full-frame camera). Ok – I know I’m not supposed to take portraits with such a wide lens. I get it! However, since I could only use one lens for this year-long experiment, I wanted a lens with a familiar focal length, and I’d always loved my 50mm. I also wanted a lens that would give me some flexibility when shooting in all sorts of different spaces. Are my images slightly more distorted than they should be? Maybe. But I’ve got to be honest – I don’t really care. We guitarists love distortion.

For my one light source, I left myself two options. Either the Profoto B1 (usually with a beauty dish), or the Wescott Icelight. Both of these lights are extremely portable and produce beautiful light. Since I wanted a “run and gun” sort of setup, these were the perfect fit.

So here’s what I love about this setup. Say, for example, I’m walking around with a few friends. I can pop my one camera and my one lens and my one light into a small backpack, and stop for 5 minutes here and there to make some quick portraits. It doesn’t have to be a huge production, but I can still make great photos that I’m proud of. What could be cooler?

So with my gear chosen, there were still a few of the more “logistical” limitations.

I wanted to limit the length of my portrait sessions to 5 minutes or under – which may sound crazy to a lot of people. I knew the time limit would be tough, but I wanted to challenge myself to think on my feet. I didn’t want to get bogged down in possibilities. I just wanted to see where my eye took me naturally, and try to make the best photo possible in the time I had. Because I didn’t have to worry about questions like “which lens?” or “how many lights?” I found myself working faster and more comfortably than I ever could have imagined.

I also wanted to photograph “real people”. I didn’t want to rely on models, people dressed in high fashion, or in heavy makeup. I just wanted to photograph the people in my life the way they really are.

I didn’t want to take any money from any of my portrait subjects because when it came down to it, this was personal work. This project was a quest to help find my voice as a photographer and I didn’t want the process to be skewed by the expectations of paying clients.

And finally, I wanted to shoot with these limitations for an entire year. I knew that if I tried this experiment for only a week, I’d be right back where I started the following week.

A year may seem like a long time, but it felt right to me.

The big question is…how did this experiment turn out? All of the photos in this blog post were taken over the last year with these limitations in place – so check them out and draw your own conclusions. It’s possible you hate all of my portraits, and that’s okay! In my own opinion, I couldn’t be happier with the work I’ve been making since implementing my limitation exercise. I feel that for the first time in my decade-long photography career I’m beginning to develop my own artistic voice.

I feel more comfortable creating portraits than ever before. Most importantly, I feel inspired to keep going. I’m just a few short months away from my one year goal, and I’m looking forward to switching things up slightly in the future. I’m not sure what the change will be, but I know that what I’ve learned this past year will act as a rock-solid foundation for my photography moving forward.

I’d love to get your feedback on the blog. If you’ve had a similar journey with your photography I’d be honored to hear about it. If you plan on trying an experiment like this please let me know, and keep me updated on your progress! If you have any suggestions for different types of limitation exercises, please post them here. Keep the conversation going!
And finally, I’ll be at Photoshop World in Orlando next week helping Kaylee Greer present a few of her really amazing classes on dog photography. If you see me in the hallway I hope you’ll stop and say hello!
Thank you for taking time out of your day to check this out. I truly hope it was worth the read.
Rock on.
-Sam Haddix

Sam Haddix is a portrait photographer from Boston Massachusetts, a graduate of Berklee College of Music, a lover of professional wrestling, and one half of Dog Breath Photography alongside world-renown dog photographer Kaylee Greer.

You can see more of Sam’s work and connect with him on Instagram, Facebook, and at SamHaddixPhotography.com.

About The Author

25 Comments

  1. […] Blog: Portrait Photographer Sam Haddix Guest Blog: Portrait Photographer Sam Haddix Source: Scott […]

  2. Sam, this is such an incredible way to think about all that you’ve accomplished this year. Isn’t it crazy how not overthinking things can often result in our best work? The approach you described here is super timely for me. I’ve been overthinking so many of my passions lately and the mere thought of them is daunting but perhaps this approach could really work for me. Thank you for sharing your ridiculously talented brain and talent with the world!

  3. “Are my images slightly more distorted than they should be? Maybe. But
    I’ve got to be honest – I don’t really care. We guitarists love
    distortion.”

    this quote really “reverberated” with me… good read. I had a prof in college who only shot rocks and water together – all zone system 4×5 stuff, and it was amazing how refined and deep his images looked. I need to shake it up – good thoughts there…

  4. Phenomenal work and I really enjoyed your story. Thank you for sharing your year-long journey. It’s inspiring. I’m not long into this world and I appreciate the insights of professionals such as yourself.

  5. Sam, this blog post was truly inspirational. I have been in such a photography rut lately. Your words have made me think a lot about how to get out of said rut! I’m looking forward to seeing you and Kaylee at PSW next week!

  6. Well that really, truly rocks! I’ve done those limitation exercises, though I’ve never considered doing it for a year……hmmmm. Great post, great photos, greatly inspiring, Sam. I’m going to put some of those thoughts to work.
    Just need to figure out the “making a living” thing…………. ;-)
    Thanks for a terrific post!

    • Paul! Thanks for reading man!
      I totally get you with the whole making a living thing. When you shoot what you want, where you want, when you want, how you want (you know, personal work), it’s kind of a long-term sort of thing. You might not make money from those particular images right away, but it’s the showcasing of your true artistic talent via that personal work that will start to bring in money somewhere down the line. I truly believe that.
      If you wind up trying something like this keep me posted – I’d love to see your work! Thanks again! :)

  7. Hi Sam,

    I found my way here thru a mention on Kaylees Facebook Page which I follow because I have dogs and enjoy photography. I’ve been fascinated by her style and she attributes her training to you. Congratulations for seeing and nurturing the talent in her.

    As I read through your blog and looked at your shots I can easily see that she was blessed to have you to learn from/ with.

    I can’t relate to your musical analogy because I have zero musical talent. I do enjoy music though. However, I absolutely can relate to the overburdened aspect when it comes to camera gear. I only shoot for pleasure but I have managed to turn it into a chore by having an overstuffed bag and too many options. I am going to devote some time to practicing exactly how you described. I’m going to think about what type of photograph brings me the most enjoyment then head out with the limited gear necessary to capture that type of shot. I don’t know if I’ll push for a year but maybe 6 months to see where that leads.

    Thanks for the read and for sharing your thoughts. I feel I will benefit from your blog.

    I’m also going to head over and follow your Facebook because I love your photography you shared as well.

    Thanks!
    ~Jeff

    • Hey Jeff! Thanks so much for reading the blog! Let me know how the limitation exercise goes for you – I’d really love to see what you come up with!

  8. Great work Sam. I amazed going through your writing. Thank you dear

  9. Hi Sam,
    I met you last year at Photoshop World during yours and Kaylee’s precon (which rocked by the way!). You were so helpful to me. I was pretty inept with my camera and you helped me set it over and over and over again:) And you never lost patience and were so pleasant and nice. So I personally want to thank you for that! I also saw some of your work during the conference. It is truly amazing. I remember the couple looking at each other at night with all the city lights behind them. Wow!

    And now, you once again are extending yourself to all of us through this really helpful blog. It is so nice to read that such a talented photographer as yourself runs in to the same problems that many of us have. Once again you are the generous teacher. I love these beautiful portraits you have shared with us. Thank you for not only sharing your art and techniques, but also yourself.

    I teach graphic design at a community college. I try to really guide students to find their process to make art. I have always known that often having limits, or a specific “structure”, can help generate an idea when someone feels lost. Now after reading your excellent blog, I can share your very personal experience with this with my students. Thank you for that!

    Looking forward to seeing you and Kaylee at Photoshop World next week. I only wish you two were doing another precon:)

    • Hey Denise! This is the coolest! Your message totally made my day – thank you!
      Make sure to say hi at PSW next week. We’d love to see you again! :)

  10. I agree that limitations are brilliant for creative work – but it really does take a lot of discipline to stick with it the way you have. Your work here is gorgeous and I’m inspired to go shoot!

    • Corinna! Thanks for checking this out, and thanks for being such a big part of our adventures. There’s truly no one else we’d rather have on our team. :)

  11. Thanks for sharing this. As a (newer, not great, but trying to learn) musician I completely identify with the idea of limitations. My music teacher often has me doing things with just three or four notes or in a specific range on the fret board. This is the same thing, but I didn’t make the connection until I read this piece. A great idea, and hopefully I can use it to put new life and energy into my photography. So, again thanks for sharing.

    • Hey Eric! Thanks so much for checking this out! I’m glad the music/photography connection hit home! Let me know if you wind up trying this with your photography, and let your music teacher know he (or she) is doing a great job! :)

  12. Really amazing work,Sam.Thanks for sharing the experiences of your photography carrier.Your providing article really inspire me most.

Leave a Reply

Close