Embrace Creative Constraints


Embrace Creative Constraints


I bought my first smartphone, an iPhone 3G, in September of 2009. Before then, I had primarily used a Canon film camera and a Lumix digital SLR, and I had no intent to use the iPhone camera for anything beyond basic snapshots. If you take a look at my first ever iPhone photo, it is obvious that I did not take it seriously at all.

It didn’t take long, though, for me to realize that a smartphone’s camera can be much more than just a snap-and-shoot. There is often heavy criticism waged against the quality limitations of phone cameras and the terrible editing that some people commit with the apps, but this is a narrow view carried largely by film photography purists who don’t understand that phone cameras and apps are really just another set of tools for image creation. There is no right or wrong way to create beautiful photography and photography-based images, so if you find yourself armed with an iPhone over a Sunday brunch and an afternoon walk, why not make the most of it?


The iPhone’s Hipstamatic app recently came out with the Buenos Aires HipstaPak film and lens set made up of the Diego lens and the Uchitel 20 and Blanko C16 films. I am thrilled whenever a new HipstaPak is released, because I like the challenge of using camera apps that impose limitations on my photography.

Artificial limitations have a way of stretching your creativity in ways you do not expect, and Hipstamatic’s films and lenses are perfect for just that. They confine your images within the bounds of the abilities of the film and lens combinations you choose, and so you are forced to look for ways to make those limitations work for you rather than against you.


The use of artificial constraints as creative tools to push for inspiration and creation is an old practice. The tools of any given practice already have their own limitations against which we push, which you can see in the relationship between different inks and types of papers when drawing, but further constraints can be added to consciously deepen the creative process. For instance, writers employ constraints when they use particularly difficult poetry forms or even the extremity of lipograms, like Georges Perec’s Les revenentes, a novel written without the use of any vowels aside from the letter E.

The purpose of these types of constraints, while appearing to limit your options, actually have the effect of relieving you from the paralysis of choice. When faced with unlimited options for subject matter and style, it is easy to be overwhelmed or to rely on familiar choices that don’t push you to further your abilities, but when you have to push against the limits of a particular set of constraints, you can end up pushing your own limits, as well.


The iPhone’s Hipstamatic Buenos Aires lens and film combination created softer, grainier images than I usually prefer, so I was initially disappointed with my photos. I took a second look, though, and I decided that the photos’ unexpectedly vintage and low quality aesthetic, rather than being a failure, could be built upon and possibly improved with an old style colour retouching. I came up with the idea of adding some colour to the images with Photoshop Touch on my iPad, which I had just purchased but had not had the opportunity to play around with yet..


Here are the three simple steps I used to create the colourized black-and-white photos:

  • First, I took photos with the iPhone Hipstamatic app using the Diego lens and Uchitel 20 film.
  • Second, I opened the photos on my iPad using the Photoshop Touch app and created a second layer, which I used to colour over the parts of the photo that I wanted to colourize.
  • Third, I decreased the opacity of the second layer to somewhere between 20% and 50%, depending on how much the colour affected the appearance of the contrast and exposure of the photo.


By embracing the constraints imposed by the Hipstamatic app, I made the first steps toward learning how to colourize black-and-white photos, and I’m glad I did, because it’s not something I would have otherwise thought to do. It’s a simple process that I think I would also like to try with colour photos to add a sense of whimsy or fantasy, especially with night photography.

Have you ever imposed artificial constraints as a way to further your creative work? If so, what constraints did you impose, and how did they affect your work?

Elan Morgan

About the author: Elan Morgan is a blogger, web designer and consultant, iPhoneographer, speaker, and poet who lives in Saskatchewan, Canada. She blogs and works at Schmutzie.com, spreads gratitude through Grace in Small Things, celebrates Canadian blogging with the Canadian Weblog Awards, and speaks all over.  She believes in and works to grow both personal and professional quality, genuine community, and meaningful content online.

As an iPhoneographer, she has taught iPhoneography at conferences in Winnipeg, Toronto, and New York, and she contributed to Alli Worthington’s iPhone Photography: The Visual Guide. Her work was also showcased in Ubiquography, a physical exhibition originating in Barcelona and projected in 35 venues across the world in 2012. Most recently, her iPhoneography has been featured in the book Blog Design For Dummies.

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