Jazz Photography: Creativity within Limits

Loop Pianos 20-EditWhen describing myself to other photographers, I sometimes say —


I might be a classical musician, but I’m a jazz photographer.

To me, jazz photography means approaching my image-making in a creative way that works within limits or constraints. Classical musicians also do this, but they are generally more limited than jazz musicians in how much of the music they are “creating”.

In this article, I’ll talk a bit about what I mean by jazz photography and how approaching photography in a similar way to how jazz musicians approach music shows in my images.

A Little Music Foundation

A western classical performer reads pre-composed notation. A composer has worked out in advance what each performer should play and writes it down. Classical musicians have some freedom in how they interpret the notation and the composer’s ideas, but they really need to be faithful to the composer’s vision – at least that has been the expectation since Beethoven’s time (mid-19th century). The written music provides a standard and our performance is matched to that standard.

Jazz is different. There’s still a composer, but the composer provides a more general outline for the piece rather than writing down each and every note. A jazz musician takes the ideas (chords, form, style, that sort of thing) and invents the music on the spot – we call it improvisation. In performance, a jazz musician is making up the music on the spot. A jazz piece will never be played exactly the same way twice even by the same performer.


This isn’t to say that the jazz musician can do anything he or she wants, there are guidelines baked into the piece, but they are not locked into particular notes. The jazz musician has limitations, but also quite a bit of freedom.

Classical musicians must attend to the details of the composition and work within the vision of a composer. The jazz musician in a large sense is the composer.

One telling difference between a classical and a jazz musician is the question they might ask as part of a critique of their performance. A classical musician will often ask “Was that right?” A jazz musician might ask “Did that work?” This highlights the difference between the mindsets of these two sets of musicians. The classical musician is comparing themselves to a standard while the jazz musician is asking more general question about the appropriateness of the interpretation.

Photo drummer
I caught this drummer with beautiful light on his face, but he was on stage and I wasn’t. This was the best angle I had. The question is “Does this work?” rather than “Is it right?”

You may or may not have a background in music so let me lay out a little of the background to help you understand where I’m coming from. I’m generalizing, but here’s the difference between jazz and classical performers in a nutshell.

The key to understanding the difference between jazz and classical music is knowing what the performer is doing when you hear these two styles of music.

Jazz Photography

When I say that I’m more of a jazz photographer what I’m saying is that I am the primary composer, creating art on the spot. As a jazz photographer, I’m much more improvisatory in my approach to the scene. I’m exploring the scene in different ways, playing with an idea. I’m not trying to recreate or interpret someone else’s vision. I don’t usually have a standard in my mind though I’m working within a basic structure and rules of the photographic genre.

By this I mean that there are general photographic rules and techniques that I follow and there are some expectations for various genres. For instance, when doing landscape photography, I’m more likely to want a deep depth-of-field. It’s not that I have to, but there is an expectation that landscapes emphasize focus front-to-back in the image. There’s a reason that focus stacking is a thing in landscape photography. On the other hand, there is no such expectation in street photography. I can blur out the background if I want.


The Rule of Thirds or the Rule of Odds are general compositional guidelines for most photography and 9 times out of 10 I’m using many of these photographic guidelines when composing my images. I don’t have to, but there are reasons why these rules exist – they tend to make our photos more impactful for the viewer.

Even though I’m creating photos on the spot – improvising – as a jazz musician would, I also know and am working within the constraints of image-making. It’s really important to know the “rules” even if you intend to bend them a bit – maybe especially if you intend to bend them a bit.

If you’re still working on developing your photographic techniques, subscribe to PhotoYoga and you’ll receive a free e-book 32 Photo Etudes: Exercises in Composition, Focus, Light, Motion. This book will help you practice some of the essential photographic techniques.

Creativity within Constraints

Working within guidelines and constraints to enhance creativity may seem counterintuitive. Artists routinely work within rules and expectations of their medium and often will impose additional constraints on their work to help them be more productive.

The constraints provide a framework to push against.

“Play anything” or “photograph anything” is way too broad. Our minds need more structure. The good news is that you get to decide on the structure.

You may decide that you have general guidelines for your own photographs. Maybe you decide that you’ll only photograph using a wide-angle lens or that you primarily shoot minimalist photographs.

The guidelines could be much more temporary and apply only to one day of photography. Each time you set off with your camera, set yourself a goal. Maybe the goal is a particular genre (street photography) or a particular technique (motion blur) or a theme (the color red).

Photo Tibetan musical instrument
I attended an opening ceremony at a local university where Tibetan monks were starting a mandala. I knew generally what to expect since I’d been to these ceremonies before. I challenged myself to photograph color, close-up, and try and capture the culture.

It’s not so much what guidelines you choose, it’s that you have guidelines to structure your creativity. You’re not planning out your shots in detail, just developing a game-plan.

Jazz musicians invent the music on the spot and they don’t usually plan out with too much detail what they are going to play, but they know the chords and the form that they’re playing within. The point is to let the music flow in response to the situation and respond to the other musicians.

When I’m photographing, the scene or setting provides the context that I’m working within. I’ll respond to the atmosphere, both the external conditions like the light and weather, but also my own internal mood. I’ll photograph the scene differently depending on how I’m feeling (contemplative, energetic) and what the scene is giving me.

Photo Saguaro Cactus near Phoenix
I desperately wanted to photograph Saguaro Cactus near Phoenix, Arizona. I found a park (Apache Wash) at dawn and started snapping. The trick was controlling all that desert light.

17wed0274aff_0807_affiliatesfreeweddi_03Final Thoughts

I don’t want to push the metaphor too far or imply that classical musicians aren’t creative – I’m a classical musician after all so I must think classical music is pretty cool!

In this article, I’ve explored connections between my personal style of photography and jazz. I suspect that many photographers “improvise” their photographs in a similar way.

Jazz musicians are very aware of the musical structure that they’re working within. They are known for being very knowledgeable when it comes to music theory – the rules of musical composition. It’s equally important for photographers to be aware of rules of photographic composition and use these rules to help them create.


Artist Tree


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