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Paul Liebhardt is a well-loved photography faculty member at the school where I teach. In the classroom, his playful antics and unorthodox ideas quickly get the students excited. One afternoon, I sat in on one of his lectures while he was showing photographs that illustrated light patterns out in the natural world. Paul showed photographs that were powerful, humorous, intriguing, and heartbreaking. The photos were taken in dozens of countries around the world. Paul’s point was to illustrate that good light exists everywhere—you just have to know how to find it.

After this emotional and visual roller coaster ride, he put a Barbie doll picture up on the screen. The Barbie was standing in a graceful pose and was lit with fashion studio lights. A few people laughed. Paul said, “Now seriously, everyone. What would make this picture better?” A few people attempted to come up with some ideas, but they all fell short.

Paul picked up the slack and asked with a crescendo, “You know what would make this better?” He flipped the slide and the same picture appeared, except now the Barbie doll was wearing a shrimp on her shoulder. Paul said with a boisterous Australian accent, “Throw a shrimp on the barbie!” The whole class burst into laughter.

Once the laughter calmed down, Paul asked, “Why was that picture so good?” It was good because of the juxtaposition with the others and because of the visual surprise. In certain corners of the world, the diminutive word for barbecue is barbie, and Paul created a memorable image that played with this phrase. It was something his students will never forget.

If you want to use your camera creatively, adopt a playful attitude and capture visual surprise. Sometimes the surprise will be simple and subtle and other times a bit loud. Either way, when you are shooting, think beyond straightforward terms. Ask yourself, what’s surprising or intriguing in this scene?

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