It's called "creative block", and it's an ugly beast. All artists complain of it at some point in their lives, even great ones. It can happen to you when you're immersed in the doldrums of an uninteresting routine, or it can happen to you when you're standing in the Mongolian grasslands during the Festival of Naadam. Creative block doesn't discriminate, so you need to have an arsenal of tools at hand to fend it off when it decides to make you its next victim.
If you've ever stood in one place with your camera hanging around your neck and just could not for the life of you find a photo anywhere in your environment, you're probably suffering from creative block on at least some level. The key to beating it is to start fighting it as soon as you recognize it, because otherwise it can keep you in empty memory cards for weeks. Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do. If you use these tips and exercises, you'll not only banish creative block, you may also come up with some really great photos that you probably would never have thought of if you hadn't had a bout of creative block. Take that, ugly beast.
Look at other Photos
This first tip may seem obvious, but sometimes when we're feeling uninspired the last thing we want to do is to subject ourselves to other photographers' wildly successful images. It's time to put aside all of that reluctance and get out those favorite photography books, photo blogs, or visit the "Explore" page on Flickr. Bookmark (both physically and electronically, depending on the medium) the photos you like, and ask yourself what it is about each image that makes it stand out. Is it the lines? The light? The photographer's use of depth of field? Has he or she used some other technique that led to the success of the image? While everyone knows it's bad karma to copy, you can still try to emulate some of the strong qualities that each image has on your way to creating a totally unique photograph.
Read tutorials. Yes, like this one.
If you're stuck for ideas, try sifting through the archives on this website. Look through the tags on the right side of the page and click on any that hold particular interest for you. Scan the articles and see how many tips and techniques you can find that you haven't already tried. Make a list of them and then randomly choose one each day, or once a week, or whatever your regular shooting schedule is. Go out into your local community or your local open spaces and try taking some photos using those ideas.
You could start by reading up on the six elements of design, and schedule a photo shoot for yourself focusing on each one of those elements. During the first outing, for example, shoot only photos that include strong lines. Then focus just on texture. Choose color for another shoot. Zeroing in on one of the elements that can contribute to a strong composition will not only give you familiarity with some of those concepts, it might also get you out of a rut.
Buy some photo apps or inexpensive camera add-ons and see what happens
On websites like Photojojo, you can pick up relatively inexpensive toys for your DSLR such as the Lensbaby Spark ($80), a tilt-shift lens, or the DSLR Wheel of Filters ($40), which incorporates 18 different filters into one unit, or an SLR pinhole lens ($50) which is a no-dust cap with a pinhole cut into it. Any one of these products can help you get your creativity moving again. There's nothing like a cool special effect (even a low-fi one) to make you ooh and ah and try it again.
If toys aren't in your budget, try a simple iPhone or Android phone/camera application such as Hipstamatic or Lo-Mob. These are very inexpensive applications that allow you to apply special effects (some of them similar to the effects you would get using the toys listed above) to your images. A simple shot of the flowerpot just outside your front door could turn into something funky and cool after just a few taps and swipes in one of these applications.
Try to capture themes and abstract concepts
This one may sound intimidating, but it isn't - provided you keep just this one thing in mind: you don't have to succeed. The beauty of photography and many other art forms is that you may start out trying to capture one idea and end up expressing a completely different one, and that's fine. No one has to know what you were trying to accomplish when you took the photo, they just have to be engaged by the final result.
Set yourself a goal before you leave the house and see what happens. For example, if you start with "loneliness" as your theme, you might want to look for an old abandoned building, or you might decide to photograph a windswept beach on a stormy day. You could also go to a public place and look for a person or an animal who seems isolated and alone, and try to capture that subject in such a way that conveys that feeling to the viewer.
You could also try challenging yourself to tell a story with your images. This can be a story you think up in advance, or one that is unfolding as you are in your setting. Try to make sure your story has a beginning, middle and end (ala that creative writing class you took in high school) and take a series of photos to try to capture its progression. When you are at home, narrow your collection of photos down to the best four or five.
Get some outside help
Outside help can come in many different forms. Different people look at things in different ways, so try taking a walk with a friend and asking him to point out the things that he finds visually interesting. You can also seek out other photographers - visit photography forums and just lurk, paying attention to the questions and answers that are being asked online.
Follow photography contests, too. You don't have to actually enter them (and watch out for the scammy ones) but many of them have themes that may encourage you to pursue a photo opportunity that might otherwise not have occurred to you. The same opportunities can be found at photo challenge websites such as PhotoChallenge.org and DPChallenge.com. These websites feature a different daily or weekly challenge or assignment. As with contests, you don't need to actively participate on the website to benefit from what these sites have to offer. Just make each challenge your own, and then go back to see what photos other photographers came up with in meeting each challenge. You'll get first-hand experience and the benefit of learning from other people's mistakes or successes.
Look at everything from different angles
This is one of my frequent rants, but it applies very well to this particular topic. As a photographer you need to view everything in your environment from every possible angle: ground level, bird's eye view, bent knee, tip-toes and everything in between. Every time you raise your camera to take a picture, ask yourself what your subject would look like shot with a macro lens. Ask yourself what your subject would look like if shot from a distance, lost in its surroundings. Think about how interesting you could make that subject if you planted yourself on your back looking up at it, or if you climbed up that staircase a little ways and looked down at it. You don't need to be suffering from creative block to do this; you should already be doing it every time you go out to take pictures.
Pretend to be a photo journalist
Seriously. Visit places and events that might otherwise have had no interest for you, just because they happen to be there. This is what you'd be doing if you worked as a photographer for a media outlet: you would go to whatever places your editor told you to go, regardless of how interested you were in the subject.
Go to a country music festival even if you don't like country music. Visit a rally in your town square, and don't worry if your political views don't happen to align with those of the protesters. Go to a dog park, even if your dog is so old and decrepit that he'd rather stay home and bark at the younger dogs from your kitchen window. All of these places contain photo opportunities, and believe it or not you can find inspiration in things that don't line up with your personal style or your (or your dog's) preferred activities.
Find something really weird, and photograph it in six different ways (at least)
It could be some strange, indefinable piece of Americana you found on eBay. It could be a Ronald Reagan-shaped potato. It could be an old, rusty tool you picked up at a flea market. Whatever it is, start with a macro shot. Then put it in a setting that rivals or compliments its weirdness. Then just shoot it against a colored background. Try to think of unusual ways you can showcase the object.
I know I said "weird," but the object you use for this exercise doesn't necessarily have to be that weird. Any interesting item will work, as long as you can think of unusual ways to photograph it. Try to make each photo in the series look different from the others, and you may be surprised by the cool and unique images you end up with.
I know, easier said than done. Noticing things means that you take the time to stop and think about everything that is happening in your environment, not just the people or activities you've come there to photograph. A good place to start is with light, which is of course the single most important thing in an image. If you're at the lake on a summer day, for example, notice the way the light reflects off the surface of the water. Notice what it does to the flecks of iron pyrite in the sand. Notice how it falls on the faces of your companions. Notice how it reflects off of your daughter's sunglasses.
Now think about motion and how your subject might look shot at a 1/1000 shutter speed, then think about how that exact same image might look when shot at 1/10. Examine stationary objects for unusual shapes or bold colors.
People watching can help you develop a better sense of subject, too. Try visiting a busy cafe or other public place and just plant yourself in a chair and observe people. Watch the way they interact with each other, the expressions on their faces when they're lost in conversation and the way that they use body language. If you have kids, try spending some time just observing them at play or exploring. Sometimes what their faces say is a lot more interesting than what their bodies are doing.
Train yourself to notice things and to view the world through a photographer's eye even when you aren't out with your camera. If you find yourself regretting missed photo opportunities when you are in those ordinary, dull places you that never before seemed particularly photogenic, then you are actually accomplishing something. You may not have the photos to show for it, but the real triumph is that you are changing the way that you see the world. And when this happens might even find yourself bringing along that camera every time you leave the house.
Creative block often happens because you find yourself stuck photographing the same old things. Those deer in your back yard. The sunset over your house. Your kids at the park. All of those things can make for compelling photographs, but only when you discover a different and unique way to photograph them. If you find yourself rolling your eyes at your own images or standing there with your camera hanging helplessly around your neck, it's time to brandish that camera, stand up to that ugly beast and try something different.
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