Have you ever planned a photography day, just for yourself? Let’s say you woke up one morning and grabbed your camera and headed out there into the big world, ready to fill up that memory card with wonderful photos of wonderful things. And then you found yourself just standing there, camera in hand, bored.
Sometimes it seems like you’ve already shot it all. Sometimes it seems like there’s just nothing interesting left, nothing camera worthy. And at those times you may find yourself bored with what was once a hobby you were passionate about.
Don’t worry. It’s called “creative block,” and it happens to everyone—photographers, artists, writers, sculptors—if it’s a creative pursuit, then creative block is always a looming danger. Just because it’s happening to you doesn’t mean that you’ve lost your passion.
[ Top image blocks [EXPLORED] by Flickr user Matthias Rhomberg]
How to fight it
If you’re bored with your photography, it’s probably because you’re in a rut. You like landscapes, so you shoot landscapes. Or your camera mostly just captures photos of your kids or grandkids. Or maybe shooting flowers is your thing. And that’s all OK, in fact it’s good to have a specialty. But if you wake up one morning feeling uninspired, it could be that pigeon-holing yourself into one particular genre is holding you back. You need to think outside the box. You need to start taking photos of things you don’t normally take photos of.
Shoot things you never shoot
At first this may seem counter productive. If you’ve spent most of your career perfecting your landscape photography skills, you may not really want to start taking photos of dogs. They are outside of your comfort zone. The idea of trying to focus on the eye of a moving subject may seem a little intimidating, or maybe you just really don’t like dogs. But here’s the thing—your goal isn’t necessarily to take some great shots of dogs. Your goal is to do something different—to experiment with settings that you don’t normally use and to think about photography in a way you don’t normally think about it. Who knows, you might find that you enjoy taking pictures of dogs. You may even find that you’re good at it. But even if you don’t, you’re inspiring yourself to start thinking differently, and that’s going to work its way into the other photos you take.
Have no expectations
Now let’s take a completely different approach. Instead of challenging yourself to shoot a subject you don’t ordinarily shoot, I want you to challenge yourself to completely empty your mind of all your expectations. Plan a photography day, and then go out there in the field with nothing in mind. Don’t even come up with a destination. Don’t decide in advance what you’re going to take a photo of. Just get in your car and start driving. You could even play GPS roulette—pick an address out of thin air and type it into your GPS, and then follow the directions until you end up in that general neighborhood (just don’t trespass or anything). Once there, find something to photograph. Maybe it’s a cow. Maybe it’s a bale of hay. Maybe it’s a storefront. Maybe there are some cool things in the store. It doesn’t matter—what matters is that you have no expectations for what sort of photo you might end up making. Look for subjects in unexpected places—places you wouldn’t ordinary seek out as photographic. I will bet that if you approach your photography day in this manner, you’re going to end up with some really cool and interesting photos by the time you return home.
Have really narrow expectations
Now let’s go 180 degrees again. Instead of having no expectations, give yourself a really narrow set of expectations. Decide that today you’re only going to photograph purple things. And then go off in pursuit of purple things.
What does this do for your creativity? It gets you to use your eyes. Ordinarily, when you’re out walking around, you’re not looking for purple things. You may see a purple thing and think to yourself, wow, that’s a pretty cool purple thing, but because you aren’t actively searching for things that are purple you’re not going to notice every purple thing you cross paths with. If you make it your goal to only photograph purple things, suddenly purple things become ubiquitous. They're everywhere. And maybe they’re not all worth photographing, but you’re noticing them and that means you’re using your eyes differently than you were yesterday.
painted purple by Flickr user Darwin Bell
You don’t need to limit yourself to colors, of course, you can give yourself any really narrow set of parameters. How about shooting nothing but textures? Or pick an emotion—spend the day photographing joy or introspection. Giving yourself a really narrow set of parameters to work within can really stimulate your imagination and creativity in unexpected ways.
Try an unfamiliar technique
Spend some time browsing through my tips and find some techniques you’ve never tried before. Daylight long exposures, star trails, photographing smoke—if it’s something you’ve always thought looked pretty cool but never dared to try, now is the time. Remember that it doesn’t matter if your shots look just like the example photos, or if they look even remotely close to the example photos. What matters is that you’re opening yourself up to new ideas and trying different techniques. The more familiar you get with your equipment and the things that it can do, the more you’re going to have new ideas and creative thoughts about the sort of photography you hope the achieve. And while you’re at it, you never know—you may get hooked on one of these techniques and put all that landscape stuff on hold for a while.
Never shoot with straight legs
Adult human beings generally see the world from somewhere between five feet and six feet above ground. Because we’re so used to seeing the world this way, images shot from this perspective can be boring. Now, I’m not saying that images shot from the eye level of the average human are never interesting—but you do have to have a subject that really stands on its own to make this perspective work.
Take a look at the photos you’ve been shooting and ask yourself how many of them were shot from that standard human perspective. If your answer is “most of them” or “all of them,” it’s no wonder you’re in a rut. Here’s another idea for your photography day: vow to shoot nothing with straight legs. Bend your knees. Get down to ground level. Climb a tree (safely, please). Think about how you could approach an already interesting subject to make it even more interesting. Often, this means finding a unique and unusual perspective, not just taking a photo from the same-ole, same-ole that defines most hobbyists’ style.
Ground Level by Flickr user kate e. did
Look to other photographers for inspiration
Mark Twain once said that there’s no such thing as a new idea. He was so right about this, in fact, that since he spoke those words lots of other people have had exactly the same idea about there being no such thing as a new idea.
What he didn’t mean when he said this, though, is that there’s no such thing as creativity. Old ideas can be reshaped into new and unusual things. And what you should take away from this is that you can use the work of other photographers as inspiration whenever you get into a rut.
I am not saying you should shamelessly copy someone’s work down to the last detail, because there’s absolutely nothing creative about that approach and because it’s just not a morally acceptable thing to do. However, you can take someone else’s basic idea and expand on it, or change the way you interpret it, or add a creative spin.
Start by exploring Flickr. Or if you’re the book-sort, open up your favorite photography books and take a close look at the photographs you admire the most. Think about how you might be able to put your own stamp on a similar image, then go out in the field and put your ideas to work. If your results end up being too similar to the original, that’s part of the learning process. Don’t share those images on your own Flickr account, because you can’t really take credit for them. But do use them as a place to grow from.
A catalogue of Flickr comments by Flickr user kevin dooley
Think of being stuck in a rut as an opportunity. There’s really nothing wrong with having a little creative block, because it can be a great tool for inspiring you to get out there and try something different. One thing you should definitely not do is be afraid to try all those new things, or have any lofty expectations when you do try them.
One thing writers do to get over writer’s block is “free write,” which means sitting down at your computer and typing whatever comes into your head. Probably no one began a Pulitzer-Prize winning novel this way, because that’s not the point. The point is that you open up your mind and get the words flowing.
Think of photography in exactly the same way. Create some “free photos.” They don’t have to be any good. They just have to open up your mind and get the ideas flowing.
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