Have you ever stared blankly at your camera, just waiting for a flash of inspiration? Have you ever racked your brain for some new idea about what to go photograph, but just couldn’t come up with anything? Maybe you found the whole experience so disheartening that you put your camera back in its bag and switched on your favorite TV show instead.
This is called photographers block, and it happens to everyone who owns a camera. So how do you beat it?
First, you may find it helpful to acknowledge that you are not the lone victim of photographer’s block. I promise, you are not the only one who's ever looked at your camera and failed to feel inspired. Sometimes it happens just because we get burned out on taking pictures. Other times it happens for physical reasons—maybe you’re too tired, or you’re not feeling well overall, or you’re just overwhelmed by the stress of your day-to-day life. Photographers block is totally normal, totally natural, and is in fact one of many different types of artistic block—all of which have been plaguing artists, writers and other creative types for centuries.
The problem with any type of creative block is that you can’t give into it. The more times you put your camera back in its bag and sit down to watch Game of Thrones instead, the harder it’s going to be for you to find inspiration the next time.
Now I know that when you sit there staring at your camera, racking your brain, that is a sort of brainstorming session—but it’s not usually going to be a very productive one. You need focused, guided brainstorming. You need to jumpstart your brain into coming up with an idea, and the best way to do that is to seek out the things that inspire you.
1. Go online
This was a lot harder back in the days when your media library was limited to whatever you had on your own personal bookshelf. But today we have a fabulous tool for seeking inspiration, and it's called the Internet. I'm sure you already know about Flickr, but if you don’t (or you still haven’t signed up) now is a great time to get an account. Flickr is like Facebook for photographers. It’s where you go to show the world your very best work, and more importantly, to view the very best work of your friends or the photographers you've chosen to follow.
Now let me preface this by saying that I would never advocate trying to copy someone else work—that wouldn't be inspiration so much as it would be a sad cry for help. You don't need to flat out copy a photo that someone else has done in order to be inspired by it. Instead, make a mental note about what elements there are in that photo that you particularly like. Maybe it's just the way the subject is lit. Maybe it’s an emotion that that you feel when you look at the photo. Maybe it's more specific—the way two subjects are interacting, for example. You can seek to re-create some of those little details without completely copying the image.
Photography books, Google search, or any other online forum where you're going to see a lot of images are all great places to vanquish photographer’s block. I recommended just taking basic notes about each image before you head out into the field—as I said, you really only need a little bit of inspiration in order to come up with a unique photo that’s entirely your own.
2. Go for a walk
It could be that you go for daily walks in your neighborhood, and you're already intimately familiar with the scenery. Or it could be that you don't walk at all. If it’s the first case, you’re probably not going to find a lot of inspiration in those familiar surroundings (although you should never discount the mundane as a place to find images, it’s not often the best way to break your photographer’s block). So instead, get in your car and drive to some unique location where there’s a hiking trail, or just go downtown with your camera. Spend some time checking out the details wherever you go, and try to notice everything. When you look at your surroundings with an eye for detail, inspiration will come to you.
If you don't already do a lot of walking in your own neighborhood, that’s also a great place to find inspiration. You may be surprised by how different things look when you view them from on foot. Again, whatever you choose to do, make sure you walk slowly and that you spend time studying your surroundings. Look at things up close, and look at them from a distance. Think about photogenic elements such as texture, color, shape, line and form. Think about how you may be able to photograph certain things in order to make them appear three-dimensional. In short, make sure the point of your walk is not the exercise (although exercise is always good), but the act of seeing. Try to see the world like a photographer and not just like a person out for a stroll.
3. Pick a subject
Personally, I like to just open up a dictionary or some other book and blindly point at a word. Now, you may have to do this a few times before you hit on something that you can actually take a photograph of, but you would be surprised by how creative you may start to feel when faced with the prospect of photographing something random like “up,” “chair” or “employee.” Failing that, you could just brainstorm a few ideas—for example, pick your favorite color and then tell yourself you’re going to spend the whole day photographing only that color. You can do the same thing with objects—resolve to photograph only cats, for example (hint: don’t just look for the living, breathing kind; you can also find cats on store shelves, people’s clothing and in popular culture, too). Or pick something broader like “texture,” or something abstract like “love.”
4. Find a 365 list
There are a lot of places online that publish weekly or daily prompts to help get your creative juices flowing. My personal favorite, of course, is the Photo Dash—but you can also find basic lists of ideas that are designed to give you unguided inspiration. These lists typically just give you a word, so in many ways this is similar to the old point-at-a-book-page technique, but they often work on themes such as “autumn” or “Christmas.” If you set a goal for shooting one item from the list each day, you’ll start to break out of that rut. Before you know it, you’ll be modifying the daily prompt and then coming up with some great ideas of your own.
5. Keep a journal
No, I don’t mean a “dear diary” sort of journal—I mean a notebook that you have on hand at all times, where you can write down every idea (from the clearly silly to the clearly brilliant). If you’re a retro sort of person you can just stash a little lined paper notebook in your purse or your back pocket—or you can do like the modern folks do and download a note-taking app for your smartphone. I personally like Evernote, which lets you add notes and photos directly from websites, as well as your own typed notes—all of which are neatly categorized and synced across all of your devices. But you can really choose any note-taking application, as long as it’s always on your person and is easy to use.
Sometimes your rut will be subject based, and sometimes it will be based entirely on technique. If you mostly shoot portraits, for example, you may be doing the whole f/5.6, 100mm, 1/125+ thing pretty automatically—which doesn’t leave a lot of room for technical inspiration. Why not break out your tripod and try a few slow-shutter speed portraits instead? That’s a fun and ghostly technique that may not already be a part of your repertoire, and you might discover that spending an afternoon doing something unconventional will help you come up with new ideas for other photo sessions. In short, when you step outside your comfort zone you’ll probably surprise yourself with what you’re able to come up with.
If you’re short on ideas, just spend sometime browsing the archives of my blog. I’ve covered a lot of different techniques—some quirky and some not so quirky—so just pick a handful of articles with interesting headlines and then spend some time reading through them. Make yourself a cheat-sheet for each technique and then go out in the field and try out some new ideas.
The really brilliant part about this is that you’re lucky enough to live in a world where you don’t have to spend money for every frame you shoot. So that means you don’t need to be choosy about which techniques you try—you can spend a whole day shooting frames and then decide afterwards that the technique is not for you. And you won’t be out anything except for your time—and even time spent trying out a technique you ultimately don’t like is never going to be wasted time. At the very least, you’ll learn something about photography and give yourself some new subject ideas to work with when you try another technique somewhere down the road.
I don’t want to say that it isn’t hard to break out of your rut, but I will say that it’s entirely doable as long as you are determined and you are willing to try some new things. That’s really all it takes, and who knows? You might even find a new technique or subject that will one day become a specialty.
- Go online
- Google images
- Photography websites (or books)
- Go for a walk
- Look at things in a different way
- Pick a subject
- Choose a random word
- Choose a theme
- Choose an abstract idea or concept
- Find a 365 list
- Keep a journal of ideas
- Try a new technique
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