Have you ever found yourself in a rut? I don’t mean a professional one, or a personal one, I mean a photographic one. Let’s say you take pictures every single day, and when you open them up on your computer you just find yourself, well, bored. All those pictures of your grandkids look exactly the same. Your landscapes all look exactly the same. Even your street photos seem to be missing something. No matter what you do, you just can't seem to break out of that boring photo rut.
Creative block is difficult to overcome, no matter what your art form. So what can you do to jumpstart your way out of this rut? Read on to find out.
summer sun shining through . . . by Flickr user Will Montague
I almost don't want to say this, but photographers are luckier than most. Often, you can break out of that rut with a simple change of perspective.
Most people only view the world from a couple of different perspectives, except for a few rare occasions when they are compelled to look at something up close or from an awkward angle. But the rest of the time, we don't really go out of our way to view things differently. The world unfolds at eye level, which for most of us is somewhere around five or six feet off the ground. Sometimes we see things from chair level, and sometimes lower than that, depending on the height of the mattress we sleep on and whether or not we ever find ourselves sitting on the floor. But that’s pretty much the extent of the visual variety in most people’s day to day lives.
So to get out of that rut, the first step is to start looking at things differently. Instead of photographing your cat from the perspective you usually view him at, try lying down on your belly and photographing him from the perspective of a mouse. You’ll find that a cat looks completely different when shot from below than he does when shot from that same-old-same-old perspective that you view him from every single day.
Eddie on Refrigerator with Paws Over Edge by Flickr user Picture Zealot
Now try this: you know that tree in your backyard, the one that’s stood looking pretty much exactly the same since you moved in to your home 20 years ago? I want you to put your camera in macro mode and walk right up to it. Don’t stop when you’re five feet away, stop when you’re five inches away. What does the bark look like from that perspective? Are there any creatures living in or on it? Now capture what you see in a photograph.
Don’t stop there
What happens if you stand at the top of the stairs and photograph someone who’s coming up? What if you try holding your camera at an odd angle? What if you photograph your oven from the perspective of the roast chicken? How about the bottom of your dog’s paw? Instead of stepping back and taking a shot of your child drawing a picture, stand over her shoulder and photograph what she sees as she’s drawing that picture.
Are you starting to get the idea? The best way to get out of a creative rut is to simply banish that ordinary perspective. In other words, if you’re standing up and you find yourself tempted to take a picture, stop and rethink. How can you turn that moment into something really extraordinary? Sometimes it’s a simple matter of bending your knees. Sometimes you have to be even more creative than that, and consider the other possibilities. Make a map in your mind—how many different potential angles are there? How might the subject look when viewed up close, and how will it look when zoomed out? Follow your instincts. Sometimes you’re going to be wrong, but there will be other times where you’ll hit on something really astonishing.
Brick & Concrete Steps by Flickr user TheBusyBrain
Some things to keep in mind
When you’re shooting from that up-close perspective, look for subjects that have a lot of interesting texture, and try to photograph them when the light is right. Side light is great for texture because it brings out detail that would become invisible if the light came from directly overhead or from in front of the subject. This is because texture needs shadow to really reveal itself to the viewer, and light that comes from the side will give the subject just enough shadow to make that detail really stand out.
Try a lot of different subjects from an up-close perspective and compare your results. Some textures may not look that interesting to the naked eye, but you would be surprised at how fascinating they become when you shoot them with a macro lens or even just with your point-and-shoot camera’s macro mode.
Perspective doesn't always have to be about how close you are to a subject or about what angle you shoot it from. You can also change your perspective just based on where you stand. Let's say you're photographing two people walking through a forest in autumn. If you stand in front of them and photograph them as they are walking towards you, you’ll get a completely different image than you will if you stand behind them and photograph them as they are walking away. The first of these photos says “beginning,” and the other one says “ending.” The subject is the same, but the mood of each photo is dramatically different.
Likewise, you could also use some kind of natural frame for another interesting take on the same setting and subject. Let's say you stand behind the orange and yellow leaves of a deciduous tree, and turn those leaves into a colorful border for your photo. Now you have an image that looks whimsical and almost like a scene from a fairytale. The natural frame creates a feeling that we are looking in on a scene as told in a story or a painting, rather than looking at that scene in person.
Leaves framed by tree-trunks by Flickr user wolfpix
You can also mix up an ordinary scene by looking for three dimensional clues such as diagonal lines and layers. Try this: when you shoot a landscape, put something in the near foreground to help add a sense of scale to the finished image. Or find a line and orient yourself so that it becomes a diagonal. Here’s an example: if you shoot the surf at the beach as the waves are moving parallel to your position, how does that compare to a shot taken from the exact same spot on the beach, but looking down the waves instead of directly at them? What if you crouch down and take the same photo, how does that change the scene?
Another way that you can photograph things from a different perspective is to shoot them based on their abstract qualities. A good abstract image focuses on those elements of a scene that are interesting even when removed from their context. For example, instead of photographing a fence in a farmer’s field, you could zoom in on that fence and exclude the field altogether. Orient the posts and rails in such a way that the image is about the geometry of the fence rather than about the fence itself. Your image may still be recognizable as a fence, but the fact that it’s a fence is no longer important because the image is about line and shape, not about context.
Abstracts can be achieved in a simpler way by zooming in and focusing on an object’s texture. Let’s say you have a pet snake (because who doesn’t?) and you want an interesting abstract shot—you could zoom in very close and shoot his scales, or you could zoom out a little and simply photograph his overlapping coils as he’s curled up in a corner of the tank. Excluding context is easy if you simply fill the frame with a repeating pattern, interesting texture or series of shapes and lines.
Red-bellied Snake--scales by Flickr user cotinis
Yes, we photographers are pretty lucky compared to some other artists—writer’s block couldn’t possibly be cured by simply lying on your belly on the floor or climbing a tree. Or maybe it could—who am I to say? But it’s clear that if you just spend a day shooting from extraordinary points of view you may be able to clear your bout of photographer’s block in a single 24-hour period. And if not, just ask yourself if you approached the problem from an extreme enough point of view. Remember that you don’t have to get it right with every single shot. In fact, if the majority of your photos come out a little odd or not really what you had in mind, it doesn’t matter—provided you end up with at least one or two photos that are really stunning. And if you are diligent about thinking through all those different angles and perspectives, I would be very surprised if you don’t end up with one or two “wow” photos. And if you do, I hope that will inspire you to take those unknown roads whenever you are out with your camera. In other words, take a few shots from that ordinary perspective, but don’t settle. I’d almost bet money that your favorite images from now on are going to be the ones you would have never thought to shoot before you started this experiment.
- Don’t shoot from a standing position
- Get close
- Brainstorm different angles for every shot
- Look for texture
- Change your position
- Try a natural frame
- Look for lines and shapes
- Go abstract
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