Taking photos is one of the most inspiring and exciting of pursuits. It can encourage you to have adventures, see the world in a newer, fresher way, meet interesting people – all while creating something that is totally unique to you.
“We are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration – it is how we fold our experiences into our being.” – Brene Brown
But what happens when your well of inspiration runs dry, when you can’t get excited by your images or you feel stuck in a rut? Most photographers, even professionals, have periods when creating feels like wading through glue. You get tired or bored with your own images.
So, why do you (we all) get stuck?
The destructive habit of habit
As most of us, you are probably immersed in habit – you do almost the same things each day, every day. Making your coffee in the same way at the same time, going to work on the same route at the same time, eating the same kind of food each evening. It’s almost like you stop thinking and just do.
“As long as habit and routine dictate the pattern of living, new dimensions of the soul will not emerge” – Henry van Dyke
Your brain has made a great effort to get you into the state of habit. It makes life easier for you so that you don’t have to make tonnes of new decisions every day. But, if you are lost in habit you aren’t seeing new things, doing new things, or trying things in new ways. Habit will strangle your creativity.
So how do you get out of this cycle?
The way to fill your life with inspiration and motivation will be different than others – depending on how you create and what drives you. Here are some ideas:
1 – Leave your camera at home
If you’re someone who is always out and about with your camera, taking lots of photos – abandon it for a while. It’s easy to get carried away. Instead of taking time to see and compose, you are likely just taking shot, after shot, after shot. If you are bored with the photos you are taking – this is probably what’s happening to you.
I would encourage you to start examining the world in a different way – not as a photographer, but as someone who hears, feels, smells, and absorbs the atmosphere around you. Using all of your senses is a wonderful way to help experience the same world, but in a different way. It will help you gain a different perspective.
Sound is a particularly evocative sense for me – the crackle of dry autumn leaves under my feet, the low hum of trains on a railway line in the distance behind me, the vibrating thump of music in a bar, a conversation drifting past me. Tuning in to senses that you usually don’t prioritize (because we photo lovers tend to put our sight first, don’t we) will also help you anchor yourself into the present moment, pulling you away from your busy mind, and into the world so you can eventually see more interesting and unique things.
Challenge: When you are ready to start taking photos again, set yourself the challenge of taking just three photos a day, for 15 days. If this sounds hard, then it’s the perfect challenge! This will help you be more precise and thoughtful in your approach. You will work harder to create a smaller number of better photos. So – what will you take with your three images?
2 – Make taking photos a habit
Now, let’s consider the reverse. You are someone who doesn’t take photos very often – maybe you wait for an occasion like a walk in a lovely area, good light, or a holiday – then my advice is the opposite. If photography is something that you pick up only now and again, you’ll never get into the rhythm of creating, you’ll never develop the skills of really seeing the world and composing great images. The act of creating is like a muscle – the more you do it the stronger it becomes.
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” – Maya Angelou
By creating a habit of creating, you are making a declaration to yourself that photography is a very important part of your life. It also helps to get your subconscious organized in a way that it knows you are going to be calling on it more regularly. It starts preparing. I know this sounds strange but it’s like anything you do regularly, your body and your mind get used to doing it. You are in the mood and the wonderful act of creativity starts to energize you in new and exciting ways.
Challenge: If getting into the habit of taking photos is tough for you, then this is the challenge for you – take 50 photos every day, for 15 days. That will kick start your creativity, and imbue your day with the looking and seeing and noticing that is necessary to take great photos.
3 – Take photos not to see the result, but to enjoy the process
When you see small children making art there is a beautiful joy that they get by just doing it. From feeling the feathers before they glue them on an egg box, to painting wild splashes of colour on a sheet of white paper. In fact going out with kids, and watching them look at the world in such an open way, is great training on how to be present with the world around you.
With kids there is a complete enjoyment in the process of making – and that is something we, as photographers, sometimes forget. Perhaps because the act of creating is so instant – the click – we forget that it’s our whole creative process which leads up to that click.
“What moves me about… what’s called technique…is that it comes from some mysterious deep place. I mean it can have something to do with the paper and the developer and all that stuff, but it comes mostly from some very deep choices somebody has made that take a long time and keep haunting them.” – Diane Arbus
I do my best work when I am totally present, totally in the zone, not thinking about emails, or jobs, my to-do list, or my kids – but looking with wonder at a beautiful cloud, or some rain dripping off of a leaf. And if you need encouragement – isn’t it just great to cut yourself off from all of your responsibilities and absorb yourself in the wildness, the peace, the craziness, the beauty of the world?
4 – Start a project
Sometimes I find my attention gets fragmented – with all of the work I do, my family, etc., so that I’m jumping from task to task, and not getting deeply involved in anything. A few photos here, a few photos there. This is when I like to jump into a project.
Key advice for projects: Choose a subject that you are blown-away passionate about. It could be anything – the colour violet, armpits, salt mines, trees, your kids, men with mohawks – it doesn’t matter what it is, you can bring something new to a subject if you make the effort.
“I wanted to photograph clouds to find out what I had learned in forty years about photography. Through clouds to put down my philosophy of life – to show that (the success of) my photographs (was) not due to subject matter – not to special trees or faces, or interiors, to special privileges – clouds were there for everyone…” Alfred Stieglitz
The key point is that it’s not so much about technique, but the passion. Why? Because:
- When you hit a roadblock or life distracts you, you’ll be less likely to abandon the project if you are really excited about it.
- Passion will help drive you to create a new and interesting perspective on your subject.
- When you feel something when you are taking photos, you are more likely to take a photo that contains feelings. Why is that important? Because you want people to notice your photo, to feel a connection with it. Most images we look at are flat and devoid of feeling. The best photos communicate both a visual idea and a feeling, we are moved in some way by it.
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.” – Don McCullin
5 – Do something completely different
I’ve talked about how habit can be a force of good for your photography – by making you commit to a regular practice, and exercise that creativity muscle. But it can also be a negative force – you get so used to your ways of doing things, or your lifestyle, that you don’t push yourself in new ways.
Think about the kind of things you normally photograph. Now think of some you’d be terrified to photograph, and go and photograph them. So maybe you’re great at landscapes. You like photographing the odd person if they happen to be in the shot. But the idea of taking a close-up or a portrait of them terrifies you. So do that. Or you’ve always wanted to get up onto some rooftops and photograph your city from up high. But the idea of asking for permission, etc., makes you feel nervous. Just go for it!
“You may never know exactly what you need to do, or exactly where you’re going. But if you are willing to start taking tiny steps, and keep going, the dots will connect over time to create something beautiful and fulfilling.” – Lori Deschene
6 – Remind yourself why you take photos
It can be easy with your photography to get into that should way of thinking – “I should take more photos! I should be better!” But scolding yourself rarely gets you anywhere (with anything). Instead, I encourage you to think about what photography really means to you, what are the benefits beyond the fun of taking that photo. How does it enrich, energize and enhance your life?
- What does photography give me?
- How do I want to be creative in my every day?
- Which of my photos or projects am I really proud of?
When you connect with the reasons why you do things, it’s so much easier to stay committed and motivated.
7 – The trap of perfectionism
Often we stop taking photos, or we start slowing down or moving off on a tangent when we are working on a project, because the feeling of not being good enough starts to insidiously infect us.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life” – Anne Lamott
Who cares if you try things that don’t work. Who cares if some of your photos aren’t great? Stopping yourself from doing something you love, before you’ve done it, is crazy. Recognize you have the fear, but don’t let that stop you. Fear goes away eventually.
Be aimless and wander. Resist those urges to make your photo explorations productive. Ignore the output and focus instead on what you see. Listen. Follow things that spark your interest.
8 – Get inspiration – indirectly
I really believe that inspiration for your photos can come from all kinds of places. It just so happens that my favourite photographer of all time, Ernst Haas, agrees (if you don’t know him, look him up). He said:
“Beware of direct inspiration. It leads too quickly to repetitions of what inspired you… Refine your senses through the great masters of music, painting, and poetry. In short, try indirect inspirations, and everything will come by itself.”
So fill your life with creative inspiration of anything that moves you. Beautiful music, looking at bizarre paintings, reading wild adventure books – it doesn’t matter what it is, if it excites and moves you then it’s right for you. The more you remind yourself what feeling excited and creative feels like, the more your body and mind will imprint that into yourself.
Along that vein, I also like to remind myself of times when I have felt super creative, super in the flow, and I was taking great photos. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’ll never take a good photo ever again (happens to me all the time, especially when I am starting a new book), but just think back to a time when you were taking great photos and in the zone. Remind yourself of that, and it will be easier to get back into that space.
I hope those ideas help. I’d love to know if they do – and what you do when you get stuck. Comment below, I’d love to hear.