5 Ways To Break Out of a Creative Photography Rut

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I’m a full time photographer that concentrates on shooting restaurant and bar interiors, food, and cocktails. After strictly shooting that subject matter for long time I found myself uninspired, so I decided to do something about it.

I’m going to share four tips I’ve used over the years to get back on track creatively, hopefully they will help you get out of your photography rut too.

1. Get out of your comfort zone – physically

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I find that I loose inspiration when I’ve been in the same area too long. When things become familiar they become less exciting. If this happens to you there is only one thing to do: leave!

There is huge value in leaving your area, city, or even state for a day or two. The process of traveling to an unfamiliar place jumpstarts the creative process.

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My photography was becoming stagnant so I left downtown San Diego and took an hour drive to Lake Cayumaca. Being in a totally different geographic area afforded me new opportunities to shoot things I don’t see every day in downtown San Diego.

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2. Learn something totally new and uncomfortable

A few years ago I had gotten in a photography rut while shooting a ton of portraits. I decided I needed to learn something new so I decided to learn how to photograph water drops.

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I read a tutorial online and set up a little station in my garage. I didn’t have any experience with macro photography but was excited to try. Check out the setup below:

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It took me a while to start getting decent results but I found myself loving the learning process. I had a great time and came away with a new skill set and a revived creativity.

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If you find yourself in a rut, learn something new that is unfamiliar. While there are people who put my water drop photos to shame I’m still proud of these images and the rut they helped me get out of.

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3. Try a new style of shooting

A few years ago I was starting to learn about rear curtain sync on my flash. I had a few friends who shot really cool light trails in their nightlife photography. I felt a renewed surge of inspiration to try this during a rock concert.

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I plugged an Alien Bees flash trigger into my speed light and put the receiver onto my camera’s hot shoe. This enabled me to hold the flash up, and to the left, with my left hand while holding the camera with my right hand.

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I put my camera and flash on manual. I used a one-second-long shutter speed and set the flash power to properly expose the musicians a few feet in front of me.

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I clicked the shutter to start the exposure and immediately tilted my camera around in circles or side to side. Moving the camera while the shutter was open captured all the lights in the concert hall in different shapes. In rear curtain sync the flash pops at the end of the exposure and the shutter closes.

This combination of using a long exposure and rear curtain sync to create light trails taught me a new skill that I was excited to keep using in future shoots. It is important to master new skills to keep your creativity up.

4. Start an ongoing project

How ironic that my initial rut that was caused by shooting the same subject matter would become a source of inspiration. After half a year of shooting tons of bars and restaurants I looked back on my photos and noticed my favorite photos from those shoots were the corner bar shots.

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After realizing this I got really excited to get back out there to start a project and shoot more bars and restaurants to add to my collection.

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I’m really excited about this now!  I’m already thinking about my next trip and what bars I’ll stop at to add to my project.

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Getting in a rut happens to us all at one point or another. What ways have you guys found to kickstart your creativity? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mike Newton teaches photography learning shortcuts and other photo hacks at Hacking Photography. He is a full-time advertising photographer in San Diego California. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, or his personal photography site.

  • captnpetee

    just wondering; were you using any kind of triggering assist on the water drops project, or releasing by hand (w/ a remote I’d assume) and getting lucky every now and then?? Your photo looks like you kept it really simple. I’d thought about doing a drops project but everything I’d read required some kind of rig; like sound or sensor tripping.

  • I’ve tried each of these over time and have found them rewarding. Did a combination of #1 and #2 just yesterday and, while uncomfortable and frustrating at times, I came away with some good photos.

  • dantefrizzoli

    Thank you I’m still new but I’ll make sure to get out of my comfort zone.

  • Please do! It will stretch your abilities and you will learn much quicker.

  • Awesome! Where did you travel to and what did you try that was outside your comfort zone? I’d love to hear.

  • For the small drops I just timed it myself manually, no triggers or anything. The bigger splashes I had someone drop a penny in the pan and also manually shot them.

    For the super intricate water drop shots you see on flickr and 500px you definitely need a pretty involved setup! That said you can certainly have fun playing around the way I did.

  • Chalk Festival in Pasadena, CA. Not an area or event I’m familiar with and I was attempting a street/urban exploration approach, which feels odd for this landscape photographer.

  • Thats awesome! I’ve done my fair share of events but portraits are my weak spot. I suppose its the directing of people that I could use improvement on. Cheers to expanding our horizons!

  • Nadhrah

    The tips above could also be applied to life. I am feeling a bit routine in my work so this is a great a reminder of how to look at my work in a different aspect.

  • @disqus_Bl6ZAo0uiz:disqus I hadn’t thought of that but you bring up a great point!

  • Zobair Shibli

    And here is one from mine …

  • Rajesh Kumar

    A plain shot of mine

  • This is beautiful!

  • I don’t see a photo here, did you attach it?

  • Zobair Shibli

    Thanks a lot … 🙂

  • Higbe33

    Great article Mike. Here is one I watch when I need a wake-up call. I can’t do people shots either, but this makes me want to try.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2nNxaBA6ss

  • Wow, this is a great video! The shot at 17:32 is genius. I would not have considered placing the couple in front of that red structure and angling them to take advantage of the noon sun.

    Thank you for sharing this with everyone @higbe33:disqus – I can’t wait to finish the rest of it.

  • Higbe33

    You are welcome and I like your idea of trying something different. I am going to work on that and thank you.

  • jd7000

    Why does the title say 5 ways?

  • James S.

    It’s lose , not loose.

  • Guest

    I LIKE YOUR SHOTS OF THE WATER DROPS. HERE IS ONE OF MINE.

  • I think that must be a typo – good catch.

  • I like that this is more zoomed out. This would make a really cool print.

  • Oh, good catch!

  • MIKACO

    THANKS. I LIKE THE WAY THE FLASH CAUGHT IN THE DROP. WHEN I POSTED THE PIC IN WENT IN AS GUEST.OOPS

  • MIKACO

    IT HELPS IF YOUR CAMERA HAS COMMANDER MODE WHEN USING THE POP UP FLASH. ALSO USING A CABLE RELEASE.

  • MIKACO

    ANOTHER PIC.

  • MIKACO

    SOMETIMES THE PIC GOES IN , SOMETIMES NOT.

  • Amaryllis

    Made some water drops shots when I was in a rut, too! It was a great experience and I’d do it again any time.

    https://farm4.staticflickr.com/3794/14257550541_db70c68552_b.jpg

  • I dig the dark mood in these photos!

  • Hi Amaryllis,

    I really like the angle in which you shot this and the sharpness of the ripple rings as they move outward, great work!

  • MIKACO

    Thanks Mike. I was trying different apertures and shutter speeds to see what would happen. I also was trying different color backdrops to bounce the flash .

  • Jens Carl Klitgaard

    Apparantly raindrops seem to be fun :o) I’ll been trying to learn about shutter speed plaing with water, rain, flour …

    Here is one of the drops

  • Scott Boylan

    When I get in a rut I do what I call “5, 20 or 50”: I pick a stretch of road, choose a starting point and a direction, and then decide to drive either 5, 20 or 50 miles from that point. Once I’ve reached that mile mark I take the next right or left turn that isn’t a driveway or business. Whatever I find on that road is what I shoot, which many times forces me to change perspective if I end up in a wide open area and/or without a clear subject.

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