In keeping myself motivated as a photographer, I love to look for inspiration from all across the creative spectrum. Today I want to share some ideas with you from the painter Van Gogh that I hope will bring some exciting new ideas for your photography.
I love who I am when I am taking photos. It is one of my favourite things, and I would imagine it’s the same for you.
To have my camera in my hand, exploring, finding beautiful light, and capturing interesting people I meet along the way, is immensely satisfying and massively fun.
However, life often gets in the way (who’d have thought it!), and I get distracted and lose my creative energy.
For example, I have too many conversations with my accountant, or I am doing a lot of admin or rushing around doing the tasks that are super important to make my life function but aren’t conducive to creativity.
I have been a photographer for over two decades, and I know that making time for being creative is really good for me. Of course, it’s good for my career as a whole, but more than anything, it makes me happy!
And don’t we always need more things to be happy about?
These ideas are timeless because they remind us what we love to do, and why – take photos, be creative, and make things.
I’ve also included some ideas that are reassuring – offering guidance on some of the common challenges that we all face as creative people.
So let’s get started!
1. “I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.” Vincent Van Gogh
One thing I regularly hear from people when they arrive on my photography workshops is how they can’t do things.
It could be: I can’t be creative! Or I can’t shoot on manual, it’s impossible for me!
To me, this is just a habitual way of thinking that is not based on facts. Just because we can’t do something now, does not mean we will never be able to.
It is therefore an uncomfortable and unfamiliar feeling for us to be faced with things that we don’t understand, and so we really struggle with learning.
Photography almost always shows us the things we have struggled in the past to do. Because photography is a unity of skills – the ethereal concept of creativity and the highly technical world of cameras, computers, and post-processing software.
Many of my students fall into two camps: those who are comfortable with the technical, but not the ‘arty/creative’ side of photography. Or the reverse: very intimidated by tech, gear, etc but very comfortable with the idea of being creative.
If, though, we want to get really confident in photography (and we should because otherwise, why would you be drawn to this medium?), we have to overcome the discomfort and look to learn about these things we struggle with.
Here I can offer some inspiration. It is possible for anyone to learn anything. No one is too far gone, too un-creative or un-technical. It just comes down to belief. Can you believe you can find ways to learn what you need to learn to become comfortable and confident shooting?
If you say yes, you are halfway there. Saying yes to learning is the first step.
“Men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. When I believe I can, I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn’t have it in the beginning.” Mahatma Gandhi
And how about we just decide to be people who are learning new things? Be like Van Gogh and always be doing things we don’t know how to do.
2. “Seek only light and freedom and do not immerse yourself too deeply in the worldly mire.” Vincent Van Gogh
This talks about how much we need to detach ourselves from normal life, and the endless tasks of our lives in order to create. Being creative connects us to the world in a completely different way to how we normally live.
In ‘normal’ life, we are living on the surface. We are doing a lot, we are being busy, we are jumping from task to task. We are responding. And that’s all totally necessary to take care of our lives.
But it is not the only way to live. It’s the least enriching, and least satisfying way to live.
And it’s definitely not the mode to be in when you’re being creative.
When you are out shooting, when you are creating something, it has to come from a different part of you. Because taking photos is the work of the soul, not the mind.
It’s diving deep into yourself and using everything you are, everything that you’ve experienced, known and loved, and bringing that out in your images.
But real life knocks very loudly and getting yourself into your creative flow state can be challenging. Even I, a professional photographer who shoots all the time, find it hard sometimes to switch off my mind when it starts reminding me about my mundane daily tasks.
So what I do when I am finding it hard to connect to my inner creative spirit, the inspiration I seek when I am out shooting is finding other ways to stoke my creativity.
That either involves going out into nature, searching for beautiful light or looking at other artists and what they have created.
I also love to read about what my favourite artists have said about making things, because it helps inspire me and helps me leap into a state of wanting to go out and create beautiful photos.
When Van Gogh said “The only time I feel alive is when I’m painting,” feels mostly very true to me.
We are rarely totally living in the moment, totally alive to everything that is around us, connecting to the world that we see.
Totally normal of course, we all do it. But I also think it’s important to carve out time to have those moments of deep fulfillment, of connection, deep beauty, and joy. This is what photography brings into my life. The chance to slow down, to see and be present for what life is.
3. “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” Vincent Van Gogh
Photography is an inner game.
Taking good photos has nothing to do with your current skills or your ability to nail sharpness or your exposure. It’s everything to do with what you believe about yourself and what you believe is possible for you.
If you start with this idea of not being able to do something, you won’t be able to do it. You have to overcome that mind of yours that loves to remind you of your inadequacies.
But it is also to say that all people who create, have fear. You are not alone when your mind tells you you’re not much of a photographer, or you might as well as give up because your photos are boring.
Your job is to ignore whatever rubbish your mind is saying about your photography, as Van Gogh says, and silence your mind by doing.
Creativity comes from such a magical and mysterious place– you can’t just find it anywhere. You can’t quantify it or set an exam for it. The fact that there is often no way to quantify if your photos are any good can create some anxiety.
The way to overcome this is to just get started. Just go out and shoot. Don’t worry if it’s going to come out well or not. Don’t pre-analyze what you may or may not achieve or what you are or are not.
The mind is clearly an incredible organ, but it’s not always on your side. It can dissuade you from doing things you love before you’ve even got started, so regardless of the outcome, go out and shoot and love the experience.
4. “Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.” Vincent Van Gogh
It’s really easy to get so familiar with our world that we stop seeing what is beautiful and awe-inspiring in the world around us. It’s normal to see your everyday environment and not be inspired by what’s there. Our eyes get dulled to the familiar world around us.
That’s often why we travel or go to new places, to see new things.
But here is a big change we can make right here and now in our photography. When we are prepared to really find the magical and beautiful in life, wherever we are; when we can learn to be impressed and excited about what is, we will see more and more opportunities for photos.
We don’t need to travel or find new things to be inspired to shoot, we just need to connect with what is enchanting in this crazy, wild, and incredible world.
5. “Painting is a faith, and it imposes the duty to disregard public opinion.” Vincent Van Gogh
In many ways, I think learning photography now is harder than in the past. And that’s not because there are so many photographers, or because of smartphones, etc. Instead, it’s because of the amount of information out there, and the multitude of opinions.
The internet has given us so much incredible access to information and to communities and groups where we can share our photos. But often, instead of it being an empowering experience, it can become disheartening. You can get into the habit of judging your photos on how many ‘likes’ they receive.
When you post your photos online, you can get a whole raft of opinion back that is often useless for your photography.
People who aren’t necessarily any more experienced than you will share their random thoughts. (And I can guarantee there are very few professional photographers hanging out online doing constructive criticism on photos.) It’s also so easy to get dissuaded by what other people say about your images.
To make something unique and interesting, and to shoot with creative freedom, you need to be very careful about where you get feedback and who is giving it. You need to give most of your time creating images. Then find people you really trust – whose photography you admire – and seek feedback from them.
That’s how you can learn to grow and get better as a photographer.
6. “It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.” Vincent Van Gogh
Photography often becomes viewed as a series of technical tasks that need to be learned. To learn the way of the camera is to unlock all the gifts of photography.
For me that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The camera is merely the tool to execute your vision. That’s not to say the tool doesn’t have lots of cool and exciting features. I mean, I love tech, and I love what it can do. However, all of that gear is not going to get you great shots if you don’t know how to see, use your imagination, and bring feeling to your photos.
The key to accessing amazing photos all around you is to start to really learn to see.
You might say – but of course, I can see what’s around me! But you would be wrong. There is so much visual information around us, that our brain blocks out most of what is there. What we end up seeing is a mere fraction (less than one percent) of what is going on around us.
What is even more surreal is that because of how our brains like to make our lives as easy and simple as possible and to create habits in how we think and do things, we often see the same things over and over. We don’t notice the different things in our environment.
If you think about a street you’ve maybe walked down hundreds of times and all of sudden you have the urge to look up to the tops of the buildings. And it’s like – wow, I don’t remember seeing that.
This happens all the time with everything in our world.
Therefore, it is a good job as a photographer, to learn to open our awareness. Learn to see beyond what our brains feed us. Learn to look for a long time, and pay attention to what is around us.
This helps to develop our patience too. Developing patience in looking for shots is a great skill to nurture as a photographer. I find people are usually too quick to move on from a scene or a subject.
When we are patient and take that extra time working on a scene or subject, we often find more qualities of the subject are revealed. More ideas spring to mind too. Perhaps things in the moment change; like the light or things moving around the subject, thus, changing the possibilities of the photo.
Learn to really look at the world and it will open up so many incredible facets to your photography.
7. “If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” Vincent Van Gogh
I don’t just mean nature in a traditional sense – the beautiful flowers, people, or landscapes. It’s when we bring the idea of beauty into our photography that we see that we can capture what is beautiful to us, in any guise.
For me, it’s often the interplay of cities and nature. The smash of orange fruit on the tarmac. The gorgeous colors of the sunrise above a housing complex. Or the dramatic, metallic grey of a sky before a storm.
I would actually expand this idea to say there is beauty in all things, you just need to develop your ability to see and find it all around you.
I hope you found these ideas from Van Gogh useful for your photography. I would love to know what you thought, and if any of these ideas felt like they inspired or taught you something valuable. Please let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading!