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5 Tips to Help Get Yourself Out of a Photography Rut

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Are you in a photography rut?

Tell me if this sounds familiar – you’re the person who almost always has a camera with you. Maybe it’s in a backpack or purse, in your trunk, or strapped right to your hip – you’re always seeking that next level. Yet on the flip side, you also find it excruciating when you hit a rut. You know that terrible feeling when you look at your recent work and feel like it’s the endless blip of a scratched record, when you don’t feel inspired, creative, or excited by your own work.

Friend, when it gets to this point, you’ve officially hit a rut. Ruts are the curse of the artist. but fear not — if you handle this wisely, you’ll come out the other side on the next level. Here are a few tricks that have gotten me through my creative plateaus.

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Tip #1 – put the camera away for a while

First, put that camera down. It’s unsettling, isn’t it? You see the world in a series of beautifully composed photos, and not having a camera feels like you’re missing a limb. Sit in that discomfort. Force yourself to look at your surroundings with a fresh eye — no lens between you and the world — and new frames, new light, new ways of capturing this crazy planet will all slowly unveil themselves to you.

If you keep going in a rush to capture it all before it disappears, you’ll never see it properly. Start slow. Look carefully. Don’t take any photos. Keep things captured in your mind just for yourself. When you do pick up your camera again, it’ll feel like a whole new world of opportunity, because you’ve refreshed your own gaze. In the spirit of always keeping your gaze fresh, is the next point.

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Tip #2 – look for new inspiration close to home or online

Find new sources of inspiration. During one of my “leave the camera at home” phases last month, I was hungrily soaking up inspiration from everywhere and everything BUT photography. I sat in slack-jawed wonder at Kehinde Wiley paintings, examined the brush strokes in Japanese calligraphy, studied ancient mapmaking techniques and short shadowy films, and the impeccable detail on the Manus x Machina gowns at the Met Museum.

You don’t have to travel to new countries to find a street you’ve never walked down. This absorption of every art besides photography reminded me over and over that this world is rife with creativity that bursts from its very pores, in a hundred different manifestations. I felt so small, so unimportant, and so refreshed by the many ways of creativity that humans are capable of, that aren’t my piddly little photography efforts. It’s good to feel small, while also being inspired to be bigger. That being said, we come to the next tip.

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Tip #3 – stop comparing yourself to others

Stop absorbing other people’s work. Seriously, give yourself a break from the comparison game, because no one wins. Either you end up in a fetal position in defeat, after a depressing Instagram session in which you realize you’re a talentless hack, or you’re left with that icky smug feeling when you look at someone’s work who isn’t as good as yours. Either way, the comparison game doesn’t improve your art, nor does it improve the world either. Take an Instagram break, stop looking at how other photographers are doing it, and keep working on your own vision. It’s a smarter use of your time, and will take you further (now if only I could figure out how to actually implement this one).

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Tip #4 – take advantage or your own strengths and skills

Take the photo that only you can take. This is the crux of it. Instead of imitating other photographers’ techniques and subjects, have a good hard think about the photo that literally can only be taken by YOU. What communities are you a part of that others would kill to break into? What skill sets do you have, that will open doors that otherwise would stay latched shut? There are so many little components of you that make you unique — so don’t waste your time trying to recreate your current photography idol’s recent shoot.

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Tip #5 – just get some rest

If all else fails – take a nap. Seriously, sometimes I’m just so damn tired that I can’t come up with a fresh idea to save my life. Have a good lie down, and know that the world will still be there, waiting to be captured when you wake up.

In a rut? Leave your techniques for working through it in the comments section below, I can’t wait to hear how you handle it!

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Laura Sullivan
Laura Sullivan

splits her time between the Pacific Northwest, Chicago, and the open road. She shoots with her husband, Tim Sullivan, and their company Sullivan and Sullivan Photography. Together, they shutterbug around the globe and run retreats for creatives in the most beautiful places they find. Keep up with their travels at sullivanandsullivan.photography, on Instagram, or on Facebook.

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