5 Tips to Help Get Yourself Out of a Photography Rut

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 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.

  • Interesting piece. I’ve had times when I felt like I was in a photography rut and have done several of your suggestions just out of instinct -they work and I soon regain my inspiration. Your article caught my eye because I recently wrote a piece on my blog about using photography when you feel that your life is in a rut. Your article shows that we can go full circle…

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  • George Johnson

    #1 and bit of #2 works wonders for me.

    I’ve been through several horrible “rut cycles” and the most effective thing I learned from them was to never attempt to force your creativity, it has to just happen.

    Which is where #2 comes in, you should try to gently nudge yourself out of the rut. You can’t lift a 400 ton train off the track and onto another track, instead you must set up junctions and points, guide the train onto the new piece of track it needs to follow.

    I sometimes find simply going out for a walk, camera in my bag just in case something strikes but with the assurance that I simply don’t care if nothing grabs my attention.

    Watching an old favourite movie sometimes works well, you know the dialogue and the story like the back of your hand so what you can do is start to look at the cinematography, the camera angles, guess the types of lenses and lighting, you start to notice all these things you may never have seen before.

    The last resort is to simply wait! I once waited 4 months for my “photo mojo” to return after I lost all interest, woke up one Sunday morning and just went out and shot the…worst images of my life, LOL! However I was motivated once more and it was simply a matter of getting back into practice again.

  • waynewerner

    Another thing that I find helpful – “constrain yourself”

    I have a 128mb card that I should be able to get about 13 shots on. I plan on using that constraint sometime soon.

    When I got my 40mm f/2.8 lens, having the single focal length was great at forcing me to learn a new way of photographing things. And sometimes, I just couldn’t take the picture because I didn’t have my zoom on. But I’ve noticed that I pretty consistently have been using wider apertures, so my recent project has been limiting myself to using smaller apertures.

    I also got a tilt-shift lens (lensbaby spark), which has its own set of challenges that I’ve had to overcome to be able to produce decent shots with.

    Any time I’m struggling in my creativity, I try to limit myself, to see what I can come up with.

    (For an extreme version of this, go to youtube and search for “pro photographer, cheap camera”. They get some *serious* constraints, and still manage to do some really neat stuff.)

  • Donna J

    Ron I checked out your blog and like your article about losing inspiration. I was going to post a comment but I’m not on Facebook so I couldn’t…. Just wanted to let you know I enjoyed the article. Btw, I’m a Canon girl. 🙂

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  • Thank you! It’s a new blog and others have told me they could not post comments and I’m trying to figure that part out. I hope you go back often for new posts. Always happy to hear form another Canon person 🙂

  • Very good points, I particularly like #3, “Stop comparing yourself”. A sure road to a loss of confidence. I’d add another though – Mix it up. By that I mean switch around techniques and subjects. For example I shoot both digital and film, black and white and color, and with standard and medium format cameras. Whenever I find myself losing spark, I change – for example pick up my digital camera, go shoot some street instead of landscape, or any other possible combination. Suddenly what was becoming uninvolving picks up new life and restores the fun – for fun is what photography is all about for me.

  • Charlie Barker

    A tip I got from the tutor when doing a photography course at my local adult ed college, “put a 50mm prime lens on your camera for a week” Boy does that make you work for a shot or what?

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    I basically earn around 6.000-8.000 bucks /a month from freelancing at home. For those of you who are ready to do simple computer-based work for few h /a day from your home and earn good payment in the same time… Try this gig http://self92.com

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