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If you have read a few of my previous pieces here on the Digital Photography School like “5 Uncomfortable Truths about Photography“, or “How Making Horrible Photos Will Lead to More Keepers“, you’ll know that I have a much greater respect for learning, effort, and practice than I have for the latest and greatest gear. Good photography does not rely on equipment or rules.
But what happens if you lose your will to produce? What happens when the desire to make images simply slips away?
It happened to me last year, I just stopped wanting to make images. For most of the summer, my busiest and usually most productive season, I had no desire to shoot. Out of habit I still carried a camera on the wilderness trips I guide, and on personal trips across Alaska, but the images I made were few and lackluster. Now, a year later, I cringe to look through those, at the missed opportunities.
I broke out of the funk, but not the way I expected. Tired of carrying along gear I wasn’t using, for the final trip of my summer season, a 17 day pack-rafting trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I carried only a camera body and one single 24mm f/2.8 prime lens.
It wasn’t a creative decision, I took that combo because it was the best way to make my kit as light possible and still get the quality I wanted, and the lens and camera fit easily in a small holster style case that I carried, attached to the chest straps of my pack.
Toward the end of August my two clients and I flew from Fairbanks, Alaska north toward the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We passed little ranges of mountains in the interior, above the Yukon Flats, and over the rugged high peaks of the Brooks Range. Just to the north of the mountains on the arctic coastal plain of the refuge, the pilot descended, picked the unmarked strip out of the landscape, and settled the oversize wheels of the bush plane down onto the autumn tundra.
Within a few minutes of landing, we’d unloaded our heavy packs and the pilot was rocketing down the grass and into the air. He was the last person we’d see for more than two weeks.
The first 10 days of the trip were dedicating to hiking, though the mileage was such that we could take a day or two off periodically, which was good, because when the first snow storms of autumn hit a week into the trip, we were in no mood to walk.
The route carried us through a narrow gap in the mountains cut by a small river. We walked through that gap on a cold, windy day when low clouds obscured the tops of the mountains. We had to criss-cross the river, and our feet were constantly soggy. But the willows along the creek and the small patches of tundra were bright with autumn colors, and a much-needed distraction from the cold.
Once on that first day, just once, I was stopped in my tracks by a scene that had to be photographed. I’d made photos earlier in the trip, but they’d been snapshots. This was a scene that inspired me; a rare thing.
The simple camera and lens setup removed much of the tedious decision making. There was no easy compositional escape in the form of a zoom lens, rather I had to move about to make the scene come together. I worked within the restraints of the lens (which were numerous), and it was utterly liberating.
I gave the image five whole minutes before the chill forced us on, and for the first time all summer, five minutes wasn’t enough.
The following day, we woke to clouds, shredded by the previous day’s winds, and big patches of blue shone through, bright and optimistic. We hiked over a low pass, and watched a Grizzly sow and two young cubs graze in a sedge meadow a quarter mile and two hundred vertical feet below. My little lens didn’t have a prayer of making anything more than a token image of the brown specks on the tundra below. Instead I peered down through binoculars as the bears dug up sedges and combed berries from the bushes with their teeth.
On the sixth day, the storm hit. We were camped on a meadow of soft, dry tundra above a small creek when the winds shifted from a pleasing breeze from the east, to a howling gale from the west. It happened in moments, the speed of the weather change taking me completely by surprise. Rain, then pelletized snow arrived, followed by a genuine snow storm in the night. For two solid days we were battered by the strongest winds and most intense storm I’ve ever experienced in the Brooks Range. Just keeping our tents standing was a constant battle.
Yet in that time, my clients and I managed a few excursions away from camp. We climbed up to a low ridge where the full brunt of the west wind hit us hard. There, we leaned into the gale and watched the falling snow tear across the tundra.
It wasn’t a photogenic scene, at least not by traditional standards, and yet I made images because I wanted to. Creativity, quite suddenly, brightened up like a cartoon bulb over my head.
On the third morning, before I even opened my eyes, I knew the storm had passed. My tent wasn’t shuddering in the wind, and when I did lift my eyelids, I could see the day was too bright to be dominated by clouds.
Emerging from my tent, I saw that fresh snow cloaked the mountains and dusted the tundra around our camp, but blue dominated the sky above. I went for my camera and spent a happy hour making images as the drenched tents and rain gear steamed in the rising sun.
Two days later we reached the river and our cache of food and boating gear that had been waiting for us. In those two final days before we traded in our hiking boots for pack-rafts, I think I made more images than I had in the previous three months combined. I couldn’t get enough of it.
The 50 miles of paddling stole some of my photographic productivity. (It’s hard to paddle a small bouncing raft through swift, splashing water while taking photos). Nonetheless, as we descended the river out of the mountains and onto the coastal plain, my renewed love for photography stuck with me. Even when another storm hit and we were pinned down for two more days, even when the snow fell in heavy wet flakes, and when the wind tore the autumn colors from the vegetation and shifted the landscape from red and yellow to brown.
Our final camp lay where the river met its coastal delta. Caribou criss-crossed the plain in small bands, and migrant birds were congregating in the many lakes. My little lens was no match for the distant wildlife, but it didn’t matter. I’d rediscovered photography, which meant that I was more aware of my surroundings, and the images that lay in it, than I had been for some time. Even if I didn’t have the right equipment to capture some of the photos I found, I recorded them mentally in sharp detail. As it turns out, those mental images are just as rewarding as the ones glowing on my computer screen.
Paging through the images from the trip, I see an interesting evolution. The first images are mostly snapshots, but as time passed, and my inspiration picked up steam, the images become more purposeful, more composed… better, even.
Purposefully restricting yourself can be a great tool to boost creativity. It’s a little like playing charades: using limited tools to effectively get your message across. It can be fun, and a bit frustrating. It forces your mind outside its comfortable box, and into a place where creativity is far more important than gear. When, and if, you return to your diverse array of lenses and cameras, you will no longer take all those compositional possibilities for granted.
If you are stuck in a rut, or just want to try something new, give up your zooms for a couple of weeks, only shoot black and white, use your camera exclusively in manual mode, or shoot some film. After, share your experiences in the comments below, I’d love to hear what happens.