Google the phrase “How to get out of a creative rut,” and you’ll get nearly 5 million hits. Google “How to get out of a photography rut,” and that number jumps to nearly 6.5 million.
Yes, this could be due to a wide variety of random factors, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say that in the past five years, with the proliferation of camera phones and social media, photographers have faced a more challenging market than ever.
The pressure to produce more and more imagery is mounting, and the best photographers are finding ways to adapt. That famous line from Imogen Cunningham- “Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”- seems more pertinent even than when she said it decades ago.
What exactly does it take to evolve? We asked thirteen Offset photographers to tell us how they stay motivated and recharge. For some, that means plunging deeper into the cutting edge of the craft; for others, it means taking a step back to the basics.
1. Keep a library of inspirational images
I keep a personal library of images that inspire me. These come from a myriad of sources: the internet, magazine tear sheets, museum shows. I frequently visit this collection and ask myself what my connection to the images is. Why do they inspire me? What are the qualities or values from these images that I want to infuse my work with?
Sometimes the answers are technical: lighting, composition, etc. Sometimes there is simply a mood that attracts me. I maintain a constant feedback loop by comparing my work to that of others and experimenting with modifying my work to see if I like the results. My work is constantly evolving, and this keeps me inspired to make more images.
2. Find inspiration in other photographers
Creative ruts are pretty common, and when you’re in them, it can often feel like there’s no end in sight. The trick is to find that one, tiny thing that pushes you to get out there and start shooting again.
It personally helps me to see what other photographers are producing. I’ll pick up magazines, check out websites, explore agent lists, etc. Usually there’s an initial period while doing this where I’m like, “Woe is me! My work is terrible, and I’ll never be as good as these shooters.” That’s natural. Comparatives can be rough, but they often lead to personal inspirations. The momentum builds from there.
I think it’s important to always be evaluating your images throughout your career. What worked, what didn’t, why is this more captivating than that, what am I missing here, what can I do better now, what am I empowered by, and what am I passionate about? Those questions help fuel your voice and vision. That’s really what photography is about these days: the technical expression of your perspective.
3. Learn from artists in other fields
Put yourself in the shoes of another artist, in another field. If you’re a photographer, try painting, or sculpture or even dance. I love learning new forms of art to inspire myself. A year of oil painting taught me so much about looking for light and really seeing how light touches a subject.
4. Find a friend and take a trip
Get out there. I organize trips for myself and a friend with whom I’ve been traveling and working with for almost 20 years. All on our own initiative, we go looking for a country that interests and intrigues us. We do this without making any specific plans. These trips give me the best energy for myself and for my photography.
5. Photograph a fun, visual event
I usually like to start a new project or cover a fun, visual event with zero expectation of selling or pitching it. Removing that pressure allows me to play creatively and recharge.
6. Meditate or do yoga
I do meditation every day. Or yoga. In fact, I try to free my mind of everything, and then I look at what I have to do.
7. Stop making photographs for awhile and slow down
Don’t take photos for a while, if that is possible. I feel like the world is running on high speed sometimes. We are all producing constantly. I really believe that sometimes we all need some space to slip away and just float freely through the world. I know, for many, this is not possible, but I think it is important, even if it is something you do for one weekend. In that environment, of not taking photos, I feel like you have a natural reaction to the world around you, and you find yourself drawn to specific things. And in that moment, I think you have to experience things and let them pass, as heartbreaking as it can be.
It is a sort of modern anxiety to have to take a photo of everything that we are drawn to, almost as though it didn’t happen if we don’t. I am guilty of it. Without life and the world around us, there is no inspiration. To take photos is in many ways a response, a side effect. So when you have a response, keep note of it, and when you are done with your photo hiatus, go and photograph what you responded to. And take those photos exactly as you want to, follow your instinct, because that is special and meaningful. That adds to the world.
8. Find photographers on Instagram for inspiration
Personally, my style is pretty firm and established, but I always like to look at other photographers’ websites, magazines and very recently Instagram (I don’t have an account but will opening one soon) in order to broaden my horizons and get inspired.
9. If you can’t find inspiration on the internet, turn to nature
I have a bit of a contradictory approach for getting myself out of a photographic funk. One of my main ways to get inspired is to harness the power of the internet and the countless incredible artists that share their work across a wide array of social media outlets, including Facebook, Instagram, 500px, Tumblr, and various blogs and websites. Never before in the history of photography has inspiration been so easy to come by in terms of seeing what’s out there, what new images people are creating, and in researching techniques and photographic process. It can be incredibly inspiring.
On the flip side, however, it can also be overwhelming. There are times I find that seeking out inspiration online can have the opposite effect that you intend: instead of finding your next big idea, you can fall into the trap of feeling that your work is not worthy against the thousands upon thousands of truly inspired work you’re likely to come across. Or, you find yourself shooting something based on a trend or style that you see that you know isn’t really “you,” but you go with it because you fall victim to seeing the social media response to the particular style.
In cases like this, I find my primary solution is to simply unplug and embrace the outside world. My constant source of inspiration over the years has simply, and powerfully, been nature. I can’t go for a walk with my camera without feeling better, without finding something new to embrace in my photography. It rarely fails… and even if it does from a photographic perspective, I still feel better as a human simply being out in nature.
10. Ditch digital and shoot film
Aaron Joel Santos
Whenever I’m in a creative slump, I try to leave my digital camera at home and shoot more film. I have a decently large collection of small, medium, and large format cameras, and I use all of them for a variety of personal projects, but they also help realign my creativity when I’m feeling stumped. There’s something about getting back to basics and getting my hands a little dirty, actually feeling the process of what I’m creating. It’s no mystery; it simply slows me down and forces me to think about what I’m doing. I think a lot of my creative slumps arise because I go on autopilot. This is my way of taking back control.
11. Start a personal project
Gary S. Chapman
I’ve always said that working on a personal project is one of the best ways to recharge and boost creativity. Whether the projects are short-lived, ongoing, near or far, for me, they have all helped me keep my creativity flowing. I’ve done long-term projects overseas and shorter ones as well. I have an ongoing portrait project at home that I started in 2009. “The Visitor Gallery” is made up of folks that have come into our home. Whether it’s a repair worker, mail carrier, or long-time friend, I try to get a quick portrait. Sometimes the portrait tells a little about them or their relationship with our family. To keep a consistent look, I’ve set parameters for the project, which at times makes it even more challenging to come up with new ideas, but that’s a big point in the exercise. I’ve set up a Facebook page, where people can tag themselves if they want.
12. Photograph for yourself, not commercial reasons
I get out of creative slumps by shooting something because it interests me. It’s not always commercially useful or even very good, but that’s not the point. I just enjoy doing it. So my number one tip would be to shoot something for yourself. If it helps to justify the time/cost of producing your own work, you can submit it to a photo library, but don’t shoot it with that in mind. You have to make time for it and be selfish with your own work.
13. Explore other hobbies or other creative ventures
For me, the first step is to acknowledge that having a creative dip is normal and part of the process. I have learned that shaming myself for not being “on” all of the time actually makes the dips last longer. So, that being said, when I am at a loss creatively in photography, I turn to hobbies and other creative ventures to get out of my head. I have taken classes such as martial arts, pottery, improv, acting, golf, drumming, painting, and other things that keep my creative mind active without the pressure of performing in photography.