I am always willing to offer advice, suggestions, or critiques to any photographers that reach out to me. You may have seen my posts on social media letting people know they can send me images they need help with or a second opinion on. Because of this, I get questions from photographers from all different parts of the world, some doing it purely as a hobby, others pursuing it professionally. But a recurring theme I have noticed through these conversations with fellow artists is that many of us struggle with what I would call ‘creative slumps.’
It’s an interesting thing that even something you love and are deeply passionate about can still become dull or mundane. The love for it doesn’t necessarily fade, but you can get to a point where you feel like you are at a dead end, without any new ideas or sense of direction in order to continue to progress and move forward. As human beings, we love to feel like we are progressing in some way. Most of us experience pleasure and excitement when trying new things but become dissatisfied performing the same task once it has become too easy for us. It is in our nature to love challenges and most of all the satisfaction that we feel from overcoming them.
I am very familiar with the creative rut myself, and I have gone through many periods, both brief and extended, where I felt the inability to create and produce new art. Whenever I notice myself either lacking motivation or not feeling particularly enthusiastic, I try to distance myself from the feeling so that I can just observe it. Being more self aware has helped me to be able to both shorten the dry spells in creativity that I go through and extend the periods of prolific productivity that I experience as well.
Through trial and error, I have come up with several things to consider whenever I am lacking motivation. Although I still continue to experience periods of time where I do not feel like creating photographs (and I suspect they are inevitable), these practices have ultimately helped me to be a more prolific artist, and I have been able to enjoy photography much more as well.
Allow Space - Have you ever noticed that the harder you try to do something, the worse it seems to turn out? Or the less you want to feel a certain way, or think about a certain thing, the more you end up focusing on it? Think about the last time a song was stuck in your head; the less you wanted it there, the louder it seemed to get. It’s not until you stop paying attention to it that it vanishes.
For example, I never seem to have trouble falling asleep, unless of course I need to wake up early the next day. What tends to happen then is I lay down like always but then a few minutes pass and I am still awake. Then I’ll notice a few more minutes go by and realize I am losing precious time for sleep by still being awake. Then I begin to worry that I may not fall asleep quick enough to wake up rested, which only stresses me out more, and actually keeps me awake longer. Sound familiar? It’s like the contradictory thing we always say to one another, “just try to relax.” The more you try to relax, the less you are capable of relaxing. One of the many paradoxes of life.
What we resist persists, and a lot of times when in a creative slump, we actually prolong the situation by fighting it. We feel stressed that we are unmotivated to create, because we would prefer to be motivated, and so then on top of that we worry that we will never feel creative again, only adding more layers to the emotion and increasing its negativity. If we can view it objectively, without judging it as good or bad, just accepting it for what it is, a lot of times it will subside on its own soon after. Viewing it negatively will only feed those negative emotions around it and cause it to be a bigger deal than it needs to be.
Don't get addicted to the high of creating and sharing new work. Being attached to the feeling of releasing a new image can force you to put out work for the sake of it. Always strive to keep your personal standards of excellence intact, and if you can't meet them, then don't be afraid to take a break for a little while. On the other hand, you should also understand that not everything you make will be equally shocking, compelling, attention grabbing, or thought provoking. There is room for all sorts of images--from quiet to loud, simple to complex--in a portfolio. Don't let it bring you down if you feel you aren't creating scenes that are as epic as the ones you made last month.
Once you experience more creative slumps, you’ll begin to notice a trend; no matter what, at some point the motivation to create always comes back. The more you go through it the more confident you will become that the motivation will eventually return, which will help you to worry less about never coming out of a slump. If you don’t feel like creating, then don’t, and don’t feel bad about it. It is ok and often necessary to take a break sometimes. Let yourself engage in other activities that have nothing to do with photography. During the week, or in between trips, when I am not out shooting or editing photographs, I am out hiking without a camera, skateboarding, playing with my kids, reading books, and doing all sorts of things without thinking about photography. This will serve to ease your mind and focus on other things, which will then allow your thoughts to clear and come up with new ideas. Even if photography is your career, don’t feel guilty when you aren’t producing. There is nothing like taking a short vacation and then coming back to work refreshed. Don’t burn yourself out.
Step Out of Your Box - Like I mentioned before, we human beings love a good challenge. It’s why we are always inventing new things and trying to improve everything around us. If it wasn't for this inherent, constant dissatisfaction with the condition of our lives and surroundings, we would still be living in caves. Once we reach our goals or attain what we have been longing for, instead of enjoying it, we just want something else.
Buddhists refer to this human craving as tanha, and believe that it is the root for most of our suffering. But this incessant dissatisfaction doesn’t have to rule over you. It is just how we have been conditioned by natural selection. Instead of it discouraging you, you can harness this desire in a positive way, by purposely directing it on things that will help you continue to move forward.
Just like anything new that we learn, the beginning stages are always exciting. Starting out, there is a plethora of knowledge to be gained; finding our way around the camera, becoming familiar with post processing techniques, seeing the different ways we can affect our images with exposure times and apertures, visiting national parks and iconic places for the first time, can all seem very overwhelming. But after a few years, the rate at which we improve starts to slow down, and it can feel like there is less to learn or master.
In order to keep photography from becoming boring or mundane, it is important we always find ways to stretch our abilities in order to keep it satisfying. The best way to do this is to look outside of our own creative box, not just sticking to what we know we can do well and are comfortable with. Indulgence in comfort is the death of evolution. Falling into habit or formulas can cause photography to become very repetitive and make you feel like you are taking the same photograph just in different places. Try creating new kinds of photographs, photographing completely different kinds of subjects than you have before. Experiment by breaking the ‘rules,’ and using or creating new techniques that you aren’t already familiar with. Trying new things can be scary, since we prefer success over failure, but it does keep things interesting and nothing motivates us more than a good challenge. Be open to ‘failure,’ don’t be afraid to sing a different tune. Keep finding those challenges for yourself. Not only will this keep you motivated, you will have a better portfolio as well.
Try New Equipment - Much like creative formulas, we often fall into the habit of using the same equipment all the time. If it works, why change it, right? It can be fun to feel good at something for a while but eventually it will become boring as it ceases to challenge your abilities. If you find yourself shooting wide all the time, try out a macro lens. If it feels like your telephoto is glued to your camera, bust out the wide angle and see what kinds of unique perspectives you can find. Instead of limiting yourself to what your lense can fit in the frame, think about how you could combine multiple perspectives into a wider field of view by creating a panorama. Rent a plane, chopper, or buy a drone and try shooting landscapes from an entirely new perspective, just always respect laws and regulations and other people around you. Get an underwater housing and see what you can come up with from below the surface.
You can switch up the ways you use your gear as well. Play around with shallow depth of field; see what you can come up with by not having anything in focus at all. Experiment by using your telephoto lens for grand vistas, or using your wide angle for intimate scenes. Make a pano with your macro lens. The possibilities are endless. Don't let the traditional uses of your gear confine you.
Visit New Places - Sometimes I find myself going to the same places over and over again, this has a lot of benefits as it allows for a greater relationship to grow between myself and the landscape. I know my way around and can navigate them effortlessly, not wasting time trying to find suitable scenes when there is great light. However, just like eating the same food over and over again, this can get old and start to feel stale. There is nothing like the exciting feeling of visiting a new place for the first time. Like I said, revisiting places is a great experience on its own, but try to always throw in some new locations in your plans to maintain that sense of discovery and keep things interesting. It is always fun to find out what else is around the corner.
However, as your eye gets sharper and your imagination broader, even when visiting the same place again and again, each encounter can feel like you are seeing it for the first time. This is why I always teach my students to take in the world around them, to notice as much as possible, and not view objects so literally. Make it a point to always look for the shapes, forms, patterns, designs, feelings, emotions, statements, and stories that the outlines and arrangements of objects create. This is what will keep your adventures and explorations from feeling redundant.
Master Your Tools - In digital photography, there are so many ways we can enhance, alter, and manipulate our images. With a lot of my students, I have seen that they love shooting photographs and find plenty of energy to do so, but when it comes time to process them, they feel unmotivated. Not knowing where to start or what to do with an image can make post processing feel like a daunting task and too intimidating to attempt. The more comfortable and familiar you become with all of the tools available to you, the better you will be able to visualize the end result of an image and know exactly where to take it. Spend time experimenting and learning about all the techniques and tools of the trade so that you can apply them with confidence and precision to your images. Feeling inhibited by your lack of skill can be unmotivating in any field or artform. The easier the technical side is for you, the more freely you will be able to imagine and create.
Search For Deeper Meaning - You should only spend your time doing something that you truly love, and true love is what develops after the initial excitement wears off. Another way for photography to stay satisfying is by finding deeper meaning in what you are doing. Have you ever really contemplated why you are drawn to photography? Why you bother with it at all instead of all the other things you could be spending time on? I’ll admit that starting out, much of what drew me to photography was learning the new techniques and emulating the work I saw of other photographers; sort of checking off a list of preconceived photographs that I wanted to take (which I was done with after just a year or so). Once I got to the end of my list, photography became boring and my motivation had disappeared. But instead of moving on to the next thing, I decided to stick with it and find new motives to pursue it.
It was a few years ago, right around when our government started to remove protection of many public lands--mainly national monuments and forests--when that deeper meaning became clear to me. Experiencing the natural world, getting away from the noise and commotion of the city, has been important to me ever since I can remember. Losing the places that are still wild where we can experience the beauty and awe of nature in peaceful solitude and silence would be devastating. That's when I felt the
strong desire to do my part to change the situation and make a difference. I decided I would use photography to capture special places and share the value of them in their unaltered, natural state. Since then, I have had more motivation than I can even keep up with, with the ecosystems of our entire planet facing serious threats.
While all of these practices are important and have helped me get through many creative slumps in the past, this is the point that I hope you will remember the most. The reason why we do things is what gets us through trials and tribulations. It's what makes us stick with commitments, relationships, and dreams even after the excitement fades, obstacles present themselves, and we find no more support from anyone else. If you still don't clearly know why you choose to spend time and effort creating photographs, I highly recommend that you allow yourself a few days alone, somewhere peaceful and quiet, to do some deep introspection.