Over the months and years of life as a creative photographer it’s very easy to begin to fall out of love with our craft. What was once a source of excitement, novelty and accomplishment can eventually become tedious, unfocused and quite frankly disenchanting.
It’s as if our photography no longer feeds us, or maybe we feel overwhelmed by the plethora of options available and don’t really know where to begin anymore. Perhaps boredom has begun to set in, so much so that we don’t even know what to shoot.
What can a photographer do to break through these darker days? What steps can be taken to rediscover the joy that once permeated our camera-craft? I have some thoughts on this which have matured and ripened after a lifetime of shooting and overcoming such issues.
More recently my personal photography manifesto has begun to circle around three words - fun, fulfilment and freedom. These are the life qualities that I expect my photography to give me and I always measure my progress as a creative against these foundation stones. How can we go about coaxing such personal nurture from our photography? What are the steps we need to take?
I have mused on this and come up with a handful of suggestions. one for each finger. 🙂 Maybe after reading through these you’ll be able to add your own.
Five steps, and none of them involve the use of a camera!
Court your Muse.
Yes, don’t take your Muse for granted! If you’re familiar with my approach you’ll know that I place a lot of weight on our relationship with our Muse however we frame her, or him, or it! To cover all bases let’s just consider our Muse to be our source of inspiration, the well that holds all of our potential photography ideas into which we need to dip our bucket once in a while.
Put quite simply, if we don’t care for our Muse it will dry up as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow. Do your best to consider your Muse as something external that needs your attention, otherwise your creative privileges may be withdrawn! Take time out to feed your Muse by consuming creativity on a regular basis. Look at photographs, read good books, enjoy a comedy show, lose yourself in music, watch some movies.
By engaging with creativity in this way you will subconsciously sow seeds for future ideas and will top up your creative well ready for your project work. Keep notes too, start your own personal field guide to your creative life and consistently court your Muse so that your creativity will begin to nurture you in return.
Ask questions. Explore the little things and dig down into the details of whatever floats your boat. Be interested in stuff and in return your knowledge will deepen and be reflected in your imagery. Do you like photographing clouds? Well set yourself the goal of becoming an expert in clouds, learn about the different types, what conditions create them, how they’ve been portrayed in art, and then let this knowledge inform your photography projects. Or is it butterflies you like to shoot? Then go deep and get to know a few species really well and see how this in turn impacts on your photography.
Remember, the best and most memorable photographs are not about photography. And they all began with a person being curious enough to want to know more. Which leads us onto our next thought…
Find your story.
This could be subtitled ‘slow down’ too. Usually, there are two ways a photographer reacts to a chosen location. Perhaps she’s set off before sunrise, walked for miles through midge infested woods and now finds herself at her intended destination. Or maybe not, perhaps she’s just taken a quick drive and hopped out of her car!
At this point it’s so easy for the experience to go one of two ways… first off, nothing grabs her. Disappointed, she flounders around, grabbing a few shots here and there, but her heart isn’t in it. Alternatively she could become like a kid in a sweet shop as one photographer suggested to me, overwhelmed by options and rushing around clicking here, there and everywhere without rhyme or reason.
Likely the shoot will not bring the fulfilment she desire and in my experience the problem is that she’s not allowed time to find her story. I say ‘her’ story because it very much is about her and the subject in front of her. If she took time to pause and ponder she would most likely get a better sense of the options. In fact, on my workshops I always insist that photographers put their cameras down and have a good wander, an explore, or at least a ‘sit and think’ before becoming a photographer.
This allows a kind of conversation to develop and the threads of a story will eventually begin to form. Sometimes it only takes five minutes to become familiar enough, but often it’s much longer. Years ago I arrived at the White Horse of Uffington for a magazine shoot and despite the beautiful autumnal dawn light I could not find anything. The spirit of place eluded me even though I knew there was a shot hiding somewhere. I stayed with it and eventually caught my picture just before the sun set at the opposite end of the day.
There’s a particular pair of Yew trees in Silverdale that took many visits to share their story with me, but I got there in the end. I could have simply rushed in and grabbed some shots, but by waiting and watching I found what was for me the most telling composition which had of course been there all along, I just took my time to find it.
Set your study goals.
Another thing that could hinder our sense of fulfilment is simply a lack of knowledge of the craft. It has to be said that the more we know, the more we’ll get from photography. Take some time to name your shortcomings and then work to eliminate them one by one.
The best way to do this is to jump in with both feet, make the mistakes and then retrospectively determine what went wrong. From this, set up a course of study, choose your reference material and take it as seriously as any formal education curriculum.
Slowly you will tool yourself up to be a better photographer and develop all the skills you need to have the answers to your photography questions.
Be slow to judge.
Regardless of these steps there will still be times when we photographers get home from a shoot, download our shots and think ‘what on earth!’ as none of the shots appear to hit the mark.
When this happens I find it best to step away from the set of shots for a while. At best I’ll delete any obvious losers based on exposure, focus or sharpness, but I won’t allow myself to trash any for just not being good enough, not just yet.
My next step would be to do an overarching, basic process in Lightroom on one sample image to move it closer to the vision I had in mind at the time of shooting. Colour, monochrome or split toned, I process the shot accordingly and then sync the process across the whole set resulting in a cohesive, consistent body of work, but still unedited.
This does take a little time but the process gives me some breathing space and distance from the disappointment. I now put the set away for a day, a week, or longer so that I can return to it with fresh eyes and usually at this point I would be more engaged and see potential whereas before I would only see lack.
These five simple steps will help as you pursue your goal of finding fulfilment in your photography and will aid you to discover a deep well of ideas and inspiration that will help take your creativity to the next level.
If you’d like to explore more on this topic please check out my Master Photography articles here, and to go even deeper consider taking the next step into the Creativity Beyond the Camera Club where you’ll have an abundance of video tutorials covering many aspects of creative photography to dive into.