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Three Ways to Stay Motivated as a Photographer

Three Ways to Stay Motivated as a Photographer

Working day in and day out as a creative professional, I don't put a lot of stock in inspiration as a source of drive and creativity. Some days, you just have to do your job whether you're inspired or not. For me, staying motivated is far more important!

I've been in my current studio for four years, and I've re-arranged my office several times in an attempt to make the space itself conducive to work. There are no motivational posters, no Pinterest-inspired decor, and unlike my studio, it's not particularly pretty back here in my workspace, but I've done a few strategic things to keep me motivated during the long work weeks. Here are three things to help when inspiration is waning.

1. Visible To-Do List(s)

The entire north wall of my office is one giant to-do list. Sorry for all the blurring; my wall is a mix of client information and my own version of a personal drill instructor, NSFW language and all (though, if it's literally in my workplace, does that make it safe for work?). It's one form of motivation, and always gets a laugh from photo editors when they pop in.

Anytime I have a new project come across my desk, I make a note of it and stick it on the wall. They move from column to column as they make their way through production, and they end on a spike on my desk. It's unbelievably satisfying. Some days, I'll clear backlogged tasks just for the chance to add them to the stack of missions accomplished.

Besides the categories I can't show for client reasons, I have areas on my wall for:

  • Upcoming Shoots
  • Editing
  • Retouching
  • Miscellaneous Client Work
  • Internal (studio projects that need to be addressed)
  • Accounting
  • Invoices Out
  • Communication (people that I need to follow up with later this year)
  • Waiting (jobs pending for various reasons)
  • Personal¬†

There's even a column for Fstoppers article ideas, so by the time you're reading this, my note for "The Wall of Productivity" will have met the same fate as a lunch ticket in a diner. For smaller daily tasks, I keep a stack of paper on my desk with a short list of immediate needs and e-mails/phone calls I need to follow up with quickly.

With all of these tasks needing my attention, whenever I find myself feeling a bit lost, I know I can grab one and make it happen. Having the list be large and always visible means I always know where I am and helps keep me on task.

2. Highly Visible Goals

This can mean different things to different people. There's a lot of advice going around saying to have your goals written on your bathroom mirror or stuck on your computer monitor, and I can't discount that at all. Everyone's goals are different, and while I have a wide range of personal and professional aspirations, there is one thing I made sure I could see from anywhere in my office: a Scottish flag.

Traveling with my wife is my favorite way to spend my time, and Scotland is our favorite place to travel. I don't even have to look up from my computer screen to see the blue and white saltire hanging on my south wall. It's a constant reminder that long days and short nights lead to a beautiful reward. Do I really want to tackle the week's accounting? No, but Edinburgh awaits. Islay's distilleries are just on the other side of my mountain of retouching.

Inspiration comes and goes, and it's wildly unpredictable. Goals, however, are steadfast. Keeping them in front of you at all times can motivate you more than inspiration ever will.

3. Bills

A great musician, Rich Mullins, once said, "I think what motivates artists the most is bills." He may have been onto something. If tasks and goals don't light a fire under you, knowing that you've got bills to pay just might.

My studio credit card statement is never far from my desk, and serves as a regular reminder of our monthly expenditures and the fact that we need to do work in order to pay for it all. It's certainly less enjoyable than basking in golden hour light and making magic happen, but an honest dose of reality every now and again is a great way to keep on task and negotiate new work. It makes even the least enjoyable jobs concretely worthwhile.

The rest of my office is full of books, magazines, prints, and things meant to stoke inspiration whenever possible, but my best tools of productivity when I'm in need of a boost are the trusty motivators. What do you turn to when you're burning the candle at both ends?

Aaron Patton's picture

Aaron Patton is a commercial and portrait photographer in Wichita, Kansas. He loves to travel, particularly by boat, keeping him anchored in the middle of the Midwest more often than he'd like.

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Any lack of motivation I experience is a consequence of the fact that everything has been done, more times that anyone can count. I cannot recall the last time I looked at a photographic image and thought that it was truly new and exciting.

Although I felt the same experience you described (and I understand it very well), I overcame this by doing my best to achieve quality pictures, whatever was the subject. I focused on the quality, the technical part, the problems to be solved. And, in the process, I somehow found a personal way.
I stopped to search for a breakthrough at all cost, and tried to do my job. And, by practising, by beeing challenged by new situations and expectations, I found new domains, new way of seeing things. And hopefully new style.
We're all unique, we all went through a personal history, personal experiences. Then, there is always the chance for our photos to be unique ;-)

I think what has really helped me is to focus less on trying to make something new, but try to bring out something new for the subject.

I suppose that's easy for me because my primary focus is portraiture.

But it distills down to what do I see a person as. It is reminiscent to that Canon Australia Commercial with the six photographers and the actor. The actor portrays several different personas and the photographs that come out are different depending on the story that the actor plays out in front of them.


But honestly, with a bit of imagination, the same can be done with anything as the subject matter. For me, storytelling is the craft that I am pursuing, but then again, that is not always the case for everybody else.

The visible to do list with sections for what point the job is up to is a GREAT idea. I am totally going to use that! :D

Great quote by Rich Mullins,....(miss him) Good stuff here.

Thanks, Jeff! I can't believe it's been over 20 years since he died. If you don't know Mitch McVicker's music, you should look it up. He played with Rich for the last couple years of his life and you can hear Rich in his songs. I've gotten to do a lot of work with him over the past several years.

I think a valuable thing to help w/ motivation on a more artistic level is to contribute to the local community. I've met varying artists who are very secretive on their work and don't like to share their photos in critique sessions the people they work with, or even the locations they shoot at.

Another important part is to try something different. A lot of the time specific shots that are really interesting and eye catching require a specific thought process or order of operations that artists may not initially be knowledgeable of. Learning new techniques and becoming intimately aware of these new processes can level up one's ability to cope to different scenarios or jobs.

Though, this might go without saying, but attitude is exceptionally important, much less the rah rah cheer leading type, but more of the grit type. You have to have grit to be successful and learn that despite what you might be feeling, you should still continue to shoot. The ability to temper the failures with positivity, but also being able to splash some cold water on your accomplishments and say just a little bit further.

Our mental blocks are just that, a figment of our imagination.

We have to have the perseverance to come back even after a momentarily hiatus or breather.