10 Ways to Overcome a Creative Block

10 Ways to Overcome a Creative Block

Being creative can be cathartic, uplifting, and eye-opening, but it can also be a major pain in the neck. When the creativity isn’t flowing, we can spend countless hours searching for inspiration. What are some of the best ways to break through that wall?

In photography, we speak with confidence in the objective tangibility of so many things: gear, settings, techniques. There is a certain comfort in the concrete cause and effect relationship of these aspects: if you do this, you will get that outcome. Perhaps the more elusive aspect, though, is the subjective side; there is no readily articulable causal relationship. So, what do we do when our settings are all spot-on, but we just don’t know what to create?

1.) Always Have a List Ready

For a long time, I fell into the habit of putting all the pressure of knowing what to create on the moment when it was needed. It’s easy to lump this together with the objective tangibles, but don’t. Always have a list of ideas you can draw upon in the moment. Never let an idea that passes through your mind idly during the day go unacknowledged. Keep a notebook of all your inspiration so when the creativity isn’t flowing like you had hoped, you have something to draw upon. Not only will this give you material to work with should you need it, but it might also be the jumpstart your creativity needs.

2.) Embrace Unusual Restrictions

One of the biggest obstacles to creativity is our own tendency toward habit. We fall into a sort of creative tunnel vision because we’re used to doing things a certain way. One of the best ways to break this is to force yourself to work under an unusual rule. Pick something that seems strange to you, for example if you’re a street photographer: “Today, I’m only going to work with very slow shutter speeds.” The idea here isn’t so much the outcome the specific rule generates, but that by forcing yourself into a new workflow, certain elements that were once hiding might be illuminated.

3.) Try to Avoid Repetition

It’s easy to fall back on a project or idea we’ve had in the past; it’s what we know. The problem lies in that the creative space we were in at that time is not the one we are in now. That lends a certain artificiality to the generation of material, even though it’s our own work.

4.) Study Other Art Forms

Artists in different mediums think and work in different ways. Take time to go to an art gallery, see a dance performance, or listen to a concert. Allow yourself to understand and be influenced by the way these artists think about and create their work. If you find a technique you appreciate, think about how you might adapt it to photography.

5.) Seek Unfamiliar Places

We all have environments we like to work in. Whether it be some element that makes them technically ideal or simply the aura they cast, we feel comfortable in them. When you’re feeling uncreative though, being comfortable is the enemy. Get out of that environment and go somewhere that makes you uncomfortable (but isn’t dangerous), somewhere that forces you to adapt to its unique characteristics and to embrace the qualities it offers. Just like the unusual restrictions, this will uncover different ideas and qualities in your creative workflow that you might have been overlooking.

The South Chagrin Reservation in Northeast Ohio

6.) Be Ready For Inspiration

Inspiration is around us more than we realize. It can come in small or unusual forms if we’re ready for it. Places like art museums and concerts are wonderful and vast sources, but don’t overlook the little things in daily life. The shape and typography of a road sign, the flow of your neighbor’s landscaping: all the sensory stimulation we are constantly inundated with can serve to inspire. Don’t take anything for granted.

7.) Do the Opposite

Habitualness is often the enemy of creativity. It’s helpful to have a well-developed workflow that enables efficiency and consistency of quality, but don’t let the means become the end. If you’ve been following the same process for a while, change it. If you always shoot your portraits wide open, stop down to f/11 and embrace the new circumstances this brings about. This will help you to expand your repertoire of techniques and give you a greater set of tools to fall back upon when needed.

8.) Stop Fearing Criticism

Photographers hold themselves and other photographers to high standards. We nitpick every little nuance and detail and expect that no aspect goes unaddressed. It’s wonderful that we hold ourselves and our colleagues to such high standards, but sometimes this can be stifling. Don’t let your fear of what people will say after the work is done stop you before you start. Create for yourself, not for anyone else. Don’t let your photographic self-worth become dependent upon your reception.

9.) Step Back, But Don’t Stop

If you’ve tried and tried and tried, but nothing has come from a project, step away for a bit. Don’t frustrate yourself to the point of irrevocable discouragement. At the same time, don’t wait idly for creativity to show. I truly believe creativity is the sum of our experiences and inspirations, so if we don’t continue to provide fresh avenues of exploration, we can’t expect it to evolve. Isabel Allende said, “Show up, show up, show up and after a while, the muse shows up too.” Work on other projects, seek out inspiration elsewhere, but don’t step back so far that you’re out of the room when creativity arrives.

10.) See Things Through

If you’ve forced yourself to try something new or follow an unusual rule for the day, don’t stop at taking the pictures. Follow the entire workflow through, from pressing the shutter button to post-processing. Not only does this ensure true commitment to expanding your process, but it also gives you the best chance to find new ideas by examining something from all perspectives. Remember that strange restriction or new technique you tried isn’t necessarily the end goal, but rather the possibilities it illuminates are what you seek.

We often ascribe an inscrutable, nebulous nature to creativity; it’s certainly not without mystery, but that doesn’t mean we’re without practical measures we can take to overcome the times when it leaves us. Do you have a technique for breaking the creative block? Leave a comment below with your ideas and stories!

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Sean Shimmel's picture

You pulled me right in. Clear, genuine and interesting insights.

Thank you.

Alex Cooke's picture

Thank you, Sean! I truly appreciate the compliment!

Step back has worked for me a few times: don't rush things, just let them sink for a while and then look at them with some distance for more perspective. Taking a break every now and then is also needed!

Alex Cooke's picture

I totally agree! If I ever have the luxury of time on any sort of creative project, I try to build in breaks just because I find they help my perspective greatly.

Great tips.
For the year 2012, I "Embraced Unusual Restrictions". It wasn't a New Years Resolution in that I wouldn't continue it into 2013, but I would photograph the year 2012 exclusively using B&W film. It was a year to use different B&W contrast filters. It was about March when I started visualizing scenes in B&W.
See Things Through:
Oh yea, I was tempted to shoot a roll of color in 2012, particularly when there was a stunning sunrise or sunset; but I stuck with it. I also had two photo projects: 1) photograph the sunrise on the equinoxes and solstices; 2) photograph the full moons. Weather didn't hamper the sunrise project, but on occasion, I couldn't photograph either the rising or setting of the full moon.

Thomas Ingersoll's picture

Great article

Alex Cooke's picture

Thank you, Thomas! I truly appreciate that!

Aatish Shinde's picture

this was absolutely spot on mate! an eye-opener! thank you!

Cecelia Faris's picture

I have just done a massive brainstorming session for the next few months, your tips would really have helped haha

Yoga and Meditation are great for mind and body. It help you learn how to focus on things (http://newburyportart.org/?author=4216 ). You are learning how to focus on parts of your body to get into the poses but you can take this away to help get focus on other parts of your life.

Thanks Again…