This is by no means a new topic, but a recent poster in the Fstoppers Wedding Photography group lamented that they felt they were stuck in a creative rut, and it got me thinking about the problem of trying to be experimental within an industry. Chances are if you’re shooting for a client, they have a preconceived idea of what you're going to provide, even if that’s just a ballpark “these kinds of colors, this kind of emotion.” If you rocked up to a wedding with the awesome idea of only shooting macros of toes, you’re going to have a hard sell when it comes time to deliver the finished product; they’d need to be really good foot shots.
Nowhere in life do we ever have complete control. We are free to make a decision, any decision we like, at any point in time, but we don’t get to decide the outcome. An informed choice may give us the outcome we want, but that’s as close as we get. You can choose to photograph all the toes you want, but if the client’s really into earlobes, you’re not getting a good referral. This is where the problems lies: creativity is personal, and it’s linked to your ego like your toe is linked to your foot. You can separate them, but it’ll probably hurt.
When your photography makes that move from “artistry on the wings of the muse” to “gun for hire,” it takes on the weight of external opinions, and this can make you second guess your decisions. Taking the safe route and shooting the tried and true shots helps to minimize complaints from clients that want the tried and true shots. There’s a place for that type of photography, and there will always be clients that don't want special; they just want competent. But if you were happy with just being competent, then chances are you’re not reading Fstoppers.
Nobody wants to fail. When you know your fundamentals, and you’re relying on them to pay the bills, trying something new can be scary. When you scan a couple of wedding blogs and see the same shots repeated again and again, it’s comforting: there’s a reason that everyone shoots those shots. If you shoot those shots, it minimizes your risk, and you might just book another client. But creativity is a beast that needs feeding, and those safe shots are your meat and two vegetables: you can live off them, but soon enough, your palate begins to crave more. When you stop experimenting is when that “stuck” feeling can creep in. You’re not growing as an artist, and now, your shots look just like everyone else’s. You're not an artist anymore; you have a day job.
So, how do you fix it? How do you get back the love and thrill of photography without risking everything? I don’t know. I’m not some kind of professional, motivational, career coach, but I can throw out a couple of ideas that help keep me inspired and you can see if any of them stick.
Stop looking to your peers.
If you’ve gotten to the point where you worry you’re stagnating in your images, looking at more of the same images is just going to make you feel even more trapped. When you’re working to a client's expectation from an editor's brief to the standard wedding spread, where you’re required to produce particular set shots, if your frame of reference is the same shot everyone else is making, then that's all that you’re going to see. If you’re a wedding photographer, stop looking at other wedding photographers. Look at something out of your comfort zone, something you don't normally shoot. How was it shot? Could you shoot any of your wedding using that technique? Personally, I got into photography through skateboarding and live music. I learned a lot of my techniques copying the early pioneers, like the flash and shutter drags of J. Grant Brittan, and when I moved into weddings, that skate style came with me.
These days, I watch a lot of movies and love to see the framing styles used in different film genres. My go-to how-tos are classic film techniques, and I’ve started to favor the 135mm look used in a lot of video. I don’t shoot any video, but seeing how the styles can translate to what I shoot keeps my eye fresh. One particular favorite director of mine is Wes Anderson; his framing is always incredible. If you find yourself always relying on the rule of thirds, check out this little video on his usage of center framing.
Look to your peers.
But just hold on a minute before deleting all the wedding photographers from your Instagram list. Part of running a successful business is being able to see the trends happening in your industry, and with photography, the easiest way to do that is to look at your peers' images, but get selective with whom you follow. Choose photographers who push the boundaries of their field by always trying new things — people who can keep you on your toes. The purpose isn't to copy them, but to pull courage from them. If they can constantly try new things, then why not you? Your authenticity is what will help you stand out when everyone around you is plowing the same field. Personally, within the wedding sphere, I move in and out of love with photographers like the changing of the seasons, but there are a few mainstays who I always return to. Two particular favorites from my local area are Dan O’Day and Todd McGaw; both of these guys shoot true to themselves, they love what they do, and it’s always exciting to see the work they produce.
But don't take my word for it, here’re some wise words from the man who invented music on the topic of remaining authentic.
The big question is: has photography become just your business, or is it still your passion? Do you have any secret ways to keep your creativity levels high? Is there anyone you follow that you find particularly inspirational? Let us know in the comments below.