Stop Paying So Much Attention to Other Photographers: The Case for Using Inspiration Sparingly

Stop Paying So Much Attention to Other Photographers: The Case for Using Inspiration Sparingly

What do you do when you hit a creative roadblock? What things do you do to promote new, creative ideas when you're fresh out? For a lot of folks, that means heading to Instagram, YouTube, or any of the thousands of repositories for creative works that exist. Look through your favorite photographer's latest book, or find an artist you like and get inspired by someone's travel vlog. I'm here to tell you there is another way, and I think this type of inspiration should be used sparingly.

During my time at Columbia College Chicago, I was surrounded by other photographers' work. Many of my fellow students found it difficult to routinely be creative and think outside of the box in order to push the boundaries of their creativity, myself included. I felt nearly paralyzed by some friends' insane creativity in how they sunk themselves into their projects and made photographs that were true to their own minds. Meanwhile, I worked my part-time job at Ritz camera while going to school, and often I felt soulless and completely lacking in creativity.

Take a new scene and try to see it through a different lens. Focus on something new.

Whether through apathy, laziness, or through the world just moving along at its constant pace as it does, I never found myself moved by other photographers in the way that I saw many of my peers were. Studying historic photographers that paved the way for photography as art in Art History, or peers showing new work weekly in class, or just being a kind of camera aficionado and absorbing all the media I could in blogs and things, there were plenty of photographs to look at to inspire me. I always felt hesitant that this type of photographer-on-photographer inspiration wasn't great for my bank of creativity. I often felt either inferior or just overwhelmed about creating my own work. There were no new ideas, just the ideas in my head that I had seen somewhere else.

As I've matured, I've realized that part of this is foolish, and ultimately, other photographers are a great source of inspiration for me. However, I've seen a trend of reduced creativity in the form of copying that has largely propagated as a result of social media, and in my opinion, the cause of it is largely a singular source of inspiration for many.

Try a new edit of an older image. Did you miss something?

The barrier to entry for becoming a photographer is lower than ever. Cameras are extremely cheap, and with free videos showing you how to use those cameras to their best ability, featuring better instructors than my four-year degree got me, there is no excuse not to try photography if you are the least bit interested. How many of us have family members that have asked for a tutorial? Some of you may be the one that asked for the tutorial. This is all good for photography, but as someone seeking inspiration, you have to be wary of the pitfalls of getting all your inspiration from Instagram and Facebook.

Viewing social media profiles creates a feeling of inferiority. Some guy that uses an iPhone 3GS and exclusively edits with VSCO probably has more followers than you. How could that be?  You have a Sony a7R III and a slew of lenses, a camera that is way outmatched against an old iPhone. It doesn't matter. You see a photographer take a certain picture at Lower Antelope Canyon, and you now want to go there and get the same picture. Why?  Your favorite photographer shoots all their portraits wide open on an 85mm lens, and now, you too also pin your aperture at f/1.8 on your 85mm. Stop. Please stop.

I think within photography, it is way too easy to see something and literally copy it without making it your own. This is my main reason for not relying heavily on other photographers as my main source of inspiration. Of course, I do follow and like photographers on Instagram, but I've tried to used social media as an inspiration for source material rather than a guide for how to shoot and what good ultimately looks like. The algorithm is not the answer to your creative emptiness. No one needs another image of their girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband leading their hand to the beach. The world will not end if another top-down shot of your daily carry is ignored and swiped past. Don't recreate that photo. Don't do it.

Find an angle that no one else is looking for. See the beauty in something abstract. Be abstract!

I often get inspiration in my daily life from people and things that I encounter naturally: the city I live in, the roads I drive, nature itself, as well as creative folks in other areas. Writing, podcasts, documentaries, and design are all adjacent to photography but offer inspiration in the form of abstract ideas and not literal blueprints for copying work. I think this kind of tangential inspiration is way more effective than literally looking at other pictures. Our job as photographers is to use our own unique eye to tell a story from our point of view, and that muscle must be used, or it becomes weak. Constantly piping in the end result (the photograph) doesn't help us go through the process of creating a new, unique piece of work, and in fact, it makes it more difficult. Push yourself to be a more developed, creative person, and find inspiration from an unusual source.

Here are some of the things I do to combat my lack of creativity and help in my daily search for it. Add your own tips below!

  • Get off Instagram and go on a hike. Just get off the phone and internet.
  • Stop following aggregate accounts that just repost the same thing over and over.
  • Don't follow photographers that give you anxiety, jealousy, or any bad feeling (get them out of your life).
  • Listen to a podcast.
  • Go for a ride, a walk, or a drive without music.
  • Give yourself space for creativity. Force yourself into doing nothing.
  • Spend time (safely) with people you like, and try not to think about being creative. Recharge your creative muscle.
  • Challenge yourself to do something you wouldn't normally do.
  • Be okay with having an off day. Find some non-creative work to do, and focus on that for a while.
  • Take notes. Inspiration doesn't always happen at convenient times; write it down so you don't forget.
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Alex Yakimov's picture

"I never found myself moved by other photographers in the way that I saw many of my peers were." - I rarely get excitingly inspired by other togs, but it gives me some ideas regarding new vocabulary, because absorbing their work an masse helps to better understand repeating patterns. It takes energy though.

Jens Sieckmann's picture

Take a shower. It's best source for new ideas.

jim hughes's picture

And let's always remember that wonderful quote from Chuck Close:

“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”

Grant Schwingle's picture

I often am too lazy to premeditate shoots and end up resting on my instincts. Luckily a lot of my favorite work comes out of that.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

*** Stop Paying So Much Attention to Other Photographers: The Case for Using Inspiration Sparingly ***AND What Camera System They Use!

Grant Schwingle's picture

Right! How many times do you get asked 'what settings did you use'?

Paul C's picture

I like your emphasis on actually going out to see the world and interpret it over watching yet another talking head tell me how they approach creativity....but there is a balance. Just look at today's "featured photos" and think how you reacted to them?

But crucially - I think that David put the emphasis on paying less attention to "brands' and not "settings" - for settings are a real key - they make a huge difference (think 1/1000 vs 1 sec; F1.4 vs F8; Base iso vs 1600 asa; tripod vs hand held; panning vs static; Auto vs cloudy colour balance; etc....) - whereas the brand of lens and camera or tripod matter little in the overall scheme of things.

I am much more likely to learn from hearing that a photographer used a full-frame 85mm at f1.8, overexposed by +2/3 stops, hand held at 160asa and 1/15th of a second and processed using the standard settings on DXO than if the lens was Nikon, Canon or another.

Best wishes - Paul

and wow - what an inspiring spread shown on today's featured photos !!

Grant Schwingle's picture

I think it's important to control where you take in the photographer influence. I do think Fstoppers is one of the good sources - I don't think instagram is however. But like anything.... in moderation!

Fritz Gessler's picture

all well said - but the worst places to create and the most obnoxious schools for copy-catting and emulating star-photographers are photo-communities just like fstoppers! :)) in all and every community I could experience the same collective imperative and strive towards conformity and boring cliches - once the hierarchy is established. mostly by the owners/staff of the site itself: via 'editors' pick', photo of the week, etc.
everybody tries to copy style/content/technique of the happy few darlings of curatores :)
look around: very finest quality, but little inspiration or individual style - and neverending always repeating clichés from 'nature to nude' photography :)

jim hughes's picture

This would be a good topic for an article here.

Grant Schwingle's picture

I'm not sure I entirely agree with you. Beyond the fact that any community of people will inherently have a bias towards copying and self-inspiring, I think the quality and diversity of work shown on this site are incredible.

Have you looked at the gallery? Sure there are trends in portrait swimwear photography and landscapes, but the talent and variety are pretty incredible.

Fritz Gessler's picture

yes, talent abounds and also a high standard of technical skills! but all-in-all following the fixed model of 'how a good to perfect image has to be' - and also a rather narrow catalogue of content. take as a counterpart in technique and content e.g. the (german) site or the (mostly) french) - absolutely different technical features, but the same inbreed spirit... it's the flip side of the positive feature to learn from other (better) photographers - you end up imitating their style and methods if you stay (exclusively) inside the bubble - be it a forum or community or collective blog, I fear.

Grant Schwingle's picture

and here in lies the point of my article. Find models for inspiration outside the internet!