Creative ruts happen to every photographer but some are deeper than others. In some cases, switching up your gear, trying a new genre, or changing your approach can lift you out of a slump. You can’t always shoot your way out of a creative rut, though – sometimes, the best thing you can do is put your camera down and try a different approach.
What Is a Creative Rut?
Last year, Nicco Valenzuela wrote a great article for us on how to overcome creative ruts, which is definitely worth a read if you’re currently having problems. In that article, Nicco defines a creative rut as follows:
A creative rut is a transient experience of being blank out of creative ideas. This is also commonly known as a creative block and often interchanged with burnout or exhaustion.
That’s a pretty good definition of creative ruts although Nicco acknowledges, in the following sentence, “that the experience may vary from one person to another and the root causes are also individualized”.
Hopefully, something as simple as switching focal lengths for a while is enough to pull you out of most ruts. That being said, I know I’ve experienced two slumps where no amount or type of shooting helped. Sometimes, instead of trying to force your way out of a rut, the only answer is to stop taking photos altogether and give your mind the time it needs to naturally replace old ideas with new ones.
I’m no expert on creative ruts but I can share five things that helped me get out of these particularly difficult slumps.
1. Explore New Places Without a Camera
After trying every trick I could find that involved photography, I decided to start going out without a camera. I wanted to see the world around me with fresh eyes again and clear my mind of every photographic habit I’d built up over the years. I could feel myself seeing the same things, excluding the same things, defaulting to the same compositional techniques, etc.
I’d reached a point where I could change from telephoto to wide lens and it somehow all felt the same. I didn’t need a break from photography; I needed a break from me, the photographer.
If any of this sounds familiar, I urge you to make more time to explore new places without a camera. The fear of missing a killer shot can make this difficult at first. Think of it from a different perspective, though: You’re already missing great shots and this refresh will broaden your vision again.
As you visit new places without a camera, all you need to do is observe and be self-aware. Take note of what stands out for you, what defines the palace for you, how light interacts with the environment, and how the feel of the place changes as you spend more time there. What would make you visit here again in the future – with and without a camera?
It doesn’t really matter if the place inspires you photographically or not. You’re practicing observation without any of the pressure of expectations carrying a camera can bring. In fact, visiting places that appear completely mundane for photography can be some of the best places to do this. If you can find something – anything – of interest in places you would normally never shoot, then your observation skills are improving.
2. Spend Time Not Doing Photography in the Places You Normally Shoot
Visiting new places without a camera is a great way to warm up those observational muscles. This is always more challenging in the places you normally shoot because you have all these experiences and habits influencing the way you see these locations. That being said, you’ll gain the most by observing your preferred shooting environments in new ways – so it’s worth putting in the effort.
Personally, I find it takes longer to start seeing past the usual cues in a location I’m familiar with, even if I don’t take a camera with me. So it can help to stay in the area for a few days and immerse yourself in the place as much as possible.
As an observer, you can pay more attention to how subjects engage with the environment and others around them. You can take the time to look for new subjects that wouldn’t normally stand out to you. Likewise, you can look for new scenes, characteristics, moments, etc. that you don’t normally capture. Again, it doesn’t matter how many of these things inspire you photographically; you’re simply trying to observe as much as you can.
You don’t have to stop at being an observer, either. By immersing yourself in a place, I mean becoming the subject or interacting with subjects directly. Hike that mountain you’ve shot 100 times over, swim in that ocean as the sun sets, and sit at that cafe window you love to shoot in autumn and winter when it's covered in condensation. Instead of simply looking at what catches your eye through a lens, experience the things that inspire you to shoot.
3. Get to Know Your Subjects On a Deeper Level
Understanding a subject in greater detail doesn’t only change your perspective of it, but also deepens it. Instead of a one-dimensional view, you can start to see subjects in a multitude of ways and this perspective may shift on different days, times of the day, times of the year, etc.
Whether your subjects are normally people, locations, mountains, cars, or anything else – every little nuance can draw new inspiration.
Again, without a camera, surround yourself with the kind of subjects you normally like to shoot. If you’re a street photographer, these subjects might be people in specific environments (the subway, demonstrations, busy streets at night, etc.). If you’re a landscape photographer, your subjects might be mountains, lakes, trees, a sunset, or a weathered barn.
Start by observing your subjects and how they interact with their environment and how the environment also affects your subjects. For example, how does the weather affect what people are wearing, the color of landscape, the lighting available, etc?
Next, actively learn more about your subjects and their surroundings. Maybe you’ll delve into the history of your favorite train station and spark the odd conversation with people where possible. See if you can find out what’s changed over the years about the environment and how your subjects interact with them. Find out what’s changing right now and think about what could change in the future.
For example, if staffed ticket booths are becoming a thing of the past, the value of images depicting them could dramatically increase in the near future. Scenes that look entirely normal to us now could make some of the most captivating images in years to come. After all, those classic ‘50s cars and phone booths didn’t look so retro at the time – quite the opposite, in fact.
4. Watch Movies, Look at Artwork, and Browse Photography Books
While spending time without a camera helps clear your mind of old habits, you can still pull in fresh inspiration from elsewhere. For me, watching movies, looking at artwork, and browsing photography books are my favorite places to draw inspiration, which is probably the case for most photographers.
However, when you’re in a creative rut, I think it helps to start by seeking inspiration from things completely unrelated to photography.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s music, books, exercise, or anything else. Whatever inspires you in this life, delve deeper into these things anytime your photographic inspiration starts to falter. Keep that ability to feel inspired alive and well, even if it means showing more interest in other things for a while.
Taking this further, try actively seeking out new avenues for inspiration. If you love music but you’ve never picked up a guitar, this is the perfect time. If you’ve always felt inspired by surrealist art, why not take an art class and see if something clicks?
You lose nothing by trying new things or delving even deeper into your existing interests. More likely, you’ll discover a new avenue in life that inspires you and I firmly believe that the more sources of inspiration you have in life, the fewer creative blocks you run into with any of them.
5. Take a Break from Social Media
Social media is a great place to draw inspiration from at times, but it can also sap your creativity. With the sheer volume of images posted online and the wide-reaching influence of photographic trends, it’s no wonder we feel like we’re seeing the same kind of photos over and over again.
By design, social platforms exacerbate this by algorithmically serving up similar images to the ones we interact with. So, aside from a natural tendency to see the same things, we also have this artificial force showing us the same compositional techniques, color combinations, editing styles, and everything else.
As our own photographic vision can sometimes narrow to the point of self-limitation, the range of inspiration social media is capable of providing wanes as we continue to interact with it. So, if you’re stuck in a creative rut with your photography, I strongly recommend taking a temporary break from social media while you try other methods to lift yourself out of the slump.
Have You Experienced This Kind of Creative Rut?
Have you ever experienced a creative rut that you could only solve by putting down the camera for a while? If this sounds familiar, I’d love to hear your experience on this and any advice you have for other photographers who might be struggling with the same problem.