If we do anything long enough, we run the risk that it may become monotonous and/or boring. While there is no fix-all for everyone, over the last few years, I’ve discovered several ways to help me break out of whatever photography-related funk I’ve found myself in. It was during those time when I stopped for a moment and looked around, that I found I was surrounded by a tremendous amount of mediocre photos, a tremendous amount of gear, and a tremendous amount of frustration.
The frustration that I felt was, admittedly, self-inflicted and I’m certain that if I had asked anyone at the time, they wouldn’t have noticed a thing - which, in my opinion makes it even more frustrating. There is no worse feeling as an artist, I think, than feeling stuck on a plauteau and having the people around you tell you they like and enjoy your new work. While I realize the selfish and perhaps egotistical implications of saying that, that frustration should be taken seriously because if we put aside those feelings, what follows is almost certainly a period of creative burnout and breaking out of that is perhaps more difficult than anything else and most often leads to quitting outright.
As I said, the following steps were borne out of a frustration that I felt when looking at my work and realizing that what I was producing wasn’t the vision I had in my head when planning, nor was it the step forward I’d hoped it’d be. In short, I was stuck in a unproductive purgatory where everything I did looked the same while all around me, the work of my peers seemed to be growing my leaps and bounds. The following steps aren't designed to streamline your workflow, or help you produce work on a more timely basis. Rather, they're designed to help us get back to where we were when we first picked up the camera and the possibilities of creation were seemingly endless.
Stop trying to please anyone/everyone. At some point in life, we realize that no matter what we do, we’re not going to please everyone. The same holds true in photography. Whether it’s trying to shoot every style and genre we’re asked to, or making someone unhappy with the direction we’ve chosen, trying to fit into every box is going to lead to a lot of unhappy clients (and a lot of flattened boxes).
Spend some time with yourself. Meetups, Group Shoots, Instameets, etc. All are fine and good and are truthfully a lot of fun, but if we’re constantly spending time around other photographers - especially those photographers whom we admire - that time spent isn’t going toward learning our own personal style - it’s most likely spent trying to figure out what the other photographer is doing. While that’s great and can in the end benefit our own work, time spent alone with our camera allows us to develop a relationship with it. I won’t go as far as to say it’s the most important relationship we can ever develop, but I mean, it’s pretty close.
Gear Whoring is a real thing. I wish I would have learned this early on. While I am a firm believe in the ‘gear DOES matter’ camp, having too much gear will can have a handcuffing effect on you - especially if you’re just starting out. About ten months ago, I stepped back and re-evaluated where I was in my photography. I took a look at the direction I wanted to go, how I wanted to get there, and what I would and wouldn’t need to do so. As a result, I sold off the majority of my gear, leaving myself with very limited options - a 50mm, a 35mm, and a very rarely used 85mm. In keeping my options limited, I learned to focus on the matter at hand - shooting and developing / honing my craft instead of how worrying much bokeh I could pull and/or how sharp my images would be if I had the next gen lens…
As an experiment, on your next shoot, instead of taking your full gear bag, try taking your main camera and just one or two lenses and try to note the differences in your approach (if any). I’m positive that it’ll be an eye opening experience.
Learn Lightroom and Photoshop. I have a good friend who up until about three months ago, swore by Aperture. Despite my constant teasing and begging (and the mounds of research suggesting Aperture was dead and/or dying). He maintained, however, and kept Aperture as his main photo software. Occasionally, he'd message me with questions about how to make an edit or how to adjust something (to which I'd suggest Lightroom and/or Photoshop). In addition to that, without those programs, he had to use several third party plug-ins to get the same results he could have gotten had he been using Lightroom and/or Photoshop from the start. My friend spent so much energy trying to make Aperture a thing, that it seemed he was neglecting his craft. Once he decided to get with the program (ha!), his work took off. The work he's producing now is lightyears ahead what he was doing just a few months ago.
Nothing is as limited as the constant reminder of where we've been. I found that one of the best things to help me move forward is to suck it up and put away, hide and/or delete my old work. Unless you happen to be a Flickr prodigy, most of us go through a period of time when we’re learning how to use a camera and experimenting on willing friends and family members. As artists we are (or should be) constantly growing and developing our work - evolving our style until what we see in our head matches what we’re able to produce. Until that point, we really tend to put out a lot of crap and nowhere is more welcoming to that crap than the Internet. While it’s nice to have work online to look back upon to see how much we’ve grown, I’ve always found that seeing old work is somehow limiting in that it’s like having an old friend who follows you reminding you of the way things used to be. In photography (and life) we should strive to constantly be moving forward, old work is an anchor from which we should free ourselves.
While the above steps aren’t a cure-all for everything and everyone, they’re what I found worked best for me. Over the last few years, I’ve gone through several photographic funks; periods of time when none of the work I did was ever satisfying, none of the work I did ever matched the vision I had in my head and as such, I spent a tremendous amount of time being frustrated with myself, my camera, and really, photography in general. Once we learn to simplify, minimize, and move forward, our work and our life have a chance to become that much more enjoyable.
Couldn't agree more about minimizing one's gear. Too much gear == too much money spent == too little time spent on learning your craft.
Great article John. Short sweet and impactful. Thanks for sharing.
Yeah, spot on.
John - I like your article, it's a nice reality check on many levels. The only counter point I have is on putting away the old. For some, if you've gotten off track and don't know where you left your groove, trying to reconnect with it can be daunting and haunting. Enough so that you're ready to walk away from it all (as you said). You've lost your direction but don't know how. It could have nothing to do with photography but some other change in your life. Sifting through old work chronologically from now backwards may provide the insight to give you your 'ah-ha' moment of what happened. It could be as simple as that new camera or lens you had to have to a private personal event that you thought wasn't bothering you. I would never suggest to go live in the past but it could just give you the answer to unlock the future. That 'old friend' may just be the one to jog the memory.
Another excellent article, thanks.
Thanks for this article. So true about refining gear. Sticking to a couple of primes for most situations works well for me.
Great article! I ditched Aperture a month ago for Light Room. What a difference!
I tend to agree with most of this opinion. Frankly I don't think Aperture vs Lightroom is an important issue. I use bridge. Known some very good shooters who used Aperture, but now will go to some other raw editor.
I agree with simplifying lenses. I did this years ago. I tend to believe less is more. The first lens I got rid of was the 50mm, but I mainly photograph people so it was dead weight. These days I carry four lenses (AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S Zoom-NIKKOR 28-70mm f/2.8D IF-ED, AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED and AT-X 300 AF PRO -TOKINA 300mm f/2.8) and a 1.4X teleconvertor.
Most of this article should be spread like gospel to other places on the internet(DPReview forums come to mind). I've never seen folks more obsessed with owning the latest camera body yet taking the worst pedestrian pictures of their backyard or whatever scene they happen to come across then not even bothering to do any post on it to make it even slightly attractive.
These two items just wreak of not taking pride in one's work.
I love just taking my D800 and Nikkor 85mm ƒ/1.4 out and shoot! Much better than carrying all the strobes and rest of the gear :P
Thanks for posting this John. Really encouraging.
VERY good and encouraging article! I recently went back to using ONE variable zoom lens for my wedding shoots because that's what fit my workflow in the field, and the look of the final images that my clients chose me for in the first place. Reminding myself that having the same expensive gear as the next guy isn't what matters to the client...it's being able to have the eye, the talent, and the creativity to capture the moments and produce (or edit) the final image that suits their need. Again, they don't care how you got the shot, they just care that you actually got the shot, the gear should help you, not hurt you in your workflow.