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Don't Get Comfortable in Your Photography Work

Don't Get Comfortable in Your Photography Work
It's come to that time of year again. Business is slowing down for the winter, and friends are headed to their respective origins to visit family and friends. The weather outside is dipping further below zero every day, encouraging me to spend more time indoors. This is the time of year when I reflect and digest my year's work. It's also the time where my mind digs a little too deeply, and I often make rash decisions like purchasing a new camera that I don't need simply in order to experiment. However, it is mainly the time when I get to look at my work and decide where I want to take it next. 
Last week, I was chatting with my pal Julian of WOOD HOUSE at a screening here in Seoul, and we got onto the topic of life as a creative. I hadn't seen Julian for a while, so I really wanted to hear about the ins and outs of his journey building his brand. Julian considers himself as just beginning what he wants to do, and sees a long road ahead. As we got talking, the topic of being comfortable where you are came up. We both agreed that its a dangerous place to be as a creative, and something you need to run from if you feel it coming. Let's make our way a little deeper into that. 

Why is comfort dangerous?

Most people strive with everything they have to achieve a level of comfort in their lives. They go out of their way to find a stable job that will allow them to live a certain way. They try to keep everything within the realms of their prior knowledge so that day-to-day life is easy. They start work on Monday, finish it on Friday. Friday night is a boys night at the pub. Saturday is dinner with a significant other. For many, this is the dream. Unfortunately for creatives, this doesn't breed good work for most of us. Being comfortable or living a routine doesn't give us the necessary stimulus to grow. It is the very stepping out of this perceived comfort that produces work that truly resonates. We must grow. We must evolve. We cannot produce the same work over and over again. Not only will our clients not appreciate our lack of innovation, but our creative soul will become starved. 

How can we recognise it? 

There are a few tell-tale signs that you're getting too comfortable with the way you're working. The first one that I often notice is that I'm no longer preparing as much for a shoot. This usually means I've got 10 shots in my head that I know I can pull off, and probably won't experiment too much from there. The next sign is that the days are all starting to blur together with no high or low points during my shoots. Again, this means I'm sticking with exactly what I know. I'm not succeeding in anything new, or even failing as I try. The third is that I'm no longer afraid. I want to walk out the door with a certain amount of fear taking hold. This lets me know that I'm pushing my boundaries. If I don't feel it, I'm not pushing myself hard enough.

What can we do about it?

There are so many things we can do to counter a decent into comfort. The simplest way I have found is to keep a folder of images that you'd like to try some day. I have one such inspiration folder for each of my common sessions, and they're synced with every device I own using Dropsync and Dropbox. This means that I can look at them wherever I am. Before a family session or pre-wedding session, I will try to find at least 4-5 new poses or styles that I might try to shoot. This keeps things fresh, and means that I'm always pushing my own creative envelope. 
The next thing I always try to do is embrace an amateur mindset. I try never to assume I know how to solve a given problem. I will try to approach it in a way I haven't before. In this way, I avoid crutches that could make me too comfortable. Of course, a new solution doesn't always present itself and sometimes I have to fall back on what I know. However, as long as I keep tying new things I feel like I'll be able to keep moving forward. 
Other things you can do include experimenting with new gear or techniques. Perhaps you've never used a reflector? Take one out and play with it. Borrow a friend's 200mm f/2 and shoot with it exclusively for a day. If you only shoot in the sweet back lit hours just before sunset, you could try shooting in the shadows between buildings at midday. 
If you're like me, occasionally you need a really big shake up. This year, I took on a personal project to document the remains of a disappearing culture and turn it into a book. Not everyone can take a couple of months off to do something like that, however. So, a smaller version of it might be to shoot something you normally don't shoot. As a family photographer, you might spend a week photographing water droplets with a borrowed macro lens. Simply changing the subject matter you shoot can throw you so far out of your comfort zone that it gives you the jolt you need to start producing new work. 
How do you feel about getting too comfortable as a creative? Does it affect you? What do you do to shake things up and start evolving?
Dylan Goldby's picture

Dylan Goldby is an Aussie photographer living and working in South Korea. He shoots a mix of families, especially the adoptive community, and pre-weddings. His passions include travel, good food and drink, and time away from all things electronic.

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I made a conscious decision last year to accept jobs that I wanted but had fears about doing. Intellectually I felt I was technically able but I needed to overcome my doubts.
It has worked out well as I have been able to get some really amazing jobs that created new opportunities for me.
As they say "I would rather have regrets about what I did than what I didn't do".

My experience of feeling comfortable is more a manifestation of creative block than anything else. I always WANT to be pushing myself to create better, different work, and when I'm not, it's because I'm feeling stuck. That's why I'll do the same thing again.

I think you nail it right here Dylan, and this very same principle is often what brings success to Entrepreneurs - those who stray from the comforts of 'normal' and take risks (opportunities) to grow and flourish as a professional in whatever field they are in.

Great article, my next step is to focus on Head Shots.