Should You Capture or Create? How to Know if You're on the Wrong Road

Should You Capture or Create? How to Know if You're on the Wrong Road

I’ve always been jealous of people who know where they’re headed. They’re like greyhounds chasing a rabbit, absolutely certain of what they were put on this earth to do, and doggedly (pun intended) pursuing their purpose. When I first picked up a camera, I took photographs of everything. Bees, power lines, babies, weddings, families, anything I could point a lens at became my subject. It didn’t take long before I had people asking me to photograph them, and soon enough I was dragging families through shrubs and fields looking for that perfect outdoor shot. I was posing brides and grooms in the golden rays of sunset and watching them cry during their reveal slideshows. I was helping women feel sexy and empowered. People were paying me to capture memories for them, and they were delighted with their photographs, so why did I feel so bored and unfulfilled? It took me almost two years to realize the truth: I wasn’t interested in capturing memories.

Some photographers build their entire careers on their passion for helping people document their lives. They might pose their subjects or shoot candids, choose strobes or natural sunlight, but the idea of “capturing” remains the same. Many photographers will make this their selling point; they capture memories and immortalize moments. As a photographer who is also a mother, I value this. I want my family documented, and I want my kids to look back through photo albums of our life. However, this approach did nothing to fulfill the creative side of me that was dying inside at producing the same kinds of images over and over. That was when the truth became apparent. I didn’t want to capture, I wanted to create.

Capture versus creation has become a defining dynamic for me, one that is even now changing how I approach my art and my business, but it didn’t occur to me until recently that there may be other photographers who fell into a genre and don’t know why they aren’t happy. They may not know why boredom is creeping in and passion is dying out. The excitement of getting a good shot has matured, with skill, into the complacency of knowing the work will be good, but the joy is gone. When I started teaching, I made the distinction to my students, and I want to make it now. Any avenue in photography that fulfills you is valuable. Candid wedding photography is an art. Posed family portraits are beautiful. But if you are avoiding post-processing because you feel indifferent about even looking at the images you took during your last session, if you feel no spark of excitement when planning your next session, then it might be time to consider whether you are approaching your work with the right philosophy.

A camera is a tool, like a paintbrush, that can be used to create just as easily as to record. If you feel like you’re producing the same old tropes, then I would encourage you to consider taking a step back and asking yourself why you are a photographer. Don’t respond quickly with what you think is the proper answer. Take time to contemplate why you want to press that shutter. What makes you feel the most excited, the most fulfilled? There is no harm or virtue in loving the act of photography simply for itself, but anyone in marketing knows this truth: people don’t buy things, they buy what things do for them. A handbag isn’t just a piece of leather or fabric with a handle, it’s a status symbol. A writer doesn’t write just because words look nice, but because we want to communicate. As a photographer, if you find yourself feeling unfulfilled, maybe you’re chasing the wrong goal.

Having come to this conclusion myself is difficult because it means that I spent years walking down the wrong path. I don’t regret giving people records of their precious memories, and I certainly learned skills that have been and will continue to be valuable to me as I pursue the next stage of my career, but there is a part of me that will always wonder where I would be at now if I figured this out earlier. What would my career look like now if I had begun it, all those years ago, knowing why photography was valuable to me?

If fashion has become cold and every shoot feels like a chore, maybe you should be photographing the joy of a mother looking at her newborn with adoring eyes. If taking family portraits feels like cranking out copies on a conveyer belt, maybe you should be taking all those wild ideas inside your head and turning them into surreal artwork. If you feel like your passion has dwindled, then please do some soul searching. Don’t be content to stay where you’re at just because that is where you happen to be. I’m not saying quit your job today and ride off into the wild blue yonder, but take some time to understand yourself and figure out why photography means something to you. Don’t spend so long on the wrong road that you tire out and give up. Make sure your feet are on the right path, and if they’re not, then turn around and get moving in the right direction.

Realizing that you’re pointed in the wrong direction is scary, but it doesn’t mean you’re trapped. You can move toward fulfillment by slow degrees if you need to. Start creating passion projects on the side when you have the time. Build yourself a portfolio of new work that makes you proud. Phase out the old stuff that didn’t make you happy, or at least stop openly advertising it, and chase down your new, ideal client with all your strength. Marketing will get easier because your joy will permeate everything you do, and your passion will spill over into your conversations. Once you rest solidly in who you are and what makes you tick as a photographer, you’ll have placed a cornerstone for a solid foundation.

So the question is: do you want to capture or create?

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The answer for me is clearly I want to create. For me what helped me realize that was a webinar I watched on createlive about "Personal Projects" That truly made me realize then that was who I am. The other recent thing that really woke me up was doing a gallery showing. Picking my work apart and asking myself. "Is just a snapshot or would I be comfortable hanging this in my own home" Yes, I enjoy Editorial and Fashion. Yes, I want to create genuine memories that influence others. Personal projects and creating gallery art are the perimeters I find myself in that allow me to create.

Well written and really thought provoking Nicole! :)

Michael Yearout's picture

Nicole: I wholeheartedly agree. I was lucky. I found my passion for photography early. I took many different paths, but all were leading me in the right direction. Just last night I was planning a shoot for today and I felt full of passion - thinking of the equipment I would need to take the photographs, to compositions, the staging. I was exhilarated and looking forward to the next day. Alas, the shoot was postponed and was disappointed, but the point is feeling that exhilaration and the anticipation of immersing yourself in the project. Good post.

Travis Zielinski's picture

I started as a photojournalist and only documented what was around me. In the last few years I have completely changed my approach and now focus on creating. A single image will take me weeks or months to create but it is much more fulfilling experience. Very rarely do I even carry with a camera with me anymore. I think your advice on the grind is so true, if it feels like a grind it probably isn't the thing you should be doing, after all we all chose this career because we had a passion for it.

Nicole York's picture

This was my struggle, too. I've been an artist since I was small, drawing and painting and writing, etc. and for some reason, it took me so long to realize that I loved photography because it was a creative outlet, not necessarily because it allowed me to capture memories.

Elan Govan's picture

When my daughter was 3 years old, she politely informed me that she was bored. I said, "OK. Tomorrow we will hire a skip and load all your stuff from your bedroom and get rid off it for good. Then you will have plenty of reasons to be bored".
She still remembers this one off conversation. I am 63 and still enjoy picking up the camera as if it is my first Christmas present. That wow factor.....still here to stay.

Nicole York's picture

So glad to know that passion is still there for you!

Elan Govan's picture

The message for me is the same one that I gave to my daughter. Very lucky and fortunate that I can still walk out of my door, under my own steam and enjoy my favorite pass time.

I think you can find inspiration in both. I know my initial leanings were strictly toward the 'documentary' style. As my experience grew it became more frustrating to always have to rely on what chance presented to me- the subjects/lighting/settings that were presented to me.

Slowly I have been incorporating more of my 'hand' in the image- be it lighting/posing/locations. However I still enjoy the 'chance' moment- and I use the lessons from those images to guide my creation of more composed visuals. Each style informs the other, and actively pursuing both avenues of expression can make one a better photographer in each genre.

Capture or Create, really liked that article. Hits home for me perfectly as I have been phasing from a career in engineering and now wanting to pursue what has been decades as a hobby. Along the way have photography many different things finding pleasure in all of them, but now as I want to consider photography as a business I have struggle to decide what type, what direction be works for me. My gut feeling has been to create because it compliments both the art and technical sides of me. Thoughts have been towards mixed media, combining photography and painting. Thanks very much for your article, it helped.