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.