I'll forever look back on 12 months spanning 2014-2015 as pivotal to my journey as a photographer. It was during these months that I made my first foray into travel overseas, first by cycling across Europe, followed by backpacking Asia, three months spent tree planting in Northern Canada, and a roadtrip of the Pacific Northwest in the States.
This year provided me with endless opportunities and motivation to improve my craft, every day brought with it new landscapes, historic cities, rustic villages, and exotic cultures, and I made the most of every opportunity to go out and capture it all with my camera. It's funny, when the trip was first conceived I had only just bought my first camera, a second-hand Nikon D5100, and while photography had been a curiosity of mine for a while, I had no idea when I bought the camera – or planned the trip – that this curiosity would grow into an obsessive quest to express my point of view, to capture and convey the world as I saw, and see, it.
Like any good quest story however, it can't always be smooth sailing, the journey is always filled with ups and downs. When I returned from my travels and settled back into the routine of daily life at home, I experienced a creative slump unlike any I've endured since first picking up my camera.
I think much of the problem was how easy it was to create great images while travelling. Being on the move there was always something new to shoot, and for me, photography was a way to further immerse myself in the experience. It was almost impossible to go through a day without getting at least a few awesome photos.
Back at home it's often easy to become jaded by the mundane feeling of our surroundings. We know our backyards so well that we no longer feel the need to look at them closely, to really see them. At least this is how it was for me. I felt uninspired, and unmotivated to go out and shoot.
Not only was I unmotivated to shoot, but I now had months of travel photos sitting in Lightroom waiting to be developed. I had kept up with the editing for a while while travelling, but soon the sheer number of images overtook me. I had developed the very best, the images I was most proud of, but I still had hundreds of great images to edit, from four different trips, and it felt impossible to even begin the task of processing them all. And so I didn't.
Over New Years, I made a trip to Montreal and Quebec City with some friends and found myself right back into the travelling – and photography – mindset, coming away with dozens of images that I am really proud of. I came back energized by the rush I had achieved by walking the streets of an unfamiliar city, camera in hand. After experiencing this feeling once again, I was determined to bring that mindset into my daily life, to rekindle my drive to explore my surroundings through the lens even while at home.
I've since escaped the rut that I found myself in over the winter, in both the editing, and photographing aspects. I've done some thinking on what it took to break out of it and have come up with a few practices that should be considered by anyone experiencing a creative slump.
1. Go Through Your Library Of Unedited Photos & Find The Ones That Inspire You The Most
One of the problems I experienced during my rut was being completely overwhelmed by the 15,000+ photos that I had to edit. I had unedited photos from four different trips within the previous year spanning three continents, and I couldn't decide where to start.
In a situation like this, I think the best way to get back into the editing groove is to start with one location and work your way through those photos before moving on. For me, I chose my most recent trip - Quebec over New Years – to start with because it was the freshest in my memory, and I knew I had some incredible shots.
Once I had decided on the set of photos to edit, I went through and rated them (for more info on how I organize my photo library check out my post and tutorial on Photo Library Organization) picking out the very best 50 photos out of the 2000 I had taken during the trip to work on first. Most of these images were photos that I wanted to do some fairly extensive editing with, moving from Lightroom to Aurora HDR, to Photoshop - much more time intensive than some of the others from the trip, which would be quicker, Lightroom only edits. I wanted to work on these elaborate edits first however because I knew that the results were going to inspire me to keep going, and it worked! Once I had put some time in and seen the results from the first few, I had turned the disinterest in editing into something approaching an addiction, spending multiple evenings in a row editing late into the night.
2. Always Be Looking For Subjects
If you want to be a great, or even good photographer, looking at the world for unique and interesting subjects, perspectives, and moments is something you should be doing constantly. Over time, it will become your default view of the world, but I find that often when we experience a rut, we lose that sense of interest and awe in our surroundings and stop noticing the details.
Luckily, this is something that can be practiced anywhere, at any time, by anyone. Every location has something interesting about it just waiting to be discovered, and as a photographer, it's your job to find it. Even -or rather especially - when you don't have your camera with you, make a conscious effort to really see your surroundings. Notice how the ambient light affects your location, observe the spacial relationships of objects around you, appreciate the tone, contrast and colour of your environment. By making a concerted effort to truly take in and reflect on your surroundings, before long you'll be longing to grab your camera and capture the newfound beauty around you.
3. Shoot/Meet Up With Other Photographers
One of my personal favourite ways to get back into shooting is to go out with some photographer friends and spend the day, or even a few hours, shooting around my home town. Often when you're hanging out with your friends, the time spent together becomes the focus, and any pressure to get a great shot fades away. It's also easy to feed off of others points of view. When I go out shooting with some of my photographer friends, they consistently make me review a location and look for different perspectives after seeing some of their images which I would have never thought to take.
If you don't have any photographer friends, find a local photography Meetup or Facebook group and make some new friends. Most cities of a certain size have at least a couple of groups dedicated to photography, and most have regular get togethers and photo walks that are open to everyone.
4. Create Limitations Or Challenges For Yourself
One of the challenges faced by creatives in every field is the Paradox of Choice, the idea that the more options we have at our disposal, the harder it becomes to make a decision. Whether it be boxes of cereal in the grocery store, or locations, subjects, lenses, and lighting in photography, more options can make it hard to get out and actually shoot – or choose the Raisin Bran over the Froot Loops. Well, actually that's an easy choice, but what about Froot Loops or Corn Pops? Hmmm, now it's getting difficult...Ohh and I see they have Lucky Charms as well...
Often during a creative rut, whether we are aware of it or not, the sheer number of possibilities overwhelm us, and we need to simplify our approach to jump start our creative drive. One of my favourite ways to do this is apply self imposed limitations to my workflow. I might choose to go out shooting only with one prime lens, forcing myself to get creative with my positioning and composition, maybe I decide to only edit in black and white for a day, or only shoot within a two block radius of my home. Not only can these limitations help bust you out of your rut, they will make you a better photographer by forcing you out of your comfort zone and focusing your attention on developing one very specific skill.
Once when I was in a creative rut while trying to write music, I set out the challenge for myself to write a six-song EP, each song written only using one of the six strings on my guitar. This challenge quickly became an obsession, and I came out of the projects feeling both proud of what I had created, and energized with renewed creativity.
5. Experience Something New
Probably my favourite way of sparking my drive to make photos is to go somewhere new. At least for me, nothing drives my photographic creativity like the exploration of a place that is foreign to me. Keep in mind that going somewhere new doesn't necessarily mean spending thousands of dollars on a plane ticket and taking off overseas for three months. Last week I drove an hour out of the city to finally check out a waterfall that I had been wanting to visit for the past few years. The whole trip took half a day, and I've been energized all week from the experience.
Even within your city or neighborhood, go for a walk, bike or drive to an area you've never been to. Or if you're convinced you've thoroughly explored your surroundings and there's nothing left to discover, find a new activity to take part in and photograph. If you've got a friend who skateboards, go out with them and shoot at the skatepark, if you've got a friend who's a really great cook, share a meal and work on your food photography skills. Maybe you know someone who's really into bowling, I can imagine some pretty cool images set up and taken at a bowling alley. Seriously, if bowling is a viable option for inspiration, anything is, so no excuses!
I think for most people, creativity is fueled by new experiences. Whether those be new places visited, or new activities undertaken, go out and push your limits, find something you haven't tried before, and take your camera along for the ride.
If you're currently stuck in a rut when it comes to your photography, I hope that you can make use of these tips to bust yourself out! If you've experienced a rut before, I'd love to hear about how you finally worked your way out of it. Was there something specific that caused the rut in the first place? Let me know!
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