How Do You Relieve Photographer’s Creative Block? By Dan K
After a bit of sojourn, Dan K is back with a very thought provoking piece that covers something that I myself have been feeling lately. Namely creative block. This has come at the perfect time and spurred me to action after reading it. Read on.
How Do You Relieve Photographer’s Creative Block?
It has been nearly half a year since I last published a photography article and so it seems appropriate that kick off with a discussion of Creative Block.
In every creative field, there comes a point where one lacks momentum and can’t seem to make any decent progress. Photography is no exception. We call this Creative Block and there are three main kinds: Fear, Inertia and Lack of Inspiration. Sometimes they come all at the same time. The best approach to dealing with them is to identify the problem(s), how they affect you and work out a way to get over it.
Creative endeavours are fraught with fear because the artist is making something for others to judge. Anticipating poor reception, we becomes our own harshest critic. If you don’t press the button there will be nothing to judge but failure to get started. Take lots of photos, the laws of probability says that you’ll have something to work with in editing and show your best work. That doesn’t mean “show only epic world-beating work”, it means show your best ten or twenty photos a week and you can look back and see how you have improved.
Do not judge your photography by comparison to the work of others. Do not measure your success by the number of likes it gets. Instead, I like to talk through my photos with other photographers and critique each other’s work. If you are asked to critique, remember that constructive critique is not about passing judgement on the artist’s ability, but about asking questions about what he was trying to say, why he did it the way he did. Share how the photo speaks you the critic, and maybe how you would have approached the photo in your own style.
Street photographers have another challenge. They often suffer from a fear of offending people by the act of taking their photograph. As a result, they come across as furtive and creepy and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when they get shouted at or worse. This topic warrants a whole article on its own, but the gist of it is to pick the right subject, do not dawdle before the shot, be open about what you’re doing and cultivate a happy attitude, even if you have to fake it. Keep at it. Dealing with people is a special skill and experience helps a lot.
Getting started, or getting restarted once you have gotten out of the habit of taking photos can be especially challenging. Just get to it. If you need a soft-start to get the ball rolling, whip out your cameraphone and share the images. One of the worst ways to get over photographers block is to wander aimlessly about with a camera, but the very worst way is to leave it at home. Always carry a camera ready to use, even if you aren’t in the mood.
Allocate small blocks of time to photography when you know you’ll have good light. If you have the luxury of time, a little money and an understanding family, plan a photo trip somewhere that you haven’t been before.
Once you have momentum, keep it. While setting a grueling production goal such as a shooting roll every single day can dry up the creative juices, not setting any schedule or goals makes it hard to maintain momentum. Keep shooting, stay in the habit and don’t obsess over perfection. Sometimes, you will almost get the perfect shot and while you may not chose to show it, the junk folder at least contains memories and ideas that you can dip into later.
If all else fails, take a break. Maintaining momentum is important if you are working to a deadline, such as a competition submission or delivering a commercial product. However once creative block has set in, award yourself a break and come back at it with a fresh mind. Sometimes when I deliberately clear my mind of a subject, I fail to do so… and inspiration comes to me out of the blue. Sometimes it takes longer and you need to exercise the mental discipline to simply push through.
My 5th grade teacher had some cutting words to say about my crippling perfectionism in my report card: “Danny’s geography jotter is a catalogue of unfinished work”. Perhaps decades later, I realised his intention was not to traumatize an already perfectionist child, but to teach me that we are judged on our best completed works, not our aborted efforts. Therefore we must plan to do the best we can in the time allotted.
While I learned the lesson as it applies to academia and business, the problem still afflicts my personal projects. I have half-written more articles than I have published (much to Bellamy’s chagrin) and my photo portfolio is best described as “eclectic” because I rarely produce enough of one style to exhibit under a theme. My mistake has been to just continue making photos when it takes my fancy, as opposed to treating it like a project. I should plan, stick to it and wrap it up by a self set deadline. If you can’t commit to a masterwork, commit to a mini-project taking a day, a weekend, or a week. At the very least, gather the photos that you have, develop them, post-process them and print them so you will have something to show.
Inspiration is tricky to write about, because everyone finds inspiration in their own way. So I’ll just throw out some ideas and you can pick and choose:
Revisit your previous completed works. Refine and improve them. Take an other crack at a theme, maybe with a twist. Look back through your junk photo folder for ideas that you can do better. Redo another photographer’s seminal works, but with a local feel.
Find a new look. This can be a new style, a new physical perspective, or a particular piece of new gear, like a fish-eye lens, or a different film. Explore a new film format or aspect ratio. If you don’t have the budget for new gear, experiment with cropping or post-processing.
Pick a photographic genre. What are the key characteristics of this style and how would you approach it? Work it to death, then move on.
Look around you. Maybe something will catch your eye? A mundane object, an emotion, or a person. Do a thorough photo essay. Capture its essence and its details. See if you can make a visual statement, or photograph it in a way or context that provokes thought. Attack the subject in different styles of photography. Strip it down to elements and essentials, or do something elaborate.
Tell a story. Do a photo narrative. It can be one image or a chain of images. Have you ever done a photographic graphic novel?
Find a partner. You can trade ideas with a peer, compete, and collaborate. Join a club or take a class. Many an artist has been inspired by a muse, be it a lover, a pet or even a friend of the same gender. When you have a passion for a subject, this shines through your work.
Taking my own advice, I will cut off here and ask you the readers to share your own experience and advice on relief of creative block. How has it affected you? How to you get started, keep going and find new inspiration?
Thanks for this piece, Dan. It could not have come at a better time for me. I reviewed 3 peoples work this week which gave me cause to think about my own. And I had a change of environment, namely visiting Hong Kong, which has given me new momentum to continue with a series that I thought I had given up on. Very helpful and inspiring words.
Dan K is a life-long enthusiast photographer. He celebrated his return to film by collecting just about every quality camera and lens that he could lay his hands upon. Along the way he has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of film cameras and film processing. Follow him on twitter for a humorous look at photography techniques and technology from all eras. Follow him on Tumblr for his images, journey of photographic discovery and a generous helping of gear-porn.
Past articles that he’s written on similar topics:
Text © Dan K. All rights reserved.
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Those are great suggestions. I had two projects for the year 2012: 1) Photograph the Full Moons rise and set, 2) Photograph the first sunrise of the equinoxes and solstices over Columbia, SC from the Lake Murray Dam. My decision to shoot B&W film exclusively for the year 2012 wasn’t necessarily a project, but more of a New Years Resolution for 2012; it was a year to try different B&W films and experiment with B&W contrast filters.
With my Moon Project, I was sometimes rained out for the moonrise or moonset, sometimes both. On those occasions when the full moon wasn’t visible due to weather, I waited till the next night. I had a shot list of filters to use with my 80-205mm lens: yellow, orange, and red, and also used my 400mm lens. Changing filters and lenses during winter made me question “Why?!” But I stuck with it.
Fortunately, there was no rain for my Sunrise project. The Lake Murray Dam has a pedestrian walkway protected from traffic that is enjoyed by walkers and joggers. Winter 2012 solstice was also the date of the Mayan Apocalypse; fortunately, the world survived, but there were severe winds and it was brutally cold on that day. I was the only fool on the dam that day.
Although I’ve been in the habit of bringing a camera with me to work, I need to get into the habit of having it ready to use when I’m driving.
Bellamy, thanks for publishing this so quickly.
I’d like to credit some of my Twitter followers who contributed ideas:
@ELEVENSIXTY @ianchristieinfo @RDHphotos @alvinlovesfilm @fotodudenz @drheaddamage @fantastk @cfclark @iloveaussiesheps @jcurtisart
I find this quote to be helpful in snapping me out of any creative funk. “inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work” (Chuck Close). If you want to shoot a portrait, or a street shot, or a landscape, just go out and shoot it. Make the phone call, send the email, get in the car, step outside with your camera, whatever the first step is, take it! Inspiration may or may not show up with you, but that will probably have little impact on the final product. Inspiration doesn’t always lead to better stuff, but repetition, effort, and experience do. I have found that sitting around coming up with ideas is great fun over a coffee or a few beers, but it can be far removed from the active part of the creative process, and in a lot of cases lead nowhere. I find it more effective to de-romanticise the shooting part of the process, sure planning ahead is necessary, but don’t sit around waiting for an epiphany.
When I’m going through one of my frequent dips, I find that carrying a camera all the time is just about the worst thing I can do. It stresses me out and it’s just demoralising when things aren’t flowing. But like most people, I’m never without a phone so I’ve always got a method of taking a picture if I really need too, but without the pressure. I’m learning to embrace those periods of inaction as part of my photography – it’s asking a lot of yourself to be 100% committed all of the time and getting stressed out about it doesn’t help the creative process. The urge to take pictures always comes back.
Great piece except for “maybe a friend of the same gender.” What about a friend of a different gender? Works equally well either way. Aside from this slip, thanks.
Only because my wife frowns at the idea of my taking a lover or a muse. YMMV
When I do not feel like taking photographs, I focus on editing, printing and working on my personal artbook. I start by applying paint fields to write on. I then glue in some prints and complete the page by adding drawings. This helps me come up with ideas and gives me a reason to print my work.
Interesting article and is some ways, I am here at present having not touched a camera or been in my darkroom for the past 3 years. I am on an SSRI medication for chronic depression, 200mg per day. I was first prescribed this medication 20 years ago but 25mg for Obsessive Compulsion Disorder OCD. This helped that condition but as it does not take a lot to work it out, 200mg dosage takes one to the opposite of OCD, total apathy and a sort of couldn’t care less, can’t be bother attitude. It is not just photography that has suffered because of this, all interests are on hold, and that is OK, although I know it isn’t. My plan is to explore alternative medication and try to find one that has less life changing side effects. Watch this space, Thank you- Kenneth- UK