Overcoming Photographer’s Block, Part 2: Five Recommendations

(Second of two parts.)

In part one of this article, I wrote about the creative process, how it applies to photographers, and how a better understanding of it can help us to avoid or escape photographer’s block. In this part, I offer five recommendations for getting the creative juices flowing again — specific steps that have worked for me, my students, and others.

1. Just shoot. A friend of mine who is a musician and visual artist says that thought is the enemy of action, and in a way, he’s right. When I do street photography, or even when I’m working on assignment, I sometimes get “trigger shy.” I don’t see anything new or anything that particularly interests me. Sometimes the first and best step is to just start shooting the same old same old.

The goal is not to take great photographs, but rather, to engage “photographic gears” of the mind, the eye, and the heart so that better work can follow. It’s a bit like starting a car on a cold winter morning and waiting for it to warm up. You may not be getting anywhere, but unless you turn the key — or for our purposes, press the shutter button — you’re going to be sitting still for a long time.

Shoot what you see and don’t think about it, even if it’s just a few frames. For me, anyway, better things inevitably follow, sometimes within minutes.

2. Venture into new stylistic territory. If you’re primarily a portrait photographer, get out and do some landscapes. If your normal workspace is a studio, head downtown, get some fresh air, and do some old-fashioned street photography. If you do a lot of documentary work, put that aside for a day or a week and shoot bowls of fruit.

I’m not suggesting permanent changes. The idea is that working in unfamiliar territory often provides insights into the work we’re already doing and offers us new ideas and challenges. Again, this gets the brain working, solving problems, and can lead to new approaches when you return to your “everyday” subject matter and style.

For example, I normally shoot a lot of candid or lightly posed portraits. Recently, I’ve been doing more still life and landscape work, which has forced me to look at photographic composition in ways that I hadn’t before. I’ve brought that newfound knowledge back into my portrait work, which has improved because of what I’ve learned working in other areas.

3. Put yourself through boot-camp-style photo drills. Go to the local botanical garden or park and shoot 50 digital photos or a roll of film in 30 minutes. Don’t shoot the same thing twice and don’t delete the weaker photographs if you’re working with a digital camera. It’s the equivalent of free writing and the goal is to work without over-analyzing what you’re doing.

Try to take good pictures, but don’t expect any masterpieces; that’s not what you’re worried about. If you practice like this enough, pressing the shutter button becomes as automatic as walking or breathing.

Or, take the same number of photographs of the same thing, an old, photography-school homework assignment. Find a tree, a model, a car or anything else that attracts your attention and explore it with your camera and eyes.

Try to find as many different ways to shoot that subject as possible. Over and underexpose. Shoot in focus and out of focus. The idea is to remember that there are a million ways to look at even the most mundane object. When you go back to the things you really love shooting, you’re likely to do so with a more open mind and fresher eyes.

What about minimizing the gear you carry? Work for a week with nothing but a cheap, compact digital. Or when you have a free day, leave the big guns on the shelf and do everything with a film SLR and a 50mm lens. Force yourself to approach photography in new ways and you will learn new things about your particular vision, and more about photography in general.

4. Study the masters. Forget about Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson for a while, as wonderful as their work may be. Most photographers know their work up and down.

Do some research on photographers whose work you haven’t seen. Study but don’t imitate. Use it as a source of inspiration, not a blueprint.

You learn something every time you see an image. Eat, drink and sleep master photographs, from Civil War-era icon Matthew Brady and the Parisian Eugene Atget, to contemporary legends such as Miguel Rio Branco, from Brazil, and Roger Ballen, an American who works in South Africa.

Don’t stop with photography, either. Learn about painting, printmaking and other two-dimensional forms of expression, from 20,000-year-old drawings on the walls of caves, to the Renaissance, the Baroque, Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Color Field Painting, Conceptualism and everything else. The idea is to increase your visual vocabulary, and as a result, improve your work.

5. Change what you’re doing. Entirely. At least for a little while. If you’ve never shot large-format film using a view camera, take a shot at it. It will force you to really think about what you’re doing.

If you’re one of the few resisting the digital revolution, give in. You’ll tend to shoot a lot more and learn from every picture.

Play with toy cameras like Holgas, make your own pinhole cameras, or max out your credit card on the newest DSLR of your dreams. While it’s true that it’s photographers — not cameras — that make pictures, a new toy, or new time spent with an old one, can get you moving again, thinking about photographs in new ways, and making new kinds of images.

7 Responses to “Overcoming Photographer’s Block, Part 2: Five Recommendations”

  1. Right with you. You can see how I apply your five recommandations here : http://www.istaota.fr/ista/others/catalogue/galerie/News/

  2. I think the greatest suggestion on there is to play with a toy camera. I'm a big fan of getting out of my comfort zone by shooting with toy cameras. And frankly reading this makes me realize that I really need to do some of that again.

  3. I think all of your suggestions are excellent, and my experience is that they work (though I will NEVER shoot with a Holga -- I am repulsed by the idea). Here is a thing I found that helps undo the block.... go anywhere (with your camera) and sit... and wait. Clear your mind and meditate with your eyes open. This gives both the eyes and the mind a chance to "see"... it may take a while.... but more often than not you will start to see shots appearing.... sometimes as close as a couple of feet away from you.

  4. Thanks for the suggestions, I really like the "free shooting" idea. I'm going to have to try that next time.

  5. Really great, yet simple, advice.

    My favorite technique is to site there and people watch. When I feel stuck in a rut, that usually works for me and I break the mold.

    Thanks again.

  6. WTF. This is lame..... Let your heart lead...that is the statement... Not your mind - get out of your mind and into a feeling state. What moves you? Realize you are helpless...empty yourself... Fuck everyone... Stop selling and start expressing. Fuck you all - if you are offended by that, you are not your own person...you are bought and sold....whore. Fuck you. Now go use your camera to say...."did you see that?".... I love you man.......(sorry if you didn't get that - then fuck you real)

  7. Hi John,
    I accidentally came across your article. I'm glad I did! I read this at a time when I'm going through major self-doubt and now introspection. Some of the stuff you wrote was on my mind but your article gave me the push, the inspiration that I needed. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with other photographers!
    Warm regards,

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