A two-pronged approach to emerging from a photographic rut
As I write this article, I am beginning to emerge from one of the longest photography ruts I have ever experienced.
It has been several months since I went on a serious shoot.
The camera has sat unloved in its bag under my bed. The batteries are mostly flat.
A twisted and contorted muesli bar is looking a little worse for wear. Note to self: check the expiry date before eating.
Next to the muesli bar sits an abandoned polariser, probably thrown there haphazardly in a moment of haste.
So what, you might say?
Well, I am pretty obsessive about my gear. For one, gear isn’t cheap — especially in Australia.
For two, I’m just, well… obsessive! My batteries are normally fully charged and I never leave my polariser floating around where it might get scratched.
Many of us have been here. That place where our standards start to slip and we question whether our heart is really in it anymore.
Long periods of low motivation can be scary! Especially when we (mistakenly) attach our self-worth or identity to photography.
I started to believe that my images were sub-standard.
Tens of thousands of photos sat in my Lightroom catalog gathering dust. Photos I had enjoyed making that I simply didn’t want to look at.
Worse still, I started to believe that I was incapable of making new images. Not images that I’d be proud to share with others per se, but new images full stop.
Of course, there was nothing physically stopping me from taking out the camera and clicking the shutter.
But much more powerful mental barriers were at play. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles that I had no interest in trying to overcome.
Mental barriers make us lazy and dismissive.
What of the 20,000 Lightroom photos sitting in my catalog? Were they not sufficient evidence of my love and joy for photography?
Were they not evidence of my ability — whether real or imagined?
I’m not ashamed to admit that I toyed with the idea of doing the one thing I always tell others not to do: “upgrade” their gear for the sake of improving images.
I opened my browser and started to look through Sony A7RIIIs and the like.
Yes, the body alone is over three thousand Australian dollars.
But it would be a worthwhile investment, right? With a dynamic range to die for, I would find a way to raise the cash.
Suddenly, I found myself in the photographic wilderness.
I was not shooting images to inspire others about the environment or a love of the open road. I was deflecting questions about my recent photographic jaunts because there were none.
I was certainly not being mindful.
I was in a place that was completely foreign to me, and if I’m honest, I had no idea how I’d got there.
Despite my predicament, I was able to recognize that buying an A7RIII would have meant digging a deeper hole for myself.
Granted, there would be a temporary hit of dopamine as I unboxed the camera and inhaled those new-technology smells.
I would also doubtless experience a honeymoon period of joy and infatuation, content in the thought that shadow noise was a thing of the past.
But through no fault of the camera, I knew that the sheen would wear off eventually.
Yes, I’d still have a camera with better dynamic range. Yes, I’d still be the same photographer with the same mental barriers.
If new equipment does not provide the proverbial leg-up that we need, what does?
I’m glad you asked. There are at least two things.
As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.
Johann Wolfgang von Goeth
Most advice for emerging from a photographic slump focuses on action, and we’ll get to that later.
Before we do anything, we must first have trust in ourselves.
To trust that the wheel will turn and that we will rediscover our mojo eventually.
If you consider yourself a competent photographer, remember that you don’t magically lose your ability overnight.
However, we do have to anticipate that there’ll be bumps in the road.
Some photographers are their own worst critics. Some never stop to smell the roses and find contentment in what they’ve achieved.
Others are uncomfortable at the prospect of expressing the deepest and darkest bits of themselves.
The reality is that either of these struggles has the potential to sap our motivation in an instant.
But if our reasons for engaging in photography are strong, then our motivation will return.
Last year, I was dejected when my football team finished 18th out of 18 teams. Yet I can feel my passion for football starting to return as the 2021 season approaches.
Photography is a bit like that. You will oscillate between deep passion and mild resentment indefinitely. Accept that fluctuations in your interest level are inevitable.
Find your reasons for making images and trust they will see you through the lean times.
Your reasons encompass anything that gives you the urge to pick up the camera. Values, life experiences, hobbies, whatever. Something you wanted to express or communicate.
This somewhat intangible aspect of your photography can never be lost.
But never lost — if you know where to look for it.
After all, one could take Ansel Adams out of Yosemite but never take Yosemite out of Ansel Adams.
When you are unmotivated or otherwise uncertain about the direction of your work, trust that the antidote is within.
Self-awareness is essential here because the driving force of our motivation is sometimes hard to define. Especially when we start throwing around words like style, voice, or purpose.
Having said that, a lack of self-awareness is no excuse for low motivation.
Determine what gets you out of bed in the morning, photographically speaking.
What are your reasons?
Devote the time to figuring these things out. A strong sense of self can help smooth out the bumps and have you back on the asphalt in no time.
The alternative is to buy a new A7RIII and that’s a short-term solution at best.
It’s also not a terribly good differentiator.
If you’re relying on a mirrorless Sony to produce something unique, how will you stand out against the millions of others who own one?
The vehicle for self-expression is as unimportant as it is ubiquitous. Equipment-wise, modern photographers are spoilt for choice.
What’s important is that we get out of our own way and act with authenticity and purpose.
This brings me to the next point.
If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
Vincent van Gogh
Trust can only take us so far. To get the ball rolling, we have to act eventually.
The specifics of the action do not matter nearly much as taking action.
Many photographers sit around waiting for a lightning bolt of inspiration to strike. They believe that only once they are inspired will they be motivated to act.
But the reverse is actually true.
Action leads to inspiration and then motivation in a cyclical process.
Again, the specifics of the action do not matter as much as taking action.
Start small. Mark Manson calls this the “do something” principle.
You might make tentative steps and arrange your camera bag, edit a new photo, or read an article from one of your favorite photographers.
If the prospect of editing photos is unbearable, start by turning on the PC or opening Lightroom.
If you can’t find the motivation to shoot, place your camera bag at the front door or with your car keys.
By starting with small, low-effort tasks, you will find that motivation for larger tasks will build.
Getting my motivation back
At the moment, I have a 20-minute drive to the nearest supermarket through beautiful farmland.
But in an unmotivated state, I’m fixated on the painted white line in front of me.
So I started small and then progressed:
- I took the batteries out of the bag and charged them. I cleaned the polariser and re-attached it to the 70–200. I ate the muesli bar. Then I lost all motivation to do anything else.
- With the camera bag in a visible place, I eventually worked up the motivation to place it in the car. I was happy to place the bag in the boot (trunk) at this stage. Ostensibly to prevent theft but also to give me an excuse for not having to look at it.
- After a week or so, something glorious happened. I started to see new compositions! A lone tree here, the ruin of an old cottage there. The long, worn highway with the texture of denim glimmering in the sun. I saw the landscape with renewed appreciation.
- On subsequent trips, I started to imagine what those subjects would look like under different conditions. I could feel my inspiration increasing. The landscape that only a few weeks ago had gone unnoticed started to inspire me.
- As if by magic, I became motivated enough to make some images. The rest, as they say, is history.
Well, not quite. I still have a long way to go and there will be similar periods of low motivation in the future.
The difference now is that I can prepare myself and act accordingly.
It started with trust and the simple act of packing my camera gear away.
From there it snowballed. Now I’m up until late some nights editing photos from years back!
The next time you find yourself in a similar situation, make trust and action your allies.
And most of all, resist the urge to buy something new.
You already have everything you need!