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Are you in a photography rut? A few years ago I got stuck as a photographer. I didn’t know what to photograph, how to find an interesting subject or how to move forward. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. Looking back, I can now see that I was surrounded by interesting subjects and potential projects. The problem was that I didn’t understand that.
What is a photography rut?
If you’re bored with the photos you’re making, or bored with the process itself, it’s a sign that you’re in a rut.
If there’s nothing exciting, new or interesting about the photos you’re creating then it also means you could be in a photography rut.
Once you’ve recognized what’s happening, the question is how do you get out of it?
Photography ruts and new beginnings
I broke out of my rut first by recognizing it and acknowledging it for what it was. Then I took positive action.
I set myself a project photographing craftspeople and artists. My wife and I were planning to spend a few days in Raglan, an arty coastal town in northern New Zealand. I used Google, reached out to a couple of local artists and asked if I could drop by and make some photos. Both said yes, both shoots went well. It kick-started my photography and I didn’t look back.
Now, I realize the breakthrough was giving myself an assignment with a clear brief. It was something that got me excited and motivated. It also pushed me out of my comfort zone as I’d never tried to contact people this way before.
I’ve since expanded the project, making portraits of other creative people (and illustrated this tutorial with some of my favorite images). It’s something I’ll continue with when the pandemic is over.
If (when!) you find yourself in a photography rut you can take a similar approach to get yourself out of it. Use the rut as an opportunity for a new beginning, or to move in a new direction.
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How to break out of a photography rut
One reason we get stuck in a rut is because it’s hard to see the photographic potential in the things we see every day. Familiarity makes it hard to see them with fresh eyes.
Here are some practical ideas to help you do that.
1. Go somewhere new
It’s easy to make photos when you travel to an exotic country for the first time. You’re surrounded by new things, different people and new experiences. If anything, you’re likely to have the opposite problem. There are so many potential things to photograph that you don’t know where to start.
But you don’t have to travel overseas to make this happen. I’m sure there are places in your local neighborhood that you haven’t visited. It might be as simple as walking down a street you’ve never noticed before, or parking your car and exploring a neighborhood you’ve only driven through on foot.
Or you might have to go further and visit a town or some other place you’ve never been to before. Either way, going somewhere new helps you see things with fresh eyes.
2. Give yourself a challenge
One reason we get bored with photography (or any creative pursuit) is because we’re not specific enough about what we want to achieve.
For example, imagine walking in your local neighborhood, looking for something interesting to photograph. Depending on how interesting it is, the results would probably be mixed.
Now imagine that you go out with a specific aim in mind. For instance, you might decide to photograph commercial buildings in your neighborhood. Or the houses where people live. Or trees. Perhaps you could combine these ideas and show trees in an urban environment. This is more challenging, but also more specific. It’s far more likely to engage your eyes and your mind.
In other words, you’ve given yourself an assignment or creative brief. The goals you’ve set yourself encourage you to think about what you want to achieve and how you’re going to do it.
The power of a brief or assignment is that it helps you focus on a specific subject. This is more helpful than setting out to photograph anything.
The challenge of an assignment engages your creativity and helps you achieve a state of productive creative flow.
3. Challenge your ideas
Do you have a fixed idea of what photography is, how it should be done and what photos should look like? Most of us do, and that’s a limitation.
The way out is to look at the work of other photographers. In particular, people who work in different genres than you. This exercise is about looking at what other photographers are doing and letting it spark ideas.
I’m not talking about Flickr or Instagram, although that can be useful. Take it to a higher level. Go to websites like Lens Culture, Feature Shoot or 1854 and look at other photographers’ projects. Visit your local library and look at the photography books there (the portfolio style books, not the how to books). What ideas does it give you?
4. Challenge your skills
Is there a new photography skill you can learn? For example, are you a landscape photographer who’s never made a portrait? Or perhaps you’d like to try close-up or macro photography, but haven’t got around to it yet. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to shoot a photo story about something, but don’t know where to start. There’s always something new to learn, even for experienced photographers. It’s just a matter of deciding what to learn and getting started.
5. Give yourself a new viewpoint or perspective
One option is to buy a drone (but check drone regulations where you live first). Getting up in the sky is a great way to get a new perspective on things.
I live in a coastal town and I’ve started to wonder what it looks like from the sea. That’s because I’d like to take up paddle-boarding and sea kayaking when I have more spare time. It will be interesting to take a camera with me and photograph our local area from this new perspective.
Another way you could do it is to buy a new lens. Lensbaby optics are great for seeing things in a new way. So is a vintage lens, or a fisheye or macro lens. There are plenty of inexpensive options out there, especially if you don’t mind buying second-hand.
Photography ruts and creative briefs
Whichever option you choose, don’t forget that the most powerful way to break free from your photography rut is to set yourself a specific creative brief or assignment. As you get used to this way of working certain themes will emerge in your work. Some of your assignments will turn into longer term projects you come back to over and over. This is creatively satisfying and helps you build a body of work.
You could even work on an assignment with a friend. It’s fun to set yourselves the same brief and see how you interpret it differently.
Looking back on that time when I found myself in a photography rut I wish I had given myself more creative briefs. I needed help to see that interesting subjects were all around me.
I also wish that I had the knowledge that I have now and made more productive use of that time.
This experience prompted me to write my latest ebook, The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments. No matter how deep your photography rut, you’ll find ideas that inspire you to go out and get shooting. Click here to learn more.