How to Avoid Getting Stuck in a Creative Rut
by Tiree Dawson
As technology advances, the mastery of the mechanical and scientific side of photography is becoming increasingly easy to achieve. Because of this, our creativity is more important than ever. Sometimes, in a crowded marketplace, individual style is the only real differentiator.
If you identify as a creative then you may not see this as a worry. But what happens when creative ideas, well, just don’t happen? Maybe you’re faced with a blank frame and you can’t think of how to fill it. Maybe your clients book you for your bright ideas, but your mind is feeling a little less shiny than it was last week—what happens then?
Sometimes these moments pass quickly: a few floundering attempts at composition or posing, some muttering under your breath, and you’re back on your way, clicking happily. Other times the lack of ideas becomes worrisome.
There’s no surefire way to avoid these darker moments, but here are a few suggestions that can minimise the chances of them happening.
“There is nothing more vulnerable than creativity.” Brene Brown
Getting stuck in a creative rut is simply part of the process. Aiming to never to fall into a creative rut is as futile as claiming you’re going to drive a car all your life and never get stuck in traffic. You can take routes to avoid getting in a jam, but sometimes the odds aren’t in your favour, and through no fault of your own the journey you are on (creative or otherwise) may run a little slower than you hoped.
Pro Tip: Go easy on yourself, know that you’re doing the best that you can, and trust that things will soon get moving again.
“Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste.” Theodore Roethke
Be aware of your own well-being and be sure to take time out. I find it helpful to take a break before I get stuck—when things are flowing well. It can be hard to take time out, but it certainly makes it easier to go back.
You may also find it useful to have several projects going at once. Try building flexibility into your workflow where possible. That way if you’re not feeling inspired to shoot at a certain time then editing or marketing can be another option.
If you are really struggling with something but have to get it done, then try to squeeze in a quick break or change of scenery. Even in a high-pressure environment like a wedding shoot it is usually possible to grab a few minutes to centre yourself and re-energise, whether that’s by having a strong coffee or doing a brisk lap of the gardens. When you feel under pressure on a shoot, be confident enough to know that you don’t have to be taking photos constantly to do a good job. Your clients should trust that you will do what is right for them—and this could mean taking breaks, pausing and thinking rather than running round at 100mph releasing the shutter at every opportunity.
Pro Tip: Know how you work best and gently communicate this to everyone in advance of the shoot.
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t you’re right.” Henry Ford
Facing a lack of creativity can be hugely demoralising. If you’re feeling disheartened, try writing down some of the things you’ve achieved with your photography in the past year. Perhaps you’ve been featured in some publications, been shortlisted for an award, taken more bookings than the year before, or simply met your clients’ expectations while keeping your family fed, watered and loved.
Pro Tip: Looking back through your past work can also provide an emotional lift when you’re feeling down. Track your progress and congratulate yourself on the new skills you have learned and the confidence you have gained.
“If you’re the smartest person in the room then you’re in the wrong room.”
Surround yourself with brilliant and funny people who are great at what they do. This brings endless inspiration and support. Join a local networking group, or if you can’t find one you fancy, then set one up yourself. It’s great to spend time with other photographers, but sharing challenges and best practice across industries can also be very valuable.
Pro Tip: To give a networking group focus and energy, try setting up a tangible project to work on together, like a styled shoot, or a co-written blog piece.
“When was the last time you did something for the first time?”
Spending time with others is important, but so is making time for yourself. A personal photography project can really kick-start your creativity. Ironically, it’s often the imposed constraints of a finite project that help. By limiting yourself to a certain lens, a certain subject or a tightly restricted palette, you can give yourself the opposite of that overwhelmingly blank canvas. Be as strict as you like—you’ll be surprised at the ways your creativity will come out!
Pro Tip: Why not document a day in the life of someone close to you, commit to taking a shot at exactly the same time each day for a month, or visit a local not-for-profit organisation and work together to design a project that will allow you to be creative while helping others.
“Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.” Jane Austen
Create a series of source books in a way that suits you. I find Pinterest the easiest, with different boards for clients, genres, ideas and plans. Take photos on your phone of anything and everything that inspires you—when you’re reading, travelling or just going about daily life. It could be a photo in a cookbook, a shadow across the path, a shop window, or someone’s outfit. Whatever it is, don’t rely on just mentally remembering it; get it captured in one form or another and file it away in a useful place. When your mind does go blank, you’ll be glad you kept a tidy library packed full of all those ideas!
Many people set up a Pinterest/mood board after they start a new project. Try to preempt this by gathering ideas before you even get the booking. Want to do more food photography? Then pin the kind of images what you want to shoot. Start getting together the right props and setups—the booking will come, and when it does land in your lap you’ll be ready.
Pro Tip: In addition to storing the images, take time to think about them critically. Why are you drawn to them? Is it the composition? The colours or textures? The subject? Make notes on these observations and aim to introduce similar elements into your own work.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Pablo Picasso
Experiment constantly. I strongly believe that even in your most important client work—especially, in fact—you should be playing and experimenting. If you’re afraid of experimenting when working for clients, then you need to find a way to get over this.
Making sure that you have technically mastered all of your kit can help—that way you know you can get a few “safe” shots up front and still have time left to play. When it comes to the first dance at a wedding, I’ll shoot wide with a flash to make sure I have the standard shots covered, then I’ll allow myself to play around with wider apertures and more inventive lighting, reflections and angles.
Pro Tip: Always try to stay fresh. If things are working and you’re getting good feedback, it can be hard to be brave enough to change anything. Just remember, even if you’re doing well, if you’re not changing anything then you’re in a rut.
“Purpose is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s needs.” Frederick Buechner
When all else fails, this is the one that helps me. Remind yourself of why you’re a photographer. Spend time looking at old family photos. Dig out your wedding album and pour a glass of wine. Celebrate the fact that you have an honourable job: to communicate meaning, feeling and stories in a way that is internationally understood. Take pleasure from the capacity and responsibility you have to enlighten, influence and educate others.
Pro Tip: Contact some of your clients and ask them to share with you which of the images you took for them are the most important and why.
Remember, when your energy is low there’s no shame in feeding off the excitement of your clients. Whether you’re photographing a wedding, a handmade cushion, a plate of food or a tennis match, you’re documenting that scene because someone loves it. Somewhere along the line, at least one person has poured their passion, determination, energy and resilience into making that thing in front of your camera what it is at that very moment. What’s more, you can bet that at some point on their journey they felt tired, dejected and uninspired. But they did it. They made it happen, and so can you!
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