Sometimes it can feel like you're stuck in a creative rut and it’s hard to know how to get out of it. You can start to question what you’re doing, whether you’re good enough and lack inspiration to do anything new. We all feel like this from time to time so this article will help you find ways of moving your creative personal development forwards.
Most photographers tend to identify very deeply with their work, wrapping up their personal values and identity with the work that they do. That's a good thing, much of the time, but it also makes it so easy to get down on ourselves when things don't go smoothly. Pretty soon you feel like an imposter. How could anyone ever like your work or hire you again?! As you read these tips, remember that a creative practice is just that: a thing you do, not a complete representation of who you are. Be kind to yourself. Everyone gets stuck, it's a perfectly normal part of the creativity cycle. Creative ruts don't last forever.
Keep it Creative
Do What You Like, Do Something New
What is it you like to do? If you’re a landscape photographer but you’re lacking
the motivation to take anything new then try something else. If you enjoy music,
for example, go to a gig and take some photos instead while you’re there. They don't have to be perfect.
Shifting from something we’re used to doing again and again can be a good way of giving yourself a well needed rest whilst still honing some photography skills. You’ve heard the saying ‘look at something with fresh eyes’? It’s the same creatively too, take some time away and come back refreshed.
You might be used to getting good results at one kind of creativity and find doing other things frustrating, even boring at first. Doing what you like to do in a new way will likely require a little discomfort (maybe even more than a little), but try to embrace it. Sitting with discomfort today for a result tomorrow is a key part of building any new skill.
Write down ideas! It sounds silly but carrying a notebook with you really does help. Sometimes I’ll be out and think of an idea, only to get home and be racking my brain trying to remember what it was. Jot stuff down, even if it’s just key words or abstract thoughts. You can always piece it together and develop it further later. If you’re not as old school as me, use your smart phone or tablet–the memo function comes in very handy and you can even use most of them as a dictaphone!
Do you know other people who do what you do? Having a creative friend, even if it’s not another photographer, can really help you view things anew, or, to use a cliché, to think ‘out of the box’.
Sometimes someone else will see things in a way you don’t or they’ll pick up on something you’ve missed. Even asking your other half can help; my partner and I often switch work, write suggestions and improvements and then switch back. We may not always agree on the changes but at least it’s someone else’s perspective. This isn’t the same as a mentor though, which I’ll cover soon.
Achievable Personal Projects
The key to this is achievable. Don’t give yourself something
that’s going to become a headache and more effort than it’s worth. How many
people do you know who’ve actually completed a 365 project? I tried setting
myself an A-Z project once; to take a picture of something beginning with each
letter of the alphabet, in order. I didn’t put a time limit on this so as not
to put myself off but I think I got to ‘M’ before giving up entirely. Don’t do
it to yourself, pick achievable, fun projects that you’ll enjoy doing.
are lots of books and resources that can suggest various project
types and we’re working on some more open assignments here at Tuts+ for you too, to
get that creativity flowing! Start with a project you can do in an afternoon or a weekend, then work your way up to larger projects.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Creative bokeh hunt
- Abstract images using complimentary colours
- Go out and photograph your local area with only one lens
- Only take pictures of windows and doors for a day
- Creative self-portraits
- Document a day in your or someone else’s life
A mentor can help in a way that a close friend or partner can’t. People we’re close to will often be very kind and flattering about our photos because they don’t want to hurt our feelings. We know that in order to improve and develop though, we have to be able to take criticism so you need someone who can deliver that in a professional and inspirational way.
A photography mentor could be another photographer, especially if it’s practical skills you’re hoping to develop. Get out on a shoot with them and learn from their experience. You can often do this just by contacting a photographer in your area whose work you really like. Some of the ones who teach for a living may charge for their time, but look for someone who gets out a lot for fun and I’m sure they’d happily let you tag along. Always do this safely and meet in public places if it’s the first time.
You don’t have to have a photography mentor if you’re a photographer, though. It could be that the creative skills you need developing are how to get your work out there, making a portfolio or even just how best to print and mount your images. Approach someone who has the skills you want to develop but also choose someone who is able to nurture those skills in you, in the right way.
Never be afraid to ask for advice. If someone considers you expert enough to ask your advice, then try to give it freely; it’s a huge compliment! Recently I had someone message me about setting up as a wedding photographer and I gave them as much advice as I could; hopefully that will have helped but at the very least that person will know I’m happy to answer questions and assist if I can.
Sometimes when I’m doing a project or have an idea, I’ll shoot it over to my editor Jackson here at Tuts+. Even though it may not be Tuts+ related, it’s great for me to be able to get his advice and suggestions.
Um, What Workspace?
Whether you’re being paid to be a photographer or you are an amateur, have a workspace. If you have to clear the kitchen table so that you can set everything up and then put everything back once you’re done, it’s really going to put you off doing anything. Likewise if you pop yourself on the sofa with a laptop to edit and you end up half watching soap operas or a film, you don’t really concentrate and so very little gets done.
Even if it’s a table in the corner of a room, as long as it’s a dedicated workspace and you can shut yourself off from the rest of the world then it’ll make the world of difference.
Get Out of the Office!
I know I just told you to make yourself a little office space but if you spend hour upon hour in there when you’re in a creative funk then it’s not going to help. Getting out and going for a walk can help, but sometimes all you need is a change of scene. Something I’ve done in the past and I know friends have done this too, is to go to a pub or café that has free WI-FI and make that your office for a few hours. Buying a soft drink or coffee is usually enough to secure you a table for a while (and it’s only fair to the venue) so you can squirrel yourself away in a corner and work.
Make Your Work Area Fun
Make your work area fun and creative, it doesn’t have to be stark and boring just because you’ll be working there. Have things around to inspire you; a nice print on the wall for example can really brighten things up. Sometimes having your own prints on the walls can seem a little self-indulgent but really, it’s not! I only have one print of my photography on the walls and that’s only because my partner had it done, not me. It’s silly but I felt like it would be ‘showing off’ or like my pictures weren’t good enough to have on the walls and over time, I’ve come to realise that that’s not just the case. Not only can you be proud of what you can do but having something up that you see every day might actually inspire you to do better. Once you start seeing your image and thinking, ‘I wish I’d done this instead’ or ‘I could do that so much better now’ then chances are you’ll replace that image with a ‘better’ one–that’s a natural evolution and it’s great!
You don’t want to have to wade through mountains of paper to find what you need. Keep your desk organised and tidy. You still have to work, it’s a functional space, but try not to let it get out of control. A good practice is to straighten everything out and put things you’re finished with away at the end of each work session. Starting with a tidy area will mentally feel much better than having to dig out your keyboard from under post-it notes.
Build on Your Skills
Take a Class
Taking a class is a great way to learn some new skills, polish up ones you already have or even just meet like-minded people. Classes don’t have to be a huge investment, you can often do one evening a week for a couple of months down at your local college or university. Sometimes the community run these locally too and they can be even better value.
Photography groups are great too as you can drop in and out as you like so you aren’t committed each week. Also, they’ll have photographers of all abilities, meaning you can not only develop your own skills but maybe help others to develop theirs. Groups like this tend to host regular photo competitions and this can be a great way of photographing something you wouldn’t usually or getting new creative ideas about how to go about something differently.
If you’re not so sociable or don’t want to dive into a group, they often have groups set up on Facebook too, so you can either stick to that or use it as a stepping stone to get to know people and eventually join a group.
Volunteering not only makes you feel good and lets you give something back but it also helps build skills and creativity in ways that your day-to-day life might not. Working with kids, for example, might help you see things in a whole new way and spark off some new creative projects. If you’re lacking in confidence then doing something where you’re forced to engage with people might help. At the very least it can get you doing something completely different so that when you come back to your photography, you feel refreshed and ready for a new challenge.
Look Back But Don’t Move Backwards
Look at Old Work to Find Improvements
I know we can’t keep every single photo we take but don’t be tempted to delete all your old stuff. Keep an archive folder and look back on old pictures now and then; you’ll be amazed at how much you’ve improved. Sometimes we’re too close or involved in something to see our own progress but if you step back and compare then to now, there’ll be no doubt at how far you’ve come.
This is one of my first attempts at a long exposure 2 years ago (2013). The shadows are too dark, the colours are over saturated and the composition isn’t as good as I'd like.
I was probably quite proud of it at the time and that’s okay, but then I compare it to this picture from February of 2015:
A different place, but I’ve tried to pick a similar type of long exposure to illustrate how my thinking has changed. I knew composition was important and this is much better, with some foreground interest added as well. The colours are good, more natural and it’s a much more pleasing image.
Maybe I’ll look back in 2
years and be shocked at how bad this image is! It can make you cringe looking at pictures you’ve taken in the past but it’s a really great way of
showing yourself how far you’ve come and how you’ll continue to grow. That’s
why it’s so important to resist going through your back catalogue and deleting
what you now think are awful pictures.
List Achievements and Add Reasonable Goals
If you’re feeling creatively ‘blue’ then writing down everything you’ve achieved can really pick you up and make you feel more positive. You may well struggle at first. It’s hard not to be self-deprecating but soon you’ll find the achievements come thick and fast–everything from getting your first paid commission to finally nailing a shot you’ve wanted to get for a long time. Make some goals for yourself too but don’t make them unachievable or you’re just setting yourself up for a fall. A bit like the personal projects, you want these to be easy to hit, but not too easy.
Thinking about where you want to be a year from now might be overwhelming, but thinking about the next three months? Not so bad. Making yourself some personal ‘to-do’ lists can help with this. I use Wunderlist to help keep my paid jobs organised in lists and then separate ones for personal projects, goals, even household things like when bills are due. Tuts+ uses Trello in a similar way. Adding some organisation to your goals will help you see where they’ll fit in in your life; else you might just keep putting them off until you lose interest.
Creative blues happen to everyone. Sometimes that might be a slump where you don’t want to do anything or it could be that you’re trying really really hard to get somewhere and feel like you’re failing. Here are some of the article’s key points summed up for you to remember:
- Try something new that combines photography with another interest
- Carry a notebook with you and write ideas down as they come to you
- Ask creative friends for help or advice
- Set yourself achievable personal projects
- Find a professional mentor in the area you’re struggling with
- Have a dedicated workspace
- Make the workspace fun and creative
- De-clutter; don’t work under a pile of paperwork
- Get out of the office! Try a pub or café with
wi-fi once in a while
- Take a class or course
- Look back at your old photographs and compare them with what you’re doing now
- List your achievements, you’re awesome!
- Set reasonable goals
- Use software to help your organise
Hopefully you’ll find some of these tips helpful and remember that at Tuts+ we’re here to help too so always feel free to ask if you want advice, inspiration or just a push in the right creative direction.