How To Emerge From A Photography Rut

Benjamin Stevens

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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 two-thirds flat.

A twisted and contorted muesli bar is looking a little worse for wear. Note to self: check the expiry date before eating.

The polariser sits loosely in the camera compartment, probably taken off the lens in haste and not stored with care.

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 ready to go. I certainly never leave my polariser floating around where it might get scratched.

We’ve all been there. 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 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 that I had experienced immense joy in making that would never see the light of day.

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 is nothing physically stopping me from taking out the camera and clicking the shutter.

But much more powerful mental barriers were at play. Apparently 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 Aussie 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.

The fastest way to dig a bigger hole for myself would have been to buy an A7RIII.

There would definitely be a temporary hit of dopamine as I unboxed the camera and inhaled that new-technology smell.

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 after a few weeks.

Yes, I’d still have a camera with better dynamic range. Yes, I’d still be the same photographer with the same mental barriers.

New equipment does not provide the proverbial leg-up that we need in a photographic rut.

So what does?

I’m glad you asked. There are a couple of things.

Trust

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 at some point.

If you consider yourself a reasonably adept 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 at some point.

I was dejected when my football team finished 18th out of 18 teams last season, but I can feel my interest starting to return as the 2021 season approaches.

Photography is a bit like that. You will oscillate between deep passion and mild resentment indefinitely.

Just like anything, I suppose.

Find your reasons for making images and trust they will see you through the lean times.

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Your reasons are probably a combination of your unique values and life experiences. There was something that urged you to pick up a camera in the first place.

Something you wanted to express or communicate.

This somewhat intangible aspect of your photography can never be lost. 

Forgotten? Sure. Neglected? Definitely. But never lost – if you know where to look for it.

You could take Ansel Adams out of Yosemite, but you could 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 found within.

Self-awareness is essential here because the driving force of our internal engine is sometimes hard to define. Especially when we start throwing around words like style, voice, or purpose.

A lack of self-awareness is no excuse for low motivation.

Why not give it a try? A strong sense of self can help smooth out the bumps and have you back on the asphalt in no time.

Determine what gets you out of bed in the morning, photographically speaking.

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 purpose.

This brings me to the next point.

Action

Trust can only take us so far. At some point, we have to act on it.

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.

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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 pack the 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, bring the camera along with you wherever you go – “just in case”.

By starting with small, low-effort tasks, you will find that motivation for larger tasks will build.

At the moment, I have a 20-minute drive to the nearest supermarket. The route takes me through beautiful farmland but in a photographic rut, I became fixated on the painted white line in front of me.

It took a long time just to become motivated enough to make sure the camera was charged and ready to go. Then a bit longer to get into the habit of putting the camera in the car each time I left the house.

Eventually, I had the camera with me more often than not – even if I had no intention of using it.

Then a glorious thing started to happen. 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.

All the while, I could feel my inspiration increasing. The landscape that only a few weeks ago had gone unnoticed started to inspire me.

Eventually, I became motivated to actually take the camera out of the bag and make some images.

It started with the simple act of putting my camera bag in the car with an understanding that the wheel would turn eventually.

The next time you find yourself in a photographic rut, trust in yourself and do something small to get the process rolling.

Resist the urge to buy something new.

You already have everything you need!

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Photographer and writer who is passionate about creativity, mindfulness and philosophy.

Seattle, WA
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