Getting Over a Creative Block: Some Ideas For Breaking Out

Did you ever have one of those ‘blocked’ periods? The ones where things you are trying to do just don’t resolve? Maybe it’s the time of year, or at the end of a creative burst. The batteries start to drain a bit and it gets close to recharge time. When we get in these creative funks, there are many ways we can work our ways out, and hopefully back to a point of productivity.

I have a list of 10 or so, and I hope you add some of your favorites in the comments section. I will append the article with your ideas and we can have a nice resource for getting over the slumps.

First some fun stuff.

On the Web:
Kieth Carter’s work is amazing. He also plays a mean guitar (we jammed for a few hours a few years ago at a studio in Phoenix.)
Interested in 4:3’s photography? You are going to love this post on Kirk Tuck’s blog.
Ever get that feeling in your gut when starting a gig with a new client? Yeah, me too. Most of the time I wished I listened to it. Here’s a nice little article for us freelancers.
If you are working with WordPress, and I hope you are, here are ten MUST have plugins. BTW, did I mention we have WordPress Web Sites for Photographers?
On Marketing Essentials International, an article titled “What Makes a Great Photographer“?
At APhotoEditor: Photography as Commodity. The action is in the comments, trust me. You want to read this one.
David has a nice little post on being called on to photograph one of the great photographers. At Strobist.
Seth asks if you are one in a million?

And now for some LE news.

On the workshop front: I have openings in Omaha. That is an under-served area of the country, and I love coming to those places and taking the photographers to a new level of lighting. If you know any photographers in Omaha or the surrounding area, let them know to check out Learn to Light for information on the workshop.

Selina Maitreya, Jack Hollingsworth and I are putting together a workshop aimed toward the emerging photographers and the serious amateurs ready to make that break into professional photography. We took the wraps off of it April 3, 2010. Our goal is to help educate the beginning and emerging photographers to the new challenges, markets and solutions of today’s ever-changing market. We call it Going Pro NOW and you can see the site for more information.

There has been a roaring battle over workshops and what kind of instructors should do them. You can see it here, and a nice response from Trudy here.

As a workshop leader, I read that post twice. I can feel the heartbreak some feel after they have had particularly bad workshop experiences. I know, because I have attended workshops that didn’t meet the hype. Or the promise. I wrote about what workshop participants should do to have a better experience here. However I also think that there needs to be some thought and research done before a photographer decides to spend a lot of money for a couple of days time with someone who is making a lot of promises.

I plan on writing a lot more about this, but here are 5 things I would watch for and think about:
1. Over promises: Anyone who tells you they can show you how to make “X” dollars in professional photographers are, well, liars. Got it! (Oh, and if there are ‘secrets’ that are promised to be revealed… well, there are no secrets… hardfrigginass work is the only secret.)
2. Are the workshops teaching something that is ethereal like ‘style’ or ‘brand’ or are they focused on something that is measurable and definitive?
3. Ask yourself if you are going because of the information, or because of the ‘rock star’ status of the instructors? Rock stars can play the big stadiums, but they may suck at teaching music. Are you sure your ‘rock star’ can do both?
4. Assess your abilities and how the workshop will fit in with your goals. Learning how to light with $50K worth of gear is cool. But, uhh… you ain’t got $50K worth of gear… so the point was???
5. Are there testimonials, and will the workshop instructor give access to people who have taken the workshop?

It makes it very hard on the people who do a good job teaching workshops and seminars, but it makes it doubly hard on you, the photographers wanting and needing to have some help. And that is a shame. There are some great workshops out there. Ones that can really help you learn something, and often much faster than reading books or listening to podcasts. Hands on training can be a wonderful learning experience when it is accompanied by explanation and concept.

Three recent articles you may not want to miss here at LE:
Finding Your Creative Center, by Daron Shade
Just a Camera and a Subject. Simplicity Can Be Fun.
Before You Shoot for Peanuts, Consider the Risks

Well, let’s get on to some ideas for breaking out of a creative slump and moving on to a better place. Our happy place.


1. Create a Portfolio Folder:
Make it easy to save work for your book.
I can’t believe how many times I will be working with a photographer and ask to see some image, or to send some images for a portfolio, and be told “Let me see if I can put some together”, or “I’ll look for them.”

That is not terribly efficient. Or wise.

I use a shortcut on the desktop to send any and ALL portfolio possibilities to a folder on an external drive. When I am working on an image, and I feel it has consideration for the portfolio, it is simply dragged to the shortcut and sent to the folder for later review. Keeping the drive external means a copy of the image is sent, so the original is still in the working folder.

At the end of the month, I can look in the folder and see the prospects. They can then be sorted if you like. Being able to locate your best images, quickly, is a real time saver. You would be surprised how few photographers do this.

2. Take an Asset Audit:
Sometimes we confuse what we want with what we need.

This is a real eye-opener for a lot of photographers. We sometimes feel that we are lacking something that we need in order to move forward. Most of the times it is simply something we want. Take an hour or two to organize and assess what you have… software, camera/lens combinations, gear, extraneous tools.

Now look at the work you are doing and want to do. What do you really NEED to do that work. If you are jonesin’ for a new 85MM 1.4 lens cause you NEED it and are working on an old computer that gasps each time you run a Gaussian Blur, perhaps knowing that you can use existing glass to make images, but may not be able to continue to process them will put things in a new perspective.

I list and ‘asset audit’ at least twice per year. It is a good practice and can keep you focused on what is really important.

3. Refresh the Portfolio:
Sometimes just the act of working on the portfolio gets the juices going.

When is the last time you added new work to your portfolio? I am hoping new work goes in constantly, but alas I also know how notorious photographers can be about not getting new work into the book.

If you haven’t worked on adding new images and deleting older ones in your book, take some time to do it. That simple, yet important project can put you back in touch with your best images… and can work as a strong catalyst to make more.

4. Start and complete a project:
Even a small one. Concept it, shoot it and produce it.

Yeah, a project. Done. Nothing like it to get the creative juices flowing and stimulate growth into a new project or set of images.

Choose something that can be done in a weekend. Shoot in a day or two, edit and do post on a set of images and add them to your book. Keep it simple if you haven’t done it before or are so busy with all kinds of scattered projects that you feel it is impossible.

A few ideas from my notebook: neighborhood churches in shopping/industrial malls, the hot rod show at McDonalds each Saturday afternoon, bird sanctuary and the folks who go there (Chandler, AZ), Dragstrip people, Casinos in the desert and the dog park.

I don’t know if I will get to all of them, but I am going to do one of them this month. Make a list of projects you can shoot. Then shoot one.

5. Two words for you. Road Trip:
Whether with a photo bud or alone.

Me, a car, the road. Instant creative flow. New places bring freshness of seeing for me. I want to shoot everything I see.

It doesn’t have to be a long trip, just an afternoon could be fun. Go somewhere you don’t normally go. See things you don’t normally see.

Take a friend, to share the journey can sometimes be stimulating to both. Creativity starts to flow and it can become quite an adventure.

Three rules:
1. If you like it, shoot it.
2. If you see it, stop the car, (or turn around) and shoot it.
3. Have fun with your photography.

Here is my friend, Kirk Tuck, talking about his recent long road trip adventure. And a link to one of my short trips.

6. Research some new resources and blogs:
We get used to the same places, find some new places to recharge.

I did this recently. Added three or four new blogs/sites to my daily visit. I use NetVibes for my home page, so all is aggregated there.

I added a new music blog I found, as well as some art photography blogs that were not on my radar. These new sources of news and images on subjects I love are keeping my brain going, and new work will emerge.

Looking for new blogs and sites? Simply ask your friends, google the topic, or chase links from sites you already know.

7. Rent a Film Camera for a Week:
It can be very zen-like to shoot a nice medium format camera.

Get an RZ, or a Hasselblad, or one of those monstrous Fuji’s and make some images. If you have never shot film, get a quick lesson on how to load the camera, and make sure you understand the workings of it. RB’s take two actions to get ready for the next shot, RZ’s only one. If you are a telephoto shooter, rent an additional lens to keep you in that zone.

Shoot a couple of rolls, or shoot a lot. Getting the film processed will be more of a challenge in some areas than learning to shoot the camera. But you will find a place – the rental folks will tell you where to take it.

My favorite film for medium format is color negative film in the ISO 100 – 160 range and black and white in the ISO 100 – 400 range. This is not the time or place to get into all the different films, and if you haven’t shot film, it may not be a discussion that would make sense at this point.

I would suggest a tripod, and use your digital camera to check exposure if you don’t have a meter. Have fun with a new way of taking photos that is actually an old way… of… well, you get the picture.

8. Find a Mentor:
They are out there. Find someone who will take some time to lead and encourage you.

Sometimes all you have to do is ask. Ask for some assistance. Many photographers will be available to help. And those that aren’t…. well, they would probably suck at being a mentor anyway, right?

You can find people willing to help at associations like ASMP, APA, and APPA. Local chapters will be filled with folks who may take time to advise you.

Suggestions: If the photographer who wants to help you is some ol’ grumpy dude who wonders why you are getting into this god-forsaken business cause it has all gone to hell and there is no hope… well… maybe he ain’t the right guy to advise you in your endeavors.

I have had several wonderful mentors in my life, and all I did was ask.

9. Find and Critique Great Images:
Write three paragraphs of what you see. How does the work relate to you and your vision.

Seriously. We look at photographs all the time. But it takes time and energy to actually see them. See them.

Go online and find some great photography. Adams, Caponigro, Avedon, Penn, Weston, and Cunningham are some of the ‘Masters’ that I love. Take an image that you particularly like and write about it. Write three paragraphs on what it is that you like.

This is probably the hardest of all the suggestions I have made. It will force you to confront the image, your understanding of it, what it means in and out of context and more. But it also makes you see the delights that are inherent in wonderful images – of the great ones, and of your own. And writing them down reinforces what it is you find exciting about photography. Do it for an hour… creative block gone.

10. Photograph Someone who usually is not the subject of a photograph:
Make an image that they love and you love.

We can always get models. They are into having their picture taken. Sometimes they can actually stimulate the image and bring it forth.

But making a cool or wonderful picture of someone who isn’t used to being photographed can have it’s own creative rewards as well.

I don’t have any pre-conceived ideas about who and where to shoot, but I know when you read the paragraph above you instantly thought of someone you know. That person… yep, that is the one.

So from talking them into the portrait, to the shoot, post and presentation, you will be thinking creatively. It is incumbent to be creative when working with someone who may not bring any creativity to the image.

Or… they could surprise you. I love it when that happens.

OK, so there’s a nice list for you to think about this Easter morning. I hope you find an idea or two here to help the next time you have a creative block. If you have a suggestion, please add it in the comments.

Thanks for visiting Lighting Essentials, and feel free to follow me on Twitter, and if you are interested in a workshop this year, check out Learn to Light for our schedule.

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About 

This is a place for photographers.

Hi, I'm wizwow - also known as Don Giannatti. Photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amhearst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and e-zine with a slightly different slant than most photography related sites. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out Project 52 Pros.

Thanks for visiting.

3 Comments

  1. Inspirational as usual!!! I need to really work on a project…..no I am going to start on a new project. Been thinking about some of the old farms in N. Texas. This is a change from people (well maybe) and will get me out and about.

  2. All of them are things I usually do when I’m bored of my photography and I don’t know what to do (except the portfolio related ones since I don’t have one). But I’m blocked about my portfolio. I can’t for the life of mine find a pic that I would like to have in my portfolio as of yet. I sometimes wonder if I’m THAT bad hehehe.

    Great tips. I agree with the project thing . I started a 52 weeks just so I had to shoot even if I felt I was blocked or lacked inspiration. This forces me to take at least one planned pic each week. I know that’s too much compromise, it’s a whole year, but it’s just one pic every week.

    I have another suggestion: go thrift shopping. The things you will see / find will inspire you. You may find yourself buying something you wouldn’t buy otherwise just so you can take a certain pic, and you will surely meet interesting people meanwhile.

  3. Can you imagine showing up at work and being told to shoot a portrait of Dan winters?(and he knocked it out of the park btw). Absolutely love dan’s work. And I may have to take you up on the mf film idea, been thinking about that a while now, you can get a hassy with one lens for like $25/day from calumet, stupidly cheap.

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