Creativity is an important aspect of outdoor photography. Take two photographers shooting the same exact scene as an example. The two might be equipped with different gear, they most likely will approach the scene differently in terms of composition, and each might even use different camera settings. And that’s only considering a few of the differences shooting style in the field, there’s still the post-processing discrepancies between the two as well.
Although the scene remains unchanged, at the end of the day, the two photographers will produce two unique images, and much of the discrepancies between the two images lie in creative choices in the field as well as in post-processing. The best photographers today, in wildlife and landscape photography, are known for their unique styles. Two good examples are David Yarrow (wildlife) and Max Rive (landscape). Both produce images with a consistent look, due to their respective ‘stamp’ of creative vision.
Creativity is important, for sure. It is also intangible, impossible to measure, and downright frustrating at times. It is also fickle, no matter pro or beginner, it sometimes heads out the door and leaves us feeling uninspired, but at other times it flows freely and we produce great images left and right.
This article is geared towards addressing those times when creativity makes our lives a living h#$%. Trust me, I have been there, as well as almost every other person who has taken on photography as a hobby or profession. There are times where I either feel uninspired in the field or lack any type of direction while post-processing. At times, I can’t decide if an image is ‘finished’ or if it even looks good. It can be frustrating, really frustrating. We know it best as being in a creative rut. Sometimes there’s not much you can do but wait it out, but below are some tips that might help you find your creative stride again if you’re feeling like you’re in a rut.
Stop Comparing Your Work to Others
I think a lot of ruts stem from comparing your images and body of work to other photographers. If you’re feeling down in a creative sense, it can be really difficult when you see your peers producing awesome work. It can be easy to get down on your work when you’re constantly comparing, and it can make it difficult to produce quality new work if your bar is another photographer’s style and look.
Remember that everyone’s style is different, and it can be difficult to judge the aesthetic value of your own photography. You might be in awe of other photographers’ work, but at the same time, there are people out there who see your images and think the same.
So don’t compare, embrace your own style and your own work, we are all different. I recommend to stop comparing, but not to stop looking. Look at a lot of photos when you’re in a rut, get inspired by them, take notes on why their composition or processing works so well, but try not to compare. That’s where things get ugly. I am guilty of it, I compare my work a lot to the photos of others, but it never does me any good, and just makes me sink deeper in a rut.
Plan a New Trip
If you can, start planning a new trip. I think this is the best method to feel inspired again and find your stride. It is always nice when you have something to look forward too. Plan a new photo trip to a place you’ve always wanted to. This helps me a lot because planning can be such a comprehensive process. You find information on the general area, you do research on photo spots, you look at photos of the place, etc. Planning gets you excited about photography again, excited about all the what-ifs, what if I get all these awesome shots and the light is great…so sometimes it can be good to get that next trip on the schedule. Pull the trigger and give yourself something to feel inspired about.
Take a Break
Even if creativity is flowing and you’re feeling great, it can be exhausting. Constantly producing new work can take a lot of energy and after you’ve hit creative highs, you might sink you back to a low when you’re feeling sapped.
That’s why it’s totally OK to take a break or to engage another hobby. When I’m in a rut, I sometimes might step away from the camera and computer for a month or months. I won’t process or even think about photography outside of looking at images or thinking about a new trip. I find time to read, workout, and play guitar. I find having another creative outlet or a plain old hobby can be great for finding your step again in another avenue, like photography. Don’t be afraid of a break.
Make it About the Experience
Another thing that can put me in a rut is setting high expectations, that can crush you when they don’t come true. A good example is a trip I took to Nepal last year. I had lofty goals for photography, lots of places I was going to get great shots at and I planned to come back with a ton of new shots. Well, I got to Nepal and things didn’t go as planned, I came back with two shots, way, way fewer than what I expected. I was disappointed and felt uninspired, but it was a good teaching (or learning) moment too. I learned to put less focus on photography, and the shots that come with it, instead focusing more on the experience.
I got into photography because I love the outdoors and I love seeing beautiful places on our planet. That’s what it should be about and that’s what should matter when you’re out in the field. If you don’t get killer light or a photo you like, so what, make it about the experience in the outdoors and the cool things you did get to witness. The image should come second. That mindset will help you fight burnout.
Build Your Skills
If you don’t feel good about your photography at the moment, it could be because you’re lacking skills or techniques. There is always something new to learn, no matter what level you’re at, and you never know when the next tip will elevate your photography.
Consider a workshop with Backcountry Journeys or a processing course. I once was in a rut when I was starting out, I couldn’t figure out how others made their images look so good. I had no clue what I was doing in post-processing and it was frustrating. So, I bought some processing tutorials and went on a workshop. I learned more in a few weeks than I had in my previous two years of shooting. I learned new how to make new adjustments and how to better identify compositions in the field. It was like a breath of fresh air for my photography and all I needed to fight the rut.
Be Active Socially
Being active on social media or in a local group can help a lot with dealing with ruts, or just keeping yourself out of one. I have a few good photographer friends that I always consult with, whether it’s about how one of the images I’m processing is coming along or new trip ideas. It really helps, it also really helps to put yourself out there and know that you’re not alone. I have a few friends who have posted on social media about being in a rut or feeling lost with their art, the responses were numerous and inspiring.
Buy New Gear
I hate to say this because gear does not make the photographer, and cameras/lenses are so much better than they were a decade ago, that even budget level entry cameras can capture absolutely amazing shots (even phones for that matter). So, gear does not matter BUT the psychological effect of new gear does matter. Think about the last new piece of gear you got and how excited you were to test it out in the field, and check out the shots on your computer. New gear equals excitement which can be great for breaking out of a rut.
Lastly, just take some time to reflect. This might coincide with the first tip, but it is easy to get distracted with what others are doing. Take a step back and reflect, why is photography important to you, why did you get into it in the first place, what do you love about photography. Those are really the most important things; photography should always be about you. You should shoot for yourself and you should shoot the things that inspire you. If you lose that feeling, take some time to think about why you originally got into it. There’s a good chance that eventually you’ll incorporate some of these other tips as well and break out.
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com