10 Ways to Break Out of a Creative Slump

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
Jack London

In the first part of this topic, The Creativity Cycle, I talked about how creativity runs in cycles – to not be so hard on yourself and that it was okay to not do photography for a while.  Go, experience life, other types of art, the beauty of nature.

But what if you’ve done that and still want to dive back into photography but something is missing? 

For me, it usually comes down to possibilities.  There are simply too many.  I need some way to focus my creative direction (pardon the pun).

So, here are 10 ways to break out of a creative slump.  These are only a few ideas, certainly not the only ones.  I’d love to hear your ideas too!

On to the list:

  1.  Buy a Holga.  Okay, this one is my favorite simply because it worked for me.  What’s a Holga?  It’s a toy camera.  Literally.  It’s a plastic film camera with only one aperture and one shutter speed, and even those are approximate. The rangefinder framing is approximate is well.  Focus?  Well, there are a few symbols on the lens that are roughly 3 ft., 6 ft., 9 ft. and infinity.  That’s basically your only setting – and that’s the creative freedom.  No menus, no histogram, no expose to the right, no nothing.  Just the pure creative process.  It allows you to be totally in the moment, creatively.  Get intimate with your subject, think about possibilities, not results.  Possibilities because even when you think you’ve planned your shot, the Holga will surprise you.  Sometimes bad (there can be light leaks), sometimes great (there can be light leaks!), but the one thing that it will undoubtedly do is have you in the moment – free of any technical constraint.  That’s what creativity is all about. Holga’s are available for use with 120 (medium format) film and 35mm film.  Trust me, it’s the best $25-$30 you’ll spend.
  2. My friend Sabrina Henry has started a One Mile Project that’s very cool. It’s based on the teaching of Freeman Patterson (the great Canadian photographer) who takes the majority of his photographs within one mile of his home.  This type of project will force you to discover the world around you – pause, take the time to visualize. Notice the details.  You might be surprised at the beauty nearby.
  3. Stuart Sipahigil had a great project recently where he only used one lens for an entire month.  One prime lens.  Yes (gasp) you’ll have to zoom with your feet. In order to visualize properly though, you’ll need to start to “see” in that one focal length.  That gets you into the photographic mindset, which can kick start you. 
  4. Pick a color, any color.  In your mind, start to pick that color out of everything you see in your world.  Notice all the various shades of that one color, how light reacts to it, which colors complement it, which dilute it.  Now, photograph it – I dare you.  And that doesn’t mean just bumping up the saturation of that one color in Photoshop.  If you had to explain to someone what “blue” meant, for example, how would you convey the feeling of blue, not just the color.  Equate the color you chose with an emotion.  Now try to capture that emotion using primarily that color.  Tip:  Remove everything extraneous in your photo that doesn’t enhance that color in some way.
  5. As I mentioned in The Creativity Cycle, there are highs and lows.  Sometimes you’re overflowing with ideas, other times there’s a drought.  Ray Ketcham had a great idea – when you’re in one of the prolific times, keep a journal of ideas.  They’re usually flowing freely when you’re in the zone and you don’t have time to get to them all.  Then when you’re in a low cycle, break out those old journals and look through them for inspiration.
  6. Rent a different lens or camera system.  Shake things up.  Always wanted to try macro photography but didn’t want to invest in a lens to try?  Rent one.  I can highly recommend  Fantastic selection of lenses, cameras and equipment and fantastic customer service.
  7. Change your perspective.  Forbid yourself to take any photographs standing up with the camera at eye level.  Squat, crawl, hold a camera over your head, tip up, down anything but straight on.
  8. Just carry a pocket camera, and have it with you at all times.  It could be a simple point & shoot, a micro 4/3rds camera or even your phone, but try to look at everything photographically. Notice the possibilities around you throughout your day.
  9. Follow the light.  Pick a subject, then watch how the light changes with it throughout an entire day.  I was home sick a while ago and noticed some interesting light patterns through my blinds.  As I laid on the couch, it fascinated me how the light patterns completely changed throughout the day.  I ended up taking close to 100 photographs, just because I couldn’t let that photographic moment go to waste.  It could be a tree in nature, a nearby lake, or your living room, but be patient and just watch how the light dances across it throughout the day.  Notice the color and intensity of the light, the character and emotion that it can convey.
  10. Take a workshop. Many, if not most photographers these days supplement their income by holding workshops.  I know every time I take one I come home super-energized about photography and full of ideas.  Want to learn landscape photography?  Try Ian Whitehead’s Southwest Photo Workshops.  He’s an incredible teacher.  Jeff Lynch runs workshops focusing on the Texas landscape.  Like travel and cultural photography?  David duChemin, Jeffrey Chapman, Tim Humble, Gavin Gough, Matt Brandon  and many more offer some great locations and get fantastic reviews of their workshops too. (apologies if I didn’t mention more people here, there is so much talent out there!).    The point is to try to find one that matches your interests and just go do it.  It’s an investment in yourself that will pay off.

Okay, that’s 10.  I know there are MANY more ways of breaking out of a slump.  Share them here, I’d love to read about them!

Note:  I know many people talk about doing a 365 project, taking at least one photo per day for a year.  If that works for you, then great, but for me it turns photography into a chore, which is the last thing I want it to be.


The Creativity Cycle

When we are angry or depressed in our creativity, we have misplaced our power. We have allowed someone else to determine our worth, and then we are angry at being undervalued. – Julia Cameron, The Vein of Gold

Over the years I’ve noticed that my creativity goes in cycles.  Sometimes I’m prolific – I can’t wait to go spend all day with my camera.  I’ve visualized shots in my head, have tons of ideas and am totally in the zone.  It’s as if The Muse herself was whispering in my ear.

Other times…not so much.

During those times, I’d beat myself up over it. “Why aren’t you going out with your camera?  Don’t you love photography anymore?”.  When people would ask me on Monday if I shot anything good over the weekend, I got ashamed and made up a lame excuse.  Internally, I’d get angry.  Hell, I’m supposed to be a good photographer, right?  Don’t good photographers have that passion every day?

Psst…here’s a secret.  They don’t.

Whew, just knowing that is a bit of a load off, right?  Everybody goes through dry spells.  Let me repeat that – everybody goes through dry spells.  It’s just the nature of the beast.  If we knew how to turn it on and off, we’d be machines, not artists.

So what do you do if you’re in a dry spell and want to get out of it?  Well, there are a few different things, but here’s what works best for me.

Do nothing.

Or more specifically, do something other than photography.

If you want to be a better photographer, be a more interesting person – Jay Maisel

That quote is from an interview Jay Maisel gave to Chris Orwig (and if you don’t have Chris’ book Visual Poetry, you should).

Go do something else.  Go to an art museum, look at how painters use shapes, light and color.  Go to a baseball game, go for a walk on the beach, go play with your dog, go meet someone new…anything.

While you’re doing “Something else” though, be open to light, shapes and colors.  Just notice them, don’t analyze it too much.  Notice the emotion that certain things evoke in you.  If it’s visual, ask yourself why you had that reaction.  Just make a mental note and file it away.

After a while, your mind will start to make associations with your art – how you could turn that emotion into a photograph, or even a series of photographs.

Give it time.  It’s okay to not do photography for a while.  Really, it is.  The Muse will return when she feels you’re ready to invite her in.

What if you want to push through the low cycle anyway?  I have a few ideas and things that worked for me, but I’d love to hear from you.  What do you do to stimulate yourself photographically when you’re in a low cycle?

I’ll share mine next week.