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Hunter Wall

Hunter Wall, Utah
Canon 1DS Mk III, f/4 @1/30 sec, ISO 400, 140mm

I receive lots of questions about cameras, gear, locations, and processing, but my favorite are questions on creativity and how it applies to us as photographers. So continuing on from my last post, here’s another interesting question I think many of you will relate to, and hopefully my answer will benefit you as well.

Question

Robert, I’m at stalemate with my photography – I’ve lost my touch – I haven’t been able to move forward…
My photos are inconsistent and I’m missing lots of great shots – I’m out there and they are right in front of me but I lose the shot.

I’m probably whining, that’s how I feel right now – I wanted to shoot this mornings fog and stopped myself when I realized I’d never get it. This is a first for me.

I can’t remember my settings and I feel lost.
Not to mention my software is due for an upgrade I’ve run out of space and I’m spending too much time trying to make a bad photo good.

Your words of advice maybe all I need or just someone to listen who won’t say “what the heck were you thinking when you took that shot at that setting.”

thanks for listening

Answer

Thanks for the great questions, and I’ll try to answer and make suggestions as best I can.

I think what you’re experiencing is very typical for many photographers and artists in general, myself included. So first point is that you’re not alone, and I’d even go as far as to say that if you’ve never experienced this before, either you’re not pushing yourself hard enough in a good way, or you just haven’t been doing it long enough.

I’ve been at the creative process daily for over 30 years (music career included) and so I am very familiar with disorientation, lack of motivation, feeling unfocused, and especially fear.

The best advice I can give you is not to force anything creatively or feel guilt because of it. Either of those is probably one of the worst things you can do when you’re trying to find your way back from a loss of motivation or frustration. I know because I’ve tried these more than I care to admit, and very rarely has it worked.

“Inspiration exists, but it must find you working.” –Pablo Picasso

Now I want to clarify a few things about creativity, at least from my perspective. I definitely agree and practice the mantra that 90% of success is showing up. I’m not sure who said that exactly, but it definitely makes sense and you hear many successful people attribute their success to this idea, even the great Picasso. And many say there is no better way to break “writer’s block” than by just showing up and doing the work.

Sometimes because of professional demands, I have to make images even though I may not be in a creative state of mind. And often all I need to get motivated and inspired is just to start. For me that means that when the alarm clock goes off at 3:30am, I force myself  to get out of bed, even though there is plenty of resistance. So often starting is the barrier that keeps us from getting past our resistance to do something hard and difficult.

My strategy for dealing with this is making it as easy as possible. Remove the obstacles that often get in the way. The faster and easier you can get to looking through the viewfinder, the easier it will be to see an opportunity to make an image.

A great book that I have recommended in the past and addresses this directly is “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield – highly recommended.

However, I also think there are times when we need to take a step back from our work, and take stock of where we are and where we want to go. Especially in photography where it seems things get more complicated everyday, and we find ourselves overwhelmed easily.

Often I just take a break and focus on other things – what I like to think of as “creative harvesting.” In fact I’m writing a separate blog article on this very idea and will share it here soon. So go ahead and use this as an opportunity to find other things to inspire you and plant seeds for the future. Read a few good books, study other art forms, go out for long hikes without your camera, and just let yourself be ok with that. You’re not missing opportunities, you’re gaining perspective and balance.

Often it’s the pressure and goals that we place on ourselves that get in the way. Sometimes I won’t take any photos for weeks, and I find it has a way of refreshing my outlook and approach.

“Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” –Joshua J. Marine

Just because you stop taking photos for a while doesn’t mean you stop being a photographer. It means you’re recharging your batteries, gaining new experiences, and learning how to deal with the natural ebbs and flows of life. And photography is a part of that.

I also recommend the practice of mindfulness meditation as well – no religious or dogmatic associations, just a simple way of being ok with your thoughts and not getting caught up in the endless patterns that we fall into when we feel less than ideal. It’s helped me tremendously.

Check out Wherever You Go, There You Are and other books by John Kabat Zinn…medically sound and effective.

Anyhow, hope these ideas help, and most of all enjoy the sunrise tomorrow – it is a gift to all of us every single day.

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” –Confucius

Discussion

How have you dealt with lack of motivation and focus in the past? Have any advice or suggestions you’d like to share?

Have any questions of your own your want to share? Please leave your comments below!

RR Jr

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This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. Hi Robert, I think this letter you received and your answer paints a good picture of where I am. And thank for the good information. I think one of the biggest problems is unfulfilled expectation. Sometimes we get a run of great photos and then we hit a slump. I know, I’m there!. Our expectations are frustrated and the harder we work the worse it gets.
    I remember Ansel Adams said that we can only expect 12 great photos in 12 months. Yes, we can get good ones, but the great ones are limited.

    Thanks for your help,

    Tony

    1. Thanks for the feedback Tony- again I think a key question to ask yourself is “why”. When you figure out the why, then everything else tends to fall into place. Why do you photograph? Make a list and then think about that when you feel unmotivated. For me, the first reason is to spend more time in nature, and that never disappoints.

      RR

  2. Thanks for the words of wisdom. I especially love “go out for long hikes without your camera, and just let yourself be ok with that.” I’ve been looking at photos that I admire and trying to figure out the technique or how to try and capture a similar subject in a different way. It always amazes me how folks can find yet a new way to capture something that’s been shot a million times before. As always, I appreciate your reading list (and quotes!)

  3. Robert… thank you for posting this Q&A. It appears that it doesn’t matter whether a photographer is a professional, as you, or an amateur, as I am ~ creativity (or lack of it) doesn’t care at what level one stands, it affects us all. Thanks for the tips & reading suggestions; and, of course, the quotes which are always wise, inspirational or just plain good!!! 🙂

    1. Thanks Ana for your very kind support and positive comments. Everyone needs inspiration, no matter your ability level, proficiency, or experience. The one thing that experience provides is the ability to look at the big picture and not get discouraged. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my wife how I’m out of ideas, and she reminds me how I’ve been saying that for years. often through my most productive times. Creativity is largely a product of a work ethic and a commitment to bring your best to the table every day – whether or not that actually happens.

      RR

      1. I think that we are our own worst critics; you’re lucky to have Brenda’s support… wishing you continued artistic blessings 🙂

  4. Great question & answer. This resonated with me . . . been there and done that many times. I agree with the answers. I especially think that my most creative times come when I have either been in Nature (alone) frequently and/or long periods of time. We have to allow the “monkey mind” to lessen . . . to dissipate so it frees up our creativity and the beauty & messages of Nature to fill-in. It is all the thoughts of events, stress, to-dos, worries, schedules etc. that get in the way. Saunter outdoors mindfully too!

    1. Totally agree which is why I recommend meditation, or even just time to just slow down and settle out thoughts before we go out into nature. There are several ways of doing this including morning rituals, yoga, music and sounds, etc. I am planning a post on this very subject soon…

      RR

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