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Fern and Log

I haven’t made an image in over seven weeks. Sure I’ve taken many photos of my family, snapshots of friends, funny moments, product images for my business and other similar photos. But these are not the pictures I’m talking about. I mean pictures that may become a part of my portfolio, where I try and share my artistic vision.

I used to worry that a lack of inspiration or motivation was some sort of sign that my “creative well” had dried up so to speak. We’re told in society that productivity is the most important aspect of meaningful work, and that lack of productivity is a bad thing.

But I’ve learned that creativity has its seasons, and each requires a different approach so that we can not only be productive, but fruitful. Let me explain.

Planting Seeds

One of the best practices I’ve adopted over my photography career is the idea of “planting seeds.” I’m using the term metaphorically, but it’s amazing how in practice it can be so similar to what gardeners and farmers do naturally. It’s something I focus on in the winter when the days are shorter, and I’m avoiding the cold, but can be any time of the year. Here’s one way to think about it with something we’re all familiar with.

My wife and I enjoy growing our own fresh vegetables like spinach, tomatoes, and peppers, and we’ve got a small organic garden in our backyard. When spring arrives, she decides what types of vegetables she would like to grow that year, and then picks and chooses the right seeds to plant. This involves cleaning up the garden first, getting rid of any weeds, and starting from a relatively fresh patch of dirt. Then we make sure the garden gets plenty of water and fertilizer, and let nature take its course.

A few weeks after seeding, my son inevitably starts to ask why there aren’t any full grown tomatoes as if they should just suddenly appear by some specific date fully formed and ripe. We explain that the process involves not only the seeding, but watering, germinating, and eventually the sprouting of the seeds that grow into life-giving food. Each phase requires patience and proper conditions. While it may seem to him like nothing is happening for weeks on end, there is lots going on that he barely notices. None of us notice really, but eventually we’re rewarded with fresh vegetables that last the whole summer.

The Creative Seasons

The creative process is similar in many respects, especially for photographers where making images by the thousands is a trivial matter. Many of us spend too much time in harvest mode, expecting a good yield every time we go out on a serious shoot. But without proper cultivation that’s unlikely to happen, and we find ourselves staring at Lightroom or Photoshop looking for something special

I’ve been there, thinking the way forward was just to keep going out and shooting, training my eyes to see. But the visual is only part of the whole process of creating visual art. There are the other senses that need to be engaged to connect more deeply with your subject. There are also the opinions, ideas, and experiences we carry from our lives that do influence what we see.

The more we grow as individuals, the richer our photography. There are stories to tell, feelings to share, ideas to cherish.

Practice is essential, and I’m the first to say that you should be practicing as much as possible. It’s good for your technical skills, your vision, and your confidence. But at some point you also need to make time for planting seeds. By this, I mean evaluating your photography in phases, and giving equal time to shooting, learning, getting inspiration, retrospection, and refocusing your goals. And most of all, adapting to changing seasons of creativity, which are different and unique for each of us.

Maybe you’re feeling more introspective, and you’re struggling with motivation or photographic ideas. That’s perfectly ok; it happens to me ALL the time.

Maybe that means you need to feed some part of you that needs more fuel, more motivation to become curious again about the world. For me, that translates to reading books and learning from others. I gain perspectives that I probably would have never had on my own.

A Few Ideas to Explore

Here are a few other ways cultivate the garden, and make sure that when spring rolls around, you’re eager and motivated to explore the world visually.

  1. Re-focus: What themes and patterns do you see on your past work? Have you taken the time to really sit down and evaluate your photography without being judgmental, but simply looking for common ideas?

    Try this: Set aside some dedicated time, put some music on that you love, and just browse through your work. Jot down any ideas, thoughts, feelings, questions, or words that come into your mind into a notebook. Maybe sketch out some compositional ideas. Maybe you notice some technical deficiency. Write it down.

  2. Community: Surrounding yourself with other creative people that are inspired and motivated is a great way to fire your own creative energy, one of the prime benefits of attending a workshop. It’s one of the reasons I don’t treat a workshop as harvest time, but as cultivating time. It’s a chance to engage deeply with your photography without distractions and the daily pressures of life. Why add more pressure by trying to make masterpiece images?

    It’s a time to experiment, try new things, wait for the subject to resonate within, and share this with other like minded people. On my workshops, I don’t do “critiques,” but prefer to offer feedback which allows students to make mistakes without the fear of failure.

    Don’t limit yourself to other photographers but seek out any communities where you can both contribute and receive encouragement—on-line and off-line. (I’m working on creating such a community and will share that here soon!)

  3. Stimuli: I’ve talked about the importance of feeding the mind, but I want to share one of things I use: a stimulus que. This is a list of books I want to read, ideas I want to pursue, documentaries I want to watch, specific artists I want to read about, or maybe just people I’d like to have coffee with.

    Here are a few things from my list:

    Books:

Finally, one of the things I enjoy is just going out for a hike without my camera. It often feels like a burden is lifted, and I don’t have to worry about motivation or goals. I can enjoy nature as it is.

“Nature has always had more force than education.” – Voltaire

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying these things will work for you. Perhaps you need a different approach. But they have worked for me, and I feel refreshed and clear minded after I take the time to nurture my mind and my heart.

You don’t have to follow the yearly seasons either. Perhaps you just need a few weeks, or even a morning ritual that revitalizes your creative energy. What’s important is that you recognize the ebbs and flows of your creative energy and dedicate the time and effort to maintain it at peak levels.

Do you have questions or feedback? I’d love for you to let me know in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please share on Facebook or Twitter.

RR Jr

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This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. Like most people, I guess, I tend to read blog posts, etc., take what I think I can use, and move on. Like most people, I imagine, I seldom say thank you for the thought and effort those posts represent. So I want to say thanks for your consistently well-thought-out columns and for the useful advice. I am always interested in information about the creative process, and very much appreciate your thought-provoking ideas. Please keep them coming.

    1. Thanks Jim for the very kind words, I really appreciate it. I’m really happy you enjoy the posts, I certainly agonize over whether what I wrote will be helpful to you as a reader, so you’re feedback is very encouraging – I am grateful.

      RR

  2. What an insightful post, I have been feeling unmotivated for the past month and I really hated it. One day I decided to pick up my camera and played around with it (I’m still sort of a beginner) and realized something’s I didn’t know before, I started taking test shots on my baby cousin and dog and I felt motivated again because of how they came out, it’s like it lit a fire in me & from then I been looking up videos, reading blog post such as yours, learning photoshop which I should have been learning (never to late to start) and I’m loving every minute of it. This blog post I know will help me whenever I feel unmotivated again, thank you for this post.

  3. It’s always nice to stumble upon someone by accident, while looking for something completely different. I found your matting and framing tutorial on YouTube, while researching a mat cutter. Your video was really helpful and really interesting It got me excited about the possibilities for taking greater control over my photographs, from start to finish.
    That you appear to be primarily a landscape photographer reminded me that it’s OK to lean heavy in one genre over trying to be great at all of them at the same time. I’m just a regular guy, with one camera and couple of basic lenses. But I love photographs and how they make me feel. I remember pouring over the photographs in my text books when I was in elementary school. It’s that feeling that I’m after in my own photographs, whether it be of my grandson playing baseball or sunlight breaking through the trees in the early morning.
    I look forward to reading more of your work. Are you open to questions?

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