There comes a point in the growth of every photographer where they reach a ‘hump’ which appears to be insurmountable in any obvious way: you just don’t think you can get any better, no matter what you do. This may be at a very low level, or a very high one; depending on your natural visual aptitude. But it happens to everybody – it’s happened to me several times in the past. Today I’d like to talk about things you can do to move past it and up your game. After all, everybody wants to make better images, right?
Unquestionably, the first step comes in recognising you’ve hit the wall: we all know photography is mostly an exploration of human psychology – an image is as revealing about the mind of the creator as it is about the subject. If you believe you’ve still got potential to grow and things to try, then you can safely skip this article. However, if the former is true but no matter what you seem to try, nothing changes in the output, then you’ve come to the right place. If you’ve not been happy with your output for some time, don’t feel like your recent work is any better, and can’t exactly pin down why, you’ve probably hit the hump. And lastly, if you’re buying equipment in the hope of improving – then that could well be either hitting the hump or just plain laziness (which is frequently one and the same).
Regardless of the cause, the reason you’re here is because photography is a proactive pursuit: it’s content creation, not passive consumption where the entertainment comes from the images being presented to you. You must go out, see and create, and the satisfaction derives from the intellectual fulfilment of creating something tangible, (hopefully) unique and that translates your thoughts into a physical form. Without this drive, you cannot make better images. In fact, you cannot make images at all. Understanding what drives you to photograph is also important to create more of the motivating opportunities.
Enforce a break
The easiest thing to do to feel inspired to shoot again is paradoxically not shoot. This can be done on a small or large scale. Start with carrying a camera with the intention to shoot, then telling yourself ‘you can’t shoot for an hour’ but forcing yourself to walk around as though you were shooting – inevitably, the only thing you can think about are the images you’re seeing but aren’t allowed to capture. I bet you wouldn’t have seen that if you’d just gone out gung-ho with the camera. If that fails to revive ardor, then you may well need to take a longer break – hang the cameras (and all other photographic devices) up until such point as the urge to capture returns. If it still doesn’t, then some stronger measures may be required – or acknowledgement that perhaps photography is not the best pursuit for you.
The camera might well be a device that teaches us how to see the world, but sometimes it can dominate our thinking to the point that we stop experiencing the world and just try to force a photograph out of it – this is of course completely contradictory to the point of photography. Photography is not about making an image; it’s about preserving, presenting and sharing the interpretation of a physical space, imagined or real.
Change your physical situation
Most of us lack the time and resources to create something to photograph in the studio, let alone have the clarity of vision in the first place – if we did, we’d be successful commercial photographers with no end of budget and projects. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t drive to the next city/ town for a weekend to find something else to photograph; preferably somewhere you’ve never been before. Better yet if you can fly somewhere that actually feels different from your home city; it’s one of the reasons I personally don’t much like travelling in Southeast Asia, because the cities just don’t feel that different from Kuala Lumpur. On the other hand, unique places like Tokyo, Prague, Venice, Havana, alpine environments in winter – all feel so different that I have to deal with the opposite problem: one of visual overload. I think you’ll probably agree that it’s preferable to learn to curate in one’s own mind in order to combat the urge to have a camera glued to your face 24/7 rather than not feel the urge to shoot at all.
Seek external inputs
Our vision is a product of the sum of all external influences that we encounter: the more we see, the more possibilities we are open to. We cannot look for something if we don’t have any concept of its existence; even seemingly new ideas for the time – impressionism, for example – had to start somewhere and gradually evolve, even if in private and only shown when some degree of maturity had been achieved. Since photography is a visual pursuit, any sort of visual medium can potentially be a positive influence, whether a potential subject or end product: the work of other photographers, art, painting, drawing, architecture, sculpture, cinematography.
The other possibility for external input is to find a mentor, critic or teacher: in short, somebody who can provide that alternative point of view, but in a dynamic and interactive way that responds to what you show them. (The previously mentioned visual media are static influencers: a Renoir will of course always physically be the same and cannot give you feedback.) Such a person should ideally be somebody you respect, somebody who can be as objective (as is possible with a pursuit that is inherently biased anyway) and does not have any personal interest in giving your discouragement. This generally means that they are of a higher skill level than you, but it’s also entirely possible that you could be learning together and not have any competitive intentions.
Learning/ teaching/ education
There is only so much we can learn on our own given the time and opportunity constraints of most photographers; however, there are plenty of people who have already put in the time and effort to learn, some of which have managed to distill this down to logical forms, and a few more still who do their best to explain it in an easily-understood way (shameless self-promotion*). You have the advantage of shortcutting the learning curve at the expense of a bit more intense concentration and faith in your teacher – specifically, their results – over the time you put in.
*I offer teaching videos on a wide variety of topics, from the complete Making Outstanding Images series now in video form, to 3-day workshops, longer masterclasses in person and of course the Email School of Photography…
Sometimes, we are stunned into inaction by too much freedom; I’m not talking about the anxiety of infinite composition, but more an overwhelming sense of not knowing where to start. Setting arbitrary limits – if only to get your eye back in – can help; whether that’s a certain subject only, or one focal length, or one place, or even a limited number of frames – all of these methods force you to engage the creative portions of your mind to overcome them. Think of it as reverse psychology: we inherently want to do what we’re told not to, even if we had no inclination to do it before. This minimalism also applies to composition: often the idea or subject is strong enough on its own, but when the audience is distracted by all of the extraneous elements in your frame that don’t contribute to context or story, things turn into an ambiguous mess. Less is more, at lest until you know how to deal with more.
Start a project
Taking the focus and minimalism theme a bit further, setting yourself a project – Verticality, for example – can also condition your mind into focusing on an idea and interpretations of it, rather than just trying to work around a ‘simple’ restriction. I find it useful to completely change focus when I’ve spent a large amount of time shooting to a certain objective, but not doing any work for myself. It helps me to transition between what is often a complete absence of creative freedom to an overwhelming surfeit of it.
Above all though, the pressure to perform comes only from yourself. If you’re not shooting for a client, then there’s really no reason to make photography not fun; it defeats the point of having a hobby at all. Though many of us enjoy the challenge, I’m not sure that frustration is actually productive – especially in the creative pursuits. It isn’t something that can be turned on and off at will; rather we need to recognise what stimulates creativity individually, and provide as many opportunities as possible to find it. MT
The images in this post were chosen as an illustration of doing something different – various combinations of the above suggestions were applied during their creation, resulting in a set that I don’t think I’d have shot if I specifically set out to do so. Interesting how our minds work…
H2 2014 workshops now open for booking – Making Outstanding Images San Francisco, Chicago and Venice; Masterclass San Francisco and Venice – click here to book or for more info
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved