Working through Creative Slumps

In a creative slump? Perhaps you’re experiencing some discouragement because it seems like everyone else is creating brilliance, but your own worst critic, yourself, is telling you that your work is junk. Maybe you feel that you’re just not progressing as fast in your skill as you think you should. I’m here to tell you that it’s natural. We all get into a slump now and then. We have our good days and bad days. Sometimes we feel inspired and encouraged while on other days we feel uninspired and ready to take up another hobby like cultivating moss.

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Mossy Vine Maple in the Mount Hood National Forest.

I’m certainly no psychology expert, but I’ve had my share of ups and downs. I’ve dealt with a few dips in the road, and a few tall hills as well. No matter how you cope with a slump, you must realize that, if your goal is to be the best photographer that you can be, you can’t let it discourage you to a point where you quit. Quitting is never an option for those who are determined. I understand that there could be solid, logical, and practical reasons for someone to quit photography, but for those who are determined, we learn to overcome these downtimes.

I’ve been asked how I get past these downtimes so I thought that I would list a few things that I do to get through a slump.

Relax and take more photos. This may sound like a simplification of a solution or even a bit of a cop-out, but it works. It’s like pushing through the pain. Don’t burn yourself out, but be a bit more casual about how hard you push yourself. There’s a good chance that this is why you’re in a slump. You’ve put a lot of pressure on yourself to perform. Relax a bit, but don’t stop. Go out and take more photos, but relax. It’s not a race. It’s a journey.

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Compare your work with your work. I have struggled with this in the past, I will admit, but I feel that this is an essential thing to remember as you draw inspiration from others whose work you admire and want to emulate. It’s a strange brew that’s created with the ingredients admiration, inspiration, frustration with a dash of jealousy. Your photo idols can create this aura of unachievable mystical brilliance, but it’s usually something that we create in our minds. Many times it’s an illusion. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The result, in many cases, is our creation of a set of unachievable and unrealistic expectations for ourselves. It’s fine to gain inspiration from others, but compare your work today with what you were doing a year ago or more. This is the way that you will see your progression and find encouragement to keep moving ahead.

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Same location – 2009 on the left – 2018 on the right.

Get back to basics. Remember when you were curious about how to create with your camera? All of those little dials, levers, and mystical buttons were all things to learn. It made us feel as if we still had something new to learn, but it’s been my experience that most photographers find their own little shortcuts that allow them to create an acceptable photo. We all can get into a routine that works and feel uncomfortable if we have to hop out of that routine. Many times we allow the camera to make many of the creative decisions for us. Take your camera out and experiment with the three basic camera adjustments: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Be creative with them and experiment with them. It’s especially easy when using a digital camera because the film roll is very, very long with a 64GB memory card. Take a lot of pictures. You can’t screw anything up. Make a lot of mistakes. For every mistake made, there’s a lesson learned. Many times new-found skills, minus the shortcuts and special effects that were used prior, will move your work in a new and more inspiring direction. Another consequence is that you move further toward creating your style.

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A photo taken with a wooden Zero Image 2000 pinhole camera using 120 color film.

Photograph something new. Routines can create slumps. Perhaps we’ve been spending all of our time trying to become the best landscape photographer that we can be and then, bam. We get to a point where we wonder what to do next. Photography is a very diverse art and skill in its application to everything from art, documentation, commercial, events, and portraiture. And each genre has its sub-genres. Don’t limit yourself to just one type of photography. Push yourself to take more portraits if you’re a landscape photographer, for instance. Maybe learn how to take some macro photos. Each type of photography has its methods that are exclusive to that style, yet teach us lessons can be applied in all styles of photography that we do.

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Mixing portraiture with landscape photography.

Photograph something familiar. I know what you’re thinking. You’re tired of photographing the same lake that is near to where you live. Perhaps you’re tired of photographing your children over and over. Even my own Mount Hood can get a little routine when you live next door to it. I understand that. What I do is to try to reimagine different ways to photograph a familiar scene. I live very near the Sandy River and have photographed that stretch of river behind my home many times, but if I were to show a stranger who has never been there a dozen photos taken from within a 100-yard circle, they would think that each one was taken at a different place. Different points of view. Different focal lengths. Different depths of field. Different conditions and tones of light all create different effects to allow you to push your compositional skills, especially.

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A photo taken a short walk away from my home on the upper Sandy River, Oregon.

But after all of that, the answer is as simple as this. Keep taking photos. Try new things and have fun, if you find that you’re not enjoying photography have a good honest talk with yourself about why. Many times the reason has little to do with photography and has more to do with our motivation for doing photography. Why are you doing it? What’s the purpose that it serves you in your life. Many people do it for reasons that are unfulfilling. A lot of people see it as a competition. Too many people photography is an art. It’s not a competition. There’s no room for competition in art. So relax and take your time. Work within your world and not others and keep taking pictures.

About the Author
Gary’s background includes travel since a child, military service, college, journeyman industrial experience, creative and technical writing, and a lifetime love for photography and the outdoors. Gary applies a diverse background of experience and wisdom of a lifetime of enthusiastic hard work and adventure to his photography. Gary has been a photographer since he was a child and a professional photographer for over 20 years. He has honed his skills enough to be recognized in the world of professional landscape photography. Gary lives in Oregon with his wife Darlene and his dog Betty and instructs and guides other photographers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.