5 ways to break through a creative block

I've been there so many times I should get my post forwarded there! We've all been there and I would take a pretty safe punt that some of you are there right now. That place where it just isn't working, we just aren't liking our own work and are creatively clueless as to what is going wrong. We get trapped by our own standards and/or ambition & don't know how to get back on track.

Sometimes there isn't an escape. Sometimes the issue is more psychological and less photographical. But I thought I would write a handful of ways I actively attack a creative block and move on from hating any and all of my previous work! 

Not saying these will work for you, but hopefully it helps some of you, so here is...

5 ways to break through a creative block

  1. Simplify your ideas: I have a handful of catchphrases that I repeat on workshops and personal tuitions. Advice and opinions I reiterate so much even I am sick of hearing them. One of the main ones that comes up when I am asked the vague question of "how do I get better?" is that the majority of beginner and intermediate photographers have a portfolio that resembles an iPod on shuffle. Spreading yourself creatively so thin can only leave your inspiration tired and lacking. Focus yourself as an artist down to two or three shooting scenarios, making sure that they have a common bond, and work within those restrictions. Artists don't always benefit from running with any idea that comes to mind, confining yourself to set parameters will not only define your portfolio much better, but it will also ensure that you improve on key areas much faster. And with that in mind...

  2. Create a series: Have a set, a theme that you return to every time you have a face in front of your camera. Some of my favourites are gorgeously raw low-key mono headshot (Agata Serge), makeup-free, ringlite beauty shots (Chris Conway) and coffee shop portraits (Marc Hayden). These photographers may or may not have these as a "series", but they are a very common theme through their portfolios and something they return to time and time again. It becomes their "thing" and means not only are they building their skills within the series, but they are building a look for their work that will become more and more recognisable.

  3. Chaos theory: One of my absolute favourite things to do with a camera is to infuse an element of the unknown into an already well-versed formula. It can be as simple as creating a set of images restricted to one lens that you normally wouldn't use, or using a prism or toy lens to create a look that, whilst potentially easy to recreate in photoshop, will drive your creative eye to chase a look in camera and may force you into trying something you would normally overlook. When I photograph weddings, I will almost outright refuse to visit the venue before the date of the actual ceremony. I want the location to be the chaos theory I introduce on the day. I don't want to google what other people have done and poison my mind of all originality. I was to walk into the scene and see what my eye wants to do with it. I also often use wine glasses, fractal filters and all kinds of daft paraphernalia as gobo's and foreground interest to see what the situation throws at you.

  4. Restrict your gear: I can say, hand on heart, that having more gear has caused me to become more lazy and less creative than when I am restricted. I am not even someone who has an abundance of gear compared to some, but I definitely find myself being less creative compositionally and with regards to the feel and expression of an image when I am constantly thinking about which piece of gear to use next. To such an extent in fact, that I am currently on a bit of a pilgrimage to get back to what I was doing in my first 18 months of being a photographer, where I only had one camera and my beloved 135mm lens. I have even had periods in time where I would only shot with a 50mm, mostly due to the fact that I really don't get on with that focal length and it forced me to be observant and work harder to find the shot. This is also why I don't own any zoom lenses (as well as my interpretation of prime lenses image quality).

  5. The imitation game: Now, whilst plagiarism & generally ripping people off REALLY irritates me, approaching the work of your biggest influences and working to recreate the aesthetic or feel of your favourite images of theirs could potentially open up your compositional eye, teach you a new technique or at the very least reignite your passion by focussing your energy on the very work that gets you excited! How do we negotiate the line between influence and imitation? Well if you're intention when you start is to recreate the image that influenced you, then go for it, but don't post the results for the public to see. Use it as an exercise and a learning scenario. Not everything you photograph needs to be posted on Facebook for it to have any value to you!