As photographers, we can sometimes find ourselves in a bit of a creative rut, particularly when we have been shooting the same subjects or style for a long while. It’s not unusual for photographers to suffer a little burnout every now and then. While there are some great tips online about experimenting and exploring image making in a more practical, creative way, I wanted to talk about cultivating a creative mindset – because I believe that is where all good work begins.
Here are my top five ways to approach your work from a different perspective that can result in some exciting new outcomes.
1. Turn it upside down
Well, not literally – but if you’re so inclined, by all means, mess around with inverting your images for a reverse perspective. What I’m referring to is your image-making approach. It’s very easy to get stuck in a creative rut by using tried and tested techniques. I learned early in my career to “do the opposite.”
What is your go-to move? Are you the master of low light and mood? Do the opposite. Go light, bright, and shoot something high-key. Are you someone who loves to shoot wide open because you’re a bokeh babe? Do the opposite. Challenge yourself to shoot at f/11 and above for an entire shoot. Do you always shoot from eye level? Do the opposite. Shoot from the ground. Explore, experiment and break the patterns you know are your go-to.
Taking your mindset and turning it upside down has surprising outcomes. You might teach yourself a new thing or two and fall in love with new ways of seeing. You could also create a different style or approach to your images that challenges your entire body of work (I’ve done this recently, and it’s terrifyingly beautiful to confront).
2. Think ‘feeling’
As practitioners of aesthetics, photographers often take images based on how we want them to look. Instead, try approaching the process from a place of feeling. How do I want this image to make the viewer feel? Do I want this image to feel dreamlike? Claustrophobic? Melancholic? Ecstatic? Chaotic?
There are millions of words in the English language to describe how we might feel when looking at a photograph. Approaching our image-making with an intended feeling can often change how we approach the subject and inform how we will shoot. Using emotion as a creative technique can spark some exciting thought processes about how you can bring that feeling into the shoot itself and the resulting images.
3. Break the rules
A great deal can be said about “breaking the rules” in photography, when to do it and how. But often, I’ve found, the biggest thing standing in the way of doing so is the photographer themself. Of course, when we are shooting a brief or for a client, it can be hard to permit ourselves to break a few rules here and there, but as one dear photographer friend once told me, “you will only regret the photographs you didn’t take.”
During most shoots, there is usually a window of opportunity to embrace a little anarchy. Are you a wedding photographer? Do a lap of motion blur images while everyone is on the dance floor. Are you a studio shooter? Sneak in a couple of double exposures at the end of the shoot. Landscape photographer? Try shooting directly into the sun for some interesting lens flares.
Breaking the rules isn’t hard to do; the permission-giving part is. The sooner you do it, the sooner you allow yourself to make work that is different from your usual style. Funny enough, I’ve often found that clients love the more abstract images I’ve taken in quiet moments of rule-breaking and end up explicitly asking me to shoot them at future shoots.
4. Inspiration bank
I’m not talking about curating a Pinterest board of pretty “inspo” pictures. I’m suggesting making regular deposits into your own personal bank of inspiration for times when you draw blanks. Just like a writer take a notebook with them everywhere they go, so too should a photographer take a small camera (hint, it’s the one in your hand right now).
One convenient trick I’ve done is to create an album on my phone dedicated to anything and everything I think could be future informative in terms of image making. Walking through an art gallery and seeing a piece that ignites a spark? Bank it. Out in the middle of nowhere and think, “Dang, what a great location for a shoot”? Bank it (but don’t forget to drop a pin too, and bank that). See something that would make a great prop or styling item for your next shoot? Bank it.
It’s incredible how many ridiculous things we capture on our phones (don’t make me tell you how many photos of my dog sleeping are on mine!). But when it comes to the crunch, we really need to be collecting inspiration every day, with the foresight that when we need this resource, it will be hours saved googling things like “where to find a fifties style diner near me.” My inspiration bank is often the source of my creative mindset. Looking back through the things I have deposited can spark an entire concept or lead me down a path of thinking that I would have otherwise long forgotten had I not made the deposit.
5. Switch mediums
Creative blocks can stop us in our tracks when we know our craft so well. Being so in tune with our gear and ways of working sometimes means we can shoot on auto-pilot. It’s times like these – when I feel I am just going through the motions – it’s best to put down your tools and switch them up. Here are a few ideas that might help when you feel creatively stuck.
Pick up a painting brush and destroy a canvas with some messy, imperfect work. Grab some charcoal pencils and scribble for a few hours. Take a pottery class and learn that there are lots of things you’re not good at. Experimenting with different creative mediums may seem like a silly idea, but it’s really expansive and can be hugely helpful (and sometimes humbling) to know that the thing you take for granted creatively can come hard won for others and vice versa.
Creative thinking can be sparked through any number of unexpected outlets, but none moreso than other creative practises. You never know what hidden talent you might discover along the way.
While there’s a massive number of online articles, if you search the terms “creative photography,” very few address the mindset we need to cultivate to make interesting work. I could have told you to experiment with lighting, use props, or any number of other practical tips, but then I’d be doing exactly what’s expected of these types of articles. Instead, I turned it upside down and did the opposite – which is why you’re reading about creative mindset. I genuinely believe that the best place to begin is always with ourselves. When we start to explore different approaches to creativity itself, that’s when fascinating ideas become possible.
Jade Ferguson is a Brisbane, Australia-based photographer who applies a fine art approach to the subjects she shoots. As an early-career photographer, her work attempts to create an emotionally visceral experience for the viewer by capturing the unseen. She works with film and digital formats; her subjects cover portraiture, performing arts, and a developing personal art practise. She is currently an undergraduate at Griffith University, Queensland College of Art, studying for a Bachelor of Visual Art.