getting through photographic ruts with introspection

by Sarah Lalone

Something drew us all to photography, and that something is rooted really deep.

We can accept that as true and not linger on it: inside everyone who has bothered to learn photography is a strong motivation… even if we can’t give that motivation a name or even understand what it is yet.  I’m going to come back to this again because this initial motivation is going to save us from feeling adrift later on.

It seems like we all go on the same roller coaster ride: you have something/someone you want to shoot and so you get a camera.  You shoot for a while but then suddenly realize that what you’ve been creating is kind of… awful. We’ve all been there, I promise!

“OOF Portrait” number 38 of 1 zillion taken during that bath.  My poor shutter.

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

Not sure why I didn’t get a greeting card deal with this one (so majestic):

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

Realizing that you’re not good does something wonderful though: it allows you to learn how to shoot really well.  You carefully master shooting technicals and you figure out how everything works.  You practice endlessly and lo and behold, you’ve mastered photography!  Well… you’ve mastered how to be a photography technician, anyway.

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

You start to feel that while you know how to shoot in almost any scenario and you can shoot really well, you aren’t connected to your images anymore and you’re not having a ton of fun.  You’re a good photographer, BUT.

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

I remember that feeling well.  I made CMPro, I had a business with clients to keep me busy, and I was on top of the world and then BAM! I hit another hard, hard, awful wall.  I realized that the images I was making were feeling disjoint and lacked cohesion.  I was obsessing over limb chops and hot spots and plane of focus and white balance and by the time I was done with all that, I couldn’t even stand the images anymore.  If all I wanted to learn was how to work a machine, why not take up washing machine repair… that’s a skill that would actually save me some money!  The point was never to master a technical skill; that wasn’t why I bought a camera.  And all these styles I had been trying on, what did they have to do with ME? I was in the awful limbo between being good and being fulfilled.

How did I handle that?  I calculated how much all my gear was worth and decided what I would do with the money I got when I sold it all.  I’m not lying.

Something happened when I decided I was done with photography though: I stopped caring in the least about rules and “tack-sharp” and marketability for clients.  I already knew the rules and the how-to’s.  I was using my camera a little here and there and I kind of liked what I was shooting (with so much ease!).  They were “just for fun” and “just for me” and I decided I would sit on my gear a little longer, since I wasn’t so frustrated anymore.

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

That lasted for a while… I shot on impulse… I shot what moved me.  I was producing good work without mental struggle and I really, really liked what I was making.  It was just about what I felt like doing and those kinds of shots started to build up in quantity.

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

Then I hit another wall.  This one: WHAT’S THE POINT OF ALL THIS?  Do you know that nasty voice inside your head that tells you this is all for nothing?  That even though you’re good at it, it’s a money sucking, self-interested, inexplicably useless skill to have.  I remember questioning whether my children or my clients would even care about all these shots in 5, 10… 20 years.  I talked to a couple photography friends that had heard that same voice.  They were struggling the same way, but I noticed that it was really easy for me to see the use and message in their photographs; that their body of work resonated strongly and had a clear thematic focus, even though they couldn’t see it.  We could look at someone else’s set and make sense of it.  I also noticed that those characteristics I found in their portfolio really closely resembled their actual personalities too: the fears/hopes/joys that I knew were part of them through conversation were present in their photographs.  I loved that… I loved that their photos were SO THEM.  Even though it wasn’t crystal clear to any of us at the time, we could all see how each other’s work was unique to the photographer and could always identify it in a crowd.

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

But what about how I felt about my work?  What bubbled to the surface through all this thinking and conversing ended up being that primary motivation I had forgotten about.  I got into photography because I had something I wanted to shoot, but I had gotten so into learning the skill that I was only shooting whatever helped me learn and demonstrate that skill.  I chose processing that was “pretty” or “trendy” instead of processing that helped me make my point.  I neglected the fact that originally photography was a form of expression, documentation, and family legacy for me.  When I shot in impulse and without regard, suddenly I could see how my photos were just like me: heavy on the shadow but ultimately hopeful, a little chaotic and impulsive, experiential, mundane but important.  I had, through following my gut and digging into my portfolio, joined my desire to document family memories with my personality.  I am always complaining that I’m not in my family albums, but in reality I am… I’m there in a profound way.  This realization helped me push through another wall.

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

The problem is that coming to that conclusion, seeing all that so clearly, IT WAS AWFUL AND ARDUOUS.  I didn’t know how to figure it out; where/how would I even start?  I knew I needed to understand my work if I was going to continue making it and I knew I couldn’t sell something I didn’t understand in the first place.  Since coming to grips with my style, I’ve found a better way to service clients and a pretty nice niche for portrait work.  I’ve also found a great home for my absurd little shots in the stock world.   And the way it’s benefitted me the most is that I have the ability and opportunity to recognize the walls and the limbo that other photographers are going through and help them self-discover and tell themselves “Yes” to what their impulse drives them to do… to come out of those ruts more pleased and more convinced that they are doing what they should be doing.    That delights me.

One of the exercises in my style workshop on CM is to shoot a regular object in your style (after talking about what that is, of course).   In the last run, begrudgingly, the students shot the assigned forks, spoons or knives.  The individuality that came through is amazing and beautiful.  Some people used minimal frames.  Some chose abstraction.

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo
top images, left to right: Nicole Crane, Juliette Fradin
bottom images, left to right: Felicia Chang, Kim Degooyer

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo
top images, left to right: Becky Kueter, Jana O’Flaherty, Crystal Misenheimer
bottom images, left to right: Silvia Martins, Jill Daugherty, Christina Marcinek

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo
top images, left to right: Erica Collins, Katrina Baker
bottom images, left to right: Sasha Grigsby, Signe Clayton

It was a comforting phenomenon to observe: that people are who they are, and that understanding their impulses and their style could serve to give them more satisfaction with their photography and help them grow.  Any creative endeavor is an uphill/downhill ride over and over again, but each time you climb out of that valley, it’s amazingly rewarding.

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photoSarah Lalone, Ontario
CMU Instructor | CM Mentor
website | facebook | pinterest | instagram | google+ | ask a pro
Self proclaimed “truth-seeker and lover of authenticity”, Sarah’s photography reflects that in her captivating documentary style that emphasizes a love of life and family, hers of which consists of her husband and two young sons. This Ontario resident who shoots with a Canon 5d mark II and select lenses says that her must haves includes having family close and although her ideal day off would include sweats and binge watching a tv show on the couch, she knows that’s never going to happen. Sarah is the author of Mixing Genres: using non-portrait photography to enhance your portraiture and the instructor for CMU’s workshop Shooting 305: Find, Define, and Refine Your Style.

Read all photography tutorials from Sarah Lalone.

getting through photographic ruts with introspection photo

15 Comments

  • Erika says:

    Sarah, thank you for this article. I certainly needed to read it today. :)

  • amy tuggle says:

    thank you SOOO MUCH for this! My 365 has forced me to shoot daily and while i have captured some great memories, some of the shots are just “meh.” a photo for the sake of having one for that day. lame. those bore me to tears, and I find that I’m burning out.. this is fabulous and I need to check out your workshop now.

  • Melissa says:

    Thank you for this! It was just what I needed to read today :)

  • Jana says:

    This class was beyond amazing – and Sarah is one of the most insightful people I have come across <3

  • Sarah, you are amazing. I hope to have even a fraction of your clarity one day! <3

  • Heather D. says:

    Thanks so very much for this. I needed to read it today. The photos you shared by the students are lovely….

  • punch says:

    you ladies are way too kind. i’m glad you found the article interesting. <3 <3

  • Jacqueline Saria says:

    Your class is definitely on my list of what I need to take. I’m all over the place and your class would be the perfect start to find focus once I get some more technical skills down. Thank-you!

  • Ardelle says:

    Oh wow Sarah this is fabulously written! So refreshing hearing other photographers have gone through the same things.

  • Sarah Harrigan says:

    Man I could relate to the different levels of hating your work, and pushing through. Loved reading this, as it’s encouraging to know that at some point you figure out what your vision is and who you are as a photographer- and use your own unique style to portray that. That one exercise you shared is really interesting to see the differences too. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here, Sarah!

  • Carrie says:

    Your class is also on my “must do” list… hopefully sooner than later! <3 this post, Sarah!

  • Nina says:

    You always have such a great way of articulating what other people are feeling/thinking. Love the spoon, fork and knife exercise. <3

  • needed to read this today! thanks girl, you have a way with words and honesty. <3

  • candy says:

    Thank-you for writing this. So many things I can relate too. I have cried many a day about my journey with photography. I am sure you have just comforted thousands of people, including me.

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