There comes a time for all artists when they experience the dreaded rut.
It’s kind of like writers block but for visual artists. Just like with the seasons, comes and goes.
I remember so clearly when my photography passion took hold.
Although I’d been shooting for over a decade, I had never really found my niche. But that season, when I finally had the gear I’d been searching for and the models at my fingertips (my twin toddlers), I was overflowing with creativity.
I would challenge myself daily with new techniques and I was learning about new styles of editing. I was finding my voice. Everything was new. I would hear other photographers complain about being in a rut and I couldn’t imagine it.
In time though, the inevitable prevailed. And I, as most do, have succumbed to a few trenches of inspiration over the years.
There are some days when it just seems too cold, wet, gray, or even too sunny or warm to get up the inspiration to shoot. I’ve started to realize this is just a normal part of the process and not worry too much when my creativity ebbs.
But over the years, I’ve come up with a few ways to get myself back in the flow. A sort of kick in the pants when I start to feel uninspired.
The following are 10 tips from myself and 30 from the Click Pro community:
Give yourself a moment to reset.
Winter can be a bit of a challenge for many photographers. For me, it happens to be Summer. But with new seasons comes new light.
Many people find this jarring and can confuse this with a rut. The beginning of a new season can bring opportunity to see things in a new light, literally. Embrace this!
Often times it just takes a minute to reset yourself into what’s new around you. But once you do, you open yourself up to amazing new challenges. I love the changing of the seasons for just this reason.
Get out of your comfort zone.
You may be bored. Have you been shooting the same subjects in the same environment? Are you coming off of your busy client season and found yourself getting formulaic? Do you limit yourself to shooting in just golden hour all the time and no other light will do?
Maybe it’s time to try something new. Plan some adventures locally or travel to someplace new. Push yourself to flip everything you know on its head and do the things you said you’d never do.
Natural light sticklers, shoot in artificial light. Golden hour lovers, shoot in mid-day sun. Portrait photographers, try landscape. Always shoot wide open? Stop down, then stop down again. Whatever you do, get off the beaten path and forge your own.
Invest in your education.
Take a class. A conference, an in person retreat, an online workshop, or even a free webinar. There are so many venues to invest in learning, find the one that suits your style. Let someone else’s wisdom guide you and learn something new.
I had the opportunity to attend Click Away last year and there were so many takeaways that it took me 6 months to digest them all. The opportunity to meet and bond with other photographers was extremely impactful as well.
Read up on the masters.
In art school, we would spend the first hour of a three hour class twice a week looking at slides of photography masters. We discussed their technique and intention.
One of my favorite past times during that time was to go to the Library, sit on the floor in the photography section and flip through the pages of gorgeous work. In both exercises, I was immersing myself in the work of masters and soaking in inspiration. I still do this when I’m feeling less than inspired.
Revisit your own work.
It’s common, when you’re in a rut, to look to other artists and photographers to feel inspired, but the same can be done by looking at your own highlight reel. Looking at your best work can often help you get back to the root of your own style and remind you how you were feeling when you made that work.
Try a new technique.
If you are part of the Facebook or Instagram community, you will see trends come and go. Everyone was shooting multiple exposures for a while, then it was freelensing. Last month, I started noticing a lot of diptychs on the internet.
It’s okay to latch on to the trends once in a while. If the technique is something you haven’t tried before, and it inspires you, dive in. Just be sure not to confuse imitation for inspiration. Bring your own spin to each technique you try.
Try some new (old) equipment.
There may be a treasure trove of old photography equipment in your parents/grandparents basement. If not, scour antique stores or simply rent something you’ve been wanting to try.
If you are a person who tends to use the same camera body and lens all the time, try a different format or focal length to help yourself see in a new way.
Shoot a roll of film, bring some of your new learned techniques to this medium. Have access to a Rolliflex? Frame all your shots as squares, it will challenge your thinking. Film has the added bonus of forcing you to slow down and make every frame count, there’s a wonderful forced intentionality that arises when you choose this medium.
Try a new editing style.
Maybe you’ve been light and airy or really into the matte look. Whatever it is, force yourself to try something else.
Buy some presets (there are always great deals on Black Friday) or make your own. Figure out what you like about other people’s work and try that in your own.
Start a collaboration with fellow photographers.
Need some accountability? There are a myriad of ways to engage in a collaboration.
Team up with other like minded artists that you’ve met through the online photography community and start a collaboration. Come up with monthly themes and post to a blog circle or Instagram loop.
Meeting up in person with a peer photographer and taking pictures of each other for an afternoon can be a fun break from the norm as well. It’s an amazing bonding experience to boot!
Give yourself a break.
“Nothing in nature blooms all year. Be patient with yourself.”
I actually think it’s okay to take a break once in a while. Especially after a long, full, busy spell of working, the best thing to do is take some time, put down your camera, and recharge.
Art is made from having meaningful life experiences, so go live. Come back in a month and be reinvigorated to create again! The itch to create will strike sooner than you think.
Bonus! 30 pros weigh in on how they bust a creative rut!
Kathy Roberts says:
Instead of freezing a second in time with a still image, take a little break and have a little fun with video. Download the app 1SE on your phone and take a one second video of something everyday.
Have fun and get creative. You’ll still be using your photographer eye to create videos. At the end of the month (or year) put them all together and enjoy your favorite moments by creating a movie.
Annmarie Kopey says:
I find giving myself some space and turning to print projects. When I look at everyday images from the past year and hold them in my hands it always turns on the juices to keep going.
Preservation of my kids childhood is the number one reason I pick up my camera in the first place and when that becomes tangible it’s a very inspiring thing.
Jillian Baudry says:
I challenge myself to improve in an area I feel weaker in by taking a class, workshop or breakout where I’ll receive instructor feedback.
The accountability of having to submit images makes me actively get out shooting even if I don’t feel in the mood. Then the feedback helps me to identify how I can improve and move forward.
Kim Welter says:
To beat a rut, I plan a family day trip or adventure. Nothing inspires me more than documenting the excitement of a new place through my kids eyes.
With older children (mine are 12) I have to find new exciting ways to keep them engaged which has allowed me to find new ways to be excited in photography!
Trish Reschly says:
I find looking fresh at the details and joys of daily life really helps. When my heart is in a rut of daily duties, so is my creative spirit.
But simply slowing down and looking at my children, laughing with them, enjoying their messes and seeing, really seeing their smile, invigorates my whole spirit and it can’t help but pour out through the lens.
Ann Jeske says:
Dust off a seldom used lens or rent a new one.
Try something different like freelensing, long exposure, intentional camera movement or a prism.
On occasion, I’ve found it best to take a break and put my camera down. During the break I focus on other creative endeavors or inspiration like playing the piano, reading a good book, visiting an art museum or gallery, knitting – sometimes a short break can do the trick.
Erin Crum says:
When I find myself in a rut, I like to set up my tripod and experiment with self portraits.
I always feel less pressure when I am literally just shooting for myself on my own time. This leaves me with the freedom to explore different moods I can create with light, shutter speeds and posing.
Kaela Elliott says:
What has helped me is to try something new. Right now I’m learning more about artificial light which is something I’ve never tried.
I also look for photo projects that inspire me but don’t make me feel too pressured. 365 projects always stress me out but right now I’m doing a color project and my goal is nine photos a month with it. It’s so fun!
Sarah Hodges says:
Having my camera with me everywhere has been great for capturing candid moments but for me, eventually it turns into feeling like I have an obligation to photograph everything interesting I come across. After a while, it gets me very congested creatively.
So my favorite way to break out of a rut is to leave my camera home when I go somewhere beautiful or exciting: playground with the kids, camping, tulip festival, museum, aquarium, etc. Bonus if it’s during golden hour. This works in two ways.
First, if I really just need a break, I’m grateful I don’t even have the choice to photograph the beauty. I’m able to soak in the moment with my eyes and heart and not be scrambling over settings. It’s a valued opportunity to observe things in a new way, without the tunnel vision of a lens, to really get back into SEEING the photo without making the photo. I tuck away this new perspective without even realizing it. It actually starts to give me something new to say.
The second way it works is that eventually, I start to really wish I’d brought my camera with me. Then I know my rut is almost over.
Alicia Bruce says:
I take a class or workshop to improve skills in an area I’m not as strong in like a CMU Breakout/workshop, or something locally.
Also, I travel (or stay local!) and set a certain parameter I need to follow like using only one lens, focusing on a specific color, or shooting with film.
Practice a new technique like using off camera flash, long exposures, or double exposures.
Step away from the camera and dive into other creative endeavors. Taking a break helps me clear my mind and come up with new ways of approaching my photography.
Visit an art museum. Take a journal and jot down thoughts on paintings that I find particularly moving or attractive. What do I love about them? Is it the use of color, the type of subjects, or the light? I take those thoughts and apply them to my photography in a personal project.
Shilpa Harolikar says:
For me the best way has been to travel. It doesn’t have to be a far away trip, just somewhere away from your everyday environment. Seeing a place for the first time will make you want to pick up the camera and shoot with a fresh perspective.
Julie Kulbago says:
I let my kids be “photographer for the day”. I let them pick the idea and then I pick the wardrobe, time of day, etc. Then, when I get there, I let them take the lead. They often come up with way more fun things than I can!
Carla Bagley says:
For me it’s a sign that I need a break. I stop worrying about it. The rut may only last a few weeks or maybe months and I refuse to worry about it because inspiration should never be something negative in my life.
Becca Wohl says:
I love to plan a just for fun shoot even if I’m not feeling it at the time. Sometimes, especially during busy season, you forget what you LOVE to photograph. So getting a kid to model and calling up a few photographer friends and just doing it for fun for one evening often recaptures that spark of creativity for me!
Vanessa Brack says:
Something that really helps me when I’m in a rut is taking a break. Giving myself the space to breath without any pressure to even pick up my camera really gives my creativity a boost.
Soon my creative juices are flowing again and I’m itching to make photographs.
Kristen Ryan says:
I allow myself to step back. Sometimes that means finding other creative outlets unrelated to photography like crocheting or sewing.
Other times that means diving into a good book, usually related to finding my spark again such as Big Magic. My latest has been A Beautiful Anarchy by David duChemin. (So good!). Then again sometimes just digging into a good class/breakout gives me that drive and spark to create again.
Most of the time when I fall into my ruts I have to step back from social media. While I do find so much inspiration from there, sometimes it also puts me in the wrong head space. I need to clear my head and focus on my own journey rather than what others are doing. That seems to get me back on track again.
Jyotsna Bhamidipati says:
For me, when I’m in a creative rut, I have two methods I use.
1. I say slow down. Put the camera away. Breathe and actually enjoy the time with my little ones without the pressure of having to document that. Sometimes being in the moment with them in the key to finding inspiration for me again as to why it all began.
2. Other times when I am feeling less inspired and not finding anything new to photograph (been there, done that). I take out one of my Lensbaby Edge 80 and just experiment. I love photographing still life around to help me take the scene around me in. As is, I take mental notes of the light around me even when I am not photographing – it’s all part of the creative process even when you’re not running around with your camera!
Nicole Sanchez says:
I have two go-tos for handling a rut:
1. Just keep shooting. Even if I feel what I’m making is crap, I try to remember that the only way to grow is to push past the mental blocks. Usually a rut signals that it’s time to try something new.
2. Seek inspiration elsewhere. I love paging through In the Company of Women. Accompanying the beautiful photos of the artists in their workspaces is the wisdom of the artists themselves. So many uplifting stories and advice. I also love listening to podcast interviews with artists and creative entrepreneurs. Being reminded that everyone faces challenges helps put mine in perspective.
Liana Bunde says:
When I am in a creative rut:
1. Take a break. Break from taking photos. Break from social media.
2. Read good/inspirational books.
3. Watch good movies and learn their lighting and angles.
4. When ready to take photos, experiment with different lighting techniques, play with a prism or crystal ball, or shoot through different materials. Keeping in mind to be easy on myself and enjoy the ride.
Sopo Titvinidze says:
When I’m in a rut, that usually means I’ve exhausted avenues to get me inspired so I’ve stopped creating all together. During that dreadful period, one method that has consistently pushed me to make some photographs is ‘replication’.
Another similar method is to find a photograph that captivates me in some way and spend some time figuring out what exactly is so mesmerizing about that image. Once I’ve identified the type of light, composition, and/or technique that has been used, I’ll replicate those techniques (most recently the Click Voice finalists have provided a ton of inspiration).
What these methods provide is they release me from the pressure to come up with something original, yet at the same time, it’s pretty much unrealistic to really make an identical copy. It’s impossible to avoid infusing these creations with your own unique flavor and voice thus the final image ends up being something quite interesting and sometimes even original.
Olga Levien says:
I think we’re all so different so everyone has their way around the creative rut. There are a few options I use:
1. Push through it and shoot until you find a spark again.
2. Find inspiration around you. Shoot using new techniques, locations, different lenses or find your mojo in music, books, movies, art, etc.
3. Also, step back and take a break.
I kind of love mix all of them. I love to observe the world without my camera and make the frames in my head, just with my vision, watching the light and the moment happening unfold. I can find the spark on the go with my camera in my hands and just feel the moment when some magic happens and everything comes together at a split second. I’m truly bad at using new techniques but it definitely can be a fun. I often found my inspiration in the world around through nature and landscapes.
Ebony Logins says:
The best way for me to break a creative rut is to let the inspiration come to me in different forms. Instead of picking up the camera, I’ll actually put it down!
I go for a long hike, spend time by the ocean, watch a sunrise, or stargaze. Mother Nature offers so much inspiration and soon you’ll wish you had your camera to capture all the beauty around you!
Dana Ball says:
Street photography is a great rut-buster for me. I love to explore my city or a new city if I’m traveling.
I head out with my camera and no real agenda and just shoot what is interesting to me. It might be people, light and shadows, or architecture. Often I limit myself to one lens and that really stretches my creativity.