When I speak to artistic photographers, those who are truly passionate about their work, I often begin by talking about the roller-coaster ride of all creatives. I say that on a roller coaster, the highs are high and the lows are low, but that roller-coaster ride is much more interesting than being on a merry-go-round.
In other words, being a creative photographer, painter, and so on, is more exciting than being at a routine job that one does not like and that is not rewarding.
“Even a true artist does not always produce art.” —Carroll O’Connor
Here’s my own roller-coaster ride story, one of them anyway: In the mid-1970s, I was just getting started with photography, and having some success in getting my pictures published in photography magazines. Back then, to get published, you needed to send query letters to editors. Well, one day I received one too many “No, thank you” letters.
Feeling low, I took down all the photographs on our living room wall and placed them around the garbage cans in the basement of our apartment building. I called the area my “Garbage Gallery.”
I felt down for a while, but eventually got out of my funk when I received a letter saying that LENS Magazine wanted to run an article with my Hong Kong photographs and that the editor wanted to use one of my pictures on the cover.
Over the years, I have had many creative ups and downs, some of which caused crippling back pain, from which I have been cured for more than 30 years thanks to Dr. John E. Sarno and his teachings.
Riding the highs is a wonderful experience, but how do we pull ourselves out of the lows? Here are some suggestions, some of which apply to more than only photographers. Also note that these suggestions are good to keep in mind when you are riding the highs, too.
Know that you are not alone on the roller coaster. Hey, I have been at this for a while. I have met hundreds of photographers who wanted to give up, one after he was told by a well-established pro to “sell his cameras.” When that photographer came to me in despair, I told him that he was not alone, and to keep at it and to believe in himself. Today, that pro is leading photo workshops in India. I’m proud of him because he did not give up.
If you go on a photo workshop, you likely will meet people who, if they are honest, will tell you that at one point or another they felt down and alone. Remember, we are all in this together, and that includes me.
Take a lesson. Feeling down about your photography or art? Take a lesson on something you have never tried before: golf, piano, guitar, singing, and so on. After your first lesson, which will be a humbling experience, my guess is that you will feel better about your photography…because you are probably better than you think you are.
Writer Josh Kaufman, author of The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast, agrees with me when it comes to the “you are probably better than you think you are” philosophy. In his wonderful book, the author talks about the four steps needed to get good at something in 20 hours (as opposed to Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” philosophy that he outlines in his best-selling book, Outliers: The Story of Success). Those four steps are:
- Break down a skill into its components.
- Learn enough to know when you’re making a mistake.
- Remove any and all barriers to practice.
- Practice for at least 20 hours.
So, my suggestion is: read both books. I am sure that after digesting the information on those pages, you will have more confidence in pursuing new goals.
Set realistic goals. As you may know, one of my favorite adages is: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Well, personally speaking, it’s too late for me to be able to play guitar like Eric Clapton, Armik, or Carlos Santana. However, after some practice, I did learn some bass lines to some of their songs. Now I can actually play along fairly well when I listen to their songs on YouTube.
I set a realistic goal, not one that I knew was virtually impossible to reach. So when setting a goal, be realistic.
Take a MasterClass (masterclass.com). You’ll find several photography classes on the MasterClass website where you can delve into the art and craft of photography. However, try taking a class on a different subject. That’s a good idea because, I feel, what you learn in one area of creativity (and in life), you can apply to others. An example: Martin Scorsese’s class on filmmaking will give you some excellent ideas on storytelling, which is what we do with our photography.
Watch Citizen Kane. Orson Welles’s 1941 movie, Citizen Kane, is a wonderful source of inspiration for, among other reasons, Welles’s use of black-and-white photography and shadows and highlights. If you watch this movie with your one goal being to observe the photography, you may look at your photography in a new light.
Of course, there are other examples of movies that can inspire us with their creative image-making, including The Fountainhead and Sunset Boulevard.
After watching one of these movies, try a new lighting technique or a new photo processing technique, perhaps on a photograph that you thought was “finished.”
Eat healthy. A healthy diet can improve our sense of well-being, as well as give us more energy. Plus, when we eat healthy, we feel better about ourselves. Remember, nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.
Speaking of eating, did you know that dark chocolate has plenty of health benefits, including easing emotional stress, according to a 2009 American Chemical Society trial? So it’s okay to grab a bar of dark chocolate when you are down. Just make sure it’s a mini-size bar.
Go for a walk. We live in such a hectic world, always checking email, text messages, and so on, that it could drive one nuts. Take a break and take a walk. Refresh your brain. It’s good for you. And keep this quote from Raymond Inmon in mind: “If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.”
Play with plug-ins. Plug-ins for Photoshop and Lightroom and stand-alone creative imaging programs can help us awaken the artist within.
Topaz Impression from Topaz Labs, for example, can transform a straight shot into an image that looks like a painting by Monet, Van Gough, Rembrandt, and other masters of the canvass.
Nik Collection Silver Efex Pro by DxO has presets, which you can fine-tune to create dramatic back-and-white images of which a seasoned pro would be proud.
Try an artistic app. Smartphone photo apps are truly amazing, and some are capable of turning a snapshot into an art shot. I’ve done this with Distressed FX and Snapseed.
If you are feeling down, or just want to have some fun creating artistic images in the palm of your hand, try an app. I can tell you that I am a big fan of these apps, which sometimes surprise me with a very artistic end result.
Steal like an artist. Salvador Dalí said: “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” I first learned of that quote in the book Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. If you have “photographer’s block,” which is like writer’s block to a writer, look up the work of a famous artist and try to copy/steal it. Writers with writer’s block have a similar solution: they sit at the keyboard and type the words of a favorite novel.
Share. Sharing your work, and ideas, on social media sites is a good way to get inspired. If other photographers like your work, you’ll get inspired by their comments, which will inspire you to make more creative pictures—and to post more pictures. Even if you are an established pro, feedback is important. I know.
Change. Change is good—and inspiring and refreshing. If change is good enough for a crawling sack of goo that transforms itself into one of the most beautiful creatures on the planet, then we should give it a try.
“When you are through changing, you are through.” —Bruce Barton
If you are stuck in a rut, get some inspiration by trying a different type of photography or by experimenting with different digital darkroom techniques. Challenge yourself. If you meet and exceed that challenge, you’ll be inspired and motivated to try new things.
If you think you can’t change, think about this adage: If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t. Have enthusiasm for all that you do—new and old—and inspire others, which is a good way for you to get inspired.
Remember: “Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Read the chapter, “What Does Your Photography Mean to You?” in my previous book, Photo Therapy Motivation and Wisdom. There you will find that you are not alone when it comes to feeling the importance of photography in your life.
Read my friend Chris Orwig’s inspiring book The Creative Fight: Create Your Best Work and Live the Life You Imagine. Here’s how Chris describes this important book: “Creativity is not a gift for a select few, but an ongoing process of growth and self-realization available to anyone who puts in the effort to pursue the spark. In this book, I try to offer a unique perspective on the creative process, showing you how to find meaning in your work, be inspired, and discover the life for which you were designed.”
Take my friend Erin Babnik’s advice. When you are feeling down and stuck and in a rut, think more input than output. In other words, rather than taking pictures for the sake of taking pictures, see inspiration by going to museums, studying art and the work of other photographers, and so on.
Take Carlos Santana’s advice. Most people look for greatness in others. Take a moment and look inside. You may be surprised at who you meet.
Make a vision board. While you are on the roller coaster, there is something very useful that can keep you focused and inspired: a vision board.
A vision board can be a large corkboard on which you tack goals, in the form of photographs, pictures of paintings, notes, and quotes. It could also be a magnetic board on which you attach items with magnets or even a whiteboard on which you scribble ideas.
Yes, there are digital vision boards, but they require you to turn on your computer or iPad, a process during which it’s tempting to check email and social media posts. So I recommend going “old school” so you can have easy and readily available access to your vision board—your creative artistic and photographic goals.
Here are some examples of what one might put on a vision board, and why:
- Inspirational quotes, such as: “It’s always too early to quit.” —Norman Vincent Peale. When you feel like giving up, this quote may inspire you to keep going.
- Photographs of locations in which you’d like to photograph, say Antarctica or Africa. Look at the photographs and ask yourself how you can get there, maybe by leading a photo workshop, working with a tour operator, or getting an assignment.
- A printed screen grab of a famous painting, such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring or Renoir’s Girl Combing Her Hair. In your home, try to recreate the painting with a photograph. I did this with both paintings and it was a creative and inspiring project, not to mention a ton of fun.
- Stuff that has nothing to do with photography, such as screen grabs of CD covers that inspire you.
- A photo that makes you smile or makes you happy, such as a funny photo or a photo of a lost loved one who added to your life. If you need a smile suggestion, print out a screen grab of Groucho Marx with his most well-known quote: “If you are not having fun, you are doing something wrong.”
- Print out these words and stick them on the board: Make someone happy today.
Take Notes. Keep a note pad or your phone with voice messages handy, especially when you go to sleep or take a nap. I have found that I get many of my ideas while I am lying down and relaxing and that ideas come to me in the middle of the night.
When I get an idea, I get up and write it down. Sometimes, when I get up in the morning and read the scribbles on the piece of paper, I am surprised at what I’ve written. I might not have remembered the idea had I not written it down.
If you are serious about note-taking, buy a nice, perhaps leather-bound, journal and maybe write more neatly. Keep this journal in a safe place. It may be more valuable than you think in years to come.
Part of the roller-coaster ride is going through phases, different periods of your creative life where you change your style, voice, and vision. Most often this is a good thing because as we change, we can grow. Or as Bruce Barton says, “When you are through changing, you are through.”
I have gone through several phases, including my HDR phases in the mid-1990s. When I look at some of those HDR images, I ask myself, “What was I thinking?” I am glad I outgrew that phase, although at the time it seemed like the right thing to do.
Before my HDR phases, I went through an underwater photography phase, producing seven underwater photography books and scuba diving all over the world. That phase lasted 20 years. I stopped because I did not need another photo of a clownfish or a whale shark.
Musicians go through phases, too. Joni Mitchell, for example, began her career as a folk singer and eventually entered her jazz phase, which did not please some of her audience. But that did not matter to the singer/songwriter. She followed her heart and continued making the kind of music she wanted to make.
Painters go through phases, too. Picasso, for example, went through several phases, including his Blue Period (1903 to 1905), during which he painted sad and gloomy-looking people, using mostly a melancholy blue paint; and his Cubism Period (1907 to 1925), during which he transformed natural shapes into geometric forms on canvas.
The Three Musicians, a poster of the painting that I have hanging the wall in the room in which I am writing this book, is one such example of his cubism work.
So, phases are a part of the photographer’s and the artist’s life. They are part of growth. Being aware of these phases helps us on our photo quest.
Think about the phases you have gone through to get to this creative point in your life. Write them down. Look at them from time to time. Maybe even plan the next phase—chapter—in your photo quest.
When you are feeling down, think about Norman Vincent Peale’s motto: “It’s always too early to quit.”
Editor’s note: This article is Chapter 5 (of 22 chapters) in photographer Rick Sammon’s most recent self-published book, Photo Quest – discovering your photographic and artistic voice (available in both Kindle and paperback forms). The 204-page book contains 0 photos and 55,000 words of motivation and inspiration. It’s designed to not only help you find your creative voice, but to help you to discover your superpowers and secret weapon (chapters 3 and 4 in the book) as a photographer.
About the author: Rick Sammon is a Canon Explorer of Light, book author, Photoshop guy, workshop instructor, musician (keyboards/guitar/bass guitar), and proud dad. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.