I’ve recently been speaking with a variety of photographers about the struggles they are having, and motivation is often at the top of the list. I share a lot of these struggles, and I think a big part of any creative practice is learning to fight through them as best you can.
Here are all the tips that I’ve built up over the years to help get through those tough creative times.
Get the Words on the Page
For those struggling with motivation or similar issues, here are some thoughts on how I try to get through these issues.
A great piece of writing advice that I’ve always followed has been to just get the words on the page, and I think this translates to photography. When I write, I usually take my time to create an outline, and then I just let the writing flow. Sometimes I’ll write something straight through, while other times I’ll hop around from point to point, but I don’t stop writing.
I just let things flow, and then I clean everything up when editing.
I think it should be the same for photography. Just get the photos in the camera. Just get out there and snap the shutter. Don’t worry about how good the photos are. Everything will fall into place eventually if you shoot enough.
Embrace Exploring Over the Final Product
A camera is a wonderful tool that can open up new opportunities, experiences, and connections. It gets you exploring.
Forget about the photographs you’re taking. The more you make your photography about having to come back with a good photograph to feel good about yourself, the harder it will become mentally. If you come back with a great photograph, that’s just the icing on the cake.
It helps to turn the act of photographing into an adventure versus a results-oriented practice. Good photographs are elusive; great photographs even more so. I go out all the time and come back with nothing. On one hand, I expect that if I keep looking, eventually those great moments will come, but I also expect long stretches with nothing good.
If you capture just 1.5 keepers a month, or 20 a year, you’ll have a book of work finished in three years. You don’t have to get lucky that often to build up a very interesting body of work. But you have to get out there frequently, not get discouraged, and have fun with the process without over-thinking the results.
Don’t Put Too Much Pressure on Yourself
There are two sides to viewing photography over the Internet. On one hand, you get exposed to a vast education and inspiration from photography from all over the world, including photo books, projects, articles, and you get to see everyone’s best work.
While it is hopefully an inspiring education, it can also put pressure on you at the same time. It can make you feel like you have to keep up and that you’re not doing well if you aren’t taking similarly good photographs. This can be incredibly discouraging.
But remember, you’re typically seeing the best of the best. You’re only seeing the very tip of the iceberg. You’re seeing 30 photos from a project that took five years. Get lost in these wonderful projects, think about what you can take out of them for your work, and leave the rest out of it.
While it’s difficult to do, try your best to not compare yourself to other photographers. Instead, compare yourself to where you were six months ago.
Everyone’s in a different situation. The only competition should be with yourself.
Languishing: Pressure and the Pandemic
I liked both these articles about how many are feeling during (and coming out of) the pandemic: “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing” and “What Happens When Americans Can Finally Exhale”.
As things start to go back to ‘normal’ it doesn’t mean that things will go back to normal right away for us. And given that I’m not a psychiatrist, I’ll keep this related to photography.
Once the freedom is back, there comes the added pressure to suddenly make up for lost time — a flock of photographers out in force looking to get those incredible photos that they missed out on during the pandemic. But photography doesn’t work that way. Creating good work is still a slow and steady process. You’re probably not going to show back up and all will be suddenly right in the world with your photography.
This is where the ‘it isn’t about the results, it’s about the process’ advice really comes in handy. Photography, walking, exploring can be great therapy. It is for me at least. As your routine changes, think about a way to integrate regular photography into that, even if it’s in small spurts or with your phone sometimes. Use the process as a mental release and just take things slow and steady.
Take a Bunch of Crappy Photos
As you get more experienced, you will refine how you photograph and most likely take fewer than you used to. But if you’re feeling any sort of photography block, if it’s tough to take your camera out, or if you just feel frustrated that you’re not seeing or coming across the great moments, take the opposite approach.
Warm your camera and shutter finger up and just start taking crappy photos. Photograph everything on your walks or within your life. Photograph the mundane and everyday — your lunch, your living room, your daily life, the parking lots you stop in. Just go crazy for a bit.
Who cares if the photos are bad? You can delete them later. But you’ll come back with some great ones, I promise. And if you don’t on the first day, then you will on the second, or the third. They’ll come.
You Always Have a Camera With You
A big issue I see is just people not picking up their cameras in the first place when they go out. But remember that you always have a camera with you: your phone. And phones take incredible photos these days. (You can print out the phone photos, frame them, put them on your wall at regular sizes, and nobody will know the difference).
When you can’t take your camera around with you, think about your phone in the same way you would your camera and remember to take it out periodically. Similarly, lighten your camera load to make you more likely to take it out. Consider a mirrorless camera such as a Fuji X100 or a Ricoh. Get a smaller prime lens or a pancake lens to lighten your SLR or mirrorless camera. They make a huge difference.
Keep a Routine
When you’re feeling discouraged, getting out the door is the hardest part. Once you’re walking, I feel like everything usually starts to feel better. And the more you can turn this into even a small routine of short walks, the better you will feel about photographing.
Schedule it like you would a workout or a walk, and stick to it. Even if it’s 20 minutes scheduled to walk a few blocks – that’s all that matters.
Take a Break
Sometimes there’s just too much pressure and exhaustion and keeping a routine is the wrong advice. In this case, just take some time off from photography. Clear your head of photography entirely and do something fun that’s in a completely different space. This can take the pressure off and help you feel more excited and refreshed when you come back.
Embrace the Physical: Photobooks and Prints
The nature of photography is physical. There is nothing more inspirational than holding a photograph in your hand. One of the most inspiring things you can do is to relax with a photobook. It cuts all the clutter out of your brain and allows you to focus and get lost in someone else’s world. There’s nothing that makes me want to pick up a camera the next day more than doing this.
Similarly, print your photos out. Even if you don’t have a good photo printer, print them on whatever printer you have, order them from a service, or take them to a local print shop. Make a bunch of small work prints and keep them around your computer. Pin them up to a wall. Having those prints will serve as daily inspiration as to what you’re working for.
Sometimes the motivation will just come to you when the time is right. Other times you need to go through the motions and take the small consistent steps that will allow the motivation to build and flourish. Push yourself, even if it’s just a bit. Then take it a little further the next day.
About the author: James Maher is a street photographer and writer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. He is offering his guides The Essentials of Street Photography and The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide, free to PetaPixel readers. Maher also runs New York City photo tours and workshops. You can find more of his work on his website.