How to Overcome a Creative Block

There are times as a photographer when you can feel like you’re running out of ideas. You’ve tried a variety of things but now you’re experiencing some kind of creative block and you feel frustrated.

We don’t want to fall out of love with our hobby. Those of us who do photography to earn a living need to keep our portfolio up to date and produce images to attract new clients and test new ideas. Having a creative block can feel paralyzing.

To help keep you from going around in circles and getting ever more annoyed, I have a few tools that can help break the ice and increase productivity. They are not all equally effective on every occasion. Sometimes, none of them might work. But at least we can give ourselves the best chance of breaking out of the rut and making progress.

Take a Break

This is an obvious thing to try if you are getting too worked up. When our emotions are strong it can be tough to bring clarity or new ideas to our situation. So, I would suggest that you distract yourself with something else. Even going for a walk can be a good way to clear my head when my thoughts are spiraling out of control.

Find something that will take your mind off the problem and enable you to calm down. If we don’t interrupt our thought patterns, it is hard to regain a stable platform to start creating from. Sports can be a good way to boost endorphins and release frustration and tension. Going out for a coffee with a friend, playing a computer game, reading a book – there are plenty of things we can do to take a break. Choose whatever works for you.

Use the Emotion

In complete contrast to taking a break to overcome our creative blocks, we can sometimes harness the energy of our emotions to create something that we wouldn’t otherwise. Art can come from anger as well as happiness. Dark, chaotic feelings can give birth to a different style of images. Expressing how we are feeling can be a healing process.

Choose colors and a theme that express your feelings. Maybe you want a dark image with some blue and red in it, for example. Perhaps you want some blur and lack of focus to suggest an element of chaos or to give an unsettled feel. You could choose some words that describe your situation and find ways to create images that contain or evoke them.

Accepting negative as well as positive emotions as part of being human means that we can sometimes create art out of dark places. Of course, it won’t necessarily work every time. So, if your frustration is just increasing then maybe move on and take a break after all before you smash something expensive!

Narrow Down the Options

One thing that can leave us feeling paralyzed is having too much choice. If there are too many options open to us, then we can struggle to know which way to turn. Ironically, sometimes we can feel as though there is nothing to say, nothing to take a picture of, when we are surrounded by possibilities. We just can’t narrow them down and connect with any particular one.

Overcoming a creative block isn’t always about generating new ideas. It can also be the struggle we have with picking one thing out of a sea of options.

Limit What Kit You Use

Sometimes, restricting what kit we use can help us narrow down the genre we will shoot and the type of image we will create. It is great having loads of tools to draw upon when needed. But, if we’re feeling stuck, maybe we can unstick ourselves by challenging ourselves to only use certain pieces of kit. That might be doing street photography with only a 50mm lens. Or only shooting outside with a 105mm macro lens and daylight. It could be a challenge to use gelled lighting or a certain number of lights.

Some people like to mimic the difficulties of working with film and not allow themselves to look at the monitor between shots. You could try allowing yourself just 24 or 36 shots, for example, that you will only look at once you have finished and gone home.

Limit Your Subject or Props

As well as limiting ourselves on what kit we use, we can also experiment with restricting ourselves to a single subject or to creating a series of images using the same prop(s).

A few months ago I tried this with just using paper to create the backgrounds. Initially I started with just a few sheets of white paper and some textured white card. I used a couple of watches as subjects and some masking tape to hold things in place. From this simple starting point, I was able to create some stylish minimalist compositions (some of which also went on to become award-winning images!).

Doing something that we wouldn’t normally do can be a good way to break a creative block. Giving ourselves a strict framework within which to operate might seem counterintuitive, but in some cases, it can reap real benefits.

For example, if we keep to just one subject and have to keep finding new ways to photograph it then we may discover a lighting setup we haven’t used before, or a new way to style things. This can lead to not only new images for our portfolios but also new looks to offer clients. If we aren’t doing it for a living, then it can lead to a rediscovered enjoyment of photography and possibly something new to share and maybe even enter competitions with.

Suspend Judgment

One way that we often kill ideas is by limiting ourselves to what seems “sensible”. How often have you had a thought and then immediately followed it with “but that’s silly” or “nobody would want to see that” or “what’s the point”?

Children tend to be freer with their creativity as they haven’t learned all the “rules” yet. We gradually pick up from our culture, friends, and family and the photography industry what is “good” and what is considered likely to be “successful”. By implication, we learn that anything that doesn’t fit the norm is probably not worth pursuing. However, innovation is important and can allow us all to grow and expand our horizons of what art can look like.

Our inner voice of judgment will often tell us not to pursue a line of thought because it is not sensible or reasonable enough. If we can learn to silence that voice from time to time, then we can allow our stranger ideas to lead us to new places. There may well be legitimate reasons for rejecting an idea (e.g., we lack the resources). But try suspending judgment, to begin with, and allowing yourself to go with the flow, wherever your imagination may lead.

Instead of cutting these things off at the roots, let them grow and blossom before deciding what you will or won’t use. Out of the apparently ridiculous we may find golden nuggets of inspiration for new work. We may need to moderate them slightly. We may need to use lateral thinking to find other ways of doing something (e.g., will a toy car work instead of a real one?). But we can often make good use of apparently absurd beginnings.

Write down all the ideas that come to mind, not just the “good” ones. Suspend judgment until later and allow your mind to wander.

Collaborate to Crush a Creative Block

Working with other people can be a good way of making progress when you encounter a creative block. More minds chewing over the problem can make it easier to find a way forward. Each of us has our blind spots and our strengths. So, teamwork can be a great way of bringing fresh input to the table and re-igniting our passion for a project.

I have loved working with other creatives on projects. Together we come up with far more than we would have done alone. Actors and prop-makers can be really good at improvising possible alternatives to help discern a way forward.

Even if you can’t get a group together for a shoot you can still share your problem with others that you trust. Someone else may have that new perspective that gets things going again. They aren’t caught up in the rut of the patterns of thought that you were. Have them ask you to explain what you are trying to do and why you feel it isn’t working. As you attempt to answer these questions, you might already find yourself seeing things differently.

Identify a Problem That Needs Solving

Inventors tend to come up with their ideas because of a problem they face. They need to find a new way to deal with something and creative thought is the key to this. If we are stuck for ideas, then we can try finding a solution to a problem. Naturally, if we focus on the creative block itself as the problem then we are likely to go around in circles! However, if we can find a different problem or some kind of challenge to overcome then this can become our new center of attention.

Having a limited budget and a problem with resources can be a good thing. Our constraints can help us find alternatives and solve problems without resorting to simply buying a solution. For example, could you make your own lighting modifier? Whether it is a snoot or a diffuser, can you find something other than the standard solutions that allows you to reach your goal?

Perhaps you find a way to construct a scene using CGI instead of hiring an expensive location. Maybe you figure out how to combine motion blur and a sharp subject without resorting to internet tutorials. Finding your own solution can be rewarding and exciting.

Focus on Your Goals

When looking for a new personal project I tend to think back to my current goals. These might be goals for the business or perhaps for competition success, etc. That way I can often find something that will take me closer to my goal, even if it is only a small step closer.

For example, say you want to photograph food for a top restaurant but are only just starting out in food photography. You could choose to create an image that could improve your skills and take you closer to your goal. Focus on food – maybe get something that has been professionally produced to look good. Unblock your creativity by pushing down the path toward where you want to be. Seeing goals come closer can be very motivating.

Get Started

Simply pushing yourself to get going may be the right approach. You need to know yourself if this is winding you up to the point of no return! In some cases, it may make things worse. But it can often help to just do something. Getting going and moving on from that blank sheet of paper can be the hardest part.

Once you are actually moving it can be easier to tweak things and start being creative. Pushing yourself through the initial inertia might be all that you need to do. It can be a bit like push starting a car – nothing seems to happen when you turn the key, but with a bit of effort, a bit of a push, you find that the engine kicks into life.

Do Something Fun

Do something that you might not normally get time to do. Personal projects can be an opportunity to try things that your clients may not pay you to do. Ever seen a genre of photography or a technique that you thought looked cool? Give it a go! Especially if photography is your hobby, you want to keep things fun. If you’re getting frustrated with a creative block then find a way to bring back the fun.

Closing Thoughts

In addition to the various tools and ideas mentioned here, you might also like to explore the possibilities that AI can offer for research and idea generation. I know, AI is controversial and photographers worry about its effects on our industry. But if it can be a simple tool among many others, a catalyst of some kind to help you break free of your fog, then why not?

Creative blocks can be upsetting for artists of all kinds. We might start to question ourselves, why we bother, whether we should continue, etc. From my own experience, I have found that breaking these patterns of thought helps to at least cut short the creative block. I may not find a way out straight away, but at least it can help me not to disappear down a dangerous spiral of negativity.

Hopefully the thoughts shared here can help you to break out of your ruts. Even if they are just a slight nudge, if it is enough to get you going again then that’s all that matters.

Image credits: All images © Joe Lenton. All rights reserved.