Photographer’s block? Join the club!

Like a writer, photographers can get stuck. Snapshots are easy; I’m talking about planning an image or series or bringing home “something different” from your vacation. Let’s say you’re traveling to a beautiful location you’ve been to before, and have taken 3,217 photos of the same landscapes, people and places. You feel that your images are getting stale. You want to bring home something different, special, unique. Not the same old, same old. But you’re stuck for ideas. What to do? You’re not alone, my friend. It’s happened to me, to every photographer I know, and I have no doubt it’s happened to the top guns in this field as well. They’ve learned to accept it and then overcome it, and I’m going to give you some tips that have helped to overcome my own Photo Block, as I call it. There are plenty of other ways to refresh your creativity, but these may give you a jumping-off point. Ready? Grab paper; you might want to take notes (Oh right, you can just print this!).

  • First, never delete any but the most obvious unusable photos or those that you have far too many versions of the same composition. Why? Because what you may not like today, you may love next month or next year. Our current mood often dictates whether we think a photo is keepable or not. You may later decide that the photo you almost trashed might look great if you convert it to black and white, sepia, maybe crop it to a more simple composition, remove some unnecessary objects, or maybe you’ll use a portion of it to combine with another photo (a composite). When your creativity is at its best, the sky’s the limit. On a similar note: never, ever delete an image from your camera based only on what you see on that teeny weenie LCD screen (again, unless it’s obviously out of focus or you only caught the flying hawk’s tail feathers). Viewing the same photo on your computer later on may give you an entirely different opinion. You may like a certain detail instead of the entire frame. You may decide that you like the out-of-focus aspect because it lends a mysterious or ethereal look. This is another reason I recommend carrying 2-3 memory cards with you. Better to run out of time than memory!Morning Glory
  • Ok, back to overcoming Photo Block: Now that you’ve saved your images somewhere (and I highly recommend saving copies to multiple places besides just your hard drive. External drives are more affordable than ever. There are many cloud services. Even CDs work – not DVDs, but that’s also a topic for another article. Redundancy is your best friend.). Take a walk down memory lane and review those old photos from a long time ago. Analyze them and decide what you might have done to improve them, or decide what made it a good photo. Learn from all if it. Also, when reviewing older photos, you may see them differently this time, feel differently about them. They can give you new ideas. Maybe you’ll go back to that location and photograph at a different time of day (for different light) or a during different season, or at a different angle (higher, lower, or from a different spot). Try a different lens next time: if you shot it originally with a 50mm, try a wide-angle, telephoto, and/or macro (extreme close up) lens. Each lens provides vastly different results. Try moving closer to your subject, further away, and rotating your camera to the vertical orientation, or an angle. Change your white balance, aperture, shutter speed and/or ISO (or if your camera doesn’t offer these options, try different Scene Modes). If you’re shooting RAW (another topic for a later article), you can convert multiple copies of your RAW images in a different fashion, such as black and white, a different white balance or color temperature, different hues, add grain for character, and so on. A side note: If you intend to make a “black and white” photo (which is technically a “gray-scale” photo but “black and white” has become an accepted term), don’t use the grayscale/black&white mode in your camera. Always shoot in color, and at the maximum resolution if shooting in JPG format or, preferably, shoot in RAW, which can be made grayscale during the conversion process or later, in post-processing. JPGs can be duplicated and made grayscale easily as well, and there are several ways to do it, which is a topic I’ll try to remember to write about later. Some people like to (in Photoshop) use the Image\Mode\Grayscale method. I highly recommend NOT using this method, even if you convert the image back to RGB. There are many better, more controlled methods that produce more appealing results.
    Lady Liberty
  • Look at others’ photos. Study the masters. Check out photography websites. I’ve been inspired by many. Don’t try to copy their work, but try to grasp the message they’re making with each image. Look at the big picture, then the details. Look at the lighting, the angle from which the photo was taken, the subjects in the frame, decide how you might like it more or less if you made the image yourself, and so on. Is the photo too “busy” or is it just right? Keep your images simple. If I were to ask you why you made a particular image, I would hope you could answer in only one or two sentences. If you go on and on (the way I often do in my writing!), it tells me that you don’t really know. When you analyze and critique your images after a shoot, decide if that 5th tree at the edge of the frame adds to the story you’re trying to tell, or detracts from it. What other elements are unnecessary, in relation to the reason you made the image? Are there any distracting bright spots that draw the eye away from your subject? If so, can they be cropped out or otherwise removed with post-processing tools? Or are they part of the image’s appeal? If you see something that stands out because it’s red, photograph it! Red subjects and complementary elements and colors can add great appeal!
  • Read photography magazines like Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, Shutterbug, and many others. They contain wonderful articles, how-to’s, and tips, not to mention fantastic photographs made by professionals, beginners, and everyone in between. You can learn as much from “good” photos as from “bad.”
  • Always have a camera with you, whether it’s an SLR, a compact or point-and-shoot, or your camera phone. You never know when something will catch your eye. For example, while driving home from work one evening, I was watching the sun set, and I couldn’t take my eyes from the beauty of the fast-changing colors (which is hard to do while driving!). I saw a small group of trees, pulled over, and framed this shot with my iPhone. Always have a camera with you.Roadside Silhouette
  • Another way I get out of my creative slump is to give myself assignments. Sometimes I’ll mount only a macro lens and I’ll go to a local park or elsewhere, even just around the house, and photograph only macro (extreme close-up) subjects. Many compact cameras/point-and-shoots have a macro mode, usually indicated by an icon of a flower. Read your manual for more information. Another assignment I gave myself was to walk around my house and photograph everyday items in a way that would make them look unique or unusual. Below was one result. It was all done in-camera other than minor post-processing such as a bit of dodging and burning (creative darkening and lightening of certain portions), and I applied a filter in Photoshop, plus a digital framing effect. But the main look, the “swipe,” was achieved by moving the camera up or down during a relatively long exposure (in this case it was probably about 1/10″ – 1/10th of a second – I’d have to check the metadata to confirm). This image was submitted to a photography contest and earned First Place. 

    Wine Swipe

    A bottle of wine and a glass sitting on my kitchen counter, backlit by a floor lamp that looks likes 3 vertical softboxes enclosed in wicker. An ordinary subject photographed to look anything but! Changing things up can help recharge your creative energy!

  • Go out shooting with a photographer friend, and ask questions! If he/she is really a friend, the questions will be welcome and the answers helpful. If you don’t know a photographer, join a local camera club or meetup, attend a workshop or seminar, or… contact me! 🙂 There are also hundreds of illustrated and well-written books by seasoned photographers. Go to your nearest Barnes & Noble, or check out Amazon.com or other sources. What? You want me to recommend some books? Well, since you asked, I do have a few favorites that I cut my own teeth with. This is a short list, and if I’m leaving any out (well, of course I am!) it’s not because I don’t recommend them; it may be that I haven’t read them yet, or because there are just too many great books to list, or any of a number of other reasons. Here are a few, in no particular order (I own and have read all of these wonderful books, and many more, and have met two of these fine people and extraordinary photographers):
  1. By Bryan Peterson: Learning to See Creatively: Design, Color & Composition in Photography (Updated ed.)
  2. By Bryan Peterson: Understanding Exposure (3rd ed. – and he just released a new version – highly recommended!)
  3. By Joe McNally: The Moment It Clicks: Photography secrets from one of the world’s greatest shooters
  4. By John Shaw: Landscape Photography
  5. By John Shaw: Nature Photography Field Guide
  6. By Ansel Adams: The Camera

These tips will hopefully reopen your creative eye. The best way, though, is to practice, practice, practice!

As always, don’t hesitate to contact me at Karen@ThroughKarensEyes.com with any questions at all. And thanks to all of you who have! Happy shooting!

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~ by Karen Rosenblum on June 12, 2011.

2 Responses to “Photographer’s block? Join the club!”

  1. Karen, this is wonderful!! You should seriously write your own book! You are my hero!

  2. What great advice and beautiful pics! I just subscribed to your blog and I cant wait to learn more. Maybe i’ll have something worthwhile to show people now! You’re really good!!!!!!!!!!!! Jean Marie

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