Stuck in a photographic rut? Eight ways to get motivated!

By Steve Huff

Ever get stuck in a photographic rut? I was thinking this morning as I was driving my son to school and was trying to figure out why I am seriously driven and inspired to shoot on some days and on others I am not. If any of you have ever taken on a “Picture of the Day” project then you know how tough it can be after a while. To continually go out and get one good shot for that day. Now multiply that by 10.

With so many cameras and lenses coming through my house to be tested and reviewed I have to get out there each and every day of the week and shoot, shoot, shoot! I do not have the luxury of living where everything is beautiful in the winter time so I sit here on these grey dreary winter days saying “SHIT! What am I going to shoot with this camera or that camera”, or “Damn! Its freezing outside..do I really want to go out today”?

Yes, I can do what some other sites do and just sit in the house and shoot walls, stuffed animals, and things I would NEVER shoot in real life. I can pump out a camera review a day if I worked like that. I could also sit back and do one review every month or two. But I am too wound up to work that way.

My problem is that I had to go an make this site a “real world” review site! Ha ha. Actually, I am NOT complaining. Just the opposite! Because I feel the need to really use a camera for a while before posting a review of it I usually get motivated to get out there and shoot it. Also, because this site is “my baby”, I want it to grow. I also can not forget that the wife gave me a year to see if this site could be successful so I REALLY HAVE TO GET OUT THERE AND WORK IT! If not I may end up working at the local Sears portrait studio 🙂 That reason right there gives me automatic daily inspiration. BTW, my year deadline is one month away! Uh oh!

But what about others who get stuck in a rut? Over the past 11 months I have been working feverishly on this website and I realized what it was on those “high inspiration” days that did it for me. (besides the voice in my head saying “sears portrait studio”) Here is my list:

1. BRING YOUR CAMERA WITH YOU EVERY DAY – BUT THE RIGHT CAMERA – I have found  that over the past 11 months I have had my camera with me about 98% of the time. Every day I would have my M8 or M9 around my neck strapped to my side and the M8/M9 are super motivators (for me anyway). There have been times when I spotted something I wanted to get a shot of and if I did not have a camera I would have missed the shot. If I had a big DSLR as my only camera I am telling you…it would only leave the house 10% of the time. For paid work and jobs, yes. For everyday enjoyment? Nope. If you are in a rut and find you own a big, bulky DSLR as your only camera then I suggest buying yourself a small, compact and even somewhat cheap camera. Take it with you everywhere, learn its features and strengths. I bet you get more keepers within a month that you did in six months with your DSLR. I mean, do you bring your huge DSLR out with you to eat lunch?

2. TAKE A TRIP, A DRIVE – SEE SOMETHING NEW – With me I get so sick and tired of staring at the same things in the same old city/town. I usually take long drives 2 or 3 times a week and I search for new places that I have never been before. Some days I am driving from morning until night. Sometimes I see some amazing things on my drives, other times I see nothing. But it’s an adventure and can add to the motivation factor. In February, me and the wife are going to try to head to New Orleans for Mardis Gras. I have never been there so I am excited about it and very motivated for new photo opportunities. Hopefully we can go.

So get out there and get yourself a small “take anywhere” camera and take a drive, a trip, or whatever! Bring the family, a friend or whoever! You may surprise yourself with what you bring back on those memory cards.

3. LEARN AND USE PHOTOSHOP! – PROCESS YOUR PICS – I am not sure how many out there do not process their digital images these days but I assume there are quite a few. On one hand, you have your “purists” who would never touch an out of camera image. On the other side you have those who wouldn’t think of NOT doing some processing. Me, I go back and forth. Sometimes I get in a crazy mood and over process images. Other times I do MINOR tweaks like contrast, color, and levels. BUT, I am of the belief that ALL digital images need some kind of tweaks.

Most cameras pump out images that either have off color, white balance, contrast, etc. Doing minor tweaks to an image can dramatically liven it up. If you do not own Photoshop (it is expensive) then I suggest Photoshop Elements. (Mac version HERE) It’s all you need to get those images looking special AND when you do this you will be motivated to get out there and shoot more!

4. LEARN HOW TO TUNE INTO YOUR PHOTOGRAPHIC MIND – OK, now I am starting to sound like some new age guru but this is true! When I go out with my camera looking for shots I tell myself to keep an eye out for things I want to shoot. If something looks remotely interesting I stop and investigate. Sometimes the things that do not seem interesting can be if you really look at it the right way. This could be something you drive by every day and never thought of getting an image of. When you spot it STOP! Get out, walk around and find the best angle. Take a few shots. You may surprise yourself with what your camera can see through your eyes when you are tuned in to your surroundings. Many of you do this already but if  you are a newbie then this is a good place to start.

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5. MEET UP WITH A PHOTOGRAPHY GROUP, OR CREATE ONE! – This one is a biggie and can help to REALLY get you motivated to get out there. There are so many groups you can hook up with. Photo forum giants such as dpreview.com have forums for EVERY camera make and type. Hop on in and many times you will see the forum members arranging meet ups. I was  thinking of setting up a day in Chicago soon where fellow (local) photographers can meet up and spend the day shooting. Seeing that its mid winter I was thinking of the spring so if anyone is interested let me know. This is a way to not only get some motivation, but to also learn from others and check out what gear everyone is shooting with. It can also be VERY fun! There are even a few sites and photographers that offer paid workshops if that is your thing.

6. VISIT THIS SITE DAILY FOR THE “DAILY INSPIRATION” PIC! – No joke! I decided to put up these daily inspiration shots to not only motivate ME, but to motivate YOU! When I see a great image it makes me say “Damn! I need to improve my skills!” – I then go out and get more practice. Every day or two I post a new image from one of you guys to help inspire. It’s like we are all helping each other and that is so cool!

7. CHALLENGE YOURSELF! – Give yourself a challenge. For example, if you are someone who has always wanted to try street photography but are too nervous to photograph people without their permission MAKE YOURSELF get out there and do it! Better yet, give yourself a project. I did both a few years ago and it really helped overcome my fear of shooting on the street. I started a homeless project when I realized I was seeing more and more homeless on the streets of Phoenix, AZ. Over a period of a few months I went out with my Leica MP, Leica 50 Summicron lens and some Tri-X film and approached, talked to and sat down with these down on their luck men and women. It was an enlightening experience and one I hope to continue one day soon.

Because of that challenge many of these photos have been featured in newspaper articles, web sites, and I even have a 4-5 page magazine spread coming soon about my experience shooting the images. So yea, give yourself a challenge. Make it something you can get into and also something that will help you in your journey to become a better photographer. You can check out my Homeless Gallery here if interested 🙂

8. BUY OR RENT A NEW LENS, CAMERA OR ACCESSORY – This one can be dangerous so only resort to this if you are in a really bad rut! If you have been shooting with the same camera/lens combo for a long time and feel you have outgrown it or even wish for something new then this can put you in a rut for sure. You simply get tired of shooting the same old camera with the same old lens. For example, lets say you shoot a Nikon D90 with a 35mm prime lens. Every time you go out to shoot you see everything the same way – through a 35mm lens! In this situation go out and buy or rent a lens like an 85 1.8 or even better an 85 1.4. Once you see the magic one of those lenses can give you then your motivation will be re-sparked. Hell, just by opening the box of that shiny new lens will motivate the hell out of you to get out there and shoot!

A new lens a year is a good plan to have BUT more lenses does not mean you will take better images, remember that. I am actually a big believer in one body/one lens shooting to improve your photography! Honestly, if you want to get better with photography then screw all of those big DSLR’s with features and gadgets. You don’t need them. Why? I’ll tell you in my next article soon. 🙂

BTW, this list is just a list of things that have helped me in the past to get motivated. If you have something that motivates you, leave it in the comments box below! Thanks for looking!

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25 Comments

  1. Many thanks for a really inspiring article Steve.
    As a Chairman of a local camera club, I am saddened by Rick M’s comments as I really do feel that joining a good camera club can not only be one of the best ways to get motivated, but to also meet up with like-minded and creative people. OK you are always going to get the usual bores who are more interested in kit rather than true photography, but the whole point about a good camera club is to challenge members to come up with new ideas and new slants on traditional subjects through the use of challenging “Set subject” competitions and inter-club “battles”.
    With the rise of digital and lower-cost, highly capable cameras and lenses, we now have the enviable capability to create wonderful and ground breaking imagery which the early pioneers of photography could only dream of. We should feel truly privileged to be here at the forefront of this new dawn in photography being able to share our visions of the world in all its wonders with so many like minded creative people. Particularly with digital, the art of photography has become so much more egalitarian and available within everyone’s grasp so why not learn more and let your work be seen and critiqued by fellow photographers – so join a camera club that’s a sure way to get motivated !

  2. Steve, what a great article! I have been enjoying both your work and your writings for quite some time now, and I have to say that coming here is like a breath of fresh sunshine for the eyes.

    Thanks for all you bring towards inspiring me and many others in the photographic community.

  3. Wouter, sure a break is fine. I write this for those who WANT to go shoot but do not know what to shoot or how to break out of a slump. Me, I shoot every day and have for years, unless I am sick and bedridden! Thanks for the reply.

  4. Many of the suggestions could help, but what if it all becomes too compulsory? Taking a break once in while might sometimes be an even better thing to do, in particular in the grey dark winters. Just don’t force it.

  5. Rick, I agree on getting out of your own area. I try to do this at least 1-2X per week but in the winter its tough.

    Amy, wow! 192 days already? Man, time flies. I applaud you for continuing to find these great places to shoot. Can’t wait to see more.

    Steve

  6. As someone who embarked on a PAD (Picture-A-Day) project 192 days ago, I can say Steve is absolutely right. When I first started, I thought it might get boring or old really fast, but to the contrary it has helped my creativity. Yeah sure, there are days you take a picture of your foot or food, but for the most part, I’ve found the challenge exciting and fun! It’s also opened my eyes to things in my own neighborhood and surrounding area I didn’t know were there!

  7. Steve,
    Good article. I recently have been in a terrible rut. It’s really tough to keep motivated during the winter months in New Jersey. Especially is you have 18 inches of snow in your driveway. Instead of trying street photography, I thought of mall photography as an alternative. I may try that soon. Living in a warmer climate provides for more photo opportunities. I used to be more productive when I had a shooting partner. We would go on photo outings together and have a good time comparing our work. Losing my partner definitely slowed me down. Photo clubs may be OK for some, but I found most of the members shooting with Nikons of Canons and wondering if I was crazy carrying around my little Leica cameras (an M8.2 and an M6 TTL). Most of them didn’t even know what a rangefinder camera was. They carry around 50 pound backpack with large DSLR cameras, with large lenses and tripods hanging from every part of their bodies. They spend most of their club meetings doing photo competitions and sharing little blue ribbons. I did that kind of stuff 30 years ago and have no interest in competing in club type photo competitions. After a while you run out of things to photograph in you local area. Finding the right kind of group and a partner who shares your interests is very helpful but it is easier said than done. Also, you have to get out of your town/neighborhood for fresh ideas.

  8. Hi Steve,
    nice remarks, and yep – I can agree…
    One thing to overcome with me is, that I usually think, I need to go somewhere else to make beautiful photos. Just like what you said, it is quite dull in winter in your place… Let me say, that I look at your pics, and I tend to think: Wow, that guy lives in an interesting place…
    Mind, telling you, that I live in Beijing. How does the word say: The grass is always greener on the other side?

    It basically does not matter, where you shoot, as long as you shoot. That’s my experience. One can get interesting shots everywhere. Provided, keeping eyes open.
    And you are right, I take my M8 just about 90 % of my daily routine. I always have it with me. People start talking. I am using a Luigi-case, which does a wonderful job in protecting and low-profiling the camera… I do not look like a professional. It fits casual outfit, and I can take it for work-meetings. Only problem, is that I always take the wrong lens… 😉
    I am therefore trying to swap lenses: take the WATE one week, change to the 35 Nokton the other, and finally I am using my Noctilux F1.0 as a street-photography lens – which is challenging. But gives brilliant results. Thanks for your work… inspiring!
    Your reviews helped me to decide on the Noctilux – btw… and the Nokton…

    Best from Beijing,
    Falk
    http://www.falkk.tv

  9. I read a lot of articles telling us to get out and take lots of photographs. That’s OK if you feel you are still low on the learning curve and need the experience. But I worry about all that picture-taking push. How about some product pull. I get much more satisfaction from taking photographs for personal projects, which have a product, whether it is a book or an exhibition, or even a calendar, or gift-prints for friends. I like to commission myself to take photographs. So please to write us an article about product pull, going after a picture that will fit into a personal project. I’m talking amateur photography, not professional, but I think there is nothing wrong with amateurs adopting a professional approach to their hobby, rather than just getting kicks taking lots of opportunistic pictures. Yes, I do take that too, but when I see a picture-making opportunity I usually know which of my personal prohjects the result might fit into. Sometimes more than one; they are not exclusive. What are your thought on developing a portfolio of personal projects, each carefully defined (and often updated) to provide the “pull” for our photography? Love your site – read it most days. Best wishes JW (M8 and looking to an M9 this year; also D3 and H3D-50. Each camera has its role in my portfolio of personal projects).

  10. I’ve got to say with digital imo it’s a little too easy to delete pictures. I prefer to keep all pictures and just put the keepers in a separate folder. You never know when that blurry and out of focus shot might actually be the exact one you’re looking for. Seriously! It’s happened to me a few times.

  11. Steve.

    Excellent, inspiring write-up. All suggestions are dead-on true.

    Bring your camera with you all the time, investigate what your eye is drawn to, be creative, take lots of pictures and have fun! The beauty of digital is, if the picture sucks, delete it!

    And remember, Henri Cartier Bresson said “It takes a lot of milk to make a little cheese”.

  12. Congratulations Steve for your site !
    I love to come here each day to learn new things about shooting, posttreatment, leica (I recently bought an M8, who lives happily with a D300), photographs (many of them, such as Ashwin or Dangrabbit, are now in my prefered links). It’s the real world of a talented photographer : please go on after the year deadline !
    PS : sorry for my English… like most of French people, I’m not really gifted for foreign langages… 😉

  13. Great column Steve!

    All of the ways are great but the first way currently tops my list. I love my DSLR but was disappointed at how little time I have to use it. I’m now considering either an M8 or the X1 as a “carry around everywhere” compliment to my DSLR.

    The “daily inspiration” is a big help, especially for people (such as myself) who have not been shooting for very long and still have to get a feel for what makes an interesting shot interesting.

    Keep up the great work!

  14. For those on an i can’t afford elements budget, try GIMP(free) or if you’re on the mac, try pixelmator (cheap)- just a thought. Great article!

  15. Thanks guys.

    @Overheat – Sorry to hear about your job. I have been in the same boat quite a few times and its never fun.

    @Mark – Hey, thanks! Ill be posting more E-P2 photos and may start a diary page for it like I did with the M9. As far as buying an X1. I WISH I had the cash to do that but at this time I do not. Really, I would buy one for my personal compact camera if I could.

  16. A great little piece Steve that I should keep out in front of me as a regular reminder.

    And I enjoyed your photos alot…they led me to your Zenfolio sites.

    I’d like to see more of the photos you’ve taken experimenting with the EP-2….
    if only to make me less envious of the capabilities of the M8 and M9. Granted that your eye gets the primary credit! And of course I wish you’d buy an X1 so that you can continue to guide some of the rest of us re the use of that camera.

    Mark

  17. Good column. I just lost my job yesterday, so I’m seriously considering photography as a career option. I’m looking at getting a G1 with an f0.95 (maybe Canon 50mm) and getting out there everyday for some practice before taking on any paid work. This column is really useful and I will certainly take a lot of the advice you’ve posted here – thank you 🙂

  18. Hi Steve,

    I’ve been doing photography for quite a few years now and on a daily basis. As an amateur, that is. And I find that I really like taking my 5DII everywhere with me. And so I do it. When I go to work (not in the photography sector), when I go out with friends, when going to the gym, going to funerals, had surgery, … EVERYWHERE. But I only take my 50L lens with me. The combo is pretty light compared to others and without the hood even rather compact. And as I walk, I know what to look for as I seem to have the 50mm viewfinder lines internally.

    For me the important thing is sharing. Both my own experience as reading and talking about other people’s experiences. So I made myself a blog.

    These to things help me enjoy photography to the fullest extent of my free time. 🙂

  19. Hey Steve, great words. I’ve been a pro shooter for over 30 years and the challenge of staying excited about it can be a great one. Rediscovering M cameras with an M8 in Sept has been a huge kick in the pants for me. I’d shot with M’s since I was a teenager (literally, my first camera at 14 was my brothers M3), I sold them all when I went to digital 7 years ago. I can’t believe how much I missed them. I’m like a kid again, I just move a little slower. Your website has helped my enthusiasm in a big way and I’d like to thank you for what you do. You have cost me some money, but I’m good with it. Take care and keep it up.

  20. Dead right Steve! When there are so many columns and blogs about kit, lenses and equipment (no offence 😉 it is too easy to forget that the real secret to taking great pictures is taking lots of not-so-great pictures and learning from the experience. You’ve reminded me to get my camera out on a daily basis. Is it too later to make a New Years resolution ?

  21. Nice column Steve… I know with me it’s motivation and of course here in Western New York the weather… I’ve been also trying to get out and take some drives, but lately the weather prohibits it…… Soon, the weather will be in my favor, and I look forward to getting out with my M8, EP-2 & of course D3……

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