There are so many rewarding aspects in life, and one of them is growing in something you love, something that you’re good at. Not only do we feel a sense of accomplishment, but we feel larger on the inside. Whether you’re a professional photographer or an enthusiastic hobbyist with a knack for photography, improving your talent is a special thrill. On the flipside, there are few things more frustrating than that feeling of being stuck under a glass ceiling where you feel jaded, your work starts to feel dull, your passion begins to wane, and your creative juices dry up. We all plateau from time to time, and it’s important to get out of the rut quickly. So, how do you sharpen your photography talent? Here are five ways to get back on track.
1. Find a Mentor
One of the best ways to reignite the flames is through mentoring: getting fresh eyes on what you do from someone you respect, someone ahead of you in the field you’re in. It’s amazing how a few hours with a coach can breathe fresh wind in your sails, restoring the sharpness to your game and re-awakening dormant creativity. Yes, it requires an investment of time and money, but it’s an investment in you… helping you break through that ‘ceiling,’ enabling you to soar higher.
2. Start a Personal Project
At the risk of sounding a little simplistic, taking on the challenge of a photo-a-day project (whether it’s for a week or a month) is another way of shaking things up and breaking out of any creative lethargy or dullness. Whether you aim to photograph those simple around-the-house moments that happen as part of your everyday family living or adopt a theme for the week (such as ‘colours’, or ‘old versus new’ or ‘light versus dark’ or… the choices are endless), this seemingly small commitment gets the sparks flying and the juices flowing. Experiment a little. Try something new, different, even odd. Go wild. Colour outside the lines. Have fun.
It always surprises me how easily and quickly we can get into a rut, settle for less, and allow limitations-related to time, money, attitude, circumstance, and so on-to bind us. Thinking outside the box, even in small ways, can set us free and jumpstart a new adventure in creative expression.
3. Stick Your Neck Out
All artists experience times when the streams of creativity run dry. Writers get writer’s block, painters get canvas shock, actors get stage fright, and photographers get image fatigue. You know the feeling: what used to just flow easily now takes a Herculean effort; what was once fresh is now dull and dreary. It takes more to do less. When spontaneity is replaced with drudgery you know you’ve got to do something quickly to stop the rot. While there are a number of things you can do, the third thing we’re going to look at is this: stick your neck out.
A new challenge often provides the necessary shot of adrenaline we need to find another level, to dig a little deeper. We often get stuck in the routine of what we do, where familiarity breeds apathy. Sticking your neck out can break you free from these shackles. So, what do I mean?
Enter a photography competition or submit your images to a photography forum and invite constructive feedback. Besides the feedback you’ll receive, this instantly snaps you out of the mundane. Sometimes we just need a bit of challenge, and most artists perform better with a little prod.
If you’re not keen on sticking your neck out, then another way to expose yourself is to step out of your current photography niche. If you’re a portrait photographer, experiment with landscape photography. Get outside, shoot the sunset, a waterfall, or a mountain peak. If you’re a wedding photographer, photograph a friend’s baby—and try a load of different props. The change forces us to rethink things, experiment, innovate, and create. In doing so, you stir up dormant creativity, get the synapses sparking again, and get a fresh handle on your own niche. (And you’ll have heaps of fun.)
4. Unstring the Bow
An inability to get out of a rut can be the deathly for an artist, whether you’re a writer, a painter, or a photographer. And sometimes, the answer is inaction, not action. In contrast to the first three points above that focused on actionable steps, this sharpen-your-talent suggestion goes in the opposite direction. Intentional inaction — or unstringing the bow.
To mend creative dullness and get the juices flowing again, action steps usually prove just the tonic needed. However, there are times when, emotionally, you cannot even think of trying something new or challenging yourself; the thought of tackling a new project sends you into a flat panic. You feel spent, empty… like you’re running on fumes. In this case, rest is the only antidote.
And I’m not necessarily talking about going away on holiday, although that is always a treat. Too often, a holiday getaway adds to the stress — with planning, travel, and expense involved.
Learning to unstring the bow — putting tools down, turning the phone and computer off, disengaging the mind, fanning the flame of other interests, and so on — is the only way to truly recharge your soul. In fact, don’t wait until you’re burnt out to develop a lifestyle (and workstyle) of carving space in your schedule for this kind of rest.
Just as an archer regularly unstrings his bow to keep the strength in the bow and the tension in the string, artists need to regularly disconnect from the intensity of their craft to stay fresh and sharp.
5. Ask Reflective Questions
Staying in the groove, or knowing how to find your groove if you’ve lost it, is critical. We’ve already looked at four ways to keep sharp. The fifth and final suggestion is to ask reflective questions.
Reflective questions? How will that help? Reflecting regularly on one’s work — questioning why we do what we do, for instance — does at least three things. First, it purges us of false assumptions. Along any journey, we develop assumptions upon which we act. These assumptions can often be incorrect, especially when you’re overworked, reacting to challenges at work and home, or battling against due dates. And as we all know, operating on one shaky assumption after another ultimately leads to a mistake.
Secondly, reflection allows you to take responsibility for shortcomings and wipe the slate clean. Nothing kills creativity or robs peace of mind like a heavy conscience. Through reflective questions, we get honest with ourselves, affirm our strengths, and acknowledge our limitations.
Finally, reflective questions ignite creative thought and fresh energy. Through reflection, we reconnect with our convictions and passions. We remember why we do what we do — not just in our head, but in our heart. We feel envisioned and often get back to the basics, pruning back the frills and fluff (things that often merely add gloss, but create heaps of pressure and complexity).
Here’s a reflective question you can ask yourself: How would I start again if I was just getting going today? A question like this often allows us to see beyond the intricacy of what we currently do, putting fresh eyes on the simple matters that actually make it all worth it (and fun).
Socrates once said, “A life without introspection is not worth living.” And the man was fairly smart after all.
Life is full of so many good things. The feeling of growing and improving in what you do and love ranks up with one of the more rewarding experiences. The converse — feeling deflated, dull, and dry — easily ranks down low with draining experiences. For many artists (including photographers), recognizing when this happens and finding ways to reignite the spark is crucial to fulfillment and effectiveness over the long haul.
About the Author:
Lorna Kirkby is a baby and newborn photographer based in Melbourne, Australia (lornakirkbyphotography.com.au). She serves as a coach and mentor to both newbie photographers and old pros who need refreshment.
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