Breaking the Photographic Rut

Bored and Uninspired?

Has your photography been a bit... Slow lately? Caught in a rut, perhaps? If you've been taking pictures lately and just don't feel any sense of inspiration or reward with what you end up with, perhaps it's time to look at things in a new way. The answer doesn't need to be complicated - in fact, sometimes the answer lies in simplicity itself! Maybe it's not about breaking the rut, rather encouraging you to try new things - which can be as challenging as it is rewarding.

Here are some ideas to get you back in form.

Change Your Scenery

Sometimes the easiest answer is to just change your scenery! If you regularly walk the streets of your town looking for shots and seem to have run out of new ideas, a change in venue might be all you need. Try the next town over or make a trip to the "big city." Even within your town, try a different area - one that you haven't fully explored yet. If you shoot in the town where you live, the doldrums can set in especially easy because you're used to everything and have "seen it all before." A new location will offer a fresh perspective on things.

Likewise, if you go to a particular park - try another. Learn about particular aspects of it that stand out and try to shoot them - for example, a memorial or a fountain. Take pictures of the things that make the park unique, such as a particular set of trails or a place where people often sit and reflect, watching the ducks in the pond. Try capturing the people in the park as they go about their activities (or even complete lack thereof, simply lying on the grass and reading).

Another approach is to look at a place as someone else - perhaps a tourist's perspective. Sure, you've taken your family and even extended family to the Statue of Liberty more times than you can count - but just never really bothered taking any interesting pictures. You think, "oh, I've seen it before - I'll be back again." You never know - maybe you won't. Or maybe you've just never made it over to "that ol' tourist trap." Why not go check it out for once? There must be some reason it's popular or why people keep visiting. Compile your own "Best Sites" from your area.

Explore Other Genres

So you're a people person. You like shooting street. Okay, so take a break - and try something new - a different photographic genre. There are a lot to choose from! You can either try something that's similar to what you generally shoot or take a completely different tangent. At first it might be awkward, but that's the whole point of this exercise - shoot it until you've got it down, or at least it's not intimidating to you any more. If nothing else, you'll have tried it and saw first-hand what's involved - offering you a better understanding and insight.

There are an awful lot of photographic genres but some common ones include: - Street/candid - Travel - Portraits - Industrial/product - Architecture - Abstract/fine art - Studio/stills - Landscape - Reportage

Exploit Your Gear

Okay, so you're a 50mm shooter. There's a lot to be said for sticking to a particular combination and really getting to know it well. If you haven't tried this yet - why not give it a shot? Or if you have already... Now's the time to mix it up. Grab the least-used lens in your bag or dust off that old gem in your drawer and head out. The idea is to grab some piece of equipment that either gets little use or you just don't have much fun with - and exploit its strengths and/or weaknesses specifically. For example, an ultra-wide angle lens. Spend a day really exploiting aspects of it such as the extreme perspective it affords or the tremendous depth of field possible. Don't just use it to get everything in the shot - this more often than not leads to very dull photos. Instead, get up close and personal. Make your subject huge, and off to the side - and allow the wide field of view to give context. A lot of people do this whether they realize it or not, and that's when they get a new lens. The first reaction is to usually head out and "kick the tires" as it were. Think of this as "exploring an old favorite."

What about mediums? You always shoot Tri-X. Great. Go out and shoot a different film. Or a different format - ever tried medium format? You can even grab a friend's digital camera if you don't have one of your own. Try shooting what you usually do, but with something changed, something different about it.

Try various filters. Grab those dusty old contrast filters and experiment. What filter works best for the tulip garden down at the park? Or down at the beach on clear and partly cloudy days? If you have a polarizer filter but just never seem to use it much - make a day of it. Go around shooting reflective things like store windows, cars lining the street or water. Suppose you have a fast lens, but during the day you can't exploit it. Try a neutral density filter and shoot wide open at noon.

Most M shooters aren't fans of flashes. Perhaps you have one. Why not spend a day getting to truly understand it? Who knows, maybe you'll find that you actually don't mind it so much. Try taking pictures in dark settings where it might be your only source of light or where you can use it to supplement the existing light - and try to do so without it being obvious that a flash was used. This is the key to good flash photography! The first reaction to a photo shouldn't be, "wow, what a nice... flash photo." Practice your fill lighting - both at night and during the day.

Try New Approaches

Suppose you find yourself shooting from eye level most of the time. This can easily become boring after a while. So try a new approach. Get down low and shoot that way, or shoot upwards. Or maybe try and get up high and shoot across or down. Climb a tree, or a hill. Instead of shooting someone leaning or sitting against a tree, climb up a little and take a picture of someone looking up at you. Or perhaps get down low and take a picture of a child looking up at a tempting tree to climb or reaching for a low-hanging apple.

Get closer. Or farther away. Instead of always shooting subject X at distance Y, mix it up. Use a radically different focal length from what you're used to and exploit it.

It's amazing how much a scene can change depending on the time of day, or what the weather is like - even the season. Don't get out much in the winter because it's cold and yucky out? Exactly! Put on some warm boots and a nice jacket and get out there!

Instead of shooting your subjects at f/5.6 all the time, maybe make a day of it with your lens glued on the maximum aperture. Shoot that fast lens wide open and only wide open! Use a neutral density filter if you have to (especially during the day).

Break the rules! Instead of always trying to get the best possible exposure, try your hand at low-key or high-key photographs. Shoot in silhouette. Maybe now's the time to finally try doing some high dynamic range (HDR) shots. Or instead of always shooting in black and white or color - try the other for a while. As a way to make photographs more interesting, the "rule of thirds" in composition has become perhaps a little too ingrained in your mind. Blow the rule completely away with fresh approaches to composition. Place your subject way off to the side or in a corner (wide angles can help here) or compose a photograph of a boat or swan in the water with its reflection completely symmetrical; make an exact mirror image. Maybe even flip it around 180º so your viewer has to think about it for a minute... "Wait, what am I looking at - is this real?"

If you like taking scenic pictures, as in landscape photography - you can really change that up a bit by practicing new techniques. Try creating stitched photos, where you take four or eight pictures and combine them using a stitching program or plug-in. A great way to massively increase your resolution and capture all of the little details in a scene. Or maybe you only have a 90mm lens where the scene really calls out for a 28mm. What about panoramas? Another example of stitching, but follows more of a horizontal or vertical pattern. Put your camera on a tripod and take pictures after rotating the camera a little each time in between, finally stitching them all together for a 360º view. Take it to the extreme and create a full QuickTime VR where you can even "look" up and down.

Focus on Little Things

Maybe you're "looking at the big picture" and missing the obvious. Instead of looking at entire scenes for a good photo - try concentrating on the little things. The details that are often overlooked. Instead of taking a picture of a bench in a park set against a tree... What about the engraved plaque on the bench? The rusty legs against the freshly painted wood? Or maybe your head is down walking the streets, hoping to capture someone doing something... Again, look at the details - but this time - look up! This is especially interesting in old towns and cities, where the architecture can date back decades or even centuries. Bet you never noticed that gargoyle on that cool building downtown before! Or just how many spires are atop that big church.

Another approach is to make a project of a particular detail. Let's say - numbers. Take pictures of numbers in peculiar ways. Numbers on mailboxes. Numbers on signs. Numbers on cars. You can do this with virtually anything. Colors, textures, quantities, patterns, reflections... Pick one and make it a project for the day. Every time you see something yellow. Or there's a pattern of squares. Shoot pairs of things.

Taking this to an extreme, perhaps take pictures of things in such a way that the photo is essentially an abstract. One lone, rusty bolt on a metal panel. Or a nail sticking out of a board of a barn wall. Try taking pictures of things in such a way that you have to look at the picture for a minute before you "get it." Maybe you don't even have to get it. Take a picture simply because it's abstract and you're left wondering what it is you're actually looking at. It could be this. Then again, it could be that... What IS it? That's a whole different kind of photography right there.

Document Something

Documenting something can either be short-term or long-term. In the case of a short-term documentary, maybe you could cover a particular event. More long-term documentaries might be how all of the wooded areas of your area are being developed, or the changing storefronts of downtown. Maybe how the construction of something new is progressing. Think of something you have easy access to and can get to as often as needed in the case of longer-term documentaries. If it's far off or out of the way, you'll be less inclined to go shoot. Or maybe that can be the point of it - the decay of lighthouse(s) down at the shore, or old low-income housing that's rotting away due to abandonment and neglect.

Maybe add a little fun aspect to something otherwise mundane. Take picture of something - perhaps a tree in a field - every month on the same day at the same time. Or maybe once per season. Or maybe even once every hour. With the resulting photos you can make a still-frame movie, a montage or a slideshow where one image blends/fades into the next. Take a picture of something scenic in warm, cold and in-between months and make a tryptic for your wall.

Draw Inspiration from Others

Another great way to draw inspiration is to see what other photographers are doing. They can be one of the "masters" like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gary Winogrand or Ansel Adams to name a few. Or you can flip through Flickr or the forums here, check out some books at the store or library or visit some local galleries. See what appeals to your senses. You never know - you might have your own "style" brewing and not even realize it until you see it in others. Take what you've seen and create something of your own or try to recreate a particularly interesting photograph. See how other photographers saw and decided to shoot a particular scene. Maybe look at the details - the depth of field, the bokeh, or less technical things like composition and use of colors and form.

Other Thoughts

The usual cause for getting into a photographic rut is because you've shot the same things the same way. Either you've become bored with the subject matter or you're not seeing the trees for the forest and missing the little things. The whole point of this article is to get you to think outside of the box, to break from your norm. Try something new or at the very least, different. Set a goal for yourself and go out and shoot it! Use any of the above ideas to inspire you, or combine them in interesting new ways.

Now go out there and shoot something - differently!