Continually Developing: 5 Ways to Break Your Photography Plateau
Photography is a strange beast – we all know this. The second you first get a camera in your hand it’s almost impossible to put it down. Everything has potential to be an amazing photograph. You go from landscapes to portraits to pets to fine art to fashion, and slowly you begin to find your niche. You begin to identify that one subject you can truly become obsessed with. That’s an awesome feeling, isn’t it? To be completely in your own realm?
Of course it is! But soon, as with any artistic profession that has ever been, you gradually come up against a creative wall and you become…dare I say it…bored.
Not with photography itself, mind you (I don’t think I could ever be bored with photography), but with where you currently are in your skill development. It’s something you can feel – you’re producing good work, but not exactly great work. Not exactly the kind of work you dreamt about that first night you went to sleep after having played with your new camera all day. The night you stayed awake dreaming of all the amazing photographs you were going to take – just as soon as you figured out what the hell ISO meant.
Well don’t worry – this is completely normal. Every amazing photographer worth their salt goes through this phase. What separates the greats from the rest of the mob is who figures out how break past it, and lucky for you, I’ve listed out a few tried and true ways that seem to do the trick every time.
1.) Write Out Your Goals – Correctly
Writing down your goals is a classic slump-busting technique – but only if you do it correctly. Writing “Be more successful” or “Make more money” isn’t going to get you anywhere. You need to be sure of four things:
1.) Your goals are clearly defined.
2.) Your goals can be measured.
3.) Your goals are realistic
4.) Your goals can be broken down into smaller goals.
This may be quite difficult at first, but push through it. The more specific, measurable and defined your goals are, the more obvious the steps that need to be taken to achieve them become. Pretty soon you aren’t grappling with how to “Get published” but instead making lists of magazines and contacts that might have a good chance of publishing your work.
Writing down your goals does more than just put them in front of you to see everyday – it forces you to actually define your hopes and dreams in realistic terms.
2.) Get Critiqued
And not by your mom, your best friend, or your intern that idolizes you and knows hardly anything about photography. Get critiqued by someone that knows their sh*t. Someone that not only understands the principles of great photography, but is also familiar with the style of photography you’re shooting. Personally, my work contains a decent amount of photo-manipulation, so I don’t stand to gain a lot from someone specializing in documentary or photojournalistic styles of photography. Trust me, I’ve been critiqued by that person. It hasn’t gone well.
There are many ways to do this. You can schedule an appointment with a local gallery for a portfolio review, or attend a festival like Fotofest or Photo Lucida. Email a photographer you are obsessed with (we all have them) and see if they could take a second to look at your work. Sure it might be a long shot, but they might say yes!
I’m also not going to lie here – getting critiqued is rough. The entire point is to learn what can be improved, so even if your reviewer absolutely loves your work, they are still going to point out a weakness or two, and no matter how thick your skin is, it can be tough to hear. Here’s the great part though – now you know something specific that you can work on. You have a concrete aspect of your work that you can improve. That gives you a direct homework assignment…which brings me to Step 3…
3.) Join a Community
The best way to give yourself an assignment and stick to it is to do it alongside someone else. Join a 365 project, a 52 week project or even just a “Hey let’s go out a shoot” running group. Collaborating with other creative professionals is a fantastic way to break your mind out of its little innovative box it’s stuck in. Plus it’s great networking!
If you can’t find people in your nearby location to hold you accountable (I’m about as flighty as they come, so I totally understand), join an online community or do a mentorship with a photographer you respect. I offer online mentorships, and you can bet there is homework involved. All you really need is something or someone actively forcing you to create. Sounds awful? It’s not. Being complacent and stagnant is awful.
4.) Donate Your Skills
This is hands down, my favorite way to break out of a slump. Nothing makes you appreciate what you do for a living as much as seeing the good it can do, and there is A TON of good that a great photographer can do. Volunteer to take family photos at a nearby Women’s shelter, photograph a fundraiser for your local Humane Society, give a free senior session to a kid that has fought tooth and nail to graduate.
The photo above is of one of the many, many pets I’ve photographed at the Rimrock Humane Society here in Billings. Better photographs mean the animals get adopted faster, which means there is more room and resources for animals that are brought in off the street. I can’t even begin to explain how much I love working with them. It’s honestly one of my favorite things I get to do as a photographer.
5.) Switch Sides
Sides of the camera, that is. It’s amazing how much of a difference 180 degrees makes. Behind the camera I am confident and enthusiastic. Put me in front of the lens and I turn into an awkward 6th grader. I don’t know what to do with my hands and I am all of a sudden extremely aware of my eyelids. Do I always blink this much? Do I look straight into the lens? I’m biting my lip? What the hell do people usually do with their lips?
But feeling what it’s like on the other side of the lens is essential to know what you’re clients are going through. Schedule a session with a photographer friend and photograph each other. What do they do that makes you more comfortable? Of the photos they take of you, which are your favorites? Do you remember what they did to get those photos?
This isn’t just applicable if you shoot portraits. Self portraits literally force you to see your environment from the opposite perspective. Just recently a friend of mine photographing a landscape flipped his entire setup around after he stopped midway through to take a picture of himself in the landscape and saw the sky behind the camera had turned into something ahh-maze-ing. He’d been so focused on one area he failed to see what was going on behind him. Thank god for a random selfie break.
And if you ever need someone to talk to feel free to talk to me – I answer best through email or on my Facebook page, Jenna Martin Photography :).
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