Inspiration Help

A while ago an interesting discussion happened in one of photographic online communities which I’m a part of. One of the members asked what helped other photographers to find inspiration. I’ve written quite detailed response which I include with some edits and additions below.

Here are some ideas I have come up with (I’ve done some of it, it does not mean it will work for you):

  1. Shift thinking from gear to thinking about idea/message.
    • Limit yourself to a single camera, single lens, polarizer and ND, and natural light for a while.
    • Shift from reading gearful info sources to gearless. For example, instead of reading about latest cameras, lenses, etc, read about history of photography. Delete all mails that mention gear without reading.
    • Read photo books by film photographers. Unfortunately, most digital photographer books I’ve seen fall into technology trap. Somehow film photographers were not writing books on Velvia or best processing of the first 1 inch of a film but on what they felt in the field, how they tried to capture that feeling and how to transfer it during processing.
    • Don’t do whatever is the latest wave in photography: HDR, astro-photography, etc. Just because it can be done does not mean each of us should do it. Try to do what photographers did 20 years ago. They were still doing great photography without latest and greatest we have.
  2. Think about the moment.
    • What’s so special about a moment that you’re photographing? Is it in any way different than an hour ago, a day ago? How to express what’s special in the best way?
    • Who is it special for? For example, I have a lot of photos of my son, but I have not published them or shown to anyone except my family and close friends, because they capture moments special for very narrow group of people (really only me and my wife).
  3. Be very critical in selection process.
    • Set a limit on number of photos to publish after weekend long trip to 2, after week long trip to 10. Make an effort to select those best and not more than that.
    • Jay Maisel once said something like “[Good] photographer is the one that does not show bad photos.” I love this saying.
    • Set some quality gates on photograph that you show. I value color, texture and subject in photograph. If something is missing, sorry it does not pass my quality gates and I’m not going to show it. For example, I have photographed a great texture of clouds, rocks, frost but they were just that – great textures. They did not have any subject – thus I don’t show them. But they come useful in my exploration of impressionism in photography.
  4. Study something related to art but not photography, like painting.
    • No need to learn how to paint, but read about artists, see documentary, look at paintings, read about paintings.
    • What is helps it to think about idea (back to my first point). When I look at paintings I think about color, light, composition, look at brush strokes and try to move my hand like that, imagine what was artists emotional state (I don’t think about brand of paint or brush they used, since I’m not interested in that).
  5. Block yourself from social photography.
    • Don’t look at Flickr, Facebook, etc. Look at photo books, magazines (that don’t mention gear).
    • It is easy to get overwhelmed by all the images we look at on websites (especially if not everyone in your social circle is critical in selection process). In some sense I feel like a composer trying to write a new tune after listening to a cacophony of an orchestra where each musician played a different tune.
  6. Analyze photographs.
    • Analyze your own photographs. What can be done better? After first time I photograph new subject or place I bring a bunch of photos none of which I show to anyone. I use them to learn what kind of photos I’d like to make. For example, I was very disappointed with photos I took on my first visit to the Palouse. Then after a while I started seeing in those photos the photos I’d really like to take.
    • Decompose someone else’s photos that you love. Why you love them? What makes them work?
    • Try to repeat someone else’s photos you love. Compare. Is it as good? If not, why? Repeat. That’s what I largely did during my first couple years of photography beyond snapshot. This made me learn a lot about interplay of objects, textures, light, color, etc.
  7. Find a local group of photographers like yourself.
    • Meet regularly in a small group to discuss each others photographs. Give a little walk out with a lot. You may contribute a little but once each member contributes a little you walk out with a lot of ideas to think about. You’ll grow together as a group.
    • Have prints that can be written on. What you might come out with from such meetings is a plan of how to improve a photograph written right on the print.
    • I was lucky enough to find such group of photographers early in my photographic journey: Thank you, everyone in Group f/5.6.

One idea that might help you but did not help me:

  • Work in projects. Put a goal to create a series of photos about something: particular kind of events, particular light, subject, time of day, etc. And produce 10-20 good photographs, each showing it in unique way. It cannot be something short lived, like a single wedding, but it can be single element of a wedding shown thru multiple weddings.

The reason it did not work for me is because I’m not systematic in my photography. I go to photograph something for a project and end up seeing something else that I’d rather photograph in that particular moment. Or my mood changed and I’m not interested in photographing in the same style or mood.

Hopefully, some of you might find this helpful. Happy photographing!

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