Rejuvenating your photography – some thoughts for a New Year of image making
The end of one calendar year and the beginning of the next is always an occasion for pause and reflection. As photographers, we have a tendency to assess the development of our work over the past 12 months and to look at the direction we'd like to take in the forthcoming year.
It can be a train of thought fraught with anxiety: we wonder whether our work is good enough, if we're being creative enough in our photographic endeavours. We worry about becoming jaded with the medium, about losing our "mojo", about failing. We then seek ways of rejuvenating our passion, of rediscovering what it was about photography that first got us hooked.
The tips I'm about to propose for reinvigorating your passion for photography are not new. But they're sentiments that we all forget as we become more involved in the medium, particularly when we begin to pursue it professionally. Mired in the What and How (or How Much) and When, we often lose sight of the Why. So, here are four ways of rediscovering the Why for yourself.
1. Value your own vision (aka Stop comparing your work with that of other photographers)
New photographers often tell me, "I'd love to be able to shoot like [insert famous photographer's name here]". My response is usually: "Why?".
You have your own way of seeing the world. Why ignore that? Why sacrifice your own creativity by attempting to mimic someone else's work?
Above all, do not compare your work with those produced by other established photographers. It's the first step on the road to self-doubt. Don't go there.
Appreciate the work of other photographers for the unique and creative ways in which they let us see the world. What makes their images so powerful is that they were produced from the heart. When you shoot, shoot from the heart - let your instincts guide you. Learn to ignore that voice in your head that says: "How would [insert famous photographer's name] have shot this? How would s/he have composed this?"
Don't hide your work. Show it off - whether in an online portfolio, on Flickr, Red Bubble, 500px, Facebook and so on. When someone asks if you could photograph for them - refer them to your images. Tell them: "This is what I shoot. This is how I shoot. This is how I see the world. If you like my vision, then I'll be happy to do the job for you. If not - well, there are other photographers whose vision may be closer to what you're looking for." A customer who does not value your vision is not worth shooting for.
2. Choose your critics (aka Not everyone's an expert)
Web 2.0 and social networking have been terrific in putting photographers in touch with a wider audience. But it's also fostered a cultural climate where most everyone considers themselves an expert and a critic, even if they may know precious little of the field. You wouldn't take to the streets and canvas random people for their thoughts and opinions about your work, so why would you do the same in the online environment?
By all means, share and show off your work, but only take to heart comments (good or bad) from those whose opinions you value and, more importantly, those who you know have the experience and knowledge to back up their responses. If you're specifically looking for critique of your work, choose the forum in which you present or publish your work carefully.
3. Accept that you will be your harshest critic (aka Learn to ignore your inner-critic)
I've been prone to listening too closely to my inner-critic. You know the voice that informs you that you haven't perfectly composed according to the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Mean; the one that natters in your ear, reminding you of all the rules of photography that you have broken.
The inner-critic is a useful tool, especially for photographers beginning their journey. After a while, however, its prattling can become annoying and intrusive. Your inner-critic is the consciousness that developed while you were learning about photography; it was formed when you were discovering the rules of composition, the techniques of exposure, the mechanics of the medium. Having learned the rules, you're intuitively ready to break them to create your own unique vision, but that voice won't let you.
Even worse, it's the voice that's been created by self-doubt, the voice that scolds and says: "Why can't you shoot like so-and-so," or "Why are your pictures lacking the dramatic intent of the images taken by so-and-so".
Train yourself to ignore your inner-critic. Self-assessment is useful, but self-assess too much and you will spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the quality of your work, instead of just going ahead and producing new work.
If your inner-critic begins to harp on about composition, tell it that you'll do better next time. If it begins to question the quality of your work in comparison to that by another artist, tell it to shut up and that you're not interested in being derivative.
4. Find something new (aka Stepping outside the square)
The more experience you gain as a photographer, the fewer new subjects become available for your photography. Shoot for a few years and you'll find that your checklist of things to photograph grows shorter and shorter. And when you begin to revisit the same subjects, you run the risk of repetition. It's a creativity killer and you risk losing your "photo mojo" if it continues.
Remember the thrill of the first time you shot an event, or the excitement (and anxiety) when you did your first portrait shoot? Look for something new to photograph - whether it's a new angle on a genre in which you are already comfortable, or a completely different subject.
Work out what you're currently comfortable shooting and what you shoot well. Then, take yourself out of this comfort zone. Start by asking yourself what you would never shoot, and then go shoot it! Sometimes, it's as simple as changing the setting in which you would normally photograph - if you shoot during the day, start shooting at night; if you haven't shot in a storm, start chasing storms.
Because you're entering new territory, you'll discover new ways of seeing. You'll struggle with new challenges and most likely stuff up once or twice (in which case, you might like to listen to your inner-critic a bit as part of the learning process), but the prospect of creating something completely new will be thrilling!
As you look forward in your photography for 2012 - what lessons from 2011 will you take with you? What thoughts have you given about challenging yourself this year to make sure that photography stays fresh for you; that your passion for photography grows, and that you will be primed and ready to consider new challenges at the end of this year?