Every photographer in the world has dealt with burnout at some point in their career. Photography is fun but the drive for improvement becomes challenging. Yes this challenge can be fun but over time that challenge becomes taxing on your mind, which leads to burnout.
Whether you’re a hobbyist or a seasoned veteran behind the lens, at some point in your photography career you may find yourself lacking inspiration to pick up the camera, this is burnout.
Call it whatever you want: burnout, slump, funk or fatigue — it sucks and it’s never easy seeing yourself clear of it.
In my experience I’ve found this lack of photographic desire comes from a few similar causes:
- The need or feeling to keep being creative and forcing those imaginative juices to flow.
- Applying too much pressure to keep snapping pictures even when your subject matter doesn’t excite you.
- Not having a go-to avenue for snapping pictures, a.k.a. The Burnout Buster.
They’re similar, in one respect but deep down they’re not, and that will be the crux of this article.
But to begin with, I want to explain learning curve and something called skill ceiling and/or floor, because understanding that is the key to understanding why you’ve burnt out in the first place.
Your “Skill Ceiling” and What It Means To Hit It
In sports it’s commonplace to hear a player described as “having a high ceiling but an incredibly low floor.” Essentially what they’re saying is, at his best this baseball player might be near Babe Ruth caliber player but at his worst, he shouldn’t even be in the big leagues. Not all players have a high ceiling, not all have a low floor, either. It’s possible to raise both, especially your skill floor. But pushing your ceiling, that is to say, expanding your skill and knowledge of a subject, isn’t always easy.
The most common refrain you’ll hear from seasoned photographers is that they love the challenge of new subjects or types of photography.
Photography at its most basic level doesn’t have a very large barrier of entry. It’s an easy learning curve and when you first begin snapping pictures it’s as though every single frame that “comes out” will be a winner in your mind. To you it’ll feel like making great photos is the easiest thing ever.
This is the learning curve, of which photography as a hobby doesn’t have a very steep one. There isn’t a photographer out there that doesn’t have a picture of an old rusty lock or door knob in their year one collection. At this stage in your career almost any photograph that turns out in focus with decent exposure is National Geographic worthy.
Beginners level photography is easy but as you learn what truly makes a photograph great, you realize how low your current skill floor is and you’ll discover just how much you have to learn.
As a beginner your floor is as low as it will ever go, you can never be a worse photographer but your skill ceiling is as high as possible, the potential is infinite.
Learning new photographic techniques as a new photographer will really enlighten you as to how little you know but it will also progress and advance you further as a photographer overall. Unfortunately it’s by pushing your abilities that you will potentially cause your hobby to become frustrating and soon you might bump into your first skill ceiling.
This is where the challenge, the pressure and frustrating with forcing those creative juices will first appear. Every single photographer has bumped into this skill ceiling. Pushing your abilities beyond this fictional ceiling is what will ultimately advance you further as a photographer.
Whether you’re a newbie or a professional it’s not easy to push this ceiling even higher, this invisible barrier is where burnout manifests itself.
Reason 1: Pressuring Yourself To Be Creative Behind The Lens Leads To Burnout
Most of us began taking photos because we liked the results we’d get back from the developer or see on our screen. The instant gratification, especially when digital came along, tickled a part of our brain that released endorphin, making us happy.
From there we began developing an eye for what makes a good photo. As time went on and your skills developed you began chasing newer and more original pictures, continuously seeking to make new photos better than the last.
This is hard for even the greatest creative minds in the world.
No longer does the ability to make a photo you’re happy with come naturally and the pressure to do so becomes so frustrating and negative, you put the camera away never wanting to deal with that stress again.
But here’s a tip. Pretty much any photo, drawing, sketch, artwork, etc. you’ve ever seen has had direct inspiration from something else. You need to recognize and embrace this source of creativity if you’re going to break out of the fallacy assuming originality only comes from within.
Reason 2: How Turning Fun Into Work Leads To Burnout
There’s few professional photographers that haven’t had to gut through a boring day of photography shooting head-shots at an office with little room for creativity and no desire for experimentation from the clients.
Not every single day of your life should be consumed with photography.
But this feeling isn’t reserved for professionals. Long before I was a professional, as I’m sure many of you have experienced, you become the presumed official photographer at all family events. Great if you’re really new to photography and you want to use the opportunity to learn a little. Not so great if you had a small gig the night before and are not prepared. You haven’t dumped your memory cards yet. You’re still kind of hung over. Your lenses are dirty. And your hand is tired from single fisting 6lbs of camera and lens for five hours on the dance floor.
While it’s nice to get some snaps of your family, it’s important to remember that not every single day of your life should be consumed with photography.
There is truth in the old saying “too much of a good thing…”
Personally, I love shooting hockey, buuuuut 50~ games of it in just 6 months was fatiguing at times.
Reason 3: Not Having a Go To Burnout Buster Will Break You
We’ve all had this thought “I have nothing to shoot!”
Well let me stop you right there. You almost certainly do have something you can go shoot right now if you really wanted to. Usually, it’s right there in front of your face and it seems so commonplace to you that you feel it’s not worth focusing a lens on. Sometimes you have to view you opportunities as an outsider.
How Do I Recognize My Burnout and Resolve These Issues?
Expand your wings and reach outside of your comfort zone.
There we have it, the fallacy that “originality has to come from within”, the problem wherein your life is consumed with photography and the inability to find something, anything to shoot.
Combining just two of these three of these will have you rubbing against your skill ceiling pretty quickly, potentially leading to burnout.
When that occurs you’re probably going to find it very frustrating to see progression and advancement of your hobby slow to a snails pace. Before you know it your new hobby is your old hobby and now you’re bingeing on Netflix Saturday afternoon instead of hiking a beautiful section of the East Coast Trail.
Firstly, Let’s Discuss How to Inspire Creativity and Originality
Once upon a time I would take pretty much every job that was thrown at me, even subject matters I wasn’t overly fond of. At one point I remember discussing with a friend that “I would never shoot weddings.”
A few weddings later and here I am a professional wedding photographer, loving every second of it.
The trouble with building your creative prowess and finding the inspiration to shoot original photographs is that is usually comes from unlikely sources. If you’re surrounding and limiting your life experiences only to things you’re already very interested in — hockey, fashion, cars, movies, hiking, pets, whatever— you’ll be over-saturated with ideas from solely from those elements of your life (potentially leading to burnout and losing interest in those hobbies, too!).
How I Expanded My Comfort Zone
As I say, you need to reach outside of your comfort zone and experience something new. For example, I shot a lot of street photography, which educated me on a lot of elements of photography that I now incorporate into my wedding photography. By shooting street I learned how to predict body language of people, how to converse with absolute strangers at the drop of a hat, how to work with natural sunlight, how to pose people who 10 seconds before were not about to have their photo taken and will only give you 5 seconds to take their photo, how to sell a reluctant subject on the idea of having their photo taken, how to work in really poor natural lighting conditions, how to think on my feet, and so on.
How did I learn to shoot street you might ask? Check out my article titled “How I Learned to Shoot Street Photography and How You Can Too” which really gets into the tricks of the trade for shooting street photographs and how to begin doing so.
This education for me was life altering as a photographer. Breaking out of my comfort zone by talking to strangers, getting accepted or even rejected wasn’t easy but it made me a significantly better photographer and broke through multiple skill ceilings for myself.
Most importantly, as I began to expand my wings outside of my comfort zone I learned new ways to be creative by working with brand new subjects in new situations. I was doing something completely brand new and my creative juices flowed like never before.
But let’s say you’re fairly accomplished already and there are few avenues left unexplored, what now? Well this next tip comes from Darrell Edwards, a very accomplished photographer, designer and art director.
One Word: Magazines
Way, way back when myself and Darrell were out for coffee and we went to a book store, flipping through magazines. He explained how he does this routinely as a way of discovering new styles, trends and ideas for photography. The goal was to essentially avoid anything you already have an interest in, to pick up magazines you would never grab for your own enjoyment.
Next thing I know, we’re flipping through Tractors Monthly, a magazine almost explicitly for farmers. Here we were, Darrell and I nosing through this magazine, a topic so beyond anything we’d ever naturally be interested in. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t making jokes and laughing a lot, but…
A few months later I had a wedding on a farm and a piece of knowledge I had tucked away from Tractor’s Monthly magazine actually came in handy and inspired a photograph for this wedding.
The point of these anecdotes is to say that as a new or old photographer you have to put yourself out there to experience new things, explore new avenues of adventure and really break that comfort zone if you’re going to push through the wall of creative stagnation.
Secondly, Battle the Consuming World of Photography Before It Swallows You Whole
The number one thing I do to avoid photographic burnout: Don’t touch, think or even look at photography for short periods of time, usually in the winter months of the year when it’s easier to put the camera on the desk for a couple weeks without any deadlines looming. These little breaks or ‘no-photography holidays’ allows my brain to reset, forgetting any of the past stresses I’d placed on myself.
I don’t do this often but I do it enough to keep the burnout monster at bay.
As a professional, a simple way I avoid touching a camera is that I do not always take pictures at big events, family functions or anything else. Sure it could be considered it a photo op, but it probably isn’t and you likely still have a camera on your phone should you truly need to snap a picture of your drunk uncles dancing the Macarena like it’s 1994.
Leaving the clunky camera at home allows a family outing to be a source of relaxation, not frustration. Don’t pressure yourself by becoming the “official family photographer.” As time goes on in your career there’s no difference being stuck at a computer processing personal photos than photos for a client, either way it’ll feel like work eventually. As well you’re probably going to resent the time and effort put into free work, serving only to further drive a stake between you and the camera when the time comes to get paid.
Leaving the clunky camera at home allows a family outing to be a source of relaxation, not frustration.
I want to point out that studies have shown that when you raise that camera to your face the area of your brain tasked with making memories says “hey, you got this? great, I’m gonna take a nap”. It shuts off because you’re using a lot of brain power to focus on making that picture just right.
If I’m at a concert, show or sporting event as a spectator — and I happen to have a camera — I’ll take a couple snaps at the beginning, put it away and let the professionals do their jobs while I enjoy the show, remembering every moment. Later on, I’ll use Getty, Flickr or Twitter to find snaps from the pros if I want a certain picture from that event for my own personal memories.
I know, I know there is a difference between how a pro and a hobbyist may look at this, but it’s the same idea. I see too many wedding guests with their cameras raised up to their faces the whole day. Those people won’t remember nearly as much of the day as they’d like. To make things worse, because they’re so busy snapping pictures, they’re not as involved and won’t enjoy themselves as much, especially if they’re shooting so much they’re basically working — circle back to what I’ve said about not becoming the family photographer.
But that’s a whole other story, which you can read about in my article Should You Allow Guest Photography During Wedding Ceremony.
Sit back, relax and recognize what is and what isn’t a photo opportunity. As you do you’ll be full of gusto, quickly jumping allover those organic photo opportunities.
These forced down periods will allow your brain to reset. This reset lets you see things in a new light and the constant pressure you’ve been applying fades away.
Lastly, The Burnout Buster
Discover that one thing you might have great access to or ability to go shoot and do it. Start a project for yourself, something you can come back to time and time again. Something that requires little to no effort other than having a camera. And something that over long periods of time will show its fruits as you do more work within the project.
A long time ago to keep myself fresh shooting and interacting with people I began snapping pictures of interesting characters who served me from behind the counter at their job. The aforementioned Darrell Edwards has a long running series called “At The Grocery” where in he snaps photographs of the sometimes mesmerizing’ly uniform products on shelves at the grocery store. It’s rather eye pleasing, you should check it out.
Point of this is, they were easy photographic tasks meant to keep us in shape during a period of burnout. Something you could easily call on to have an motivational excuse to shoot a photo. A self imposed rule that you always take a picture of X-Subject, whenever X-Subject comes around.
Last but not least, the best way to keep burnout at bay: always have your camera. This seems a bit contradictory when pitted against the notion you should have “no-photography-holidays”, I do realize this. But it actually only works if you have those holidays. Combining this plan of action with a project and you’re on your way to defeating burnout.
Realistically there will be times when the clunky DSLR camera stays home. But nowadays pretty much everyone has their phone with them anywhere they go. Bonus too, the iPhone and Android cameras are better than consumer DSLRs from 2010. You could make a print 4 foot by 6 foot with any iPhone picture, so you don’t always need a clunky DSLR.
Follow my 3 tips and I believe you’ll be setting yourself up to continuously progress with little effort. Soon great moments of inspiration will strike and creativity will flow easier than it ever has before.