Breaking Shooter’s Block

If writers get writer’s block, do photographers get shooter’s block? Whatever you want to call it, we photographers are sometimes stumped for an idea of what we should place in front of the lens.

Snapping out of these doldrums (sorry for the pun) is usually just a matter of trying to see something new or seeing familiar subjects in new ways. Sometimes a fun exercise or two is all you need to get your creative gears spinning once again.

The following suggestions for exercising your eye come from a variety of sources (and one of those sources happens to be the brain of yours truly), but one source I must recommend for shooters who could use some help regaining their vision of the world is the writing of Freeman Patterson. His two books Photography And The Art Of Seeing and Photographing The World Around You are both excellent sources for subject ideas and techniques to get you viewing your surroundings in a fresh fashion.

But if you want to go out and shoot right now, here are a couple exercises to try that are based on Patterson’s suggestions. Pick a unit of measurement (e.g. a city block, a meter, a mile, a furlong, whatever), then go out your front door. Go straight for 4 of that unit of measurement. Then, turn right and go 7 of that unit. When you get to the end, take at least 30 photos of anything within the ten meters/yards of where you stopped.

Here’s another one. Get a hula hoop. Go to a place that might have some fun stuff to photograph in your subject matter. A few suggestions: a forest, a junkyard, the city dump (but maybe bring a nose plug), a garden, etc. Now, take the hula hoop, spin around and throw it in a random direction. Take 30 photos of things that fall inside the perimeter of the hula hoop. A macro lens may help with this one, but you might be able to manage without.

Now, those suggestions are not likely to land you a lot of opportunities to photograph any moving subjects. If you’re inclined to have a person in front of your lens, but you don’t happen to have a willing model on hand, perhaps it’s time to try a bit of street photography.

John Brownlow has some excellent suggestions for street photography, in particular overcoming shyness. Check out his article on the subject here. Here is the beginning of his technique for getting started shooting street photography:

Here’s how I suggest you begin to lose your fear. Take four rolls of film and tell yourself that you are going to shoot those four rolls as if you had no fear. Just those four, no more. You are going to believe that you have a total right to be doing what you are doing, and that people are going to accept you. Now shoot those rolls, without worrying if the pictures are any good or not. That’s not what we’re working on here…

To read further, click the link above and follow some of his ideas for getting out of a creative rut that may be caused by the fear of photographing strangers.

If, however, shyness isn’t a difficulty but you are still looking for something a little more unique than your city’s daily life, start planning to shoot at an event. Is there an upcoming festival in your area? A parade? A concert you can shoot? Professional wrestling? A hot dog eating contest?

At all of these kinds of events, people will be expecting the presence of photographers and you shouldn’t have any trouble getting either natural behaviour or willing participation in your photography. When present at such events, I find one helpful technique is to imagine I am covering the spectacle for a local newspaper or a magazine. I ask myself what images would best capture the spirit of the event and what would best compliment a story. You may be surprised at how this will get you moving around and interacting with the players of the events. Whereas you might naturally be inclined to find a comfortable spot and root yourself to it, if you feel like you have a job to do, you will find yourself more willing to challenge yourself to find the best possible coverage of the event.

So, start scanning event listings in your local newspaper and online. Also, ask your friends to keep you abreast of any events that may be of interest to a photographer. That’s exactly how I learned about Calgary’s First Annual Zombie Walk. Without the reminder of a helpful friend, I would never have witnessed the march of a few hundred undead through the downtown streets. An occasionally good source of event information is What’s on When (which, I should note, is a good place to check if you’re planning a trip with flexible dates – you don’t want to end up in Edinburgh a week after the Fringe Festival has ended).

Perhaps event photography isn’t where your passion lies. Perhaps you don’t know where your passion lies. One option is to begin participating in some competitions. Both DPChallenge and Fred Miranda run weekly competitions that feature talented photographers and stiff competition. Each week, a new topic will be assigned and you will have to shoot your photo within the week. The winners are decided by votes from users of the sites. Above all else, winners with get a shot of pride at having bested a talented group of peers. But, perhaps an even greater reward is just the motivation these contests can provide. Similar competitions are also available at Worth1000 and other sites.

Some of the talent at these sites may be daunting for a blocked shooter and not everyone thrives of competitions with others. An alternative is to check’s Word of the Day and give yourself some time to produce a photo illustrating that word or a concept related to it.

If there is no shortage of interesting subjects for you to shoot, but you still find yourself a little unmotivated, perhaps try some new shooting techniques. Do you normally shoot in colour? Try seeing the world in black and white. Never tried cross processing? Give it a go (and yes, you can try it digitally if you want). Never use your flash? See how you can get some different results with it. Always use your flash? See what you can do with natural light. Normally use a tripod? Consider throwing your camera into the air.

The idea here is to break out of your routines. The easiest way to get out of a rut is to change your direction, so do something that doesn’t follow the same path you’ve been taking. Examine your habits then see if you can do something different or even opposite to what you are used to. If you are feeling uninspired while using your current techniques, it’s probably time to stop living in your comfort zone and try something new.

As I think of more, I would like to add further ideas for shooting, but I would be happy to have contributions from readers as well. If you have a good idea, please consider adding it in the comments below.

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