The dreaded photo slump is every photographer’s worst nightmare. It’s the dark valley of disappointment that all photographers – professional or amateur – fall into at some point during their relationship with the art form. Sometimes, the slump only lasts a few rather annoying seconds, like when a long exposure doesn’t turn out the way you were hoping or when you realize your shot of the winning touchdown is out of focus. Other times, the slump can agonizingly last for weeks or months (I once went six months without picking up or really even thinking about my camera). If gone unattended, the slump can extend for years.
Regardless of whether your camera has been collecting dust for years or if you just haven’t felt like taking pictures this week, photographers can always use a dose of inspiration. The number one trick for getting yourself out of the photo slump is to pick up your camera – it’s as simple as that. Feel the weight of it in your hands again, play around with some of the settings and take a couple test shots from where you’re sitting. Don’t worry about the photos being good. They probably won’t be. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you’re getting your camera out of storage and reminding yourself of what it feels like to look through a viewfinder again.
Next, get all of your photo gear ready as if you’re going on a big shoot. Wipe the dust off of your camera, lenses and batteries. Clean all of the glass, removing spots and fingerprints from everything. Clean out your camera bag. Throw away any garbage and put away all of the non-photo related items you’ve been storing in there. Backup, then format your memory cards. Charge all of your batteries. Take inventory of everything you have and test the equipment: lenses, flashes, batteries, memory cards. Make sure it’s all working. Going through and cleaning your equipment will remind you of what gear you have on hand and will get you excited to start shooting with it again.
Then, instead of storing everything back in your freshly cleaned camera bag, clear off a shelf somewhere in your room or house, and make that your designated space for photo equipment. The more visible and accessible the shelf, the better. This way, you can’t just shove everything back under your bed where it will remain to collect dust again. Instead, the photo shelf serves as a daily reminder of all of the equipment you own, and a visual encouragement to start using it.
The next thing you need to think about is what you want to take pictures of. This can be a really overwhelming question, especially in the midst of a slump where every option seems impossible or unappealing. The trick here is to start small – as small as a single room in your house. Wait until the early morning or late afternoon when the light is nice and the sun is pouring in through the windows. Take some time to explore your bedroom, kitchen or bathroom. Notice all of the small details you usually pass over. Don’t worry if your place is dirty or cluttered. A picture of a messy table stacked with newspapers and coffee cups can be just as compelling as a picture of a clean table decorated with flowers and candles. Photograph one room each day for a week. If you run out of rooms, explore the exterior of your house. This will not only get you shooting every day again, but it will train you to start looking at the world and all of its seemingly mundane details with a more photographic eye, even in the comfort of your own home.
One major cause of the photo slump is boredom. Maybe you’ve only been covering sports or doing portraiture for a while and you feel like you’ve lost your creativity. The trick here is to challenge yourself. Try out a type of photography you’ve never done before: long exposures, self-portraits or food. Experimenting with something new will re-energize you and remind you of why you fell in love with photography in the first place. You could also spend a week shooting with only a single fixed lens. Narrowing your options down to one focal length will force you to look at the world more carefully and to put more thought into how you’re composing your images.
A great way to stay motivated and keep up momentum is to shoot with a friend. Set up a weekly photo date and spend a few hours exploring somewhere new when the light is nice. Your friend will help keep you accountable and will make it harder for you to blow off the weekly shoot. Friends also make for great, cooperative models. Dress up in crazy outfits, bring pops and practice portraiture in a loose and relaxed setting.
If all else fails and you’re still not feeling motivated, get online and buy a new piece of gear. Nothing gets me stoked to shoot like a brand new tripod, lens or shutter release cable. Now that you’ve gone through your equipment, take note of what you don’t have and what you might want to add to your collection. If buying a new piece of equipment isn’t feasible for you or your bank account right now, just begin the research process. Start looking into what you’d be interested in buying and start a savings plan. Make it visible. Save your single dollar bills and loose change in a jar labeled with the name of the equipment you want to buy. Seeing the “Nikon 50mm f/1.8” or “Canon 135mm f/2” in bold letters on the jar will keep you from taking money back out of it when you’re strapped for cash. The waiting and anticipation while you save will only increase your excitement to get back into shooting.
If you don’t want to commit to buying a new piece of gear right away, try renting it for a trial period at a fraction of the cost of buying. Having a new piece of gear for only a short period of time will pressure you to get as much use out of it as possible. When the time comes to return the equipment, the momentum and excitement of shooting will persevere, and it might even inspire you to start saving for something new.