How To Break Creative Blocks Through Photo Essays
One of my favorite things to do is take my dog to the beach at sunrise for a run. More often than not, the camera comes with me. However, a few years ago I noticed that all my shots were becoming similar: Dog running with ball. Dog running in water. Dog running in water with ball. Boring.
If I was bored of these shots, how could I expect an audience to endure them? More importantly, how could I expect to grow as a photographer if I wasn’t trying new things during these personal shooting opportunities?
I decided to truly take advantage the fantastic creative freedom I have every time I head out the door with my camera, even if it is a rather routine trip to the same old beach. But how? What was I going to do differently?
My solution was to assign myself a photo essay, which would include the 6 Must-Have Shots for a Photo Essay. A routine, boring situation was now an assignment, and I was going to approach it as if I were hired by a magazine to document the story of this dog’s morning outing.
Instead of going to the beach and just snapping images, I would go with an intention. I’d have a shot list, a purpose, and a vision for what I would walk away with.
The experience was fantastic, and I’ve found it’s an incredible exercise for breaking through those creative barriers – the photographer’s version of writer’s block. I now will create projects or assignments for myself when I feel stuck, and it is very helpful.
On a regular basis, I’ll pull out books and pull up websites to study the images of other photographers, looking for things to try out myself, for new ways of seeing a scene, for anything that might inspire. I also use it as a practice to remember who I am, what I like and don’t like, how far from my own style or habits I want to venture and what I want to retain. (READ: 3 tough truths about finding your photographic style)
So for a couple hours the night before my “assignment day” with my dog, I looked through the images of pet photographers whose styles I admire and which speak to me. I focused on which aspects of their styles that I recognize in me but have not so far incorporated in my own work. What settings or compositions have I not yet experimented with? What rules have I been clinging to that maybe I need to give myself permission to break?
Armed with an assignment, fresh inspiration, and a new lock on what of me I want to keep and what of me I want to push forward, I headed out.
For two mornings, I shot with purpose. While my dog did pretty much the same thing as usual — run at full speed for two hours — I looked at everything we usually do together during our runs with an eye for how I would capture images for each of the six categories of photos in an essay.
How would I tell this incredibly simple story, and how would I do it in a way that doesn’t feel old to me?
I had the same ingredients as always: a few miles of empty beach, an ice plant-covered cliff lining one side, the ocean lining the other, a morning that shifts from black to purple to grey and pink, a neon green tennis ball, and a dog with endless energy. What of this story have I not photographed before? What have I photographed that I can do differently? I approached every photograph with more analysis, and the more I did that, the more inspired and excited I became.
Some shots worked, some didn’t. Many fell into the “been there, done that” category. But overall, I felt like I’d ripped through a thick wall that I’d been lounging against for too long.
Editing The Essay
Out of the pile of images from two morning shoots, I narrowed it down to my wide edit. (READ: 5 steps to a polished portfolio)
I separated the images into which category I’d shot them for, then went through each category again and again always keeping in mind: “Does this tell the story? Is it a part of the story I’ve already told before?”
The words of colleagues echoed in my head: You are judged by the worst photo in your portfolio. With that in mind, I had two questions to ask during final sorting: Which photos truly tell the story and fill it out or continue it forward; and which photos am I clinging to for emotional reasons but they really don’t have a place in this story?
My goal was to whittle it down to 12 images that spanned the 6 types of images for a photo essay. As you can see in the photo essay below, I (cough) kept in a few more than that (cough). But, the process is more important than the finished product in this case, and my reluctance to slice out images I’m attached to is a skill I can polish at a later time. Time and distance are, after all, two of the best tools for editing.
So, did I succeed with this piece? Well, that is ultimately for viewers to decide. But I know that this self-assigned photo essay helped me break through a creative barrier, hone important skills to use in shooting, storytelling, portraiture and editing, and provided a boost of joy and confidence in my personal projects. So that counts as success for me.
Steps for assigning yourself a photo essay to break a creative barrier:
1) What is one of your most boring routines or scenes? Select something that seems like there’s hardly anything to photograph, or that you’ve photographed extensively already, as your new assignment.
2) Decide on what you like about your existing photos from the location, and what want to push forward about your images. Also decide on what angle you want to take in your photo essay. What story do you want to tell?
3) Make a rough shot list. Write down any ideas that pop into your head, and add them to one of the six categories of images that form a photo essay. If it helps, use more than just words and sketch out photo ideas as drawings.
4) Shoot with your list in mind. If you find yourself working in an overly familiar way, stop and ask yourself what you can change about the shot you were just taking to make it more creative. Don’t leave until you think you have at least two solid images for each of the six categories.
5) Narrow down your images until you have 12 or so that tell the story of this place or routine. Place them in an order that tells your story in a logical way.
6) After a few days, return to your photo essay and study it. What strategies or new techniques worked for you, and what didn’t? How might you do a better job of shooting an image for a particular category of the essay? Are there shots that still feel a little routine and maybe you want to re-shoot in a fresh way? Get nitty-gritty but be sure to leave your study session thinking about everything you did right during your assignment, and revel in all the ways you got creative, experimented, and pulled off images you really love.
7) Rinse and repeat as needed.
SAND, SALT, AND SUNRISE
PS: Building effective photo essays is the core topic of Conservation Photojournalism Intensive workshops, along with many other critical elements of seeing a project through to publication.
Gain the skills necessary to craft a photography project and get your work in front of publishers. It’s an ideal workshop for anyone passionate about conservation issues, storytelling, and making a difference with your photography!
What past students say about their experience:
“What a fantastic experience. The agenda was so well planned and organized, but allowed flexibility to seize unexpected opportunities. We all learned so much about pulling together a strong story. Jaymi and Mo were wonderful, supportive mentors. Highly recommend!” – Michelle
“The course was an extraordinary experience of learning, sharing and being creative. The challenge of developing a powerful story for an association committed by heart to the conservation of their local forests leaves me full of energy to create more stories.” – Paula
“I just finished an intensive class learning so much about how to create photographs to tell a story. The lectures during this class were very relative and properly timed. The structure of the class from pre-planning to capture were excellent. The information & experience I gained in this class with be used in all facets of my photography and the stories that I tell.” – Jeanne
“I learned far more than I imagined possible this week and can’t wait to put these new skills into action!” – Teri