There is a big, wonderful world out there with a hundred lifetime’s worth of images to capture. But some days, it’s hard to find that spark of inspiration. If you’re shooting just for personal enjoyment or you’re hitting the pavement trying to make a living with your photography, you’ve probably asked yourself, “Why do I keep doing this?”
It’s not an easy life either way. Loved ones question why you invest in new lenses instead of saving for retirement. People with nine-to-five jobs ask how do you live with the uncertainty of working as a photographer. We all have to pay our bills by selling our images and sometimes this leads to a creative block.
If you’re like me, you probably started out taking photos of things you enjoy. You explored a subject that caught your eye. You’ve probably moved on to explore other subjects, sometimes going back to that first one and sometimes not seeing a single thing that you find interesting. Often this is when we think we need that new “whatever” piece of equipment or that we need to travel to some foreign land.
I recall when I was in art school hearing someone once say that there is a lifetime’s worth of photography within a mile of your house. This is probably true, but so often it can be hard to find that inspiration we seek out in those hidden places. So what do I do when I can’t see what is right in front of my eye? How can we find the spark to make the mundane extraordinary?
Last night, I was leading a group of photographers as they explored food photography. Watching them work through the steps to compose and light a subject reminded me how I first started, of that first subject that sparked my interest and I realized that it had nothing to do with the subject itself but my curiosity about the subject that led me to examine and photograph it.
For me, the first subject I really enjoyed photographing and led me down this path was live concerts. I started going to see music at the young age of fourteen in the 1980s. It was a great time in my life and a very exciting time in the music world and I wanted to capture the energy and emotions of the punk rock world I was a part of.
Today I still enjoy going to see live performances and I’ll often photograph them, although that’s not my main subject anymore. I’m older, the music isn’t the same, and I’m not the same. But I’m still curious. Curiosity is my muse.
So what do we do when that spark of inspiration isn’t there? Last night it was seeing others being inspired that pushed me forward. But that’s not always the case. Trying a new technique, seeing how the bokeh of a new lens looks and meeting people I’ve never met before— these are all examples of how my curiosity expresses itself. Being able to identify what it is about photography that gives me inspiration has allowed me to cultivate it. When I’m without a vision for a photograph, I find ways to pique my curiosity. I read books and talk with people. I do anything other than photography that leads me to question and wanting to know more.
You might ask yourself what drives you to take photographs. Is it trying to capture that moment with your children? Trying to show others the beauty you see in the natural world? Are you amazed at the diversity of humanity and the many cultures we have upon this earth? The pure genius of a well-designed building? All of these questions can lead you to want to know more and to share what you see and what you’ve learned.
Identify what’s inside of you that drives you to shoot and cultivate it. Take time to sit with a subject in the moment. Go see the mountain top, but pause a minute to take it in before you worry about the exposure and composition. I can teach anyone to make a proper exposure (heck, most modern cameras can do it with just a minimum of input). I can teach the theories of color and design. I cannot teach how to find and grow a passion for exploration. But if you are reading this, you probably already have it. So I can encourage you to grow it.
There are a few steps I take when inspiration eludes me: I look for the simplicity in a subject. I look for the complexity in a subject. I look for the design or lack of it. Often I look at what’s behind me when I am taking the photograph I think I want, and then I see something even more amazing.
When you’re out photographing your children at the park and you have in mind the perfect photo of them coming down the slide or whatever, remember why you’re there. You want to capture them being themselves and having fun. So let them play and see the spark they have. The best shot may be the joy on their faces as they are running to the slide.
So last night we captured the commercial shot. But then I looked, I explored, I let my curiosity lead my eye. The spark was there and I found it that night by helping others and being curious about what they saw in the subject. This spark of curiosity is why I am a photographer.
By Tim Farmer