10 ways to break photographer's block

A spot of pinhole photography may help you break your photographer's block.

As a writer, I know the feeling all too well – with a sense of dread and a deep sense of apathy, I stare at the blinking cursor and the completely blank TextMate document. I have ten thousand thoughts and feelings and stories that are chomping at the bit to get told, but it’s just so difficult to get started… And the exact same thing can happen to me when I’m taking photos.

So… What can you do to get out there and beat photographer’s block? What can you do when your camera’s batteries are charged, your memory card is fresh, the weather is fabulous, and the light is reflecting tantalizingly off your expensive glass lenses, but your inspiration is just kicking it on a rocking chair on the porch with a cold ice tea, like a metaphor stretched to well beyond the sensible breaking point?

Fear ye not, my photo siblings… Here’s my Top 10 tips to breaking the photographers’ block.

1. The 100 step challenge

The 100 step challenge is one I’ve promoted here on Photocritic before – because it’s one of those things I’ve found work incredibly well indeed. It’s easy: Grab your camera, and start walking. Count your steps. After 100 steps, stop where you are, and where you’re standing, you have to take a photograph.

“But there won’t be anything there”, I hear you cry. Well, yes, but that’s the point. The idea behind the 100 step challenge is to force yourself to see scenes and to create pictures even if there’s nothing there to be seen. It’s kind of like free association writing, where you just start writing, and keep your hand moving even if you have nothing to say – sometimes, the greatest things are created when you’ve run out of things to say.

Even if you don’t get a single good photo out of your 100-step challenge, you’ll have had a nice walk out of it, right?

2. Recreate a photograph you love

Everyone has a photo that they really like. Hopefully, you’ve got a few hundred photos in mind – think about the great photographers who’ve lived before you, and pick one of their photos. Then go ahead and copy it – sure, it’ll be plagiarism, but you’ll learn something in the meantime.

The photo on the right is Still waiting (Yorgos III), from my Flickr stream. Click on it to see it bigger.

3. Learn from the greats

Only in the last few weeks, I’ve written about The top 50 photography websites and 50 amazing flickr streams. That’s 100 URLs worth of inspiration. Pick one at random, study their style, and either recreate one of their photos, or use the observations you’ve learned about style to create a photograph in a similar style.

Flickr especially tends to be open to questions, so if you’re struggling to recreate a style or a ‘feel’ – go ahead and post your best try to Flickr, and ask the photographer whose work you’re imitating where you went wrong…

4. Self Portraiture

The only model you’ll have consistently available is yourself – go ahead, do something awesome. Use make-up if you don’t usually use make-up. Wear girl’s clothes if you’re a boy, or vice-versa. Try to make a recognisable portrait of yourself without showing your face. Go crazy – here’s some inspiration.

Photo on the right: Self portrait sans self

5. Rapid Fire

120 minutes – 120 different photos. Related to the 100 step challenge, but more hectic. This works well with street photography especially – go ahead, shoot first and ask questions later. You may end up with 120 duds, of course, but hell, it’s a lot of fun to come up with them anyway, right?

6. Play the Random game

Play the Random Game – which you do by calling up a Wordsmith random word of the day. That’s the word you have to try to illustrate with a photograph.

If you’re struggling, plug the word into Google Image Search. If it comes up with something, then go ahead and try to copy it!

Bonus challenge: As I was writing this, the word that came up randomly was Bloviate. Illustrate that :)

7. Flickr’s Interestingness


This is Skatezophrenia, from my Flickr stream. Click on it to see it bigger.

I keep telling people this, but if you manage to stay uninspired even after browsing Flickr’s Interesting in the last 7 days for half an hour, you may as well hang up your photographic spurs.

If you want to continue exploring, find the Flickr name of a photographer you admire (or one you’ve just discovered), and plug their name into the Flickr Scout tool from Big Huge Labs, sorting by Best Position – that’ll list a users ‘most interesting’ photos – a great way to get an introduction to a user’s most popular photographic work.

8. Try something new

Lamb of God at Sonisphere IPhotography generally comes in a ton of genres, and I bet you a lot of money that you’re not as conversant in all of them. So why not try to work on improving your work in one genre? For me personally, portraiture really clicked after I had done a load of animal and live band photography.

Not convinced? Well, then… Start a whacky project, like photographing only feet for a few days, or taking photos of toilet locks (see also). If that doesn't float your boat... Have you tried panoramas (see CleVR)? HDR (see our guide / HDR on Flickr)? Portraiture (see “Portraiture: Borrow their soul!” and Do It Yourself: Build A 1600W Studio Broadlight at Shutterbug)? Nude photography (see Renoux’ work and my own Nude photography 101: Photographing your girlfriend)?

How about macro photography (on Flickr)? Long exposure photography (on Flickr)? Photojournalistic photography? Astrophotography (on Flickr)? Street or candid photography (on Flickr, Wikipedia and Photo.net’s guide)? Paperazzi-style photography? Food photography (for all the icky tricks, read my article)? War photography (my modest contribution can be found in this Flickr set)?

Kite aerial photography? Lomography? Night photography? Infrared photography? The list is long, and this is only a small selection of ideas…

Surely, there’s one style or another where you feel that perhaps you could try it again, and improve a little?

Photo: Lamb of God at Sonisphere

9. Don’t take any photos

Perhaps if you don’t feel like taking photos, it means that you’re not ready to take any photos. Hey, it could happen.

Dig out your library, see if there’s any of your photos you’ve missed. Re-edit some photo sets. Re-upload some of your photos to Flickr, and see if you can’t get some inspiration from your old work.

10. Stop procrastinating

What are you doing reading these guides on the internet anyway? Grab your camera, get out there, do stuff. Stop moaning. No, seriously, outside. Or inside, for that matter. Just do it already!

11. Help your fellow photographers

Do you have something that breaks you out of a rotten spell of photography block every time? Or even just some of the time? Or perhaps just once? The tips above do it for me every time (especially 7, 5 and 2, to be honest, but I guess it’s more important to find something that works for you)… Go on, leave a comment and tell us how you broke your dry spell!

Hat tip to @karbassi on Twitter for the idea for this article!