All of us have those moments in photography where we face a creative block. The subject matter that we love and have always found interesting to shoot now suddenly seems boring and uninspiring. For both the working pro as well as the weekend warrior, you can’t risk having these dry spells.
Everyone has a different way to deal with a creative block. The method I’ve found to work best is to shoot a self-assignment, but spice things up by inviting a few photographer friends, call in some models or choose a stellar location for a road trip. I call this gathering a Photo Circus, and participating photographers are the photo geeks. It‚’s an intense week of shooting with friends who share a serious love for making photos.
The creative slump happens. Most of this is to blame on a photographer’s photo diet. When you tend to shoot on the go, pushing yourself and moving from shoot to shoot, you quickly find yourself in a creative rut. When you work too many hours and weeks pushing yourself 110 percent, your nerves fry and you find yourself emotionally spent. We call this burnout.
When you’re burned out, there’s no way you can make a photo, much less plan a shoot. It seems the time demands to shoot and digitally edit photos have outstripped the ability to get the work done in the normal 24/7 time frame in which we usually work. This phenomenon isn’t new. In the 1940s, Ansel Adams complained that he spent too much time in the darkroom and not enough time in the field shooting—and he still didn’t have enough time to process all his images.
When a photo editor calls with a job, it would be great if I could suggest that, in order to produce the best work, I start the shoot the following month since I’m creatively inert this month, or maybe ask for an extra week or two for the shoot since I know that by giving each photo idea a few takes, I’m sure to nail it perfectly. This isn’t how it works in the real world. You must be ready mentally when the phone rings and your boss or photo editor explains that you need to pack your bags for an African location to photograph the centennial camel race or to the mountains for a first ascent, and you’re leaving in three days.
When I’m recovering from burnout, I find ways to put the fun back in photography. What many photographers do to bump up their creativity is plan a photo vacation, which usually means attending a photo workshop. This is a great idea, but as someone who teaches them, "work at your own pace" isn’t a phrase I associate with photo workshops.
In fact, most workshops try to give students so much information, as well as actual field time with a camera and an instructor, that there’s little or no time to relax or work at your own pace. In other words, workshops, as the name implies, are "work" and not the best place to get through creative burnout.
Making good photography isn’t easy. I take my photography seriously, and despite its name, my Photo Circus is serious photography that’s also fun. I infuse the fun factor into these vacations by traveling with a few photographer friends.
The scenario goes like this. A couple of photographers and I decide when and where we want to go. The trip might be for a few days or a week. Once the location is decided, we determine who and what we want to photograph. This is where the contacts of all the photographers are tapped.
Last year, I did a weeklong shoot along Highway 395 on the Eastern Sierras and in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. The subjects were lifestyle, rock climbing and hiking. We had some loose contacts of possible models and locations. We met at a predetermined place, and from there we arranged from day to day possible "photo events" to shoot in the nice morning and evening light, either using each other as models or calling from our talent list. The events unfolded as if on a road trip, and we shot as each new event engaged us, or maybe some of us didn’t shoot at all. In the evenings, it was dinner and a slideshow of the day’s work.
This past spring, I had a great opportunity to shoot backcountry skiing and snowboarding with two pro photographers and friends of mine, Dawn Kish and Doug Marshall, along with videographer Scott Rulander. I’ve been skiing since I was a little kid, but to shoot skiing isn’t something I’ve played with much. I had always figured that the market for ski photos was already filled with photographers who produced excellent work. That was fine with me, since it allowed me to do what I really love to do in winter—ski as much as possible.
Doug arranged a great location for our Photo Circus—the party would spend a week at the new Icefall Lodge in the Canadian Rockies. Our four models were either pro or semi-pro skiers, snowboarders and telemark skiers.
A short helicopter ride from the town of Nelson brought us to the lodge perched at tree line. After the helicopter dropped our gear and us at the lodge, we’d be alone for a full week. The location was chosen mainly because it hadn’t been photographed and for the spectacular scenery of cliffs, steeps couloirs and gleaming glaciers. To reach these mountaintops and bowls, we’d climb sans helicopter under our own power up the steep slopes with special "skins" attached to our skis that gave us all the traction needed to move uphill. Once at the top of the ski pitch, we’d remove the skins and our fast descent was assured.
I was under no pressure to shoot at all, but the energy of the group and the spectacular location made that impossible. The skiers and the landscape were perfect, making the challenge just deciding when and where to shoot. For seven days, we played in the snow and shot thousands of digital stills. Sometimes, the photographers shot the same scenes; radios allowed us to avoid getting in each other’s photos. Other times, we split off with a specific idea to shoot. The party environment and energy never let up, and the photo-video crew was shooting from sunup to sundown. Each day, we pushed our own creativity and proposed new ideas and techniques for each other. Despite a week of hard work, we left Icefall Lodge creatively reenergized, ready for our next shoot and the real work.
My favorite shot from the week at Icefall is skier Scott Miller dropping off a 30-foot cliff. The 16mm fish-eye, with its 180-degree angle of view, captures Scott perfectly in the beautiful environment of our Photo Circus playground.
Bill Hatcher travels the world in search of adventure and good stories. A regular contributor to National Geographic and Outside, his images have appeared on the cover of 40 magazines. Visit his website at www.billhatcher.com.