It’s no secret that everyone can become burnt out on what they do. Whether we are photographers, athletes, truck drivers, or teachers. If we do something long enough, maybe unless you’re a fighter pilot, professional surfer, and/or an astronaut, almost everyone will experience a period of time in their career when they’re flat-out bored and/or they suddenly arrive at a place where they question both their work and if what they’re doing is really what they should be doing.
We photographers, video producers, retouchers, and artists in general are a creative bunch and as such, it seems like spells of existential questioning are pretty much the norm. What also seems to be the norm is that people who, despite their best intentions, don’t really understand where we’re coming from when we tell them we’re burnt out. “How can you be burnt out,” they say with a sort of the same disbelief, “look what you get to do for a living!” of course that may be true, listening to those voices over our own internal burn-out meter is dangerous to both our career and our overall health and well-being.
While it may be true that our jobs may be a bit more fun than most, becoming burnt out on what we do is a real thing and, despite your friends and family’s disbelief, it’s something we should all take seriously - including recognizing when it's approaching and taking some easy precautionary steps to avoid it.
Recently, I took a walk through a local Farmer’s Market and, while I was there shooting some local produce, I found that it was something I really enjoyed. It was such an eye-opening experience that I went right home and quickly came up with a few thoughts on how we could avoid creative burnout.
*Note: The photos attached to this article have nothing to do with Farmer's Markets, but honestly, would you have clicked it, if the main images was one of carrots, bread, and/or organic humus? Yeah, me neither.
Avoiding Creative Burn-Out:
Like I mentioned earlier, almost anything we do for a paycheck is going to get monotonous after a while. This is why it’s important, in my opinion, to mix it up a bit. Whatever you want to call it, a personal day, a mental health day, taking a knee - whatever - it’s something we need to do to take ourselves out of the game for a few minutes so you can get back to a point where the need to create something comes from a healthy place. The following tips are not all-inclusive, they may work for some, and they may not work at all. These tips are based on my experience as well as on advice given to me over the years by people much more centered and creative than I am, including a conversation I had on the topic with my friend Zach Sutton.
Perhaps the easiest and most obvious way to avoid photographic burn-out is to, literally, put down the camera. But, I mean…have you actually tried this? If I’m not holding my DSLR, then I’m holding my iPhone and, quite honestly, once we train ourselves to look for moments to photograph, we see them everywhere (this is especially true during those moments when we don't have a camera on us - suddenly every moment is magical and everyone around us is ridiculously photogenic). While I do recommend taking a brief vacation from time to time (some of us call these breaks “day jobs,”) this is perhaps my least favorite way to avoid burn out. It is, however, the most effective. Though, few people would recommend quitting anything cold turkey. I agree with them.
Shoot Something Entirely Different:
I’m not suggesting making any drastic changes, after all, you need to eat, right? What I am suggesting is that during your downtime from your paid work, why not take on a project of some sort - shoot portraits, pets, or plants. A 365-project may be a little intense (and may cause it’s own anxiety and/or burnout), but why not take on something that is the complete opposite from your bread and butter. Take a look through the portfolios of some well-known photographers and look at their personal work - it’s almost always a 180 degree from what they shoot on a regular basis. Not only is it a good way to break up the monotony, but working out of your area can bring in an entirely new set of fans and followers (and clients of course too). Take a moment and look through the work Joey L did with the Mentawi or the Holy Men in India. Both listed on his website under personal work and both, in my opinion, brilliant.
Switch Up Genres:
Shoot fashion? Try shooting engagements. Shoot lifestyle? Try shooting high fashion. Shoot seniors? Try shooting seniors of the elder variety. While it may not be the easiest way to avoid burnout, it could be perhaps one of the most fun. Gather up your friends and play dress-up, take a hike and shoot landscapes, dress up your pet and play animal photographer. Have fun with it. The photos in this article, for example, are from a shoot I did recently that was a departure of sorts for me. While it still has a basis in what I normally shoot (commercial lifestyle), there were several aspects that are different, including wardrobe, style, and some of the overall mood. Of course, sometime mid-shoot I defaulted back to what I was familiar with, but it worked. I had a lot of fun shooting it, and the response to this particular set was far more positive than I'd expected.
Nothing has reinvigorated my love of photography than my reintroduction to shooting film. Like many other people my age (and older), I grew up in a time when film was literally the only option. Now that the novelty of digital has worn off a bit, more and more people are returning to film and finding solace and a sort of relaxation aspect within the medium. “What I care about is slowing down, taking my time, and making sure that when I push the shutter, the shot counts.” says friend and fellow Fstoppers writer Mike Kelley. I couldn’t agree more. That time spent in setting up, composing, and generally making sure things count, is a peaceful break from the rush of getting everything done digitally. In those few extra moments, I've found that it's possible to reconnect with what brought photography into my life.
Change Your Creative Game Entirely:
As photographers, we’re visual people. We are often hired because, aside from our technical ability, we can see things that others don’t - or can’t - and we photograph them. So, when we reach of point of creative burnout, why not try to change it up completely? Maybe put down that camera (for a few moments), and pick up a pen? Or a guitar? Or a paintbrush? Or a chisel? Expressing your creativity in one area to see how it affects another seemingly dissimilar area is an experiment which can (and often does) lead to some pretty amazing discoveries.
Travel / Move to a Different Location:
This is obvious, but this is also expensive. As much as we’d love to pack up and go somewhere new to shoot, it isn’t always that easy. However, there is something to be said about realizing when we’ve topped out in one area and it’s time to pick up and head somewhere else. Perhaps this isn’t the option for everyone, but it’s an option and should be kept open. The idea of starting out in a new area can give us just the right amount of fear which helps us take our work to a new level (and thus avoid the monotony which may burn us out).
If there is one thing I’ve learned about creative people, is that aside from the fact that they’re creative, they can also be obsessive to the point of self-destruction. Taking a look through our various social media feeds, it’s easy to see who works well into the night, who gives up weekends, who spends little time with their family, and who, unfortunately, has reached a point where they’re creatively burnt out and have nothing left in them. There is nothing more wasteful, than someone who may be at the peak of their creativity, but does nothing to nourish and protect it. Creative Burnout is real and it can happen and these are just a few steps we can take to avoid it.
I'd love to hear some of the steps you take to avoid creative burnout.
John Schell | Instagram | Vimeo | Facebook
Travel is by far the best way to get a mental and creative 'reset' IMO! Thanks for the other ideas too.
Exactly. Each year, I've found myself feeling uninspired and burnt out during the winter. This year, I've found my creative spark again through education. By teaching my techniques to photographers, I am excited to find new styles and technique fine tune my craft.
Great article John.
Thanks for the thoughts. I found my own way to cope with it; I picked up the guitar again (after not playing music for almost 30 years). I'd forgotten how much fun its is. Now, it helps me from going insane.
When people in the corporate world suffers from a burn out, they switch to full time photography and videography. When people from the Photo-Video world burns out, they switch to buying more gears...
This was a really well written and joyful article John. Loved your special note about choosing to use a gorgeous model rather than vegetables. I'm with you - may not have clicked in! Ha ha ha.
I am with you 100% on the switching to film. Nothing has sparked my creative juices like switching back to film this year. But I became so obsessed with it that I now shoot exclusively in 35mm and MF film. The slow down has been amazing for me.
Great! Always happy to hear from another film shooter!
I'm a writer, not a photographer, but you're right. All creatives deal with this issue. "obsessive to the point of self-destruction" Um. Yeah. Gotta watch that.
I'm experiencing this exact revelation right now. I live in a small town where there is nothing going on ever and it's the same day in day out routine. We have Auburn University that attracts football fans and the occasional concert but I feel like I can walk around the whole town with my camera and come home empty handed... In fact, I just did not more than 30 minutes ago.
My whole life, I've been creative, outgoing and always looking for adventure, but in recent time since moving back to my hometown (Auburn, AL) I've become stagnant with my creativity and feel like the polish is fading into an infinite trench and will lose my love for capturing the world around me.
I will heed this advice and start looking for opportunities elsewhere and see what the film world can provide in the resurrection of my creativity.
Great little article and thanks for the ideas.
My pleasure, Dave. Glad you're able to take something away from this.
I printed out a map of the area I lived in (a 2 mile radius around the house). And went out each day exploring one street at a time with the goal of finding interesting details about peoples yards, homes, cars, etc. After taking the pictures I then drew the small details into different collage type pictures. I was extremely bored and didn't like living there and I felt it inspired me and made me enjoy my time there a lot more.