Photographic Techniques

Breaking Photographer’s Block

Published February 8, 2009

Its February. That awful part of the year when the parties are over, good light is rare (and even when there is good light, you think two or three times about going out in the cold), the world is colorless, even the models don’t want to pose ‘until they take off a few pounds’. And I’ve taken 7,632 photos of the dog, 12,413 photos of the kids, all of whom now run if they see me with a camera. Only the fact that March Madness is only 6 weeks away and Pitchers and Catchers will be reporting soon gives me the strength to carry on for the next two months. And this is the time of year when we get it: Photographers block, terminal photography rut, whatever you want to call it.

For years I tried spending time online looking at other photographer’s work, searching for inspiration and trying to figure out how I could do that, but somehow that just didn’t perk my interest. But a few years ago I started using this time of year to force myself to think “what kind of image can I get with this equipment” rather than “what equipment do I need to get this image”. It worked wonders. Suddenly photography became fun again, and I was recharged. Plus I’d developed some new techniques to add to my photography toolbox. So if you’ve got a case of “Photographer’s Block” maybe some of these ideas will work for you.

A New Point of View

We all have a favorite perspective, or angle of view. Mine is about 85mm on a full frame camera (50mm or so for crop frame). I tend to visualize my shots at this angle of view and position myself to shoot at about this focal length. Since there are great 85mm lenses, its not a bad place to be. But when everything’s looking dull and boring to me NOTHING livens my photography up like forcing myself into a new point of view. Go out with ONLY one lens, in a focal length you hardly ever use or have never used before. I think the point of view change is best done at the extremes: we all have 20 something to 100mm or so lenses. Try something ultrawide, or a supertelephoto.

The more extremely I do this, the more it opens me up to new types of vision so usually when I’m fighting a rut, I leave the house with one camera and one prime lens. Photography then becomes “What image can I obtain here with my xxx prime lens” rather than “What lens would be best for this image”. Pretty soon, everything starts to look different. Its especially effective when you go to a place you’ve shot dozens of times and are forced to look at it from a different photography perspective. Going to an indoor greenhouse with a supertelephoto lens got me a few odd looks — and some spectacular shots of bits and pieces of flowers. Going to the zoo with an ultrawide lens didn’t get me great pictures of the caged animals, but it got me some wonderful pictures of the people interacting with each other and some interesting distorted close ups of a few smaller creatures. And I found that there were lots of photo-ops at the zoo besides the tigers and polar bears.

Explore a Specialty Lens

This one has been the most fun (although perhaps the least productive) for me. But there are lots of interesting specialty lenses that will jar your photography a bit. I really don’t like the fisheye look, but spent a couple of days shooting nothing but fisheye lenses. It ended up being very fun, especially when I learned to accentuate the fisheye look by shooting subjects at an angle: for example a pretty girl lying down shot from her feet. She didn’t care for the “toes bigger than head” look, but I thought it was hysterically cool. It didn’t convert me to fisheyes, but it was pretty fun.

I did a similar thing with tilt-shift lenses. While I never developed professional level skills with them, I loved being able to alter perspective to the point that shots appeared to have been taken from a point-of-view I wasn’t at. And really liked being able to do randomly creative things with the depth of field. Not to mention 3-shot panoramas just by tilting the lens from side to side. I didn’t get around to it, but this year one of my goals is to master the tilt-shift false miniaturization photography like These Guys

Defocus control lenses (Nikon 105 f/2 DC , 135 f/2.8 DC and Sony 135 STF ) allow you to accentuate the depth of field by increasing the blurring of out of focus areas. Very wide aperture prime lenses (f/1.8 and lower) do nearly as good a job. If you haven’t ever worked with a narrow depth of field, you should at some point. Its especially good to do this time of year since those wide apertures work well indoors, and the shallow depth of field can make even a routine snapshot of the kids special enough to help talk your spouse into letting you buy a new lens.

Again, this not really a specialty lens, but if you’ve never played with Macro shooting, this is a great time of year to play around with a Macro lens. A couple of bright desk lamps will often provide enough light indoors to let you get great macro shots without using a dedicated Macro flash. Everyday objects blown up in a Macro shot are at least interesting, sometimes fascinating, and occasionally beautiful (I have a customer who has 16×20 prints of circuit boards and electronic connectors hanging in several galleries).

One final type equipment change though isn’t a lens, its a different camera: If you’ve never tried shooting in Infrared, it will certainly get you out of your rut. Most people think of shooting infrared in the summer for the unique look it gives to foliage. Unlike using IR filters with loooonnng exposure times though, an IR modified camera will let you shoot just as fast as a standard camera and get that unique infrared look.

A Different Perspective

Challenge yourself to shoot from a very limited perspective or with a very limited technique for an entire day. For example, stupid as it sounds, one day my “rule” for myself was that all my shots had to be take from ground level. That meant I was lying on my stomach most of the day. Then I realized I could also lie on my back and shoot upwards (DUH!). And the truth is I didn’t really get any shots that day worth looking at (but I got a bunch of odd looks from people wondering what the heck I was doing). But 6 weeks later I went on a tour of Rosslyn Chapel (you know, the DaVinci Code one). I took about 30 shots of the ceiling, getting a crick in my neck and absolutely NOT getting the shots of the ceiling I wanted. So I marched to the center aisle of the chapel and to the Docent’s horror and 300 other tourists amusement lay flat on my back and got exactly the shot I wanted. I never would have thought of the simple way to do it, except for that stupid day I’d wasted playing a photography game.

Another day I went out with the simple rule “I can only take pictures of reflections”. It was harder than I thought, but I got the hang of it fairly quickly. And then got obsessed with it. I ended up making photography of reflections a major part of my technique, ended up doing a series (The Relentless Pursuit of Reflection) and ended up winning more photography prizes for this kind of work than anything else I’ve done, shooting reflections on everything from car hoods to the Korean Monument (below).

A Different Process

Most of us postprocess our photos, although usually we look at that part as a necessary evil. Cold, wet, and dark wintery days are the perfect time to play with all the tools at our disposal, processing things a little differently. The harsh shadows and dull, angled light of winter often lends itself to black and white or duotone images, for example. Winter’s also a great time to go through the thousands of shots from last summer and see what might be rescued by a different look than the batch processing we put all of our photos through back when we took them. I love the look Michael Orton pioneered with transparency film years ago and learned to create that dreamy, colorful look digitally . Some shots I skipped over originally look spectacular (and different) when I process them as “Digital Ortons” (both of the shots below were totally dull out of the camera, with the Orton processing they are at least interesting now). There are dozens of other techniques and actions that may take shots from the trash bin to the frame shop. Now’s the time to experiment and find them.

I’m sure there are a dozen other good ‘rut breakers’ I haven’t thought of, so if you have a good one, send it to me and we’ll add it to the list. I’ve left a really obvious one out—did you notice? Its the perfect time of year to break out flashes and lighting equipment and REALLY learn to use it. I mean after all, its for when there’s not much light, right? Maybe next year for me. I’ve been saying that for 5 years now. I guess deep down, I really, really don’t want to learn lighting. But maybe next year.

Roger Cicala
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Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

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