We have all been there. We walk the streets with our camera, looking for that image that never comes. The light is wrong. There are no interesting characters. There is nothing happening on the street today. It’s overcast. Its too bright. Its the middle of the day. The sun is too low. It’s behind the buildings. There is a feeling of insecurity and uncertainty. They are on to you. You are being watched. Glared at. Your timing is off. There is just no damn time in the day to get out and shoot. And you don’t want to share or print anything. Your camera is too heavy, too obvious. You are underwhelmed and want to give it all away and shoot macro. At least the damn things stay still.
That is the street photographers rut and it is something that we all get from time to time. I haven’t been able to put my finger on exactly why this happens, how it starts and whether it correlates to anything else that is happening in my life. During these ruts the sort of excuses in the previous paragraphs come thick and fast. It makes life hard if you are someone who just wants to make images every day and keep learning and growing.
So what can be done?
Well, I’m not going to give you five tips to break out of a street photography rut, because we all know that is BS. There is no magic formula. Going out at a different time of day or buying a new lens or trying a different focal length might stimulate something. Perhaps you’ve read you need a new strap…yeah that will do it. Perhaps a flippy screen. Or that 28mm is the new 35mm? What about a whole new camera..a whole new town.
At the core of it there is only one answer.
Keep shooting. Photograph everything you see in front of you that even remotely peaks your interest. If you get a notion that you should photograph it, get the camera out and just shoot it. Digital is free film - a gift from the photographic gods. Make the most of it.
I’ve seen lots of advice to the contrary on this. Stop shooting. Take a break. Go and paint or play guitar or draw something. I don’t subscribe to this. These distractions just take you away from the camera so that you forget your struggle, and you come back destined for the same rut.
You see I think the reason we hit a photographic rut is because we start to not settle for the average picture that we start to make day in and day out. We start being picky about our scenes and our compositions and our light and moments and gestures. The struggle is not that we are not able to make photographs but rather that we are not able to make photographs that are better than what we have made before.
When we shift the bar on our expectations, the usual routines and the images they foster start to feel old. And so we start the search for more. It is this search that leads to a wall. The rut. The struggle.
But the wall is not impermeable as long as we chip away at it every day. There is no way around it. Changing it up via gear or art form or technique might create different images but eventually we will end up at the wall. At that time the only thing that can be done is to keep shooting.
And as I have written many times before, part of that process is to shoot and evaluate and shoot some more. There is no need to share everything you make, but there is an absolute need to keep creating and evaluating and trying again.
So to labour the point, don’t let your inner lizard brain trick you into staying within you comfort zone. Fight what Steven Pressfield calls the resistance to not bother because “it’s not that good a photo” and just make an image, every time you get a hint of something that needs photographing. You will break out of the rut because all of a sudden there will be no space for it - you’ll be creating all the time and because of that you will end up somewhere new.
If you have been or are in a photographic rut, share what you are doing to try and break free in the comments below.