Photographic burnout: When the fun stops, stop

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Preface: whilst this article talks about my experiences with photography, some of what I am describing may resonate with you, which is why I have chosen to talk about this issue. Having spoken to other photographers and artists about this, they have experienced similar feelings to what I describe in this article. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this, but hopefully, it will help some of you out there if you ever reach a similar place.

When the fun stops, stop.

A message all too often told to us through advertising for gambling companies, yet can the same be said for photography?

For most of us, photography starts out as a hobby. We pick up (or inherit) a camera, and take photos. As the interest begins to grow, so does our desire to learn more. Soon, we find that we sink more and more time (and money) into learning more and more about it. We try out different pieces of equipment, different styles, trying to find our area of interest within the field.

In education, this is referred to as the logarithmic learning curve. When we begin a new hobby or skill, we get better at it very quickly, making what seems like big breakthroughs the more we practise learning a new skill. As a result, our excitement and joy of learning said hobby or skill increases, pushing us on to learn more. However, our improvement slows down gradually, as, over time, we become better at the basics of the skill, requiring less time and less thought to do certain elements of it.

Instead of making big breakthroughs, what we end up making is smaller refinements to the skills we have learnt.

Learning to drive a car is a classic logarithmic learning curve example — you think a lot less about making decisions on the road with years of practice, compared to the first time you sit behind the wheel. We all go through this cycle in various aspects of life, not just photography.

Street Photography Challenge - Agfa Vista Plus 200
Street Photography Challenge – Agfa Vista Plus 200

We are all at different stages of our learning journey when it comes to photography. For example, a newcomer to photography may really struggle with the concept of the exposure triangle, and all of the associated terms and meanings that come with fully manual photography. Yet, having spent time learning and practising the impact of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO has on a photo, a photographer with more experience, would spend less time worrying about the choice they make when selecting camera settings, it becomes intuitive.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours to master a subject, topic or skill. Whilst there are many different websites and articles that argue for and against this suggestion, if you reflect now on how many hours you have spent practising or learning about photography, most of you (if not all of you) could say you are a better photographer now than you were when you first started (and if you are just starting, feel assured in knowing that you will improve if you keep practising).

Take a moment now to think about how much time you have invested into your photography. Think back to when you first started, compare it to where you are now, and it may just make you appreciate where you are at with it all.

"Holkham", Yashica Mat-124G, Ilford FP4, Self-developed in Ilfosol 3 (1+9, 4:10)
“Holkham”, Yashica Mat-124G, Ilford FP4, Self-developed in Ilfosol 3 (1+9, 4:10)

Believe it or not, inside all of us, we all have a love of learning. After all, when things go well, it is rewarding. Learning can make us feel good about ourselves, like we are making progress and succeeding at something. Yes, there are struggles, and there are difficult spells (these only occur when we are truly pushing our-self). Even as a teacher myself, I still learn new things every day, and will quite happily admit that there are still things about photography I don’t know — it is impossible to know everything, despite what some people may tell you.

So, what happens when things are not going well, or you get stuck in a creative rut, and it seems like all of the fun in photography has stopped?

Often, I see on photography websites recommendations that are often a list of tasks that involve picking up a camera and taking lots of photos, as if this is the cure to the problem. Someone struggling to feel creative or inspired to pick up the camera is not going to change that feeling if they are told the solution is to take 100 photos of the same object from a different angle. At the same time, you wouldn’t tell someone with a gambling problem that the best way to fix the situation is to place 100 low-stake bets. So what if the act of taking photos is the issue? You can’t force creativity, no matter how hard you try. So, what do you do?

Put the camera down.

It may be weeks, months, or even years before you pick it back up. But put the camera down. Controversial I know, but hear me out.

Recently, I went through a similar period myself. The thought of heading out with a camera, the joy of photography had gone. So, I took a step back from everything. I sold all of my equipment, dismantled my darkroom, and shut down my social media feeds. Whilst this may sound a little extreme from the outside, for me it was a necessary step to take.

I had reached a point where my commercial photography had forced all of the creativity from me to the point where I no longer felt compelled to take photos. At the same time, I had become so obsessive over my darkroom and my Finding Film series, that I lost sight of why I was taking the photos in the first place. My photography had become formulaic, where I followed a series of steps in order to meet a client’s brief, or because I was more concerned with darkroom conditions than what was on the roll of film itself.

I was not pushing myself, I was going through the motions.

So, I took a step back, spoke to several photographers and artists who told me of similar tales with their own work, who had waited for the creativity and fun element to return. For me, it took about 18 months for the feeling to come back, but it was worth the wait. I realised just how much I missed the creative process. The fun in photography had come back, and having had the time away from the camera, I actually feel like I am a better photographer for it.

Yashica Mat 124G, Ilford FP4 - taken at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk
Yashica Mat 124G, Ilford FP4 – taken at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Here are a few things I have found that might work when you feel like all of the fun has gone from photography:

  • Watch a film – when watching the film, don’t focus on the story, instead look at the cinematography/camera work. Observe the angles and distances used – often there are very deliberate choices made that help to tell a story. Could these same techniques be used in your own photography?
  • Read a book – sometimes reading something that is not related to photography can inspire you to make a project or body of work on a certain topic of area of interest. The book could be fiction or non-fiction.
  • Listen to music – every genre of music is different, but sampling a new genre, or returning to your favourite classics can be a great source of inspiration. Read the lyrics that go with the songs, you may find meaning that inspires you to create a body of work. There are endless possibilities here.
  • Go for a walk (without any distractions) – often a change of scenery can do you good. Leave the phone/camera/distractions behind and go for a walk. You may re-discover a love of your local area. Alternatively, use Google Maps in satellite mode and find a new location nearby, this may be the perfect place for your next photo.
  • Look at other artists’ work – go to a gallery, buy a photobook/zine, look online. Look at work that you would not normally do yourself, this can often be more inspiring as you are less likely to compare yourself to others who do similar work to what you would normally do.
  • Support another photographer – you may not want to pick up the camera, but what about others? Are there any skills or pieces of advice you can offer to someone just starting out? It is just as important to give back to the community, as take from it.
  • Learn a new skill – try something unrelated to photography. Trying something new will give you the same logarithmic learning curve feeling as when you first started doing photography. This may inspire you to return to photography feeling refreshed, or give you an idea of something to take photos of based on your new skill.
  • Re-visit your old work – look back at the first photos you took, remind yourself of how far you have come, and the things you have learnt. This can often make you feel more appreciative of what you have now, compared to back then.

Now, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of things you can try, and some of the things may not work for you, and that’s fine. However, at some point in our photographic journey, we all go through a creative rut or a difficult period. It is important in these difficult times, to be resilient. It is important to remember that these times will pass, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if you cannot see it yet.

One of the many strengths of the film community is how supportive everyone is. There is far less judgement, and everyone I have encountered seems so willing to help other photographers by sharing their experience and offering support. So, if you are feeling like the fun is starting to disappear from photography, reach out and speak to someone in the community about it, it happens to us all.


~ Tom

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5 Frames… Of fun at the fair on CineStill 800T (EI 800 / 35mm format / Leica M3) – by Maxime Evangelista

5 Frames… Of Jakarta during lockdown on Shanghai GP3 100 (EI 100 / 120 format / Rolleiflex 3.5F Planar) – by Mustakim Irsan


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