It’s 11:30 pm on a Thursday as I write this and I intended to have this article done this before dinner. But in the midst of prepping and brainstorming I got an email from the producer of an online photography class I’m filming at the end of the month: “Josh, the Forest Service needs more detail on our filming locations for our permit, and our main filming location is not allowed because it’s a wilderness area!! Ack!!” Cue hours of scrambling, downloading USFS maps, circling locations, rearranging the lesson plan, and adding alternate locations (with their precise geographical coordinates) to the permit application. And that monkey-wrenching came hot on the heels of a week full of similar fussing, and not a small amount of cussing. Fall is always a crazy time of year and it seems like I have an ever-growing pile of must-do tasks taking up real estate on an ever-shrinking calendar. At the same time, I also had a friend in town this week who was visiting the Eastern Sierra on a mission of pure photographic leisure. He was out from morning till night shooting fall color, massive mountains, gentle rivers, and dramatic storm clouds.
And every so often he’d extend an invite to join him for a shoot. “A shoot???” my interior monologue would exclaim, “I don’t have time for that!! I need to finish my accounting, book accommodation for a trade show, stack firewood for the upcoming winter, respond to 47 new emails, prep images for my 2016 calendar, and try to fit a quick meal in there somewhere so I don’t keel over in the middle of email 24.” In times like this I find it all too easy to focus on these petty tasks and forget that the whole goal of doing what I do for a living is to give myself time to photograph. So how do I summon the motivation to get past the acute obstacles and actually get out to do what I love to do?
I might try to convince you that I have a rich philosophical debate with myself on life, perspective, and priorities. But I don’t, because really that’s a case of my head arguing against my gut, and logic will never win against emotion. While my head does know that the experiences I get through photography are far more important than accounting, my gut only knows that I’ve got a million things to do RIGHT NOW and no way to get them all done. Which basically means I need to trick my gut. And to do that I follow the sagely advice of my late friend and fellow photographer, Jeff Swanson.
F/it and Be There
Jeff was a young photographer notable for his beard, warm heart, and love of puns who tragically lost his fight with melanoma in the summer of 2014. He also famously adapted the well-known photography adage “f/8 and be there” to a more modern variant designed to inspire people to shoot: “f/it and be there.” In other, simple words: screw it! Jump in the car and go somewhere to take photos! Because you know what happens when you do that? All of the doubts, misgivings, and concerns that are festering inside of you evaporate like a Sierra Nevada thunderstorm at sunset. For me personally, my gut instantly goes from a state of near-constant buzzing to one of profound placidity and spiritual calm. And in those moments I think “Ahhh, life is beautiful!! What was I ever worried about that accounting for? This here is what matters.”
If you boil it down, really what I’m saying is that I find motivation to shoot in simply knowing that I’ll be motivated if I go out to shoot. Which sounds paradoxical and Catch 22-ish, but as a person who tends to overthink everything I find this a comforting thought. To know that even in the midst of my most chaotic moments when actual photography seems like the last thing I have time for, if I simply force myself to get out of the house then the experience of photography will wash like a Zen river over the rough edges of my personal boulders. And that is powerful motivation indeed.
What I’m saying is: even in your least motivated times, just go out and shoot. Your soul will thank you.
Motivation in the Face of Monotony
On a grander -albeit less philosophical- scale, even without the day-to-day minutiae distracting us from the greater good of photography, it’s easy to lose motivation and fall into a rut. I remember this happening to me a few years back when I was living in Santa Cruz, California, arguably one of the best places in the world for seascape photography. Even with a nearly endless coastline of rugged bluffs, jutting rock formations, and glassy sands I had reached a point of ho-hummery. Sighhhh, yet another photo of water cascading over a rocky foreground with a nice sunset burning in the sky. Yawn. This is one of the double-edged swords of the human condition: anything, no matter how exciting or beautiful, becomes commonplace after you’ve been exposed to it enough. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it even happened to me recently in my beloved Sierra. The rivers, wildflowers, and granite peaks all took on a shimmer of sameness, at least when viewed through my lens.
Thankfully there is a simple cure to monotonous demotivation, and Dr. Josh is here to tell you what it is. Novelty. As simple as that.
Pick a place you’ve always wanted to go. It can be somewhere half way around the world, or even just 30 minutes farther than your usual haunts. Then give yourself a healthy amount of time to explore and DIVE IN. Not only will you feel obligated to shoot since you put the effort (and money) in to getting there, but you’ll also find that the new location, new subjects, and new light gives you a new way of looking at the world. And I’ll write you a check for $100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars if you don’t find inspiration and motivation bursting forth from your chest as if you were an photographic Care Bear.
I’ll give you another personal example as definitive, case-closing proof. This spring I was feeling pretty blasé about photography, and barely shot at all from January through March. Then I traveled to New Zealand for two months and found myself behaving like a kid in a candy store. I shot virtually every sunrise and sunset for 60 days straight (that’s what kids in candy stores do, right?). I couldn’t get enough. Even when I was dead dog, beat up, run down, bone-tired I felt compelled to shoot. And as a result I came home not only with some of the best photos of my photography career, but also with my motivational fuel tank refilled and brimming over.
So there you have it: my two-step recipe to staying motivated in photography:
- Don’t feel like shooting? Do it anyway.
- Get yourself somewhere new.
Do you have any great ways that you stay motivated in your photography? Please share them in the comments, and stayed tuned for a future article on why boredom can actually be the best thing for your creativity.