I’m not afraid to admit that I am currently going through somewhat of a creative block with my street photography. I am feeling rather listless with regards to the street photos I have been creating of late, and not enjoying the process of shooting much either. Part of this stems from a feeling of general frustration I have with shooting in my hometown – I’ve mentioned before how I find it so much easier to shoot when I’m on the road, and why I think travelling is so important for street photography, but I can’t always rely on travelling to get me out of the gutter, nor can I think I can get away with being a purely fair weather street photographer (both in a literal sense and a metaphorical one). So, there are clearly times when I need to learn how to try and force myself to be more sharp and get the creative juices flowing. To develop as a street photographer I feel I need to be prolific, because virtually without fail the only way to get really good at something is practice at it really hard until it becomes second nature. To do that I need to be able to get myself in the zone and that means making the most of all my opportunities, but also trying out new methods to galvanise myself and think creatively in order to get inspired. So I’ve put together a list below of techniques I’m currently experimenting with to help myself out of a creative rut. If you’ve experienced similar problems of frustrations in shooting in your hometown, I highly recommend you give Spyros’ article on how to get over the boredom of shooting street photos in the same location every day. There is some overlap, but my list covers a mixture of things that include both activities out on the street and broader ways of changing my mindset, so hopefully something from this will work! Read on for more…
Shoot with a new camera
This is a simple way to really liven things up and make you focus more straightaway. While I must admit I didn’t find my first experience with shooting film in street photography wholly successful, using a new tool and medium did liven up the experience for me and begin to make me think differently. Similarly, when I first switched from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera for street photography I felt a fresh injection of creativity and also saw a change in my shooting style. The same has also been true when I’ve been testing cameras that have been loaned to me – knowing that I’ve been let loose with something new that I only have limited time to play with really focuses the mind and frees me up. That’s not to say I am advocating GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) as a way of finding inspiration, as there are lots of ways you can experience shooting with a new camera without spending a fortune. There are lots of cheaper and more basic used cameras available both for digital and film, plus you can always experiment with a new and streamlined shooting experience by using a smartphone for street photography too. And if streamlining is your bag, there is a strong argument for paring things right back to basics and focusing on using just one camera and one lens for your street photography setup.
Shoot with a new focal length
As with using a different camera, experimenting with an alternate focal length is a good way of getting out of a creative rut. From a personal perspective I’ve currently found this a mostly frustrating experience, as whenever I stray towards anything longer than a 28mm equivalent lens I feel very restricted. But I think in the long run it’s probably going to be a good way to force myself to think differently about very familiar territory and take myself out of my comfort zone, so I’ve resolved to commit myself to shooting with a 40mm equivalent lens on the streets for a while to see if it helps me recapture my mojo.
Shoot with a flash (or Without)
I’ve found that altering light is a sure fire easy way to really shake things up in street photography. So if I’m used to shooting in the daylight all the time I could try shooting at night, or vice versa. Or if I’m a wholly natural light street photographer I can start playing around with flash or off-camera flash street photography and all of a sudden everything seems new and exciting again. So a dramatic change in lighting style is an enormous help in changing your whole outlook on familiar scenes around you – make sure you give it a go!
Challenges – Shoot by colour themes or layers
When I’m lacking for motivation and inspiration I can often find myself not shooting enough street photos because I’ve decided that what I’m seeing around me isn’t interesting enough to warrant capturing. A great way of overcoming this malaise is to set yourself challenges that will force you to look around more, think outside the box, and make interesting, well-planned photos. Some challenges I’m currently trying to set myself includes trying to use a single colour as a dominant linking theme in a photo, and also to think as much as possible in terms of layering to try and create shots with more visual impact. My goal is to push myself to really work and pre-plan a scene in order to create a photo with a bit more meaning. It also saves me from traipsing around aimlessly in search of some elusive ‘interesting’ sight!
Create Projects & tell stories
Similar to challenges, focusing the mind with a defining project or storytelling narrative is a nice way to rekindle your excitement for photography. I’ve seen all sorts of photographers utilise all kinds of projects (more on that later) – some using a consistent interesting background to create a series of identical style shots with different subjects passing in front, or others focusing on one area or theme, like a market or a beach. There’s a lot of scope with street photography projects (and make sure you check out Spyros’ list of 45 street photography project ideas), and even more potential if you combine a project with an overarching theme or social documentary/photojournalism approach where you try to tell a story. One great example here is Dougie Wallace’s Harrodsburg. Rather than shooting aimlessly, Dougie has created a project around a location (a posh area of London’s high end shopping district) and generated a whole body of work which tells a powerful story about that particular segment of the UK’s capital. There are often lots of things happening all around us that we don’t appreciate, so focusing on the minutiae of one particular story through one lens can be a good way to unlock some much needed inspiration.
Celebrate the Mundane: Imagine You’re Leaving Tomorrow
For me at least, one of the main reasons why I feel so inspired when I’ve travelled to a new city for street photography is because I’m looking at that city with new eyes and it seems terribly exotic and different to me, and I have a sense that I must capture all of it while I can before I leave. It may be tough, but there’s no reason why I can’t try to inspire that feeling each time I’m shooting in my home city too. The trick here is to force yourself to celebrate the mundane, and try to look at life through different eyes. We must take ourselves outside of ourselves, and really think – ‘what would this city look like to an outsider?’ On a personal level, Britain might seem quite unglamorous to me, but photographers like Martin Parr have managed to celebrate the British kitsch and, in some ways, faded glory of once iconic hotspots in a way that totally captures the imagination. To coin the cliche, he really does manage to see the beauty in the mundane and at the same time capture shots that are entirely of the moment – his Margate 1986 project being one such example. His photos seem to capture so much about what foreigners find fascinating about Britain and British life, and that’s truly inspirational!
I am increasingly finding that as well as methods I can use whilst practicing street photography, there are lots of things I can do to keep myself inspired and encourage myself to think creatively even when I’m not out shooting. As those of you who followed our Talking Movies series will know, I find watching films (movies to any of you that aren’t from the UK!) to be a great source of inspiration for my creativity. This is because movies are basically a series of meticulously composed photos. Sure, they may not have the spontaneity of street photos, but a well-shot movie will demonstrate a masterful understanding of composition and visual storytelling as well as creating a mood. Movies also often demonstrate an excellent use of backgrounds in images (backgrounds and locations are carefully selected by location scouts) which is always something the good street photographer needs to be aware of. Sometimes I’ll even see shots and images in movies that I want to try and emulate in my street photography. But even if I don’t, I’m often left feeling inspired and inclined to think and see in a more creative way.
Study other photographers
A very obvious one this, but it’s worth mentioning this. If you want to feel inspired the best way to go about it is by studying the work of street photographers you admire. It doesn’t have to be through studying photo books or prints of the masters of street photography either, it can be by looking at photos by your peers in Facebook Groups and Flickr Groups too. It is often said that the best artists copy, and I think there should be no shame whatsoever in poring over the work of street photographers you really admire and trying to emulate their style. It is often through seeking to make photos in the style of those you really like that you in turn start to discover your own style as you are once again to coin that old cliche, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone! Not only that, but other photographers will often have a different way of seeing (we all have a unique eye after all), and this is particularly useful if you’re trying to get some inspiration for shooting in a location that has become boring to you. Why not seek out some great street photos shot in similar areas to see how these photographers have managed to create beauty out of something that you consider mundane?
Look at artwork (Paintings, Sculpture etc)
While artwork (i.e. paintings, sculptures, installations, etc) doesn’t have a direct connection to street photography in an obvious sense, it still has an important role to play in getting the creative juices flowing, as you’ll know if you’ve read Casper’s article on art for inspiration in street photography. Paintings by realist painters like Edward Hopper or photorealists like Ralph Goings are fantastic sources of inspiration for creating evocative scenes of daily life, and visual fuel for the restless street photographer. Beyond that, Salvador Dali’s crazy surrealism, Picasso’s cubism and the dynamism of the Italian futurists are all ways in which you can broaden your mind by tapping into this immense creativity and new and novel way of seeing the world in order to practice some truly envelop pushing street photography. Dali’s surrealism and Picasso’s cubism can meet in some crazy layered and double exposure street photos, and the motion and emotion of the futurists is well suited to slow shutter speed street photography of bustling street scenes or some mad flash effects. Above all, great art will nourish the soul, make you feel alive, and in the mood to go out there and start creating some nice art for yourself!
They may be even further from your traditional street photography inspiration source, but I personally find books are an amazing way to get me thinking creatively. As with a movie, a great novel demonstrates wonderful storytelling and world building which is always something you want to be able to convey in a street photo. It can also give you a new way of seeing the world too. Non-fiction books have a similar important role to play too I feel, they nourish the mind and educate, and often reveal something new about a person or place that really sparks a feeling of wanderlust and interest in other people or places and a thirst to go out and experience the world and humanity, which is after all what street photography is all about.
How do you get inspired? Let us know!
This rather scattergun list is a series of my own attempts to try and rekindle my creativity and spark, so as such is fairly personal. But I’d really like to hear any ways you may have found that work to keep you inspired on the streets too. It might be techniques or things you study, or even a mindset or meditation. Drop us a comment below and let me know, and be sure to tell me if anything I’ve said has struck a chord with you!