Getting out of a rut

Everybody gets in a rut, a creatively narrow space that is so deeply worn into your psyche that all you can see are the walls closing you in. Sometimes it’s fine to be in that state, even healthy. I use the time to get something else done, and I know from experience that I’ll eventually find my way back to photography. But that’s not always convenient or healthy. Did you just pay $8,000 for a once-in-a-lifetime weeklong workshop in a faraway place? That’s not the time to be in a rut, it’s the time to climb your way out. 

 I have found myself in a rut in some spectacular places: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Ghost Ranch, Ireland. The problem is never the place or the light, it’s my inability or unwillingness to emotionally engage with the world around me. Imagine seeing a magnificent sunset in the Owens Valley and saying, “Again?” Fortunately I have some tools to fall back on when I’m tired of hearing myself whine. Each of these tools is easy to implement, which makes them a good place to start when the rut starts swallowing you. 

 I present these in no particular order. 

 Pick a composition and try to find it. When I’m in the field I’ll see something interesting and try to find a way to make a composition that emphasizes the things that attract me. And when I’m in a rut I work backward. I think of the composition first, and then look for it in the landscape. The three compositions I use the most are L-shaped, O-shaped, and X-shaped (LOX). 

L-shapes are everywhere: a tree-trunk with a shadow, a waterfall with a splash, a downspout with a sidewalk. It’s a strong shape, and can frame a distant object and imply depth in the photograph. If you have a strong distant object (like Half Dome) and want to give it a sense of place, put a tree-trunk on the left side. You’ll thank me later. [Figure 1] 

 O-shapes aren’t as ubiquitous as Ls, but they are pretty common. Full moon? That’s an O-shape. Puddle of water? That may be an O-shape. Rear-view mirror on a 1965 Ford Mustang? That’s definitely an O-shape. Placed dead center above an object it’s an Enso. Placed to the side it’s a spotlight. Placed in the foreground it brings unity. Find the O and work it. [Figure 2] 

 X-shapes are difficult to find and deal with, but can be very rewarding. It’s important to be sensitive to the shadows as well as the light, as dark spaces can be combined with light spaces to form the X. An X composition will draw the viewer to the center, and from the center you can move attention in whichever way you want. [Figure 3] 

 Near-Far is just that, a wide-angle technique that puts both near and far objects in the same frame. Look for something small that you find interesting. A small patch of wildflowers will do nicely, or a rock formation, or petroglyphs, nearly anything that requires you to get close to photograph it. Then move around it to find something in the background worthy of the foreground. Use your wide angle to include them both, and play with depth of field. The fun thing about near-far is that there are so many variations it’s impossible to get bored once you start. [Figure 4] 

 Isolate a color, and try to make it pop. I’ve been in places where a bad night’s sleep and a long day’s driving make me less than eager to pull out my camera. Even after putting it on the tripod I still don’t want to shoot anything. And then I see a flicker of color, and make a photo all about that color. It doesn’t mean a close-up, or that the color will fill the frame, only that I will give that object, colored just so, a weight and luminosity that makes it the most important thing in the frame. [Figure 5] 

 Change your lens, and change your view. On our recent trip to shoot dogwoods in Yosemite, Velda swapped out her 28-300 “Streetsweeper” for her 17-35 wide angle zoom. The change altered her physical relationship to her subject because she had to get closer to the blooms, and it made for a very successful morning. Similarly, putting on a macro and crawling on the ground investigating the lower 12 inches of a forest can be very rewarding. Or mounting a lens backward (it can be done) and trying to make creative sense of the mess in your viewfinder. [Figure 6] 

Change your subject. On an expensive workshop you’re pretty much guaranteed to get outstanding photographs. African safari? You’ll get lions, leopards, maybe an elephant or two. Iceland? Volcanoes, crystal ice on a black beach, and a beautiful waterfall. If you take those trips and don’t come back with those photos people might wonder why you paid so much. But it’s possible to take those photos and do something new. For instance, almost anyone can shoot a Grand Canyon sunset, but I’d love to see a workshop come back with first-person photos of the members exhilarated during the ride through rapids. 

Change the format on your camera. I recently made a mistake and discovered (later) that I’d switched the format on my camera from FX to DX. This was no big deal, since they follow the same 1.5:1 ratio. But in the process I discovered that my camera (a Nikon D850) will also allow me to pre-specify square and 4:3 formats. So I recently spent the day in a botanical garden shooting in the square format as much as possible. It requires a different look at the relationship of objects within a frame, and made me nostalgic for the film days. [Figure 7] 

Change your stance and change your framing. If you’ve walked through a forest enough times you’ll know what to expect around the every turn. But if you crawled the whole way, or wore five-foot stilts, you would experience and see a different forest, and have different photographic ideas. So get low to the ground and shoot up on a mushroom and into the canopy. Or climb on a rock and see how the creek meanders through the adjacent meadow. 

Having the tools to overcome a creative block, especially the tool of patience, can be the difference between staying in photography and giving up. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of patience, though, especially when the clock is ticking on a vacation or workshop. The pressure to produce something, anything, makes the whole process of creating photographs seem more burdensome than it’s worth. That’s when it’s good to have some tools to fall back on, to be able to say to yourself, “I don’t care what I produce, I’m just going to spend the next day shooting circles,” and “You guys go shoot the lions, these caterpillars are fascinating.” 

 First published in Focal Points Magazine June 2021. ©Joe Doherty

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