Tips + Techniques

How to Beat That Dreaded Creative Rut in Your Photography

February 13, 2017

By Ben Sasso

Ben Sasso

This past year has been the most creatively transformative year I’ve had since I first picked up a camera. But rewind to the start and you’ll see me desperately grasping at anything I could to pull myself out of a creative rut. I’m going to save you from hearing the long, boring story of why I was in a rut (you’re welcome) and instead, share what helped bring me out of it.

Experimentation Fosters Progression
Invest the time you’d ordinarily waste wondering why your work isn’t moving forward to shooting personal work and trying new things. Your clients hire you because they love your style, and that’s what you should deliver, but personal work is your time to let loose and experiment. Try the things you’re afraid of. If you try something new and it doesn’t pan out, no problem! You don’t have to show that junk to anyone. If it looks killer, bam! You have something new in your bag of tricks and your style just got pushed forward. Progression.

All photos © Ben Sasso

Take a quick gander through my work and you’ll notice something pretty quickly: hard light is not my forte. not even close. To be honest, I’ve spent the majority of my career fearing it. My go-to is soft light, soft texture and subtle tones. Shooting in this harder light meant flipping my style on its head. This shot is one of my favorites from this past year because it was me dipping my toe into the hard-light pool, and it has led me to shooting more work in a way that i would have never thought of doing a year ago.

Be Brave Enough To Be Yourself
In my first year of shooting, I started every shoot with a lie. I’d show up on set with my “professional photographer” mask while I left my sarcastic, introverted, pun-making personality at home. I had myself convinced that I needed to act a certain way if I wanted to be seen as a professional by my clients. The result was that during my first few years, I never felt creative because I was too worried about being professional. 

Yes, be a trustworthy businessperson, but also be yourself. What’s important is to make sure that the expectation of who you are is set well before you meet a client for the first time. So, if you make puns all the time, make puns on your website. That way the clients who appreciate who you are and how you act will be drawn toward you while others who might not be into who you are will be encouraged to look elsewhere. You still need to be a respectful, kind human being, but being who you want to be allows you to create how you want to create. 

I couldn’t believe the amount of relief I felt during one of my couples sessions when the bride-to-be dropped an f-bomb. weird, I know. I was young and still stuck on being overly proper in front of my clients. I make jokes that you might not tell your grandparents and I love people who find humor in silly things. Sharing our true personalities allowed me to capture photos that felt closer.

Put Your Heart Into Your Work
Our most meaningful work is the stuff we put our hearts into—it’s the work that comes from a place of personal vulnerability or inspiration. Consider yourself lucky that you’re a human. You have emotions. Feel them. Understand them. Use them. Put what you’re feeling into your images. Conceptually, symbolically, spiritually—who cares? If you want to create powerful work, it needs to come from a powerful place.

Strive for Originality
If 50 people are running in one direction and one person is running the other way, who do you think will stand out? Lately it seems like I’ve been inspired by weirder and weirder things. I’m assuming it’s a byproduct of seeing countless images every day and realizing that it’s only the strange ones that stand out—the ones that run the other way. The reason that originality is a rare thing is because it’s not the easy thing. It usually doesn’t come naturally. Originality requires thought. Think about what you’re creating. Don’t stop at your first idea—that’s the easy one. Push further until you find something that runs the other way.

Lyrics are the artistic medium I find myself the most inspired by. I love discovering little hidden meanings behind the words. It feels so rewarding to learn why a certain word was chosen over another, or how a specific line (that might not make sense to me at first) becomes one of the most powerful lines of the song once I finally understand it. Realizing that was a turning point for me in terms of what my creative process looks like. 

I want to give meaning and symbolism the priority so I can create images that mean something to me. Sure, the rope in this frame is pretty and adds a great texture, but there’s a reason that there’s a rope and a 5-foot braid in here—the inspiration I find in other artists is woven together into what I create (among other things—but I'll let you analyze the rest). This is the type of meaning, the hidden one, that I love finding in song lyrics, and that’s why I wanted to inject more of that into my own work.

Forget About Perfection
Seriously, just give it up. It’s okay! Don’t worry about having tack-sharp focus every time. Embrace grit and grain. Don’t you dare toss that frame that makes you giddy just because it’s a bit blurry. If you have the choice between a technically correct image (correct exposure, sharp focus) or one that makes you feel something, choose feeling every time. A “perfect” image isn’t worth much if it doesn’t have any life in it.

If You Need a Second, Take a Damn Second
Don’t assume that every moment you aren’t shooting, your subject is wondering why you’re such an idiot. I really used to think that if I wasn’t shooting on set, my couple or model would think that I was having trouble coming up with an interesting pose or was having trouble finding the light. The truth: I was. I do. We all do. It happens. 

Sometimes we just need a second to step back, breathe and look at what’s in front of us before we start shooting again. That’s okay! You’re an artist. Art requires time to think. It’s absolutely, 100 percent okay to let your subject know that they can hang out for a second while you look at light, or find your next shot. Your client hired you because they love your vision. If you need a second to make that vision happen, take a damn second. 

My shoots typically last for about an hour, but only about 25 minutes of that is actual shooting time. what you’re not seeing is the extra 35 minutes where the couple is just hanging out talking or relaxing with each other while I’m wandering around looking for our next spot. What you see is the shot itself. What you don’t see is me standing there alone, looking silly and thinking about where I want the light coming from, how I can pose the couple to take advantage of the wind and how I can draw a genuine connection out of them (in this instance, him whispering sweet things into her ear). Think more than you shoot.

Emotion Over Aesthetics
Aesthetics make pretty pictures but emotions make powerful ones. Heart matters. Feeling something matters. Let’s create work that reminds us what humanity is—happiness, desperation, serenity, fear and the galaxies of feelings in between.

Search for emotions more than searching for perfect poses. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about gorgeous visuals, and I know that we can use aesthetics to draw out a certain mood, but we often lose sight of the emotions for the sake of the way we want an image to look, and that’s where we can take a powerful step forward.

I would say 99 percent of the images I create leave me feeling a mix of pride and humiliation (welcome to the life of an artist). The ones that lean toward the pride side of the spectrum are the ones where I feel like I created something unique. I shot this entire set from below my subject, at noon, because it’s what most people steer away from. Midday light isn’t exactly ideal, and shooting from below isn’t typically known as the most flattering angle, but shooting that way left me with a fun, creative challenge and a set of images that I feel more proud of than most of 
my work.

Shoot What You Love if You Want to Grow
I didn’t enjoy my math class, so I didn’t do well in math. That’s called cause and effect. There’s a huge lesson to be learned here. You grow the most when you’re doing what you love. Want to grow at a snail’s pace? Pursue a style that you think will make you the most money or will be the most popular. Want to propel your work forward? Create work that inspires you. Shoot what you enjoy shooting. Edit how you love to edit. Pursue the things that your heart is being pulled towards. Otherwise, your work will become tedious and you won’t want to invest in it. You’ll improve the fastest by creating work you love.

This image is from a recent set revolving around the idea of losing the technical “perfection” but keeping the emotional connection. I shot each frame about 3 stops underexposed (to introduce grit when bringing it back up in post), at 1/50th or slower (embracing the blur), cropped in past 100 percent and then enlarged. This entire shoot was all about ignoring everything that we typically hold dear (perfect exposure, no noise, tack-sharp focus and tons of megapixels). Let’s be real: there are more important things in this world.

Know Your Craft
Yes, education is important. It doesn’t need to be formal education (I actually dropped out of college), but knowledge of your craft and your gear is a powerful thing. The more you know about images and how to create them, the more opportunity you have to control the look of your own. Study your gear. Know what the buttons do. Know what each setting affects. Study the greats that came before you. Don’t just look at the greats, actually study them. What makes their work stand out among the rest? How do they use light in interesting ways? How do you feel when you look at their images and what’s making you feel that way? Know their work so you can know more about your own.

Embrace Your Weird
If you’re anything like me, you have those maybe-too-weird ideas that you leave quietly buried in your chest. When you’re at your most creative, they pump excitement through your veins but then you reluctantly fall back to that thought, “maybe they’re too weird.” Let me stop you right there. For the sake of art, don’t miss the point of being an artist. This is one of the only careers out there that lets you run wild. Run. Get weird. Open up. Show the world what you love and embrace your damn weird. We’re artists! We’re lucky enough to have a career that allows us the freedom of creativity and every time you push your weird ideas to the side because you’re afraid they won’t be “popular,” you’re slapping that freedom in the face. Creativity is only a beautiful thing if we actually use it.

This piece was excerpted from Ben Sasso’s “Creative Manifesto.” 

Ben Sasso is a photographer and educator living on the road. “My love for our creative community is only matched by my love for the outdoors and cats,” he says. “We’re all in this together.”

Read this article in Rf's Digital Edition

Related Links:

CreativeLive Video Tutorial: How to Define Your Style and Brand, by Ben Sasso 
5 Quick Tips to Making Engagement Sessions More Engaging
The Why and How of Test Shooting with Models: Ben Sasso's Complete Guide