When you have been photographing for a while, there are bound to be times when you fall into a creative rut or slump. While it is also good to take your time and slowly ride it out, I would like to introduce several methods at different levels you can practice with. I would also recommend them as a way of getting better, even for those of you who haven't hit the wall. (Edited by studio9)
Impose some restrictions when shooting
It is well-known that daring to limit yourself to not using special functions is effective for producing creative shots.
The same applies to cameras in that the more sophisticated they become, the more it feels like your photos were "taken with a camera", so it is often the case that you always take the same kinds of photos in accordance with the camera’s functions.
Therefore, choosing just one of the camera's convenient functions and keeping it at a fixed setting could actually create new, thrilling challenges that motivate you and push you out of your rut.
Basic: Acquire a sense of distance by limiting the focal length
Perhaps the easiest method to start with is to limit the focal length.
For those of you with a zoom lens, try restricting yourself from using the zoom. While the kit lens that comes with your camera at the time of purchase will typically have a zoom range of 18-55mm, 18-135mm, etc., try using this zoom lens as a prime lens.
I recommend limiting yourself to the three focal lengths of 35mm, 50mm, and 70mm at 35mm film-equivalent. These are the typical focal lengths of wide-angle, standard, and moderate telephoto lenses. The above focal lengths are for use with a full frame camera, so if you are using a APS-C camera, refer to the focal lengths below instead.
APS-C sensor (the focal length inside the parentheses is the full frame-equivalent):
Approx. 22mm (35mm), 31mm (50mm), 44mm (70mm)
While it might be sufficient to promise yourself not to use the zoom, if possible, try affixing tape to the zoom ring to fix it in position. If you shoot with the determination not to remove the tape for the entire day, you just might discover something new.
One way to implement this restriction is to use tape to fix the ring at the 50mm position. Use tape that leaves as little residue as possible. I recommend using permacel tape, which any photographer should have. This is a paper tape with minimal adhesive residue and good adhesion. If you don't have permacel tape handy, you can also use surgical tape (the paper type), masking tape, and the like.
Limit yourself to telephoto or super wide-angle if you're using a prime lens
For those of you who think that the above example irrelevant because you already normally shoot with a prime lens, how about imposing limitations on telephoto (or super wide-angle) the next time you go out to take street photos?
The typical focal lengths used for street photography are in the range of 35mm, 50mm, and 70mm mentioned above. Some photographers also use focal lengths of 24mm and 100mm. However, if you are daring enough to try street photography with a lens that shoots more telephoto or wide-angle, it could get really interesting.
You will need a telephoto lens or super wide-angle lens for this. How many of you out there admit that the telephoto lens in your double zoom kit has been lying unused all this while?
It is amusing that when you limit yourself to shooting at a focal length of, say, 200mm or 16mm (35mm film-equivalent), it is so restrictive that you come up with various ideas while shooting.
Intermediate: Get a sense of angles without the viewfinder
Earlier we limited the focal length – this time, let's limit the use of the viewfinder. You can limit the focal length at the same time if you wish.
Normally you would look in the viewfinder and consider things such as whether to move a little closer or a bit to the right when composing your shots. However, are you roughly able to imagine what sort of range you can capture with the lens you have attached, without looking through the viewfinder?
I am not totally confident of this either, but if you have a good sense of angles, you will be able to compose your shots simply with the glance of an eye.
Moreover, without the viewfinder it is easier to shoot from a different point of view from what you're used to. For example, you can often take photos of a different flavour when shooting from ground level. It is hard to look through the viewfinder when shooting from ground level (look at the rear LCD screen instead), but easy to shoot without using the viewfinder. This means you can also take shots simply by placing the camera on a grassy patch.
Here I took a shot looking up at Tokyo Tower from ground level, capturing the road and other buildings as well.
I took shot by stretching my arms out just above the surface of the water in a pond, where I wasn’t able to use the viewfinder.
Here I placed my camera facing upwards inside a thicket, and was able to capture a somewhat mysterious atmosphere.
Recently, more and more cameras come equipped with a vari-angle LCD screen, but if you practice shooting without the viewfinder, you will develop a sense of angles, while at the same time learning how to shoot from various angles, so you should be able to take photos that are different from the ones you had been taking until now.
I recommend practicing with a wide-angle focal length. You could start with a focal length of approximately 35mm at 35mm film-equivalent. The more telephoto you go, the more difficult it gets.
Also, because the shutter may not be released if the camera is out of focus, set the AF mode to Automatic or All-point Selection (the camera automatically determines the focus when you half-press the shutter button), or boldly select Manual Focus (MF).
Advanced: Learn exposure by covering the LCD screen
This might have been the norm in the film camera era, but now that digital cameras have conquered the market, there would be very few people who could shoot with this restriction (I’m not confident that I could either).
In the film camera era, you weren't able to check the result of your shoot until after the photos were developed. It was certainly necessary to put serious effort into reading the light for each and every shot, but with digital cameras that is no longer necessary.
Also, the biggest advantage of digital cameras is being able to check the result on the spot after each shot. By restricting the use of this function, you will be able to appreciate how blessed we are to be able to use digital cameras in this day and age.
The minimum necessary information for your shoot is displayed in the viewfinder, and on mid to high-end models, you will be able to check the information on the LCD panel on the top of the camera. Therefore, you can still take shots even with the rear LCD monitor covered (unless you use a mirrorless camera).
The quickest way to do this is by covering the LCD monitor with black drawing paper. You could also use black permacel tape to cover the monitor (If you’re using a protective film on the LCD monitor, be careful not to peel off the film when removing the tape).
If you are simply not going to view the photo after each shot, depending on your camera, you can specify a mode that does not display the photo after you take a shot. For example, on the EOS 70D, this mode is available near the start of the menu.
When "Image review – Off" is set, the photo will not be displayed after the shot unless the Play button is pressed.
Mirrorless cameras do not have a viewfinder, so you will not be able to take photos if you cover the LCD monitor. In such cases, set the image check time to OFF as above.
Try shooting with manual exposure
Not being able to check photos on the spot means that you have to depend on the exposure meter inside the camera to determine the exposure. When shooting in Av mode, you need to think carefully about how much exposure compensation to apply, depending on the subject. That is why it might be somewhat easier to shoot in Manual (M) mode.
When you are shooting in M mode, I recommend using Spot Metering rather than the more popularly used Evaluative Metering (multi-pattern metering). By specifying spot metering, only the centre section on the screen is metered.
By pointing the camera toward the subject that you want to adjust the brightness for, then adjusting the aperture, shutter speed and ISO speed so that the exposure meter (vertical bar) inside the viewfinder becomes close to ±0, and releasing the shutter, you shouldn't go far wrong with the brightness.
While you could also buy a separate exposure meter to read the light for practice, it is a rather expensive piece of equipment. If you only need to measure ambient light, there are smartphone apps available you might like to try that could turn your phone into a light meter.
Imposing all three of the restrictions I introduced in this article at once might be a bit overboard, so you might like to try them one at a time in sequence, starting from the top. If you can successfully shoots with each restriction, then you probably won't have to worry about falling into a rut again.
Obviously there is no need to continuously impose such restrictions on yourself. The key is to try this when you have some spare time and are not feeling rushed, otherwise you might well end up in a deeper rut.
So how about giving this a go on your next holiday?
A photography website established in Japan in 2011. With the slogan “Bringing photography closer to you”, the site provides content that is useful for everyone who enjoys photography. Besides web content, studio9 also conducts seminars and workshops.