I had a conversation with one of those life coaches a few years back that’s mostly slipped my mind, save for one thing she told me that’s always stuck with me: “Your biggest strength, or any strength if you overuse it, becomes a weakness.” Pause a second and let that sink in.
I thought about it, and realized that I’m a very analytical person by nature. You need something analyzed? I’m your guy. I’m great at gaming out a scenario — every last what-if, every contingency — ’til analysis becomes paralysis. Over time, I’ve learned to recognize when I’m doing it, and to remind myself to cut it out.
I bring this up for a reason. It isn’t just our personal or character strengths that can inadvertently trip us up. When you try something creative, it’s really easy to find your strengths and ride them ’til the wheels fall off. Photographers aren’t immune to this, so it’s probably a good idea for us to step back, take a look at our work, and figure out what it is we do really well so we don’t do too much of it.
For starters, it’s not just subject matter that starts to get repetitive. It’s also the ways in which we shoot what we shoot. If you’re an architectural shooter, you start to look for the same shapes and patterns, or relying on the same kind of lighting; if you’re a portraitist, it might mean relying on a set of poses that you know could flatter Quasimodo; if you do weddings, it can mean sticking to the same lighting setups and situations that’ve always worked for you.
To be clear, there’s a reason that people rely on formulas. Sometimes — especially when time is tight, or the results are critical — any artist has to know they’ve got things in the old kit bag that they can pull out at will, and that will almost certainly be effective. Once those things are done, they’ll use the time left for a bit of experimentation. So there’s a time and a place for formula, for going from strength to strength and playing it safe. Sometimes, we just need the safety net.
But let’s be just as clear on something else. Sometimes we need to forget the net. We can’t, obviously, just forget or unlearn all that we know (and it wouldn’t be a good idea even if we could). But we can, and sometimes must, at least set it off to one side for a bit. Yes, it’s a challenging, and sometimes even uncomfortable, way of working. However, the skills and ways of seeing that you pick up when you try something new — even if it’s not your usual subject matter or way of doing things — aren’t just about your new subject or the skills that go with it. Those things spill over even into your “usual,” giving you greater options and new ways of doing the same old stuff in a way that it doesn’t have to be the same old same old.
What would you like to do to shake up your photography? What would you like to strengthen, and what kinds of situations or subjects might help get you there?