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Stop Paying So Much Attention to Other Photographers: The Case for Using Inspiration Sparingly

What do you do when you hit a creative roadblock? What things do you do to promote new, creative ideas when you’re fresh out? For a lot of folks, that means heading to Instagram, YouTube, or any of the thousands of repositories for creative works that exist. Look through your favorite photographer’s latest book, or find an artist you like and get inspired by someone’s travel vlog. I’m here to tell you there is another way, and I think this type of inspiration should be used sparingly.

During my time at Columbia College Chicago, I was surrounded by other photographers’ work. Many of my fellow students found it difficult to routinely be creative and think outside of the box in order to push the boundaries of their creativity, myself included. I felt nearly paralyzed by some friends’ insane creativity in how they sunk themselves into their projects and made photographs that were true to their own minds. Meanwhile, I worked my part-time job at Ritz camera while going to school, and often I felt soulless and completely lacking in creativity.

Whether through apathy, laziness, or through the world just moving along at its constant pace as it does, I never found myself moved by other photographers in the way that I saw many of my peers were. Studying historic photographers that paved the way for photography as art in Art History, or peers showing new work weekly in class, or just being a kind of camera aficionado and absorbing all the media I could in blogs and things, there were plenty of photographs to look at to inspire me. I always felt hesitant that this type of photographer-on-photographer inspiration wasn’t great for my bank of creativity. I often felt either inferior or just overwhelmed about creating my own work. There were no new ideas, just the ideas in my head that I had seen somewhere else.

As I’ve matured, I’ve realized that part of this is foolish, and ultimately, other photographers are a great source of inspiration for me. However, I’ve seen a trend of reduced creativity in the form of copying that has largely propagated as a result of social media, and in my opinion, the cause of it is largely a singular source of inspiration for many.

The barrier to entry for becoming a photographer is lower than ever. Cameras are extremely cheap, and with free videos showing you how to use those cameras to their best ability, featuring better instructors than my four-year degree got me, there is no excuse not to try photography if you are the least bit interested. How many of us have family members that have asked for a tutorial? Some of you may be the one that asked for the tutorial. This is all good for photography, but as someone seeking inspiration, you have to be wary of the pitfalls of getting all your inspiration from Instagram and Facebook.

Viewing social media profiles creates a feeling of inferiority. Some guy that uses an iPhone 3GS and exclusively edits with VSCO probably has more followers than you. How could that be?  You have a Sony a7R III and a slew of lenses, a camera that is way outmatched against an old iPhone. It doesn’t matter. You see a photographer take a certain picture at Lower Antelope Canyon, and you now want to go there and get the same picture. Why?  Your favorite photographer shoots all their portraits wide open on an 85mm lens, and now, you too also pin your aperture at f/1.8 on your 85mm. Stop. Please stop.

I think within photography, it is way too easy to see something and literally copy it without making it your own. This is my main reason for not relying heavily on other photographers as my main source of inspiration. Of course, I do follow and like photographers on Instagram, but I’ve tried to used social media as an inspiration for source material rather than a guide for how to shoot and what good ultimately looks like. The algorithm is not the answer to your creative emptiness. No one needs another image of their girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband leading their hand to the beach. The world will not end if another top-down shot of your daily carry is ignored and swiped past. Don’t recreate that photo. Don’t do it.

I often get inspiration in my daily life from people and things that I encounter naturally: the city I live in, the roads I drive, nature itself, as well as creative folks in other areas. Writing, podcasts, documentaries, and design are all adjacent to photography but offer inspiration in the form of abstract ideas and not literal blueprints for copying work. I think this kind of tangential inspiration is way more effective than literally looking at other pictures. Our job as photographers is to use our own unique eye to tell a story from our point of view, and that muscle must be used, or it becomes weak. Constantly piping in the end result (the photograph) doesn’t help us go through the process of creating a new, unique piece of work, and in fact, it makes it more difficult. Push yourself to be a more developed, creative person, and find inspiration from an unusual source.

  • Get off Instagram and go on a hike. Just get off the phone and internet.
  • Stop following aggregate accounts that just repost the same thing over and over.
  • Don’t follow photographers that give you anxiety, jealousy, or any bad feeling (get them out of your life).
  • Listen to a podcast.
  • Go for a ride, a walk, or a drive without music.
  • Give yourself space for creativity. Force yourself into doing nothing.
  • Spend time (safely) with people you like, and try not to think about being creative. Recharge your creative muscle.
  • Challenge yourself to do something you wouldn’t normally do.
  • Be okay with having an off day. Find some non-creative work to do, and focus on that for a while.
  • Take notes. Inspiration doesn’t always happen at convenient times; write it down so you don’t forget.
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