How To Use Creative Plateaus To Improve As A Photographer

urbanization, urban, street photography, pollution, raw

If I tell you that you’ll never amount too much or that you may as well give up photography because there are too many better photographers out there, does it encourage you or discourage you?  If you answered “discourage” you’d be in the majority.  Imagine hearing someone say that over and over again, day after day…  It shouldn’t be hard, the person telling you this is probably you.  We tend to be our own worst enemies.  As children we approach life with reckless abandon, tackling things like walking and learning a new language without so much as a passing doubt.  As adults, many of us reprogram our brain with life experiences (or toxic people) to give up as soon as we run into challenges (either internal or external).  Luckily, plateaus can be embraced and used rather than feared.

When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.

There is an old African proverb that says “when there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you”.  It’s time to slay the enemy within my friends.  If we embrace limitations that cause us to feel like we’ve plateaued miraculously the plateaus turn into a spring boards for new creativity.  Do you feel like your camera is dated and needs an update, does this make you want to leave it on a shelf until you can save up for a new one?  That’s a plateau.  Discouraged because you go out day after day and it seems like your photography never improves?  Plateau.  Feel like you’ve taken all the photographs there are to take in your city?  Yep, plateau.  Here are some tips on how to embrace your plateau and make it your b!t(h.

Don’t Should Yourself

Get it?  A little word play for the clever ones out there.  But seriously, this is one of those sneaky plateaus that sneak up on you and before you realize it weeks, months, or years have passed you by.  It goes like this:  “I know I should (insert activity here) but (insert excuse here)”.  Familiar with this one?  We have all should all over ourselves at one time or another.  Here is a quick list of the should I take every day:  I should get up earlier (I like to get up by 4 a.m.), I should do a photo walk in the morning two or three times a week, I should continue working on the books I’m writing, I should organize my photos in my long-term projects, I should do more marketing, I should, I should, I should……  You get the point.

Solution:  Inch by inch, life’s a cinch.  Yard by yard, life’s too hard.  When I tackle just one small thing or push myself to wake up just a half hour earlier I tend to get into the groove.  If I try to tackle all these goals at once I end up giving up after about a day.  The best way to complete the things we need to do to grow our passion and/or business is to tackle one small item at a time.

Break Free Of Creative Constraints

Are you a landscape photographer that feels like they are in a rut?  Feel like you’ve photographed all there is to photograph in your area?  This is natural.  We are all guilty of feeling that way from time to time.  As soon as you realize that the only reason you feel that way is because of your own creative limitations the sooner you can embrace it.  The solution is fairly simple…

Solution: Photograph something else.  Seriously, stop doing what you are doing and try a new genre of photography.  I promise you that you’ll not only push through your plateau but you’ll also become a better photographer in the genre you’re passionate about.  The reason my landscape photography has improved is because I felt like I had done all there was to do (stupid) and decided to try street photography (smart) because it seemed there was limitless subject matter (there is).  I applied what I knew from landscape photography to my street photography and vice versa.

Look Where You Weren’t

Every photograph I use for the header image (the photo at the top of the article) is chosen for a very specific reason.  The photograph at the top of the page is near and dear to me.  This photograph, to me, signifies my growth as a photographer and the slaying of my inner jerk (that voice that discourages us).  That specific photograph isn’t the most beautiful photograph I’ve taken, it’s not even close…  However, that photograph represents the breaking down of the self-imposed creative restraints that I’ve been struggling with recently.  Further, it is part of a photography new project that has been incredibly personal and introspective.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

~ A. Einstein

Everyone, from time to time, goes “big game hunting” with their camera…  Big game hunting simply means we set out to photograph a life changing photograph and won’t settle for anything less.  The result?  Ninety-Nine percent of the time we come away discouraged and tired because we didn’t find a photograph that National Geographic would beat down our door for.  I have found this approach to photography to be unsustainable.

Solution:  Look where you were not looking before.  Albert Einstein said the definition of Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  If you aren’t finding the shot or shots you are looking for in the style you’d like then it is time to mix things up.  Start looking at your feet, in the sky, down an alley, in an empty parking lot, anywhere that isn’t where you were looking before.  Further, look for different subject matter as well.  For example, the shot at the top of the page happened after I finally gave myself permission to simply have fun with my camera and photograph whatever I thought was interesting…  The pressure was off.

Once the pressure was off and I was back to walking around the city looking for interesting subjects I was able to get back into my creative “zone” and capture some interesting photographs that were more in line with what I had set out to create originally (below).

Own Your Circumstances

Perhaps you have old gear that you feel is holding you back.  Maybe you’re so busy at work and running your kids around that you feel like you just don’t have time to get great photos.  Own it!  Whatever your circumstance is you can retrain your mind to take advantage of it.

Solution:  Change the way you think about photography…  If you are working all day and then running the kids here and there then it’s time you start taking your camera with you.  If you have a camera that has limitations then great!  You can use those limitations to create some really unique photographs.

I take my camera everywhere I go.  I’m not just talking about my camera equipped smart phone either.  I’m the weirdo showing up to dinner with his friends with my camera hanging around my neck.  The photograph above was taken while I was on vacation with my wife and son.  I was running from floor to floor of this awful hotel looking for a cart to haul the million bags people need to pack when they travel with an infant when I saw the light from the setting sun create this beautiful scene in an otherwise crap hole of a hotel.

It used to be that digital Leica cameras were terrible at anything above ISO 3200 (that was pushing it).  The problem was, I love to shoot well after the sun starts dropping.  Solution?  I embraced the limitation and started a new street photography series using a slow shutter speed to create impressionistic looking street scenes.  I had a blast and from that grew another similar project where I would create even more abstract images using slow shutter speed street scenes.


When you feel like you’re out of creative juice and life is gut punching your artistic self you can change gears and punch life right back.  Plateaus should be welcomed instead of feared.  Looking back on the past couple years I’ve discovered that some of my most interesting projects were born during times I felt like I had plateaued.  So, decide what you will do next.  Will you let your plateau define your work or will you break free of the creative constraints you put on yourself and create your best work?

Thanks for reading!  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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4 replies on “How To Use Creative Plateaus To Improve As A Photographer”
  1. says: Becky

    Very timely article, John, thanks. I will put your advice to work to get past this feeling of “I am just not getting better and I am not good enough.”

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      I’m glad you found it useful! Thank you for your feedback. And you are always improving, your photography is beautiful. We are our own worst critics.

  2. says: Phil Harbord

    Thanks for a really informative and inspirational article John. I think we’ve all felt at times that we’ve plateaued or run out of inspiration and your suggestions in the article are definitely worth following to break out of that rut.

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      Phil, my pleasure. Thank you for the feedback! I agree… I think everyone who pushes to be better will struggle with plateaus fairly often. It would probably be more concerning if we never had them, perhaps that would mean we weren’t pushing ourselves.

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