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How to Keep the Passion for Photography Alive

New gear, new techniques, exciting shoots, and financial success are all parts of a fun and successful photographic life. However, it’s equally important to maintain our passion for our art form and continue to feed our creativity in the long term.

Now, I know what you might be thinking. Photography is my passion. Photography is fun. How could I ever wake up in the morning and not be passionate about my chosen field? And, to a certain extent, this is true. Being head over heels about the art form, perhaps even bordering on obsession, is pretty much a prerequisite for having a career in today’s ultra-competitive landscape for photography. A very large amount of my mental energy is permanently consumed by the seemingly impossible task of trying to maintain a healthy balance between my art and my life. There are greater things in life than whether or not I book that big campaign I am bidding on. But I admit that I don’t always do the best job of recognizing that.

For me, this rather dogged focus on my craft and the business that has sprung from it seems necessary. For better or for worse, my mind tends to thrive in the extremes — either extreme focus or extreme disconnection. And I can see a real tangible effect to both my bottom line and my work depending on which state I currently reside in. But, contrary to the allegations, I am not a robot. And, while this excessive level of drive is what’s necessary for me to reach the level I aspire to professionally, even I am aware that one cannot maintain that level of heightened obsession for an indefinite period of time without eventually burning out.

Wherever you might land on the workaholic spectrum, there’s a good chance that you too have experienced periods where the joy of something you once loved seems to wane. We can be addicted to our art the same way some people are addicted to narcotics. And like drugs, the first hit is always the most powerful and the effect of those that follow are often simply a sliding scale of diminishing return. Carry on long enough and you may find yourself one day still going through the motions, but not receiving any of the rushes in return.

When you have an office job, this level of indifference is part of the gig. You don’t necessarily have to wake up inspired to be a good accountant. You simply have to know your job and get through the day. Photography, however, doesn’t work that way. As a photographer, you not only have to know the technical ins and outs of your craft, but you also have to need to bring an intangible wellspring of creative inspiration to the workplace every time you arrive on set. This individual spark, that only you can provide, is what will ultimately determine your level of success, whether you are shooting for a client or simply looking to push yourself to your personal best.

Just like a professional athlete who needs to pay the utmost attention to his or her training to maintain longevity, an artist must take an extra level of care to make sure they maintain their creativity. Your artistic voice is your instrument. And it takes maintenance to stay in tune. There are a million and one different ways to do this, but here are just a couple of things that I like to do when I find my motivation wells starting to run dry.

Personal Projects

I was on a Zoom call mentoring a group of younger photographers a few years back and one of the emerging photographers asked one of us, ahem, “seasoned” photographers whether or not we still did test shoots. For those who don’t know, a test shoot is simply a self-assigned photoshoot that you might do for additional practice to try out a new lighting technique or simply build your portfolio. It’s not a paying gig. Depending on the concept, you might end up being the one paying. But it’s essential in developing your craft and your portfolio, especially early on.  

But once you have established your business and are getting paid to shoot, why would you shoot for free? Well, while I don’t work for other people for free, I find that working for myself for free is one of the best investments you can make in both your career and your creativity.

When you are shooting for clients, you are (hopefully) being adequately compensated and (hopefully) have a sufficient budget to achieve your highest level. But, while working for paying clients is the objective of a professional photographer, those shoots are also always, well, for clients. “Duh,” you might say. Of course, they are. But filtering your creativity through the eyes of an art director or creative director is a very different experience from letting your own unique individual artistry fully flourish. Both are excellent, mind you, but they require slightly different sides of your creative brain.

But even though they are paying you and often coming to you with a creative brief, your clients aren’t just hiring you because you own a camera and can press a button. They are hiring you instead of another photographer because you bring something special to the table. You bring your approach. And if you only ever do shoots that are filtered through the voice of an external brand or collaborator, it is difficult to develop a voice that is uniquely your own.

This is where personal projects come in. They allow you the creative freedom to produce a piece of art that is fully your own. They allow you to explore new concepts and grow as an artist. Coincidentally, the new skills and aesthetics you develop doing personal projects are usually the things that will get you hired as well. As many images I’ve shot for big clients that exist in my portfolio, it is almost invariably the images I shot for personal projects that make their way onto my client’s mood boards when they send over their brief.

But, aside from the professional objectives, doing these personal projects feeds my artistic soul. After all, I became an artist to create art, not to make money. Don’t get me wrong, the money is a big part of why my dog is swimming in Kibbles and Bits. But money isn’t what wakes me up in the morning. And when it comes to maintaining my passion for the craft that I love, feeding my love of the art is just as important and filling my bank account.

Step Away Once in a While

It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes, the best way to remain tuned in to your passion is to take a moment to tune out. As I mentioned earlier, this is not the easiest thing for me to do personally. But in hindsight, I very rarely view these moments where I allow my passions to wander with regret.

For me, these moments of ambling usually take the form of an obsession with different art forms. It’s not that I fall out of love with photography, but I do fall in love with different forms of storytelling that will occasionally take over the pole position in my thoughts. Not that my tendency to wander to different art forms should come as a surprise. After all, photography was only the fifth artistic passion I found, if we go chronologically. I only became a photographer by accident after picking it up as a hobby to distract me from the stress of selling screenplays. That photographic hobby eventually became my focus and a source of income. But just like my mind drifted from screenplays to photography, it often drifts back to writing, or filmmaking, or any other multitude of artistic outlets.

Seeing as though I have a one-track mind and it’s difficult for me to manage two passions simultaneously, there’s a risk in letting my mind wander too far away from photography, as I can easily find myself not thinking about it much at all. This, you can imagine, is less than beneficial to my bank account. But creatively, I find these times of shifting focus to be ultimately beneficial to my art form. To all my art forms.

Because I truly love photography, it will eventually float back up to the surface. But when it comes back to the front of my mind, it will now be informed by whatever I learned during my period of creative drift. The various art forms I do are all different in execution. But the source of creativity is still the same. So, while I may have difficulty focusing on more than one at the same time, a rising tide lifts all boats, and pursuit of one does ultimately tend to improve all the others.

This sort of deviation would be detrimental was my photographic career to be a sprint. But since building a career in photography is more akin to a marathon, I’ve found these brief detours to not only be worthwhile but also necessary in maintaining my passion in the long run.

Remember Why You Started in the First Place

Everyone has their reasons for picking up a camera. Sometimes, you just didn’t want to let life’s memories slip away, and you needed a way to capture them. Or, perhaps, you needed a way to communicate, and a picture is worth a thousand words. There’s a chance that you picked up a camera the very first time for purely commercial purposes. But the likelihood is that if your main goal in life is just to make money regardless of how you make it, then you can find a thousand easier ways to earn a paycheck than trying to navigate the photography industry.

So, what was it that made you pick up a camera in the first place? What made you fall in love with the experience of taking a photograph? What does the process offer you that nothing else can? How does your love of art make your life better?

Remembering these things can be the catalyst for renewing your passion for your craft for years to come. Techniques and gear change. Trends will come and go. But those base impulses that attracted you to the art in the first place will last a lifetime. Remember why you fell in love. And the passion will last forever.

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12 Comments

D R's picture

I've been a pro photographer for 15 years, and finally just sold all my gear during the lockdowns. Not only did I lose business, frankly I lost passion. Everything and everybody has been photographed. Pretty much every style has been done, and also everybody now is a "photographer".

It's extremely rare that I see a photo now and go "wow, that's incredible". Also, prices of high end photo gear has doubled in the past 5 years. The price of lenses now are absolutely insane (especially on the RF side of things).

William Murray's picture

I can relate to the way you feel. A long time ago, I lost my passion, and didn't pick up a camera for ten years (I'm getting old).

It's perfectly OK to walk away, and if you don't ever come back to photography, that's OK too. Everything has its season.

We have been conditioned to believe that career/material success is the most important thing, but we all know that is complete rubbish; the most important thing is well-being - a much more holistic question than happiness. If something does not increase your well-being, why the hell would you want to do it?

I also agree with you when you say it has all been done before; it really couldn't be otherwise; a couple of billion great apes, screaming into a hurricane, desperately trying to be seen.

And yes, new gear is expensive, but then the drive to buy new gear is predominantly driven by the marketing machine (that has generated some toxic consequences amongst the community). 10 year old gear will still produce wonderful files; equally, I could quote Keith Carter, "sharpness is overrated", and observe that some of the most sublime photographic images I've seen have been produced with pinhole.

MC G's picture

Having hot models definitely helps.

winzehnt gates's picture

I think it's always difficult when you make your artistic passion a profession. As a hobbyist, I can just follow my passion, whereas as a professional, at the end of the day, you have to earn money, which often means doing things which aren't fun.

Robert Nurse's picture

Which is why I really don't want to go pro. I'll save that for after I retire and only as a way to feed photographic expenses. That way, I can offer work that fits what I want to do. If the client doesn't like that, oh well. There will be just as many people that will.

Ignace Maenhaut van Lemberge's picture

Working as a professional photographer for 28 years now. Having to do things which aren't fun once in a while and having to follow the client's directions with little or no own input a lot of times helps me to be more creative in my personal work. No restrictions (technical or creative). Fun only.

Great article (again) Mr. Malcolm.

winzehnt gates's picture

I'm happy for you, that you manage this well and to your satisfaction. I just wanted to highlight that this is a challenge people who want to go pro in an artistic profession have to be aware of. Often it is just a matter of expectations management. If you know this will happen, it usually isn't as bad as when it takes you by surprise.

Barry Strawbridges's picture

I believe on a creative level, it's good to have other interests. Other than photography, I do music, sound, & audio production, DJing, video work & editing, and some theatre work. When I get burned out on one, I just shift to the next skill. It's always good to take a break. The pandemic did hurt pretty badly, but again I just relied on those other skills. I also upped my photo processing skills.

jim hughes's picture

I'm not a "pro" but I do sell a few. Many days I think, why am I still doing this? Mostly, just for friends on Facebook I guess.

I just saw a post on DPR from a guy who wanted to know if there was a point-and-shoot he could buy that would "take pictures as good as his phone". No one cares about image quality anymore, your phone does fake DOF and bokeh, every landmark has been shot to death, there's no money in shooting anything but high-end fashion and real estate.

I keep at it by shooting birds, offbeat landscapes, and trying to create interesting takes on the familiar.

One thing that often works is to just cruise city streets and shoot strange or goofy things I come across; I wrote a blog post about that:

https://jimhphoto.com/index.php/2021/04/14/just-the-street/

Charles Mercier's picture

How about saying, "I'm so fortunate to be my own boss as a photographer. What's my alternative?" Working in a warehouse, the food industry, etc.

jim hughes's picture

Yes I'm so lucky - I'm on top of the world... Hey, I feel like going out and shooting some photos!

Nah, that never works.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

That's why I don't want to rely on photography as the only income or aim at the professional level, to be honest. When it's just a hobby it's easier to feel okay about not wanting to be productive or not touching your camera for a while. Finding inspiration is sometimes challenging and while coming up with personal projects somewhat helps you gotta find inspiration for this, too. Sometimes it comes randomly (like when you've been working on some old photos to fix them in photoglory and then the idea of recreating some of the old family shots pops up) and sometimes there is nothing you seem to like. It sucks when you are just a hobbyist and I don't want to imagine how much more it sucks for a professional