How to break creative blocks through photo essays


One of my favorite things to do is take my dog to the beach at sunrise for a run. And more often than not, the camera comes with me. However, I’ve been finding myself shooting the same old shots: Dog running with ball. Dog running in water. Dog running in water with ball. And if I'm bored of these shots, how can I expect an audience to endure them? And more importantly, how can I expect to grow as a photographer if I'm not trying new things during these personal shooting opportunities?

While I’ve recognized for awhile now that I needed to push myself during these morning outings, I only recently made a resolution to truly take advantage the fantastic creative freedom I have every time I head out the door with my camera, even if it is a rather routine trip to the same old beach. But how? What was I going to do differently?

The very same day I made the resolution, something serendipitous happened. I launched a video of a Creative Live course I'd bought a little while ago, a course on conservation photography by Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier. And I came away with a solution to my problem.

In her course, Mittermeier talks about storytelling and the six types of images required to fully tell a story. She points out that you need:

1. The iconic image: an image that can act as the cover of the book, or the two-page opening spread in the magazine. It’s the image that becomes the face of the story, the one visual that pops into someone’s head when they think of the topic. For instance, when you hear the words “Dust Bowl” you probably think of Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother” photograph. Or when you think of the Hindenburg, in your head you probably see the photo of the airship crashing into the tower and exploding into flames. The odds of actually creating a shot that becomes a culturally iconic photograph on this level are of course slim, but your goal is always to create at least one image that when someone thinks of your story, they see that image in their head.

2. A sense of place: where are you in the world? It’s so easy to focus on the up-close subjects in the story that it’s hard to remember to step back and provide context. It may be a landscape or aerial shot, it may be a photo that covers an entire street or city block. Whatever it is, or however you decide to shoot it, the image should help people put the story on a larger map in their mind. It provides a forest for all the many trees in your photo essay.

3. The portrait: an intimate image of your main character(s). Who or what should the audience care about most in the story and how do you want your audience to feel about them? That’s what your portrait shot provides.

4. The overall view: an image that provides additional context or a summary of the story. For instance, when I think of a providing the overall view for a story on overfishing the ocean, I think of a photograph that shows a wide-angle view of a trawler from above, with fishermen standing on deck around a net filled to bursting with fish, and the shutter clicked just as the net is opened and the catch spills onto the deck. It’s a shot that if someone takes a quick glance at it before reading the text, they know what the text is going to be about.

5. The details: an image that brings the viewer into the underlying layers of the story. These are the shots that have the chance to tell pieces of the story that are important and too easily overlooked, or that make viewers feel like they are right there in the location with you. They create an emotional bond to the subject and the story through the level of closeness the image provides. There is no story that is complete without the details that stick so solidly in an audience’s memory.

6. The action: nothing in this world is static, and a complete photo essay must bring forth the activity around which the story revolves or which is inherent in the subject you’re capturing. What story of a working ranch, for instance, is complete without a cowhand galloping on a horse, or roping an animal, or tossing a bale of hay down from a stack? The action shots bring a level of immediacy and reality to a story. A viewer can play out what happened before and what happens after the moment based on how much action you put into your image, as if they have a video player in their heads. The world is constantly on the move, and the action shots ensure your photo essay represents that fact.

I can’t even explain the relish with which I absorbed this section of Mittermeier's lesson. This was the key to what I was looking for, the tools to get out of my rut. Here was an assignment with a to-do list. Each item on the list was a box that I could fill with whatever I wanted, but at least I had those boxes to both guide me forward and keep me on track.

What better way to break out of a routine than by being handed six threads with which to weave a new cloth?

So I began.

On a regular basis, I'll pull out books and pull up websites to study the images of other photographers, looking for things to try out myself, for new ways of seeing a scene, for anything that might inspire. I also use it as a practice to remember who I am, what I like and don't like, how far from my own style or habits I want to venture and what I want to retain. So for a couple hours the night before my next beach run with my dog, I looked through the images of pet photographers whose styles I admire and which speak to me. I focused on which aspects of their styles that I recognize in me but have not so far incorporated in my own work. What settings or compositions have I not yet experimented with? What rules have I been clinging to that maybe I need to give myself permission to break?

Armed with an assignment, fresh inspiration, and a new lock on what of me I want to keep and what of me I want to push forward, I headed out. For two mornings, I shot with purpose. While my dog did pretty much the same thing as usual — run at full speed for two hours — I looked at everything we usually do together during our runs with an eye for how I would capture images for each of the six categories of photos in an essay. How would I tell this incredibly simple story, and how would I do it in a way that doesn’t feel old to me?

I had the same ingredients as always: a few miles of empty beach, an ice plant-covered cliff lining one side, the ocean lining the other, a morning that shifts from black to purple to grey and pink, a neon green tennis ball, and a dog with endless energy. What of this story have I not photographed before? What have I photographed that I can do differently? I approached every photograph with more analysis, and the more I did that, the more inspired and excited I became.

Some shots worked, some didn’t. Many fell into the “been there, done that” category. But overall, I felt like I’d ripped through a thick wall that I’d been lounging against for too long.

Out of all the images from two morning shoots (don’t even ask how many), I narrowed it down to 115 to work on, then whittled that pile down to 58 after the first sort, and a few less after the next, and so on. I separated the images into which category I’d shot them for, then went through each category again and again always keeping in mind: “Does this tell the story? Is it a part of the story I've already told before?”

The words of colleagues echoed in my head: You are judged by the worst photo in your portfolio. With that in mind, I had two questions to ask during final sorting: Which photos truly tell the story and fill it out or continue it forward; and which photos am I clinging to for emotional reasons but they really don't have a place in this story?

My goal was to whittle it down to 12 images. As you can see, I (cough) kept in a few more than that (cough). But, the process is more important than the finished product in this case and my reluctance to slice out images I’m attached to is a skill I can polish at a later time. I'm sure in one month, two months, three months, I can come back to this and more easily pull out the images that basically amount to over-sharing. Time and distance are, after all, two of the best tools for editing.

So, did I succeed with this piece? Well, that is ultimately for viewers to decide. But I know that this self-assigned photo essay helped me break through a creative barrier, hone important skills to use in shooting, storytelling, portraiture and editing, and provided a boost of joy and confidence in my personal projects. So that counts as success for me.

I didn't stop shooting dog-with-ball and dog-in-water, but I shot things differently, and I looked around for what more would help viewers see our mornings as I and my dog see them. Plus, there are dozens of images I kept out of this essay, images I really love but whose role isn't quite right for this story. That means I have lots of fresh, valuable material to use for future projects. Always a bonus.

Now, without further ado, that photo essay I talked so much about -- and below this, I've jotted down seven steps for giving yourself your own photo essay assignment that will help you push into new levels of creativity.

Sand, Salt, and Sunrise


Suggested steps in assigning yourself a photo essay as a way to break a creative barrier:

1) What is one of your most boring routines or scenes? Select something that seems like there’s hardly anything to photograph, or that you’ve photographed extensively already, as your new assignment.

2) Decide on what you like about your existing photos from the location, and what want to push forward about your images. Also decide on what angle you want to take in your photo essay. What story do you want to tell?

3) Make a rough shot list. Write down any ideas that pop into your head, and add them to one of the six categories of images that form a photo essay. If it helps, use more than just words and sketch out photo ideas as drawings.

4) Shoot with your list in mind. If you find yourself working in an overly familiar way, stop and ask yourself what you can change about the shot you were just taking to make it more creative. Don't leave until you think you have at least two solid images for each of the six categories.

5) Narrow down your images until you have 12 or so that tell the story of this place or routine. Place them in an order that tells your story in a logical way.

6) After a few days, return to your photo essay and study it. What strategies or new techniques worked for you, and what didn’t? How might you do a better job of shooting an image for a particular category of the essay? Are there shots that still feel a little routine and maybe you want to re-shoot in a fresh way? Get nitty-gritty but be sure to leave your study session thinking about everything you did right during your assignment, and revel in all the ways you got creative, experimented, and pulled off images you really love.

7) Rinse and repeat as needed.


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Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.