The Long Creative Pause

So, in a follow up to yesterday’s post about taking Short Creative Pauses in the middle of a hectic shoot, I want to talk today about taking what I call a Long Creative Pause.  I’m being very pretentious here, because I suspect most people call these things “holidays”!

Those who know me, or follow the blog at all will know that I’m one of those busy people, and not someone inclined to lie around on the beach or loaf in front of the sofa.  Last year, by my count, I did more than 150 shoots (see the Blackbox for more info) and whilst this was my busiest year on record, it wasn’t way above average.  In fact, despite this, I took most of July off, and tried with some success to do the sort of things I want to talk about in this post.

Outdoor Office during a long creative pause
My “office” for a few days last July. The top of One Tree Hill in South London.

Now, on a basic, human level, we all need a break, perhaps me more than most, so the idea of taking time off is hardly controversial or original.  However, what I want to talk about is not just the notion of catching up on the latest DVD box set, or running up a large bar tab, but actually choosing to devote time to other constructive things besides directly making money/doing shoots/going out working.

You see, the problem is, when you’re as busy as I am, is that whilst it’s fantastic to have lots of people emailing and ringing up and saying “can you go and photograph this please”, the massive demands on my time this creates, coupled with the amount of spillover that being self-employed creates, leaves very little time for anything that could be classed as career development.  By this I mean learning new skills, spending time thinking about what I really want to shoot, testing new equipment and techniques, and researching/looking at other people’s work.

>Shoots by their nature are very expedient – they need to take place at a very specific time, be done in a strict time frame, and delivered promptly.  All of these aspects mean that they naturally (and rightly) take precedence over something more nebulous like “getting better at Photoshop” in the day-to-day course of things.  So, the main thing about taking a long creative pause is actually devoting time to these less time-sensitive things, and shifting priority temporarily away from day-to-day demands.

So, the things I tend to focus on when I take a longer pause are:

  • Tutorials – particularly in my case Photoshop skills, and video editing/sound.  Both of these are still fairly new to me, as, although I’ve been using Photoshop for about 15 years on and off, it’s only in the last 4-5 years I’ve actually developed any skill in it, and incorporated it into my workflow.  The same goes for video – I’ve been shooting videos for a couple of years now, but there are still a lot of areas where I need dramatic improvement.
  • “Working on my Work” to give it a catchy name.  By this I mean examining what I’m shooting, what excites me, and where I want to take it forwards.  Exercises like the Black Box, and the No Excuses exercise are part of this process, as is working on my Logbook (which I promise I’ll finally blog about soon!).  This also involves lots of research into other practitioners – looking at other photographers and artists websites, going to galleries, reading books, and so on.
  • Shooting test shoots.  Sometimes these are directly related to the point above, where I try and move my work forward by shooting new and challenging work, without the constraints of a commission, and sometimes they’re simply what I call a “technical test” where the results are highly unlikely to end up in the portfolio, but they may prove whether a certain lighting technique/photoshop process/triggering system works how I want it to.
  • Education stuff.  For me this consists of blog posts, as well as creating courses that I teach for Nikon, and at various Universities and Colleges.  Last July for example, although there was very little to be seen on this blog, I wrote something like a dozen posts for the NYIP, and created 2 one-day courses and an evening course for Nikon.
Logbook
The Logbook – I promise I’ll blog about it in the near future!

Here are a few lessons I learnt from last July, as well as times I’ve failed to take a proper creative pause:

  • Actually make time for the pause.  It’s one thing to look at next week’s diary on Friday, see that the week is pretty clear, and say to yourself “I’ll try and do some photoshop tutorials next week” and another to actually formally make space in the diary for it.  It’s yet another step to stick to your guns when a client calls up and asks you to shoot that day.  If you don’t make time for it I guarantee you other things will get in the way, allocating time for it is a much more certain way of getting things done.
  • How you deal with telling clients you’re not available, when you’ve devoted that day to going to a gallery/watching tutorial videos/writing in your logbook is completely up to you.  You can try the easy white lie of saying you’re already booked, but in my experience I found it was better to simply be honest.  Good clients will recognise that a more skilled and creative version of you will only serve them better in the long run, and they can probably manage without you for a couple of jobs.  Bad clients?  Well, we don’t want to work with bad clients anyway…
  • Don’t expect to achieve everything in one go.  It’s very tempting to say at the start of a pause like this “By this time next week I will be a lighting genius/photoshop master etc etc” and then find yourself very disappointed when 7 days later you still don’t know the difference between a selection, a mask, an alpha channel, and a barn door.  Like so many other things in life, set yourself realistic goals, and appreciate that learning is a process, rather than a conclusive thing, and you’ll be far happier!

Now, before I sign off, I realise some people are probably fuming about the fact that I’m giving out instructions on how to actually work less, when most people are probably keen to get as much photographic work as possible.  I have 2 answers to this,  the first is that I can obviously only speak from my own experience, and as we know, I’m quite busy, so my problems will be specific to me, though I suspect some of the issues I identify are actually widely shared.

Secondly, a career in Professional Photography requires a huge amount of work, effort, and sacrifice over the years, and as such, it seems absurd to put all that time and effort in, only to end up at a place where you’re simply working for the sake of it and fighting just to keep your head above water.  Taking some time to develop new skills, look at your work more closely, and focus your vision beyond the next 24 hours can reap huge benefits in the quality of your work, your own mental well being, and even, dare I say it, your bank balance!  A photographer who is creative, technically skilled, and in touch with the wider visual world is in a better position to charge more money than someone who simply grinds through every job with one eye on the pay cheque, and the other on the clock!

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