The Photographic Plateau: When The View Is Bleak

February 11, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

When starting out most photographers face a steep learning curve which starts by learning about the techniques behind capturing that perfect picture, which is sharp and straight, then moving on to learning about things like aperture and shutter speed and then to things like composition. We learn rules, exceptions to rules, about what is supposed to be the right light and then at one point, we can do all this pretty well and are able to produce pictures that are appealing and technically perfect. 

Some photographers are perfectly happy knowing that they can produce good or even excellent pictures, others start to struggle when photography can be done on auto-pilot. When everything becomes easy and you find yourself just automatically taking the same types of steps over and over again, you perhaps start to feel bored or overly critical of your work and sometimes even feel depressed that you can't seem to escape this plateau.

The Photographic PlateauThe Photographic PlateauWhen taking technically and aesthetically pleasing pictures is no longer enough and being comfortable in your ways is making you feel uncomfortable.

In some cases it could be you are just a perfectionist and always find fault in your work. In other cases it is an unease with taking pictures of what is there rather than taking pictures of what lives within. You might feel you are creating images that look interchangeable and the longer you look at your work, the more bleak the view gets. You start doubting everything you do and it feels like you are no longer moving ahead but perhaps even backwards.

That is when frustration really sets in and you think you might have just lost it completely. The thing is....you might just have done exactly that. The rules, the techniques, the knowledge and the opinions of others usually don't leave much space for your own voice. Your work may well have lost its spontaneity somewhere along the learning curve. This is actually quite normal and can often be seen with artists who attend art school as well. They start with their own voice, loose it somewhere along the way whilst learning all they have to learn and then have to find it back again to leave their own footprints in the art world.

Winter DoldrumsWinter Doldrums

Being able to produce on auto-pilot, when you intuitively know what to do, might look appealing, but it is like being on auto-repeat, repeating what you have learned and what has proven successful. What if you feel you just can't seem to get past this phase of unease?

This being uncomfortable with the comfortable serves a purpose. It tells you that this no longer fits the bill for you. Yes, you might feel like you are going backward as you start making different kinds of images and push yourself into unknown territories. This phase is necessary to be able to break free and to start expressing yourself more in your photography in a way that your pictures tell more about you than the subject you are photographing.

I think that the emphasis on having a style of your own is perhaps not even that helpful. You can be on the plateau and have a style of your own and still feel your pictures don't tell your story. Style is the way you present your images. This might be very recognizable to others, but a style can be invented and then become a comfortable way of producing images if they are well received. 

Photography as a way of expressing yourself is therefore not at the core about style. A style that helps convey your vision is definitely one of the components, but if it is pursued as a goal on its own, the story might be overseen. A story comes from a vision and this vision comes from you. You don't find a vision, because you already have it, you are just not aware of it perhaps. Each and everyone of us has a specific way of looking at the world and this does not only translate into what we create, but probably also in many other aspects of out lives.

Goblin WoodsGoblin Woods

It is the connection to this vision, connecting all the dots that together make you see the world in your own unique way, that will help you leave the plateau fase. This however does not mean that this is in any way going to be a comfortable route to take. If you let go of what you have learned and start expressing more of yourself and your way of seeing in your photography, you might feel that your images are getting worse, that they don't prove to be so popular or that people respond negatively. People are creatures of habit and followers like your images based on what you have been doing up until now. This means that they like what is in the past. At first they might struggle with what you are starting to create, but I can tell you that you will start attracting people of the same "tribe". 

If you feel your images are getting worse, you might feel tempted to go back to the same old thing that you could do on auto-pilot even though it was not that self-expressive. What looks worse to you though is the new foundation you are building on. Your vision is now your starting point and as you break free from the comfortable phase where you could just produce pleasing pictures consistently on auto-pilot, you are now going to feel uneasy. 

This kind of unease means you are growing though. The unease you feel when you are in the plateau phase means you are stuck. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be uneasy growing than uneasy and stuck. Hang in there, because the reward is that you will start taking pictures that you feel connected to and that you will feel really proud of. Once a picture you create clicks with your authentic vision, the pride you feel goes way beyond getting outer rewards.

Dance At DuskDance At Dusk

A vision is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it is simply how who you are affects how you look at this world. Becoming aware of this vision and then being able to translate this into your photography can be a daunting process and many times it will feel like taking one step forward and then two steps backward or a return to the plateau. No one ever said this is supposed to be easy, it isn't and I think it should not be. Rewards are so much greater if you have had to make a real effort. When something has been challenging and difficult and you have really had to work hard, it is so much more rewarding when all of a sudden it clicks....and it will at some point click, believe me. This process is of great value on your way to create images that express who you are or what you want to share. It is by far the most fulfilling thing in an artist's life and leads to a greater personal satisfaction from your work and therefore greater self-confidence. 

For the Dutch readers amongst you, I have good news....I will be teaching a masterclass about vision and self-expressive photography at Pixperience 2020 Wowscapes. Tickets to this masterclass are limited so book yours now. I will be teaching a very inspiring interactive masterclass on how to translate a vision into storytelling pictures. Click here for information about the masterclass and click here to order tickets for Pixperience Wowscapes

Another exciting bit of news for Dutch readers is the introduction of a new book (a real physical book, with paper pages....yay! ). This book is available through Pixfactory (the publisher) and will be available at a special pre-order price until the 29th of March. To secure a copy, please click on the banner below.

For my English readers I have the equally amazing eBook The Magic Of Forest Photography if you want to learn all about forest photography. Your purchase will make it possible for me to keep delivering free content on my blog, which is something I absolutely love to do


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