Rejects Only – Stuck in a photographic rut

It happens to everyone. One day you pick up a camera with every intention of making some images and then… nothing. No inspiration, no motivation, seemingly no opportunities or something always gets in the way of that opportunity.

Maybe the last roll of film didn’t turn out as you expect, you missed a shot that you knew was absolutely on the money and it knocked your confidence or you go out and end up trying to shoot the same scenes in the same places.

Eventually, anyone who takes photography more seriously than just aiming a phone at things to record their existence will find themselves in a state where the motivation and inspiration have completely deserted them.

This is exactly where I find myself right now, a fridge full of film, shelves full of cameras and absolutely no chance to shoot or no idea where I’d go if the chance arose.

Gear will fix it

Canon EOS 300V, Fomapan 400, 50mm F1.8

I think it would be fair to say that for a long time now I’ve been driven by a desire to consume and try out as many different types of camera as I can lay my hands on. I’ve systematically worked my way through a lot of the Canon EOS range, some medium format bodies and more recently a small collection of half frame compacts.

Each camera I have purchased to date has been done with a clear purpose. There’s been a reason why I needed that particular body. Some have fit in a certain historic place, some were comparisons of how a range developed over time and technology that was once top of the range found its way into entry level bodies.

Then there’s the repair angle. I love fixing things, even if sometimes I fix things to death I always learn something from the process that gives me confidence for the next job. When it comes to old manual cameras I’m certainly learning that my eyesight can hardly keep up with the minuscule screws and components inside.

Some cameras just tell their own story through obscurity or innovative design. Cameras like the Canon Demi EE-17 or the EOS 500N I bought for £3 and covered in duct tape make me want to go and use them simply because their story excites me. I feel like I’m using a classic or just something that shouldn’t work at all and that is what makes it special. This is emphasised by the fact you never quite know how something has performed until you get home and develop the roll.

What happens when the gear train runs to a halt? I’m pretty much at that point now, I don’t need any more cameras. I realistically cannot justify any more other than some which are out of my price range. I’m also acutely aware that I should just pick one and go out and use it.

The gear is not enough

Canon EOS 300V, Fomapan 400, 50mm F1.8

Personally, I feel like photography is like a sport or trying to keep fit. If you leave it long enough you start to lose that sharpness, the situational awareness that allows you to get those shots that you’d otherwise miss if you were out of practise. When I got back in to film and photography again earlier this year, I realised I’d forgotten so much that it came as a shock.

Time after time I had to stop and think about silly things like which way I needed to dial in exposure compensation to get an effect I’d want, or to intuitively know when a meter would blow a scene out. When I’m walking around I’ve had to train myself to keep my head up, looking for what is coming rather than what is directly in front of me so I’m ready for the shot rather than realising it was there as it passes me by.

I’ve worked really hard to get to a point where I now feel like I’m doing “okay.” No better, no worse. Looking at my film history this year, I’d say my best roll of film came out at the very start of September, making it the culmination of some luck and four months of practice.

That’s not to suggest in any way that everything I shoot from now on is pure gold, far from it. I recently ran an entire roll (72 shots) through an Olympus PEN and came out with maybe one shot I actually liked and worse still, I thought I’d shot a roll of film that never actually advanced through the camera because I didn’t check it had loaded correctly. I lost a lot of shots I really wanted to see from that roll. Film is a learning curve and unforgiving when you make silly mistakes. Every shot on this page I consider a reject, the pictures that were not quite what I thought they’d be.

Olympus PEN EE II, Kentmere 400 (shot at 200)

Now it’s been a couple of weeks since I even raised a camera to my eye and the worry is I’m already losing that sharpness I’ve worked hard to get.

What’s the way forward?

Olympus PEN EE II, Kentmere 400 (shot at 200)

When you decide to share an interest or passion on a site like this there comes with it an extra pressure to feel like you’re generating enough content to keep your audience interested. No one wants to put the effort in to build something up and then just let it all go or simply burn out.

I’m not the most creative individual in the world so when it comes to an art form like photography I’ve discovered that the more I think about it, the worse I get. Generally, I think I’m at my best when I have a general purpose such as a place to go or a broad idea in mind, but then I head out and just don’t think too much about what I’m taking pictures of. If something catches me, I don’t question it or ask myself whether it’s worth a frame on the roll, I just shoot it. The half frame cameras are extremely liberating in this respect.

The opposite is true for a medium format camera. You get a maximum of 14 shots or a whole 8 if you’re shooting full, full frame 120 pictures. Because I’m limited on the amount of 120 film I currently have and can realistically afford to invest in, this weighs on the mind when framing something up – it really does matter. Worse still, make a mistake such as forgetting the focus distance on a completely manual (and all my 120 cameras are) body and you’ve just wasted 1/8th of your roll. That’s a heavy price to pay for not stopping and thinking.

I’m very aware that I’ve gone down the road of film so hard that using digital now somehow feels like I’m cheating, like it isn’t “proper” photography. I have a shelf full of SLR’s that produce beautiful images and whilst I do prefer the look of film, this is just an absurd belief to have. Any photography is good photography and from a learning point of view, digital is invaluable. I can learn about metering, make mistake after mistake and it just doesn’t matter. The feedback is instant, the learning process quicker and more forgiving and I can then transfer this learning to film later on. Would you like to hear something really stupid? I genuinely fear that I’ll grab a shot on digital that I love so much I end up wishing it was on film and that’ll spoil it for me. I know…

I recently bought a Yashica LM TLR camera and it’s absolutely beautiful. From a design perspective I just love it and using it is such a rewarding experience. I shot a roll of 120 and thought I’d definitely got the shots to write a review of it. When I developed the roll, I must’ve got one single shot that I was happy with and then I discovered the lens had been covered with dust on the inside which had speckled every single frame with black dots. Normally I’m fairly meticulous about cleaning every camera I buy, but I’d let this one pass me by in the excitement to load it up and use it. I keep learning and it now has another roll of 120 in it waiting to be used again, but when… Well, that’s a good question.

Yashica LM TLR, Fomapan 200

Some cameras lend themselves to a certain type of photography more than others. The Yashica is absolutely a stills and scenes camera. It is not designed in any way to be a fast paced street camera. I’ve leaned heavily towards street in recent months and I really am not good at landscape at all.

This is where motivation is a more nuanced feeling than it first seems. I need to shoot the Yashica and I’d definitely get something out of doing so, but I’m just not motivated to go out and shoot the style of photography it demands.

Objectively and logically it’s fairly obvious I’m being stupid here and missing an opportunity. The fact I’m not great at still life or landscapes means I should do exactly that – go and do more of it. I should be sat on YouTube learning from people who know far more than me, picking up inspiration and tips to go and improve myself. Instead, it just feels easier to take the simple route out and bury my head in the sand, stick my fingers in my ears and cry about not being good enough rather than doing something about it.

Learning to accept mistakes and learn from them

Ultimately, when I think about it, there are a few reasons why my motivation escapes me at times like these. Yes there are legitimate reasons like work getting in the way, taking up the majority of my time and the fact that when I do get spare time family life is more important than walking around with a light box attached to me.

That’s fair enough. I picked photography up again to help balance my mental health, to give me that precious time where I’m not just on my own out of the way of stress, but I’m completely zoned out or focussed in for that hour or two where I’m shooting images that I can completely switch off. It’s really important not to let that go.

So as Autumn and inevitably Winter close in and the nights get dark by the time I get home, it seems like there will be ever more excuses not to go and do something. What am I going to do about it? Well, my plan begins with writing a list that looks something like this:

  • Learn to shoot street at night on film
  • Do more landscapes
  • Document autumn and winter in a way I find appealing
  • Try to do some mini, time constrained assignments
  • Stop worrying that shooting digital SLR’s now and again is somehow not “authentic”
  • Finish the roll of 120 in the Yashica
  • Shoot some toy cameras for the hell of it
  • Get a colour developing kit

I can guarantee that as soon as I actually get up, get out and tick just one of those things off my list I’ll feel better about it. Some require a bit of thought, some require money I don’t really have, others I just have no excuse at all not to go and do.

I don’t believe anything can be sustained forever with metronomic regularity and sometimes it is important to remind yourself that taking a break is absolutely fine, it doesn’t mean you’re giving up, it just means there is more to life than doing the same thing over and over again. Taking the pressure off yourself helps immensely. I will get back out there and shoot lots more, it might not be tomorrow, but it will be soon and when the motivation takes me again it’ll remind me why I love this as much as I do.

I hope if you’re in the same boat, or ever find yourself here, you’ll find your way out. Take your time.

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