This article begins with a few paragraphs of self-indulgent whining. I could argue that they also provide “context.” Whichever is more true, I think the pity-party does eventually lead to something that could be useful to someone, so bear with me.
Running Casual Photophile is a challenge, and at times it can be a nightmare. During Thanksgiving week, for example, I was awake until 3:00 am four nights in a row working late to write and edit articles for readers to [hopefully] enjoy [for free], while struggling through a number of site-breaking problems with my server. During that same workweek I was called “stupid” and “idiotic,” both a “millennial hipster” and paradoxically a “boomer” via comments on the site, through Facebook, and most astounding of all, in direct emails. I’m thirty-five years old, by the way, neither a hipster nor a boomer. I won’t argue with the guy who called me an idiot. I am indeed quite stupid.
I take these types of comments in stride. It’s the internet. Having my work or the work of my team of writers insulted means we’re reaching a good number of people. Sure, I read a mean comment about myself on the internet every week or so. Other people have far worse problems than this. What’s it matter? Honestly, it doesn’t.
Except sometimes it does. The continual low-level trolling and shit-posting by malcontents can eventually accumulate into a destructive force, eroding whatever motivation I have for continuing to work myself to exhaustion in service of a photography enthusiasm blog.
I admit that it’s petty, and on the whole the community and commenters that share their hobby with me are overwhelmingly positive. But sometimes the negativity gets to me. And there have been plenty of moments of pure burnout when I’ve considered packing it up and shutting it down. Which is both depressing, and also not an option, since I have children and this blog literally pays for their food. But that’s more than enough of my bellyaching. How does any of this relate to you?
Over the years, I’ve noticed in my fellow photo-takers and camera-likers numerous instances of the same type of burnout that occasionally plagues me. It takes the shape of a flagging interest in taking pictures for fun, or a feeling that we’re clambering against other aspiring professionals in a perpetual rat race in which the cheese we chase is a more impressive number of Instagram followers, or a generally depressing feeling of creative inferiority when our work doesn’t seem to generate much interest. Whatever causes the disease, the symptom is the same – burnout.
Occupational and avocational burnout is easy to diagnose. When our internal monologue around the work turns sour, or the fringe external annoyances in a profession or hobby begin to overshadow the joy of the activity, you’re suffering from burnout. When that happens, it’s time to evaluate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. More important if we want to eventually re-engage, is to figure out how to get back to the kernel of fulfillment that the activity once provided.
I’ve been through a lot of photographic burnout cycles in the six-or-so years that I’ve been running this site and my camera shop. This puts me in an uncommon position to advise others who may be struggling through their own burnout. Here’s how I worked through this latest bout of burnout. If you’re feeling similarly unenthused, maybe you’ll find a nugget of wisdom among these, my five steps for fighting through burnout.
Step One – Take a Break from Photography
My latest burnout struck quickly, like a starving badger at a buffet dinner. One day, all was well. The next, I never wanted to take another picture again. And the first step toward recovery was clear – I didn’t fight it. I stopped taking pictures. On Thanksgiving day as my wife and kids and I were walking out the door on our way to visit the extended family, she must’ve noticed the absence of a metal and glass box hanging from my neck. “You’re not bringing a camera?” she puzzled. “Nope.” I responded with conviction.
Instead of spending Thanksgiving looking at my kids, the cousins, the food, and the holiday through a camera, I talked about movies and pets and work and vacations and the subtleties of smoking a turkey (I deftly avoided politics). I didn’t take a photo all day. Not even with my phone. I was off-duty and it felt great.
The next week or two continued the trend. I didn’t shoot a single frame of film. I didn’t develop film. I didn’t scan film (the ultimate torture). I relied on my writers to produce articles for the site, I asked friends to contribute, and when a few days passed without articles, I didn’t panic or let the pressure get to me. I allowed myself to take a break and I didn’t worry that the site would implode or worry about what other photo enthusiasts were doing. I spent more time with my family, spent more time exercising and sleeping.
Step Two – Avoid Photography-centric Social Media
During this break from photography I also stopped posting to and scrolling through Instagram. Instagram is great, but it can also make you feel like you’re the only one not doing something great. Fear of missing out, it’s called. FOMO, or whatever. You open Instagram and every photographer you follow is posting projects and collaborations and becoming influencers and finding two-dollar thrift-store X-Pans. The continuous carousel projection of all the best parts of other peoples’ lives can quickly create a sense that you’re being left behind simply because you’re living the life of a regular human being. This is, of course, all untrue.
After a week or so of not checking in on Instagram I was well-purged of the idea that I’d been missing anything. My phone is far less beautiful than my kids’ smiling faces. The strangers on Instagram are not important. And nothing my phone can do is as fun as building a snowman with two little girls.
If you’re a hobbyist photographer you’ll be in a position to take all the time you need with step two. If that’s the case, do it. Take your time and don’t pick up a camera until you suddenly feel a burst of inspiration or come up with a new idea, or feel nostalgic for the days when shooting was fun. If you take a break and wait, this is likely all the steps you’ll need. Some time will pass and you’ll come back to the hobby or job with fresh eyes and new energy. If after many many months you’re having a hard time getting to that point, you may need to stop and think.
Step Three – Think
To fight through deep burnout and get back to what we love about a hobby, in this case photography, it’s important to remember what initially interested us about the hobby in the first place. For me, the original thrill was simple – I love cameras. The machines that make photographs have always interested me, mostly because they command my attention. Messing with dials and focusing and adjusting settings to get a certain kind of photo allows me to meditate and concentrate more deeply than any other activity I’ve tried. Simply put, cameras give my anxious mind a chance to rest.
As my knowledge of and experience with cameras deepened, so did my appreciation, hence the website Casual Photophile. As my tastes have evolved, I’ve found myself most energized by simple, high quality cameras. It’s always a simple camera that helps me reset, that pulls me out of these ruts. And it was no different this time, as you’ll soon read.
Step Four – Get Back to Basics
“The Basics” will be different for every photographer. If you originally fell in love with photography by shooting an 8×10, your camera and the way you use it will be far different from someone who fell in love with photography by shooting street with an Olympus XA. Determine for yourself what your version of “The Basics” is, and get back to it. Here’s how I reconnected with mine.
I’m a chill guy. I don’t sweat results [I haven’t even looked at this site’s analytics for more than a year]. I like to squint at a scene, set my aperture for the depth of field I’m looking for, and guess my shutter speed. I’m wrong about half the time. But half the time I’m right! Part of the burnout problem for me was that I’d started to worry a lot about the times that I got it wrong, and I’d been using complicated cameras in an effort to boost my hit rate. I’d also been looking at a lot of really great or popular photographers’ works on Instagram, and really beating myself up about my lack of talent.
My friend Ned Bunnell randomly sent me a message mid-malaise, suggesting that I take a look at the Pentax SL. I did, and soon one was sitting in the office. From the minute that I picked it up, things began to make sense again. A shutter speed dial, a nice lens, no nonsense, no electronics, not even a light meter. Just a beautiful focusing screen resolving the world through a lovely chunk of handcrafted glass. A simple camera for making simple pictures.
I spent a week or so shooting the SL, and I started to let go of whatever vague ambition I had for my photography. I got back to just enjoying the process and not caring about the results. When I get a roll of film back and half the shots are nice, that’s good enough for me. And the Pentax SL was exactly the camera that I needed to get back to that healthy state of mind.
Step Five – Re-engage
By last week I was pretty well over my latest round of burnout. I was back to work taking photos for articles, shooting Christmas card portraits for friends and family, and enjoying every minute of it. I spent a day shooting the Carl Zeiss 35mm F/1.4 adapted to a mirrorless Sony and it felt like the good old days, even if the lens surprisingly disappointed me. That I was even able to make these observations without becoming stressed hinted that my burnout had truly passed.
This past weekend I was able to attend the launch of the Leica SL2 at the Leica Store in Boston. I spent the day chatting with Leica nerds, shooting the new SL2 and the stunning APO Summicron SL 75mm F/2 ASPH, and enjoying the company of friendly photographers. After that, I met with a dozen-or-so film photographers from the Boston Area Film Photographers Facebook Group, and we spent a few hours walking through the city chatting about cameras and photography. I saw some rare machines and made some new friends. It was a fantastic day that reminded me what photography is all about – connecting with people, real people, in the real world.
Your particular re-engagement might look different from mine. You might be in the woods shooting snowy photos of a river. Or on a mountain. Or in the middle of a city, or at a sporting event or club. I don’t know what you’re into or why you love photography. But once you’ve reconnected with the basics that motivated you to shoot photos in the first place, or decided on a totally new direction that feels just right, your burnout should be pretty well snapped. After that, it’s time to get back to work doing what you love.
Got any tips for getting through photographic burnout? Share them in the comments.
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Hi James, thanks as always for the article. Having the same fascinations with and needs from photography you describe, I have been drawn to this site. The link sits front and center (literally) in my bookmarks toolbar. I click every day to see if a new post was made. Because of your film subscription service, I enjoyed shooting Ilford XP2 last week and souped it (mistakenly but nonetheless happily) in HC 110. The images were tagged with your hash-tag. Shooting that roll inspired me to finish 36 frames of Portra 160 with an Olympus OM4Ti. Today, it was deathly cold, and the Oly’s self-timer was set from earlier low light exposures in a cafe. I pulled up on the dial’s “nub’ to reset and the nub cracked off and dropped into the snow. I swore as it was retrieved. The shard is hopefully still in my pants pocket for super gluing, and if not, no biggie. Regardless, you had a big part in my exercising the cameras and releasing my eyes to the surroundings. This activity helped me out of a general malaise that comes around often during major holidays for personal reasons. As far as criticism goes, it comes with the territory of putting your creativity on display. Every time I submit an article for publication on one of the film-based sites, there is latent insecurity about my work. I take solace in the fact that I have the courage to put myself out there. You are doing this in spades and asking nothing in return, and there is no better offering than that.
I am not a big FB user, but I’ll check out the Boston film group. I live in Bristol RI.
Kind regards, and a huge thank you,