Sustaining, Part II

In Creativity and Inspiration, Vision Is Better by David26 Comments

Self portrait, Jan 03, 2010

Last week I started a discussion about sustaining the practice of art, based on the Kurt Vonnegut quote about the purpose of art being the growth of the soul.  Y’all chimed in with what you do to sustain your creativity, and if you haven’t read through the comments in that post, you’ll want to. This community is full of creative people with great ideas about how to care for the creative soul.

The reason I brought this all up is the feeling that my own bucket has been draining faster than I can fill it, and I’m in need of a refill. My own means of refilling is to return to the craft with a renewed sense of play. Many of you mentioned taking time on the river or in the mountains, doing anything but picking up the camera, and I do that to, but to really stir the paint, I need to do it with the paint brush in the other hand and in proximity to the canvas. My problem is not that I’m weary of the craft, but that I’ve been so busy with all the other things involved with VisionMongering that I’ve had no time to really play.

So I’ve started a year of play. A year of planned self-assignments, and forced creative exercises. Digital cameras, iPhones, film cameras, and a whole mess of assignments that have nothing whatsoever to do with my usual work. Just enforced play. I used the words “forced” and “enforced”, not because I’m reluctant to do it otherwise but because I tend to get so busy with the business end of things that the creative side gets neglected unless I make an intentional effort to nurture it. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I am forcing the distractions out of the sandbox, not forcing my creative side to stay in, because that part’s easy. It sounds like I’m forcing my muse to submit to a repressive regime; I’m not. I’m so excited about this year I can barely contain it or wait to start. So I didn’t. I started today.

The first exercise is a frequent self-portrait, something I keep wanting to do and never get around to. The image at top is shot with my 5D through a 4×5 view camera, lit with a bare-bulb LED modeling light on my Elinchrom Quadra.

Inspiration comes and goes, but the more we do the work, intentionally chase the muse and engage her, the more she works on your behalf. We need to do the other stuff, put the camera down and breathe deep in the places that water our souls, but we also need to stretch and exercise the muscles we hope to lean on. What are you going to do this year to keep the muse in shape, to pro-actively stir the paint, and to stay inspired? Let us know, comments are open.

Looking for more? The Inspired Eye, Volume I, is about this exact thing, if you haven’t yet picked it up, now would be a great time. Volume II will be released later this month. The Inspired Eye, Vol.I is available HERE for $5.


  1. I’m doing a couple things. I am doing the 365 Photo/day project like so many others with the thought that I would take pictures of anything that is just a little out of my comfort zone. I am working between using my Lensbaby and my 50mm Prime lens. I am also doing my “smile” project. Since my camera is with me everyday I am taking photo’s of things that are a part of my life. I have yet to purchase my little printer (like the POGO) so that I can take the 2×3 photo’s and place them in my Japanese Moleskin so that I can carry these daily shots w/ me and include little written snipits. Something for me to look back on at the end of the year. My life.

    Good luck to you!

  2. I mainly do studio portrait photography. This year I want to go deep and wide. Deep as in improving technically and creatively in what I already do. I’m on holiday right now and as soon as I get back, I will lock myself in the studio and go through many different lighting setups and document them. There will be no limits to what I’ll try. I’ll replicate images from magazines, but I will also experiment for myself.
    The wide part for this year is to venture more into creative enviromental portraits. Most of my time will be spent gathering and studying good examples and visualizing and describing my own ideas for images. I feel that in photography we spend 98% of our time not pressing the shutter release. Taking the picture is just a moment. All the creative preparation and decision making has been done before that. I’m already good at pressing the button. I could do that the first time I picked up a camera. It’s the 98 percent I want to work on now.

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  4. Well, believe it or not, but I love to watch old black & white movies; some of them have incredible shots and in my mind I look through my eye-piece to frame the shot. I know strange, but I gives a lot food for my creative side (actually I didn’t know I had a creative side – lol)…

  5. i wanted to say THANKS for taking all the time you invested in crafting VisionMonger and Within the Fame. Both have inspired and challenged me – so, thanks. I’m SURE it wiped you out and left you creatively dry…so do whatever it takes to recharge. just know that you’ve touched a LOT of people and have encourged us to be who we think we need to be. [also, thanks for not pulling any punches & just stating it how it is – being a photographer is HARD!]

  6. Thanks for the inspiration! Found your site yesterday & have started watching your ‘Within the Frame’ podcast videos – fantastic… Now this! I’m making the move from amateur to professional this year, but have a long way to go – I need to get consistency with my technical skills, so that is my mission. I’m not good at long term committments 😉 so the 365 thing is out for me, but all these comments ‘stirred my paint’ and my creative spark is going to be an hour a week, full blast with the camera. Probably on a Sunday, as I will have procrastinated all week, ha ha! Maybe just out and about, or somewhere new, or choosing a theme, or a new technique, but it’s gonna be an hour, minimum. Decided to post them on my website, as I’m not into blogging or Flikr. So I’ll be creating through
    Good luck with all your ventures – will enjoy following them!

  7. Already started out my creative renewal with a week and half long jaunt through the Southwest, playing with the 7D and video like I have been but also delving back into my photographic roots and exploring what I can do with photography now knowing what I know about video and storytelling. Forced creative renewal is a good idea considering the busy-ness of last year and the satisfaction of the past few months of creative play…

  8. This year I’m planning on taking my camera with me even when I’m not working. There have been so many times where I’ll be driving somewhere or doing something and think “ohh, I wish I had the camera along.” For example, right now the light I’m looking at outside my window is gorgeous as the sun sets…yup … no camera. I think reminding myself of why I love to take pictures in the first place (cuz I see something beautiful that I want to share/hold on to) will help fill the well again. Also, reading through those art history books on my shelf.

  9. I am doing my third 365 project this year – the project 10-50. All photos must be taken with a 50mm prime. And I actually HAVE finished previous 365 proejcts. 🙂

    My other project, that is purely for me and that I”m super excited about is teaming up with one of my closest friends on a joint writing/photography venture. He writes, I shoot and we put it together. We have a few ideas planned for the year and our big goal is a trip to Northern Thailand in November with him wielding a pen and me behind the lens. Two points of view, coming together. If others like what we come up with, cool. If not, we don’t care – it will be an amazing experience for both of us!

  10. Last year in the spring a good friend of mine (a father figure and photographer) passed away. It was a shock and truly set me back. Three weeks later, all of my camera gear, minus on body and one lens was stolen. It was one of the greatest blows to my life I’ve felt in 38 years. This year, I’m planning a “52 blessings” photo project. A reflection of blessings in each photo posted. I also have a photo job with World Vision in Guatemala in April followed with a trip to Uganda in May. I’ve always found trips like this to be very filling to my soul and to my creativity. You can check these out later at

  11. Great topic!
    I’m going to take a week-long workshop with Jay Maisel at the Santa Fe Workshops in late February.
    This is going to be a VERY BIG challenge for me. I got my first DSLR two years ago after a 25 year hiatus from photography. I was semi-retired and decided one day to to take the steps to re-engage. I’ve been involved with my local photography club, entered contests, taken a couple on-line courses, used the internet extensively, bought books, went up on Flickr, and just had a ball, in general.
    So, I decided to take the challenge to expose myself to learning from a master and being in an environment totally devoted to photography. Jay Maisel’s theme is “Color, light, gesture and perception”. I’m looking forward to how this will help in the development of my “vision”!!

  12. Seems like the thing to do is start a 365 day project. Well it makes sense. I am on day three and at first I thought it was a WordPress project but now I am comfortable with the posting. So far it is working as I am constantly thinking photography and looking for the photo of the day. For me it will work to keep me learning since I am a list kinda guy.

  13. When I first moved to China and AWAY from the things I enjoyed shooting – I ended up doing a 1 month self portrait series which was incredibly helpful for stirring up my creative juices. While I was trying to stir up and clarify my vision for the third world + modernization + modern off camera lighting techniques – this self portrait series was a great bit of filler. I actually limited myself to the same frame at the same time of day no matter what I was doing – I’d shoot it. The consistency was actually the glue, that I feel held the series together.

    The 365 day project – I’d be a liar if I said I was completely comfortable with the idea. I’ve heard about more photographers doing a 360 day project this year than ever before. That being said, Of all the photographers I know who have started one – zero have finished it. Is that a problem? I don’t think so. I just find that a prolonged REQUIRED shoot on a daily basis can actually stifle my creativeness as well as that horrible feeling in your gut when you skip a day and then the whole thing goes to pot. It also has the ability to trump another shoot that I might really want to do. The requirement part of it sucks the fun out of it (for me, mind you) and makes photography a box that needs a check by it every day. For some people, it’s more than likely exactly what they need to start picking up the camera again – structure like this can def. help people, so I would discourage no one from a 365 day shooting project. I would encourage people who are doing a 365 shoot to consistently ask the question “How can I refine my vision for these shots in 365 days?”

    That being said, the coolest time-based series I have seen have all had some element that made you move onto the next shot. They weren’t entirely random and they had a vision that tied the whole thing together.

    My new years resolution for photography – scratch that – just my resolution that happens to be around the new year is to strongly pay attention to WHY I’m doing what I’m doing again. Randomness can be good – but I need to always remember WHY my settings are what they are. Sure, it slows down my photography quiet a bit, and isn’t entirely necissary – BUT starting to ask why again in one aspect of photography has moved me to asking why in other places which, without a doubt, is refining my vision.

    I’ve also made a resolution to jump on opportunities when I can. How often do we say “Oh wow, that would be a great picture.” when our camera is sitting 5 feet away from us and we are maybe 5 minutes away from shooting it. I’m always happiest when I’ve jumped on an opportunity rather than talking about it.

    Happy New Years everyone!

  14. I’ve started a [strobist] 365 project: in an effort to improve my skills with my little SB800. I’ve become too reliant on my alien bees. And also found myself stuck in a lot of ways – in the studio/creatively/business-wise/etc. So this is my way of attempting to get out of the rut I’ve gotten into and also improve some skills.

    I’ve only been doing this for 3 days… so there’s much much more to come! I’m lovin’ it though! Please stop by my blog to see all the stories:

  15. Great article!  I wanted to do something that would allow me to explore other aspects of photography, but I didn’t want it to impose on my current projects nor my family time.  For those two reasons, I decided to undertake an iPhone 365 Project ( this year and I’m really looking forward to it.  The project isn’t about capturing stunning photography with rich colors and amazing bokeh.  Rather, since I always carry it with me, I felt it would give me the best opportunity to capture my world.  At the same time, the limitations of the equipment will give me ample opportunity to work on natural lighting and perspective.

  16. I have not picked up my camera since Christmas… I know it seems like a long time, but I am finding that my creative spurts are happening less frequently and I too have been trying to ignite my passion again. My response to this:

    I do need to exercise my creativity when I feel it is empty. I have come up with some goals: productivity, being proactive, practice, and patience.
    Productivity – what to do when there is nothing to do
    Proactive – going out and talking with people and getting clients or just sharing my work.
    Practice – shoot more. I will be starting a 365 project soon.
    Patience – Often times I get to carried away with a shoot and forget a little detail that completely messes it up (like having 800 ISO when 200 is needed).

    I know they all begin with P but hopefully it will help me remember. Very interested to see what others have to say. Great post by the way!

  17. I just picked up a new D90 (1st dslr) and I probably should have some “plans” for my camera but I’m starting my MBA in about a week and that’s my primary focus.

    My other goal is to finish reading Within the Frame and continue with my blog that you inspired me to start. The blog is nothing major but it’s my way to record and share things that I find inspiring to myself and to my photography.

    Oh, and I’ll keep reading this blog – have a great time in Tibet…can’t wait to see the pictures.

  18. Me? I’m taking a trip to Italy this year to stir the paint. Indiana’s fine, the sun shines many times… and the feelin’ is laid back (sorry, Neil). But I’m ready to break out of the landscape/nature mold and explore a little of the rest of the world and its people. And I plan to get a little inspiration from a couple of guys named Jeffrey and David while I’m there. Dove posso trovare un buon ristorante, per favore?

  19. I’ve decided to take the 365 Photo-A-Day type thing and twist it around a bit. My self-assigned task for 2010 is to create a PhotoTip-A-Day. Instead of just shooting something new daily, I’m going to talk about and teach something new daily. I figure I’m going to run out of things I already know well before the end of the year, so it’ll keep me on my tools and force me to learn a lot of new things through the year which should flow into both my personal work and my work for clients.

  20. My creative exercise is a one-two punch: I need portfolio pictures. Sure, I have some photos in my portfolio, but they could (and should) be better. That’ll mean less reliance on paying gigs and “fall in my lap” opportunities, and a proactive approach to take photos of whoever will let me.

    Sometimes it’ll be free, sometimes it’ll be for trade, and sometimes it will be for pay; it’ll be two way relationship between me and my subject and in every case I’m sure it’ll benefit us both.

    Taking the time to do this will not only make me a better photographer by virtue of having taken more shots, but it’ll show, because I’ll show it off. With new, vibrant, images in my portfolio I hope to attract more clients who will be drawn to what I choose to show them (Zack Arias had a brilliant post about this last week: if you haven’t read it you’d do yourself a favour to do so).

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