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Backcountry Photography

Weathering the Doldrums Blah, Humbug!By Tamia Nelson

September 3, 2013

Nobody would confuse photography with hard labor. But that doesn't mean shutterbugs don't experience fatigue. True, it's seldom fatigue of the "I'm too tired to take another step or lift another bale of hay" variety. Instead, it's creative fatigue. It strikes professionals and amateurs alike, and it's a close cousin to writer's block. You know you ought to gear up to get a picture. Or maybe (if you're a pro) it's a case of "have to" rather than "ought to." But you can't seem to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood in order to get on with the job. I call this unhappy state of affairs the doldrums, and it's the emotional and intellectual counterpart to the bonk, the all‑too‑familiar running‑out‑of‑gas sensation that strikes marathoners, cyclists, and hard‑charging paddlers.

The symptoms aren't subtle. One day you're having the time of your life, shooting away like mad. But when the next day dawns, you don't feel like snapping the shutter at all. You don't even want to bother getting your camera out of the pack. The creative impulse that's clung to you like your shadow on a sunny day is now gone, smothered by dark clouds of something very close to despair.

You ask yourself what's wrong. But no answer is forthcoming, and soon you're wondering what got you interested in photography in the first place. You may even start toying with the idea of selling your cameras. This is a watershed moment. Urgent action is clearly needed. It's time to step back from the brink and take stock.

Begin at the beginning. You're not alone. Every artist finds herself wallowing in the doldrums now and then. And make no mistake, even if you never do anything more with your camera than snap pictures of your buddies on the water or around the campfire, you're still an artist. Photography isn't a licensed profession. It's open to all. But it's equally true that every artist has bad days, days when all effort seems futile, and every attempt to capture an image appears doomed to failure.

One common cause is boredom — the boredom born of routine. Don't get me wrong. Routine is good, up to a point. It's good to get in the habit of sleeping six to eight hours a night, for instance, and eating three meals a day, at more or less established times, is widely regarded as healthy. When carried to excess, however, routine can strangle the creative impulse. Doing the same thing in the same way over and over again is a sure recipe for boredom. Could this be your problem? To answer that question, just flip through your photo archive. Are you a slave to your good habits? Do you always shoot from one position? Is the sun always behind your left shoulder? Are your subjects always the same? "Always" is a comforting word in a fast‑changing world, but it's also a fetter. It makes yesterdays of all your tomorrows.

Luckily, the remedy is simple:

Mix It Up!

Make a break with the past. Not a total break. And not for always. (That cure would be worse than the disease.) But make it a point to do things differently every so often. Start by reacquainting yourself with the elements that go into making a good photo. Then take control. Reread your camera's manual and explore the possibilities. Modern digital cameras, even inexpensive point‑and‑shoot models, are marvels of creative complexity. They make old‑style SLRs look simple by comparison. You'll have to go to school on the manual to get the most out of them, however.

A case in point: I'd almost given up on my little Canon PowerShot A590 IS point‑and‑shoot camera, even though it was once my first choice for go‑light outings and casual photography. I simply wasn't happy with the photos I was getting. Which meant that I missed a lot of shots on days when I couldn't be bothered to pack my Pentax digital SLR. Here was the classic lose‑lose scenario. Should I leave the PowerShot at home on go‑light outings? Then I'd get no photos. Period. Or should I bring it along? Then I'd have no photos I wanted to keep. Like I said, it was lose‑lose.

At this point, Farwell suggested I reread the PowerShot manual, to see if I'd missed ways to improve the quality of the images I was getting. (He knows nothing about photography, but he's a great one for reading instructions.) And I did. Guess what? Though I'd had the PowerShot for something like four years, and taken thousands of photos with it, my second read‑through of the manual taught me a lot that I'd somehow skipped over on the first go‑round. The result? I've now tuned the PowerShot's sweet spot, and I'm carrying it with me again. Which means that I miss fewer shots, and I'm much happier with the ones I get. In short, I've gone from lose‑lose to win‑win in one easy read. That's a pretty good return on a minimal investment of time, I think.

The bottom line? It's not enough to read the bloody manual. You've got to study it. That study, plus a little directed experimentation, is one of the quickest and easiest ways to catch a favorable slant of wind to waft you out of the doldrums.

But maybe you know all there is to know about your camera(s) already. If so, you'll need to find …

Other Ways to Waken Your Slumbering Muse

Take heart. It's not the labors of Hercules. Most likely, your muse is only dozing, and a gentle nudge will be all it takes to rouse her. Here are a few tried and tested approaches:

Think Theme.  It's a common exercise in photography seminars, but you don't need to join a class to play the game. Just choose a broad subject, and then go in search of shots that fit the bill. Typical themes include …

  • Reflections
  • Shadows
  • Contrasts
  • Textures
  • Patterns
  • Motion
  • Stillness
  • Wetness
  • Cold
  • Heat
  • Abstracts
  • Minimalism
  • Edges
  • Curves

Whatever theme you decide on — and the list I've given is only a tiny sample of the universe of possibilities — the paddlers' world will provide many suitable subjects. You'll find that the exercise opens your eyes to new perspectives on familiar things, while also reawakening your dormant creative impulse. There's more than one way to hunt with a camera, after all.

Then again, this approach may be too solitary and introspective for you. If so, why not …

Get Together?  With few exceptions, photographers are a gregarious lot. They like to talk about their cameras and lenses, compare their work, and offer and receive criticism. (OK. Most of us would rather offer criticism than receive it. But as Winston Churchill once observed, though criticism "may not be agreeable, … it is necessary.") In these ways, and in many others, photography is a social activity. It's no surprise, therefore, that photography clubs and forums flourish today as never before. I've benefited enormously from the weekly and monthly "challenges" posed by the Pentax Forum, for instance, and I've learned a great deal from my fellow forum members. I've also discovered that nothing dispels the doldrums faster than talking photography with a few good friends, even if those friends live half a world away.

Not feeling up to a chat? Then how about …

A Change of Scene?  New faces and new places. These have been inspiring photographers since the days of Louis Daguerre, and they made glossy magazines like Life and National Geographic a part of the cultural landscape for decades, just as they now drive millions of folks to spend much of their waking (and working) hours on Facebook. So if your creative juices have dried up, just hit the road, Jack. Visit somewhere you've never been. Spend time among people you don't know. See new sights. Hear new sounds. Smell new smells. Unless I miss my guess, you'll find that the urge to pick up your camera soon returns.

Of course, we can't always drop what we're doing and light out for the Territories, can we? I know I can't, anyway. And if you can't, either — if a change of scene isn't in the cards — consider …

Looking at Your Old Haunts in a New Light.  You can take this literally, if you want. Try a moonlight paddle on a placid pond that you've visited many times while the sun stood high in the sky. The photographic opportunities will be limited, but that only adds to the creative challenge. Or run your favorite stream the wrong way round. Put in where you normally take out, then work your way upriver. You won't log as many miles under your keel as you do when you go with the flow, but you'll have more time to look at the scenery, and you'll be seeing it from a new perspective. That should awaken your muse from her slumbers. You'll learn a thing or two about such once‑commonplace skills as tracking and poling, too. And there's another bonus: At day's end, you just turn around and float back to your car, letting the current do most of the work. You'll never have an easier shuttle.

Are you a naturalist as well as a photographer? In that case, you have another option. Plan a photo safari to a familiar woodland or waterway, with the goal of "bagging" as many birds and beasts as possible in a day — or a week. Or maybe you'd rather take a whole year to compile a wildflower album of your favorite pocket wilderness, organized by season and habitat. Either scheme should get you snapping away with joyous abandon.

Not your thing? Then consider visiting your favorite spot when the weather is less than perfect, particularly if you're habitually a summer paddler and a sunshine photographer. The rumble of thunder and the crash of dumping waves are sure to liven up your day — and wake the most lethargic muse. But be warned: This is a high‑risk strategy. Lightning kills, and gale‑force winds can capsize your boat in an instant. In short, use your common sense. Remember that shorecombing is always an option whenever it's not safe to venture out onto the water.

Still not satisfied? OK. Maybe the answer lies in …

Exploring New Techniques.  There are many possibilities:

  • Eschew color. Photograph your world in black and white.
  • Experiment with bokeh.
  • Handicap yourself. Limit your kit to only one lens — a telephoto or a wide‑angle, perhaps — and work around the restrictions this imposes.
  • Think small. Investigate the invisible world at your feet. Use a macro converter if cost is a consideration.
  • Try your hand at "flowmotion" photography.
  • Discover the country of the night.
  • Use the "Brenizer Method" to emulate a large‑format camera. It's sure to have you in stitches.
  • Go right back to photography's roots: make and use a pinhole camera.
  • Give your next paddling holiday the full National Geographic treatment. This is the time to ignore my earlier advice about thinking small. Think BIG, instead. Tell a story that goes beyond the typical "Me and Joe" trip narrative.

No luck yet? Is your muse still slumbering? Then perhaps it's time to reach for your wallet. After all, we're forever being told to be more diligent consumers, aren't we? So what's wrong with employing a little …

Retail Therapy?  Buy a new lens. Or a new camera. Or if cash is short, scout the classifieds. Get something that expands your horizons. A fish‑eye or super‑telephoto lens, say. Or take a walk on the wild side with a "toy camera" or Lensbaby.

Still no joy? Well, there's another easy way to rouse a reluctant muse:

Study the Work of the Masters. Drop in to your local library, or — if you're lucky enough to live near one — visit a gallery or museum. Spend a few hours (or a few days) browsing online galleries, too. And when you find something you like, make it your own through emulation and experiment. We're all tailless monkeys, aren't we? (Only 4 percent of our DNA is truly ours and ours alone; we share the remaining 96 percent with chimps.) "Monkey see, monkey do" is how we learn best. It's worked for me, and I'll bet it will work for you, too.

No luck? Your muse is still dead to the world? Then it's time to invoke the nuclear option. Just …

Let Sleeping Muses Lie.

I've said it before: Too much of a good thing is sometimes just that — too much. Photography is no exception. If you're not a pro, you don't have to snap the shutter every day. (And if you are a pro, the paycheck gives you a powerful incentive to keep going, even if you'd rather be doing something else. That's what separates the professional photographer from the amateur.) The bottom line? When you find yourself in the doldrums, and none of the other remedies that I've suggested works, just take a break. Go for a paddle sans camera, and take plenty of time to stand (or sit) and stare, fixing images of the wild world on the emulsion of memory. Try your hand at sketching or painting, skills which will yield big dividends when you return to photography. Or head for the kitchen and develop a new backcountry menu plan. A paddling photographer travels on her stomach, right? You might as well make the journey as pleasant as possible.

In short, there's no end to opportunities for alternative creative expression. You'll know when your muse is back on the job. In the meantime, don't try to hurry things along, and don't set an arbitrary deadline. The day will come when your shutter finger is itching again. That's the day to take your camera down from the shelf, dust it off, and start shooting.

I Am a Camera


Almost every paddler is a photographer, too. And all photographers are artists, whether they know it or not. But each artist's muse deserts him sooner or later, leaving him wallowing helplessly in the doldrums, whistling for a wind to fill his sails and set him free. What can you do when the urge to snap the shutter wanes and whistling isn't enough? Now you know.



Related Articles From In the Same Boat
  • Backcountry Photography. This is the Mother Ship, a topical index of more than 30 photo columns addressing the needs and interests of paddlers and other outdoors folk.
And from my own website:
  • The Inquiring Eye, another collection of articles, plus photomontages featuring my work — and that of other, better photographers, as well.


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