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  • Writer's picturePaul Kessel

Photography Slumps

In this blog I am referring primarily to street photography. Candid street photography is the style I attempt. I do not ask people to take their picture and I don’t attempt to engage people on the street. Of course, I look at them and at times I am seen and that is a type of engagement. I should say that engagement is not intentional. I try to not be seen.

In this type of street photography, there is a close resemblance to sports.  In most sports, one fails more often then, one succeeds. Baseball hitters usually do not get on base. Basketball players miss many shots, and fishermen may leave empty handed. If one engages in a sport, uncontrollable external factors are always at play. Most athletes go through periods of mediocre performance. It may last a day, a week, a month, and sometimes over a year. This is true for the very best at their sport. When “on” the athlete may even be in the zone where performance flows effortlessly. When “off”, nothing goes right. Typical performance lies between these two extremes.

With street photography, factors such as weather conditions, the nature of light, and particularly the presence of good subject matter, cannot be fully controlled. Successful shots are largely given to us and not primarily made by us. Yes, experience, intuitive composition, and visual alertness count. I don't mean to imply that street photography is a passive experience where the photographer waits for luck to break through.  There are strong elements of luck or chance or favorable and unfavorable conditions and subjects. However, it is up to the photographer to make the picture when something or someone turns up and is seen.  This involves choosing what is seen, vantage point, understanding and use of light, arranging for background, and putting one's individual stamp on the image.  Moreover, some photographers have an ability to make something of practically nothing (I don't). Some days it happens and other days it doesn't happen.  Good pictures can't be forced. Passive waiting and watching and active making are both involved. 

Get one very successful picture a day, you are doing great. A few hundred in a lifetime and you may be mentioned in the history of photography. I don’t mean okay pictures. Those are easy. I mean exceptional pictures. I wonder how many Cartier-Bresson achieved? However many it was, it took years.

Like hitting a home run or bringing in a great white marlin (if that is your thing), it rarely happens and less than in other types of photography, you can't make it happen. As in sports, the more you try to make it happen, the worse the results. “Trying” is a major cause of slumps. Letting go and waiting for flow is hard.

I dabbled in fishing as a child. I played high school baseball, too, but my main sport was golf. I played competitive amateur golf for over fifty years.  I played at a relatively high level (much higher than my photography) and that is where I experienced horrible slumps and learned something about them.

Slumps are an interaction of psychological and physical. These two components can interact and cause a downward spiral of performance where one feels unable to get out of it. The harder you try, the worse it gets.

But enough abstract verbiage.  Here are the important points:

  1. Most slumps are not slumps at all. The nature of candid street photography itself results in very few outstanding pictures.  A really good picture is a rare occurrence during any day of shooting. Coming up empty handed on any given day is part of the game.

  2. If one feels stale and non-productive, a new venue, a different camera, or a different lens can all help. Trying any one of the three will invariably result in better pictures. That is because our interest is perked up and in addition, the reminders of “bad” results are not present.

  3. If these changes don’t seem to break the so-called slump; there are three other things that will do it. One can stop shooting for a while until desire wells up or better still, just shoot away without care until the pictures emerge. Finally, taking pictures of only a narrowly defined subject matter usually results in seeing other subjects that you are not trying to find.

The slump-breaking approaches above usually work. However, recognizing that it is hard to get a good picture and knowing that the nature of street photography is the issue, and not so much your own failure, helps most of all. Photo of me was taken by Clay Benskin.

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