Busting the Burnout

bythom US NV LasVegas 00897

A recent post on the Internet reminded me of something I've been wanting to write about for awhile and haven't gotten around to: burnout. 

Folk my age have been taking photos for many decades. Many of us got roped into being the documenter of life events because, well, we had a camera and (usually) knew how to use it. Family, pets, vacations, events, and holidays all became chores, as we were expected to be doing the "Kodak thing" and preserve them for posterity. 

The "Kodak thing" was drilled into our brains through advertising: "relive your memories for generations", "snapshots help your heart remember", "share moments share life", and so on. 

These days, social media has taken over the "Kodak thing" and smartphones are the drug used to fuel the addiction. If you don't share you're out of touch. (Hmm, maybe Elon should use that as a tagline ;~)

Like smells, photos are trigger reminders for our brains (if only someone had invented the smellocam ;~). Our brain is constantly optimizing its memory access, using most of its processing power for the most recent (and current) data, which tends to shuffle the older memories into some sort of long-term storage where they're harder to access. Get exposed to a smell or a photo and suddenly that long-term storage is instantly retrieved and put into currency (remembrance). 

As I noted earlier, those of us with cameras became chore-laden zombies, recording everything that our loved ones wanted remembered. It's pretty natural to burn out if you think that's your role and you're not getting some sort of immediate gratification from it. For some of you, though, you sublimated things and got gratification from GAS (gear acquisition syndrome). That at least gave you something under your control to obsess about, and it's always shiny and new ;~). 

Even with new gear, though, pointing your three-pound+ technology wonder in some direction and pressing the shutter release probably is still a chore, right?

If you answered yes to that question, you're burnt out. 

Which brings me to another way that people deal with photography becoming a chore: they change specialties. You were mostly photographing landscapes from National Park scenic turnouts? Hmm. Try astrophotography. Or wildlife photography (which means you need to use GAS to buy a big lens, which will give you a double boost of burn-out-removal adrenaline).  Oh, your children are now actively participating in organized sports? Great, that's different than taking pictures of them standing in front of something; you're now a sports photographer. 

Famous painters are well known for having "periods," and those were often triggered by artistic burnout. Once they felt they had mastered something and were becoming only known for that, they looked at reinventing themselves. Why? Well, once you're deep into the minutia of brush hair type, stroke consistency, and so on attempting to make the same subjects look realistic, the big gains and the excitement they bring disappear. To be replaced with what seems like a repetitive, small incremental step process that maybe only they saw. If someone says "paint me another Mona Lisa," you know you've hit that burnout level.

The way you get out of burnout is to reinvent yourself and your processes, not buy gear! Are you doing the same thing every time you pick up the camera? Are you composing the same? Are you using a zoom instead of perspective? Have you really studied the subject you're photographing and truly found the right way to capture all its beauty/nuance/majesty? 

There's one important thing you can learn from the Instagram Influencers: they don't just pick up their camera and take a selfie every ten minutes. The best ones think through how to make a unique image—said image happening to include them and maybe a product in it—that will immediately catch your interest when you see it (a topic I'll be covering soon). They plan as well as the best pro photographers. They tell stories. They push boundaries. They try new things. The obsess about every detail in their image. They find excitement (and dollars) in doing something that others aren't doing. And doing it better than the few others that might have the same idea. 

So here's your holiday season homework: 

You're probably tasked with recording the holiday celebrations for your family or group. You've probably done that far too many times without really giving it a lot of thought. You see it primarily as a necessary task, and try to accomplish it as quickly as possible.

This year, break that pattern. I want you to create a photo that shows true holiday joy, that shows how a holiday is different from a normal day, that captures the excitement someone else has about the holiday. Sure, photograph the Christmas tree so that you can all reminisce about the year you added the XYZ ornament. With that task out of the way, now make me feel the holiday. 

I'm going to intentionally step out of the way now and not give you any more clues or instructions. This homework is all about approaching what used to be a chore differently. Attempt to document emotion rather than thing/place/people. If that doesn't bust you out of your burnout, nothing will.

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