There are a lot of small business owners and freelancers out there, including myself,  who make their living from creating: art, music, photos, poetry, software, design, crafting, the list goes on and on.  Every single one of us goes through periods where that blank page, computer screen, or blob of clay becomes very scary. 

Sometimes it’s a creative block and you feel like you will never come up with another good idea ever again.  And sometimes, you have a client who says “you have complete artistic freedom” (yeah, that’s rare, but it does happen) and suddenly being able to do whatever you want becomes so overwhelming, you freeze up and nothing comes to you.

Or on the flip side, you get to a point where you are churning out similar stuff for client after client,  and you feel like you’re not learning anything new or exploring a new style or technique.  Stuck in a rut.

how do you break through?

Well, how about actually constraining yourself?

A few weeks ago, I decided to resurrect an old photography project of mine: the Picture a Day project. One photo, every day, for 365 days. This is my third run at it and I’ve never done a full 365 days (in fact, I’ve missed one of this set already) but I have always plugged away at it for the full year.

It has the potential to be as hard and as interesting as I want to make it. My first PAD (Picture a Day) was the best learning experience I’ve had to date as a photographer. I started with a little Canon Powershot A520 and learned how to use every single manual function it had. Before the year was out, I had exhausted its capabilities and graduated to my current Canon Rebel XTi DSLR.

My first ever PAD photo from 2006

When I look back at some of those first photos, I cringe. (you can see the very first one here) Technically, they were awful. My ideas weren’t bad – I just didn’t know enough to execute them properly. But as the year went on, two things happened. I got bored. And I got better.

I’m not sure which came first, the boredom or the improvement. Taking a photo a day is hard. It requires commitment and discipline – two things all small business owners and freelancers require in spades.

The first few weeks are fun! “what will I shoot today?? Oh oh oh!! I know!” And off you go. Then around day 20, when it’s been raining for 2 weeks straight and you’ve photographed every mildly interesting thing in your house and office, suddenly the question gets harder. “what shall i shoot today? my potted plant? no… shot that on day 4. the dog? no, that was on day 7, 11 and 18″. You get bored. That blank canvas becomes intimidating and hard to fill.

So I started setting mini-challenges for myself.  I found a group on flickr that did weekly photo scavenger hunts.  Yeah, I can take a picture of a corkscrew – no problem!  And then I’d see the pictures other people had made of corkscrews and realize I needed to up my game.  It became a challenge – how can I make a corkscrew shot something special?  And surprisingly, it would start to come pretty easily.  Why?  The possibilities were no longer endless.  There had to be a corkscrew in the shot.  Yeah, I could do whatever I wanted with that corkscrew but at least I had a starting point and I felt the freedom to experiment.  And I think that’s the key – find yourself a starting point – or a constraint.

And my latest POD photo from round three

This time around, I’ve made it a monthly challenge.  This month, all my photos had to be taken with my 50mm lens at a 1.8 f stop – like the Coke bottles shown here.  I’ve learned a lot about what I can do with my lens at that setting and it’s really forced me to experiment with how I shoot things.  I’m thinking in December, I’ll do something where every shot has to have red and green in it.  Hehe.

The point is, that by putting some restrictions on myself, I’ve actually done three things:

  • forced myself to learn new skills and keep growing
  • forced myself to look at things I see every day in a different light and improve my vision
  • given me a way to jump start my creative juices

So, next time you find yourself looking at that blank screen, empty page or lump of clay, try turning it into a challenge with specific restrictions – ones that will either improve your skill, let your mind run free or better yet, both!