Recharging Creative Batteries With A Moment Away

I’ve had some interesting travel experiences this year.  Miami, Mexico, Chicago, New York/New Jersey, and, most recently San Francisco.  On many of those trips I barely made any photographs at all, choosing instead to just enjoy the time with my loved ones and make fun memories.  As a result, in almost every case I returned home to Detroit fired up to get out and shoot and I’ve subsequently created lots of new work in 2017.  The last trip to San Francisco, however, illustrates a bit of a paradox.  When it became clear that I’d be traveling to San Francisco for an engagement related to my photography (more on that in a later post), I set about deciding what type of photography I wanted to do on this trip.  Would it be street photography?  Architecture?  Landscape?  Portraits?  Aerial?  I concluded that I’d try to get back out to some of the quieter places along the beach for some land/seascape photographs, and only do street photography as my wife and I spent time bumping around downtown SF and Napa Valley.  I set aside a full day for my Point Reyes road trip, leaving early in the morning while the fog was thick and the air was brisk.  Arriving at the park, a number of sights and sounds that are familiar to the locals and yet both intriguing and a little unnerving provided an extra jolt of energy:

“Forest fire risk for today: HIGH”

“Tsunami hazard zone – In case of earthquake, go to high ground”

“Warning – sharks in area”

Ok, so those signs don’t surprise the average Californian, but for a Michigander there is a somewhat dreadful fascination to be had.  Anyway, any hesitation melted away at the sound of the endless sea in the misty air, replaced by a temptation to just find a good rock and put my feet up for a while rather than do any shooting at all.  Alas, pumped up on caffeine and loaded down with camera gear, I began the hike along the coast.  There’s something to be said (no pun intended) for silence.  I would surely be a regular visitor on this beach if I lived slightly closer than 2,300 miles from from the vast shoreline of Point Reyes.  Along the hike, of course, I started to scan parts of the landscape that might suit for a photograph.  

The day was long, and before the fog burned off I made what I thought were 4 good photographs (more on those in, yes, a later post).  By the time I made it back to the car I’d walked about 7 miles in sand and my back was throbbing.  I just wanted to sit.  I had no energy for chimping my haul of images, or even for banging the sand out of my tripod before tossing it in the trunk.  I just wanted to unwind and listen to the surreal ocean symphony.  After about 30 minutes, I snapped back to reality and started the engine, making the long, winding drive back to the chaos of a different ocean: downtown San Francisco’s Lyft/Uber/Taxi gridlock.

36 hours later I found myself back home in late evening, pushing my luggage into a corner to unpack perhaps a month from now, while reaching for my SD cards to transfer all the images created on the trip.  After copying all the files and kicking off a fresh cloud backup, I had just enough energy to edit a single image from the trip before full on photography exhaustion kicked in: I didn’t want to see anymore images.  I didn’t want to see a camera.  I had no desire to even think about the next time I might go shoot.  The only thing I was interested in at that moment was a bowl of cereal and the comfort of the bed.  I woke up the next day eager to get back to my day job, but with the same feeling that I have no desire to think about photography any time soon.  In other words, everything went exactly as planned.  Say what? by Brian Day.

Recently, Harvard Business Review touched on research that has suggested, for at least the past 5 years, that taking breaks can actually increase productivity and creativity.  In my experience as a photographer I find that my interests and my energy levels come and go in waves.  In between those waves are periods of stagnation, frustration, and sometimes downright boredom with editing work that I’ve already created, or with planning to create new work.  But I’ve come to accept that this is likely a part of the creative process and common to most people.  Knowing that the creative valleys are coming eventually, why not use them to my advantage with calculated breaks that serve to recharge my batteries?  It creates a positive out of something that would otherwise be negative creatively: pushing me to get back out and try something new, or to take a new look at something old.  Thus, before embarking on a vacation or business trip, I now rationally ask myself whether I want to use that time to try to be creative or simply allow myself to enjoy the moment away.  If my time off from other responsibilities (see also: “staycation“) will include some serious creative effort, I intentionally plan to completely wear myself out by the end of it so that I can take a break from photography upon my return, building a creative buffer until the next time I can bear to reach for the camera.  When I do finally grab my gear again, I know I’ll be fired up and ready to go.  What’s your method for recharging creatively?