Combating creative burnout: tips for jumpstarting your imagination

How do you rekindle your love of photography? Two pros who have experienced burnout symptoms share their tips for recovering your artistic flair.
A Dalmatian pelican takes off in the dark waters of the Danube Delta wetlands in a photo taken by Jonas Classon.

"I realised that photography for me is about me doing my own stuff and not trying to make other people happy; to keep doing what I love and do it my way," says bird photographer Jonas Classon. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM lens and a Canon Extender RF 1.4x at 560mm, 1/2000 sec, f/4 and ISO 3200. © Jonas Classon

Creativity is the life force of a photographer's work. The chances are that when you're feeling innovative, you're attracting more clients and producing projects that feel fulfilling and enjoyable to deliver. So what happens when creative burnout takes hold?

Though it can be difficult to define, burnout symptoms can look like physical, emotional and creative exhaustion when it comes to work. You're drained of ideas and are probably worried about the consequences, and it can take a long time to recover. Those with artistic careers are often at risk and knowing what to do about it can be tough if you need to carry on working in the studio or in the field to maintain a steady flow of income.

A growing number of photographers are facing challenging pressures, such as continually creating new work, working longer hours, undertaking emotionally taxing assignments in hard-hitting environments, maintaining a business in a competitive industry, and dealing with demanding clients. There's also the added expectation of creating meaningful content for social media. It might seem like too much to ask to be consistently creative, and it's important to keep your love of the craft alive despite it all.

Professional photographers with years of experience are no strangers to creative burnout either, and we asked two Canon Ambassadors to share their own stories. London-based Hungarian fashion and portrait photographer Wanda Martin has a client list including Dior, Atlantic Records and Burberry. Swedish nature photographer Jonas Classon is fascinated by birds and his award-winning images have been exhibited all over the world.

Here, they discuss how to recognise the signs of a creative drought, tips for recovering from burnout, and advice on how to avoid it in the first place.

A self-portrait of fashion and portrait photographer Wanda Martin, wearing a black jacket with a pink collar, a long pearl earring and a towel wrapped around her head.

"When you're working constantly, you don't have the time and energy to experiment with new things, to look at your work and the possibilities from a new perspective – it's not healthy after a while," says Wanda, who honed her photography skills shooting self portraits. "You do need to live for your hobbies as well to get inspired and that will shine through in your work." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/80 sec, f/8 and ISO 2500. © Wanda Martin

Photographer Jonas Classon stands in an exhibition hall alongside Night Hunter, his award-winning photograph of a great grey owl.

Jonas experienced symptoms of creative burnout after the press interest in his award-winning photograph Night Hunter, shown here on display in his Beyond Dreams exhibition. "If one image is noticed and goes viral, that's super fun but I think it's dangerous," he explains. "Don't try to compete with that success every time because you will end up exhausted."

Identify the telltale signs of burnout

A classic sign of burnout to watch out for is when your photography becomes unimaginative and stops evolving. Wanda found herself caught in a cycle of repetition, during which she unintentionally began shooting in the same way for clients – a sign of creative burnout after periods of intense work.

"I started creating similar editorials and the same poses, angles and lights were returning, which is great up until a certain point, where you can say it's your authorship and signature style and your own aesthetic," she continues. "But it is a very fine line between having a style and being boring and repetitive."

Meanwhile, Jonas experienced burnout when he received a lot of publicity for his second book and for his great grey owl photograph, Night Hunter, which won the Animals in their Environment category at the Siena International Photo Awards 2020.

"I was exhausted and I just couldn't do anything creative; it was like a blackout," he says. "I was just not ready for that kind of attention, because when the second book launched, I was in the middle of my creative journey – creating books, creating exhibitions and doing lectures and everything was really fun and on a normal level. Then suddenly everything got very real and very big.

"I was on 10 different TV shows in Sweden, doing interviews all over the world and receiving requests to do big exhibitions and lectures internationally. I was not expecting that and everybody was asking, 'What's your next move?' I didn't really know. I decided not to try to compete with that image because I think when something happens like that, you just need to keep on the same track that you were on."

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A European bee-eater hunting for insects in the last evening light in south Romania in a photo taken by Jonas Classon.

"I'm still working on it," says Jonas on recovering from creative burnout. "For six months, I just sat in my office trying to come up with another idea or trying to force myself to get that better picture or project. My way out was to turn off the computer and walk into nature and start hearing my own voice. I'm now releasing my third book in March 2024." Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 1/3200 sec, f/4 and ISO 400. © Jonas Classon

Rediscover your own path after creative burnout

Jonas coped and recovered by immersing himself in the calm atmosphere of nature, the environment that initially inspired his craft.

"The way I got through it was just to go out in nature, find peace in my soul to recover and hear my own thoughts," he says. "I just needed some time to reflect on what was happening and what I was doing, to find my own path again. I didn't touch my camera for six months. I couldn't. It was impossible as I just got panic attacks. I built up this big cloud of expectations that I needed to deliver.

"After six months of just thinking and working in nature, I realised that I will not change anything, and that I will try to walk the same road that I've been walking for the past 10 years. My solution is to turn off the computer, let the camera rest on the bench, and walk out into nature," he adds.

A fisheye lens self-portrait of Wanda Martin in a billowing off-the-shoulder top holding her hand up sideways to the lens.

Wanda rediscovered her love of photography through a personal project during lockdown, and suggests those suffering burnout also return to what made them passionate about photography to begin with. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens at 8mm, 1/640 sec, f/8 and ISO 640. © Wanda Martin

Start photographing for yourself again

The Covid-19 lockdown coincidentally gifted Wanda with the opportunity to revisit a personal project that rebooted her creative spark. "Creating during lockdown helped me realise that previously I had been focusing way too much on commercial work and that eventually resulted in repetition in my photography," she says. "I'd been working as a professional photographer for 14 years and, during lockdown, I had the chance to revisit my roots and work on this specific personal, conceptual project called Songs of Innocence and Experience. I was on my own and found myself with plenty of free time on my hands."

The project is an ongoing self-portrait collage that Wanda describes as "a reflection on post-modern love" and it has enabled her to express and explore her relationship with love as a form of art therapy. Once you pick up the camera purely for yourself without the pressure, she says, you begin to experiment with techniques you might not usually try.

"I could try out new photographic techniques – sometimes even very DIY – and experiment without the responsibility of fulfilling a client's expectations. I was just creating for the sake of creating," says Wanda. "Funnily enough, even though it was during lockdown, it gave me a lot of freedom, and photography became my escape again. It felt very liberating, just like when I fell in love with photography the first time aged 17."

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Great egrets hunting for fish in the wetlands of Bharatpur, India, in a photo taken by Jonas Classon.

"For me, coming from nowhere and sitting on Sweden's most watched TV shows was quite tough, but it was a really good breaking point for me in my career to have that time to reflect and find the meaning of what I'm doing and why I'm doing it," says Jonas. "I'm doing this because of my love of nature. Nature is my room to breathe." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 1/2000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 1250. © Jonas Classon

Leaves float in a bathtub decorated with lit candlesticks in a photo taken by Wanda Martin.

"The real freedom is when you don't have that pressure to show a project to anyone [a client] until you're actually satisfied with the result," says Wanda. "Just experiment, learn new things, have fun, play around. It's important to keep that passion alive." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/200 sec, f/6.3 and ISO 3200. © Wanda Martin

Make time for hobbies to prevent burnout

Carving out time for hobbies is something both photographers find vital for having a fresh outlook on their work. Jonas finds that fishing gives him the headspace away from photography to come back to his camera renewed.

"When you have 10 hours in a boat trying to catch fish then you start deep thinking, not just creating and producing. You free your mind and make that space in your head," he says. "It's been helpful for me to just create periods of time and space, because that's when the best ideas come. Find something that you can do, rest your mind creatively and just find inner peace and complete silence."

Wanda agrees, except she finds solace in going out and meeting other people. "I find it very helpful to put work aside for a few hours, days or sometimes even a couple of weeks and go out to see live bands, watch movies, plays, exhibitions and travel, and to socialise, meet people and talk," she says. "Even though this doesn't sound like work directly, it is still deeply inspiring and you can think of it as part of your research and recharge at the same time.

"I think the burnout can happen when you lose your passion for what you used to love most. When photography becomes a job instead of your hobby, that's the tricky part – when you have to make a living off it, pay the bills and sometimes say yes to jobs that aren't necessarily creatively fulfilling. I do think the most important thing is to shoot projects for yourself for your own happiness and mindfulness."

Lorna Dockerill

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