Inspiration Isn't All That People Make it Out to Be

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Inspiration is one of the frequent topics discussed by photography influencers. While I think this idea comes from a good place, I doubt if most people truly understand what inspiration is, and what inspiration is not.

The good news is that I think it’s entirely possible to make inspiration more likely to occur, and we’ll cover that in this article.

Why Do People Try to Inspire You?

I’ll be honest – my gut reaction when I hear another photographer or creative person tell me that they’re going to inspire me is not what they would expect. It seems arrogant to me that someone who doesn’t know me is going to intentionally inspire me.

That’s probably not a fair assessment on my part. These people aren’t trying to be arrogant. They’re just using a word that they truly don’t understand. The intention is good, but I think it’s misplaced.

To be fair, I don’t dismiss the possibility that they could inspire me. However, there’s a reason why I’m skeptical about their odds of success.

Ideas and Examples Aren’t Inspiration

The most common way people try to inspire others is by showing them examples of great works of art. Sometimes they show you a technique that you can use in your own photography.

That’s all good. It’s just not inspiration.

That’s because inspiration isn’t about other people’s ideas or examples. Here’s the dictionary definition of inspiration.

Inspiration Definition

Inspiration as a Process

The first definition almost makes it seem as if inspiration is something repeatable by following steps in a process. Yet we all know that isn’t true. If you look at the example below, things become a bit more clear:

“Helen had one of her flashes of inspiration”

So inspiration comes in a flash. If you look a little lower on the first definition at some of the synonyms, things get even more clear. It uses words like:

  • Originality
  • Individuality
  • Creativity

Those words let you know that someone can’t hand you inspiration. You can’t copy or mimic inspiration. It has to be something that appears within you. Inspiration is original, creative and entirely yours.

Inspiration is a Surprise

The second definition is pretty much what I tell anyone when we talk about this topic. Inspiration is a surprise. You don’t know when it’s going to strike. You can’t plan for inspiration.

When you get down to it, inspiration is a puzzle that your brain assembles from various bits of information. That’s why it’s all yours. When you get the final piece of the puzzle that you need, that’s when you get that sudden flash of insight or creativity that we call inspiration.

When it happens, it’s entirely because of you. It’s based upon your knowledge, your intuition and your experience.

If we could plan on inspiration striking every week when a podcast came out, it would be rather boring. Maybe you’d still look forward to it, but there’s no personal sense of revelation if everyone gets the same inspiration at the same time.

That’s why I really don’t look for inspiration or wait for it to strike. Inspiration will happen when the universe aligns and deems it so.

How to Increase Your Odds of Being Inspired

If inspiration is nothing more than a collection of pieces of a puzzle, then how do you increase your odds of being inspired?

It seems rather simple to me. You spend your time collecting more pieces for puzzles that you want to solve.

Lee and I both appreciate great photography. We’re always looking at the work of other people, dissecting it, and trying to figure out why it works or why it doesn’t.

Essentially, we are constantly gardening ideas that we could potentially use for ourselves at a later time. Here’s what we recommend you do to increase your odds of being inspired.

Pay Attention to Art

You never know what’s going to inspire you, so you can’t just look at photographs and expect that’s sufficient. We find interesting work in all forms of visual art.

  • Photos
  • Paintings
  • Movies
  • Sketches
  • Sculptures

Those are just a few off the top of my head. You could probably include TV Shows, Commercials and Advertisements, junk mail flyers and much more.

We’re analyzing color combinations, compositions, graphic elements, shapes, lighting and shadow. If there is a component of something visual, we talk about it. This is just a natural part of our curiosity and conversation.

If there is something that you see in a visual art, it’s fair game to analyze.

Why did a movie or TV show make a casting choice? Who picked that wardrobe and why? Is the background setting pertinent to the subject, or would something else create a better result?

Teach yourself to dissect practically everything you see. It doesn’t even have to be in a visual art. I’m looking at fashion choices people make in public. I want to know what works and what doesn’t work.

We’re looking at poses for portraits or alignment of objects in parks or architecture. Everything and anything we observe is a potential piece of the inspiration puzzle at a later time.

Learn New Skills

Take a moment and think about all the things you’ve already learned about photography, or maybe what you know that you need to learn.

  • How to compose your photo
  • How to create a correct exposure
  • How to light your subject
  • How to find the right background
  • How to organize your photos
  • How to post-process your photos
  • How to develop your own style

That’s such a brief list. Not a bad thing, because learning new aspects of photography helps broaden your collection of puzzle pieces. You may need to learn how to build a set, or to network with someone for access to their location.

Who knows what inspiration will strike because of something that you’ve learned?

The more you know, the more ideas become possible. That means you may know of a great location, but the real inspiration comes when you find someone who would be perfect as a subject there.

Maybe it’s because of the subject, or her wardrobe. Maybe it’s because of some new lighting techniques your learned.

If you downloaded Visual Stories (why not, it’s free), then you know there are three things that make up an interesting photograph:

  • Background
  • Light
  • Subject

Learn as many different ways to enhance each of those elements, and that will help you increase your odds of being inspired.

Collect Stories

The best photos are the ones that tell a story. Why is that?

Because you share those photos with other people. Those people are your audience. Now you have to figure out what your audience wants.

Clearly, they want to feel something.

That’s why every photo should evoke an emotion. So which emotion do you go for? The emotion that your audience wants. Different audiences want different emotions.

So, it’s usually best to avoid mixing romance and horror. Different emotions for different audiences.

As you get to know your audience, find out what types of stories they like. Find out which locations they like. Learn what stories work best in those locations.

Discover the kind of subjects they like. Sometimes you can create some curiosity with a “fish out of water” story to share with your audience.

If This Sounds Like Research, You’re Right

Inspiration is unreliable. In more than a few cases, people use the word inspiration when they’re really talking about emulation.

For example, a local model decided to recreate the famous Farrah Fawcett poster in a red one-piece swimsuit. She did a great job re-creating the photo, but I just wasn’t buying the idea when she said she was inspired by the photo.

No, she just copied someone else’s work.

Remember, inspiration is original. Copying another photo is not an original or inspired work of art.

The idea of research is doing what I explained above. It’s so you have a collection of ideas that you can mix, match or use as a reference for your own original work.

It’s amazing to me how often inspiration strikes as a combination of something I already knew and something that I just learned or experienced. It’s a sudden combination of ideas that allows you to create something new and original.

So don’t worry about those who say they’re going to inspire you. They mean well, bless their hearts.

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One Comment

  1. From the online etymology dictionary.
    A basic meaning comes from the idea of ‘inhaling’ or breathing in Spirit.

    inspiration (n.)

    “c. 1300, “immediate influence of God or a god,” especially that under which the holy books were written, from Old French inspiracion “inhaling, breathing in; inspiration” (13c.), from Late Latin inspirationem (nominative inspiratio), noun of action from past-participle stem of Latin inspirare “blow into, breathe upon,” figuratively “inspire, excite, inflame,” from in- “in” (from PIE root *en “in”) + spirare “to breathe” (see spirit (n.)).

    The sense evolution seems to be from “breathe into” to “infuse animation or influence,” thus “affect, rouse, guide or control,” especially by divine influence. Inspire (v.) in Middle English also was used to mean “breath or put life or spirit into the human body; impart reason to a human soul.” Literal sense “act of inhaling” attested in English from 1560s. Meaning “one who inspires others” is attested by 1867.”

    I believe that talking about ‘inspiration’ should recognize that taking in a deep breath is an important religious tenet; it is consistent with almost all religions and philosophies. Some yogic studies are based on breathing. So, it’s quite possible, that the power of breathing, both literally and figuratively, enables the Spirit to find its way within. Thus, to inspire and infuse one with “Spirit.”

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