The Six Stages Of Photographic Burnout

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So what is a photographic burnout?

A while ago, I wrote an article about the six stages of becoming a photographer. It was a wry, tongue-in-cheek look at the journey we make towards becoming a “tog”. Whilst the article was humorous, it was very much grounded in real life. A lot of the points I made were loosely based on my own experience in photography. It also involved cats, probably more than was really needed. 

Photography is very much a roller coaster, having passed the six stages, what next? Well, one of the things that can, and probably will happen, is photographic burnout. So today, my tongue returns to my cheek in order to bring you the six stages of photographic burnout.

No Fun At The Forum

Ah, the forums. The place where Romans went to debate and photographers go to argue. Sometimes, however, the constant sniping, self-promotion, and narcissism of the photographic forum can get to us. We start to withdraw our online presence and deny help to others because of the actions of a few. 

The communities that we once thrived in are now a source of anger and frustration. We prefer the company of our cat to that of our peers, even though the cat despises photography with the same zeal that it despises everything else. We have begun to burn out.

Wide shot of a Roman forum in Rome
The forum. Where Romans debate and photographers argue. By Fabio Fistarol on Unsplash

The Cleaning Day Blues

Now I will happily confess that I don’t clean my camera gear regularly. I do however clean it frequently. Or at least whenever the lenses get to the point that I no longer need a Black Mist filter for portraits. Cleaning camera gear is cathartic, it maintains the bond between us and our apparatus. It’s also more relaxing than cleaning the cat’s litter tray.

There comes a time though when we no longer feel the urge to pull our “precious” from its canvas protection. A time when the thought of running a lint-free cloth over coated glass no longer inspires us. A time when the sensor dust bunnies can be cleaned in post. It is a time we call neglect. It’s very much a warning sign of photographic burnout.

Scruffy looking rangefinder film camera
If your camera looks like this, you have begun to burn out. By Marcelo Chagas on Pexels

That Will Do

That will do is probably the most dangerous stage of photographic burnout. It’s the point where you have given up being meticulous, given up moving left, right up and down. You no longer walk into the scene and pick up a discarded coke can because it’s ruining the shot. You are raising the camera to your eye and mentally saying, “that will do”.

This is a dangerous phase of photographic burnout. It’s one that is difficult to recognize when shooting but very easy to recognize when editing the images at home. It not only applies to the image taking but also the editing process. Gone are the hours and hours of deciding between a Lightroom white balance of 5400k and 5500k. Instead, you go with “as-shot” and whack the vibrance and dehaze slider up to 11 – no prizes for guessing the movie reference. That will do, can be hard to recover from.

Garbage on a sandy beach photographic burnout
Beach scene. Nailed it. By Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Lightroom No Longer

The next stage of photographic burnout is Lightroom no longer. In other words, a point where you just cannot be bothered to edit your images. You simply load them into your computer and then go and attend to the cat, because you think it’s more interesting than your shots.

A more severe form of Lightroom no longer is the stationary SD card. In this form of photographic burnout, you never remove the SD card from the camera. The card continues to fill to the point that it becomes full. You then delete a few RAWs and switch to JPEG so you can squeeze a few more shots out of it.

Cat lying in front of computer with camera lens photographic burnout
Who needs Lightroom when you have a cat? By H Xuan Hoang on Unsplash

Infinite Snooze

As a new or enthusiastic photographer, the dawn becomes our chosen time of day. The light is gorgeous, there is no one around and the cat is asleep. You can creep out and shoot in glorious solitude. To enable this, you employ the service of an alarm clock. Its piercing cacophony wakes you from your slumber and propels you into the sunrise.

As photographic burnout progresses, you begin the use Beelzebub’s Button, aka, the snooze button. You go to bed with good intentions. The weather forecast is great, you have a location in mind and you fall asleep dreaming of the great shots you will be getting. Seemingly seconds later, the room explodes with noise and it’s time to get up. But you don’t, you hit Beelzebub’s button, begging him for five more minutes. He duly grants this. You return to sleep only to be woken in exactly the same way five minutes later. This aural Groundhog Day continues until you finally hit the stop button and return to sleep. Burnout is almost complete.

Man asleep on couch with spectacular view through window photographic burnout
You press the snooze button rather than shoot this. By Maeghan Smulders on Unsplash

Everything On eBay

The last stage of burnout is Everything on eBay. This stage is often sudden, impulsive, and financially unrewarding. You no longer feel that you are a photographer. You feel your images are worthless, compared to everyone else’s work. You type out a long-winded reason for selling your gear on the eBay advert only to delete it and say “hardly used”. As you do so, your cat sits on your lap, reassuringly purring as it knows it is about to get a whole lot more attention. You are about to make a huge mistake. Stop… Rewind!

Camera gear and accessories on a table
Be quick, it's all on eBay right now. By Lucas Favre on Unsplash.

Everything on eBay is twinned with endless remorse. You will miss photography. You will miss it so much that a week later you will trawling eBay looking to buy the same gear for twice the price. Step away from that sell button!

We all go through these various stages of photographic burnout. Recognizing this is key to making sure that you do actually stick with photography and not end up at Everything on eBay. 

There are plenty of ways we can do this. Leave your camera at home, contrary to popular belief, you should not take it everywhere with you. 

Step back from shooting and edit some of your older images. You will be surprised and inspired by how much you have progressed. If all else fails, pack the camera up and put it in a cupboard for a while. There will come a point when the desire to shoot will return. Then you will simply have to open that cupboard and not spend hours on eBay, credit card in hand. 

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About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

First sign of burnout must be calling oneself a ‘tog’ – a pretentious disrespect for oneself and the hobby / pastime / way of making a living – that we persue. It’s also a term never seen on a professionals’ business card / website / literature.

I have been a professional for 35 years, nearly every fellow professional has referred to themselves as a tog or photog. Sorry my use of the word offends you so much but I certainly to not have pretentious disrespect for either myself, other professional or fellow enthusiasts. Clearly it would not be used on a business card as it’s an insider term not one directed at potential clients. You should check out one of my friend’s and fellow photographer’s business, it’s called Tech for Togs.

Glad you like it Lynn. I think every photographer suffers at some time and some will give up. Hopefully highlighting it will help people continue with photography rather than give it up.

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