How I Fought My Way Through Photographic Burnout, and How You Can Too

How I Fought My Way Through Photographic Burnout, and How You Can Too

2560 1707 James Tocchio

This article begins with a few paragraphs of self-indulgent whining. I could argue that they also provide “context.” Whichever is more true, I think the pity-party does eventually lead to something that could be useful to someone, so bear with me.

Running Casual Photophile is a challenge, and at times it can be a nightmare. During Thanksgiving week, for example, I was awake until 3:00 am four nights in a row working late to write and edit articles for readers to [hopefully] enjoy [for free], while struggling through a number of site-breaking problems with my server. During that same workweek I was called “stupid” and “idiotic,” both a “millennial hipster” and paradoxically a “boomer” via comments on the site, through Facebook, and most astounding of all, in direct emails. I’m thirty-five years old, by the way, neither a hipster nor a boomer. I won’t argue with the guy who called me an idiot. I am indeed quite stupid.

I take these types of comments in stride. It’s the internet. Having my work or the work of my team of writers insulted means we’re reaching a good number of people. Sure, I read a mean comment about myself on the internet every week or so. Other people have far worse problems than this. What’s it matter? Honestly, it doesn’t.

Except sometimes it does. The continual low-level trolling and shit-posting by malcontents can eventually accumulate into a destructive force, eroding whatever motivation I have for continuing to work myself to exhaustion in service of a photography enthusiasm blog.

I admit that it’s petty, and on the whole the community and commenters that share their hobby with me are overwhelmingly positive. But sometimes the negativity gets to me. And there have been plenty of moments of pure burnout when I’ve considered packing it up and shutting it down. Which is both depressing, and also not an option, since I have children and this blog literally pays for their food. But that’s more than enough of my bellyaching. How does any of this relate to you?

Over the years, I’ve noticed in my fellow photo-takers and camera-likers numerous instances of the same type of burnout that occasionally plagues me. It takes the shape of a flagging interest in taking pictures for fun, or a feeling that we’re clambering against other aspiring professionals in a perpetual rat race in which the cheese we chase is a more impressive number of Instagram followers, or a generally depressing feeling of creative inferiority when our work doesn’t seem to generate much interest. Whatever causes the disease, the symptom is the same – burnout.

Occupational and avocational burnout is easy to diagnose. When our internal monologue around the work turns sour, or the fringe external annoyances in a profession or hobby begin to overshadow the joy of the activity, you’re suffering from burnout. When that happens, it’s time to evaluate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. More important if we want to eventually re-engage, is to figure out how to get back to the kernel of fulfillment that the activity once provided.

I’ve been through a lot of photographic burnout cycles in the six-or-so years that I’ve been running this site and my camera shop. This puts me in an uncommon position to advise others who may be struggling through their own burnout. Here’s how I worked through this latest bout of burnout. If you’re feeling similarly unenthused, maybe you’ll find a nugget of wisdom among these, my five steps for fighting through burnout.

Step One – Take a Break from Photography

My latest burnout struck quickly, like a starving badger at a buffet dinner. One day, all was well. The next, I never wanted to take another picture again. And the first step toward recovery was clear – I didn’t fight it. I stopped taking pictures. On Thanksgiving day as my wife and kids and I were walking out the door on our way to visit the extended family, she must’ve noticed the absence of a metal and glass box hanging from my neck. “You’re not bringing a camera?” she puzzled. “Nope.” I responded with conviction.

Instead of spending Thanksgiving looking at my kids, the cousins, the food, and the holiday through a camera, I talked about movies and pets and work and vacations and the subtleties of smoking a turkey (I deftly avoided politics). I didn’t take a photo all day. Not even with my phone. I was off-duty and it felt great.

The next week or two continued the trend. I didn’t shoot a single frame of film. I didn’t develop film. I didn’t scan film (the ultimate torture). I relied on my writers to produce articles for the site, I asked friends to contribute, and when a few days passed without articles, I didn’t panic or let the pressure get to me. I allowed myself to take a break and I didn’t worry that the site would implode or worry about what other photo enthusiasts were doing. I spent more time with my family, spent more time exercising and sleeping.

Step Two – Avoid Photography-centric Social Media

During this break from photography I also stopped posting to and scrolling through Instagram. Instagram is great, but it can also make you feel like you’re the only one not doing something great. Fear of missing out, it’s called. FOMO, or whatever. You open Instagram and every photographer you follow is posting projects and collaborations and becoming influencers and finding two-dollar thrift-store X-Pans. The continuous carousel projection of all the best parts of other peoples’ lives can quickly create a sense that you’re being left behind simply because you’re living the life of a regular human being. This is, of course, all untrue.

After a week or so of not checking in on Instagram I was well-purged of the idea that I’d been missing anything. My phone is far less beautiful than my kids’ smiling faces. The strangers on Instagram are not important. And nothing my phone can do is as fun as building a snowman with two little girls.

If you’re a hobbyist photographer you’ll be in a position to take all the time you need with step two. If that’s the case, do it. Take your time and don’t pick up a camera until you suddenly feel a burst of inspiration or come up with a new idea, or feel nostalgic for the days when shooting was fun. If you take a break and wait, this is likely all the steps you’ll need. Some time will pass and you’ll come back to the hobby or job with fresh eyes and new energy. If after many many months you’re having a hard time getting to that point, you may need to stop and think.

Step Three – Think

To fight through deep burnout and get back to what we love about a hobby, in this case photography, it’s important to remember what initially interested us about the hobby in the first place. For me, the original thrill was simple – I love cameras. The machines that make photographs have always interested me, mostly because they command my attention. Messing with dials and focusing and adjusting settings to get a certain kind of photo allows me to meditate and concentrate more deeply than any other activity I’ve tried. Simply put, cameras give my anxious mind a chance to rest.

As my knowledge of and experience with cameras deepened, so did my appreciation, hence the website Casual Photophile. As my tastes have evolved, I’ve found myself most energized by simple, high quality cameras. It’s always a simple camera that helps me reset, that pulls me out of these ruts. And it was no different this time, as you’ll soon read.

Step Four – Get Back to Basics

“The Basics” will be different for every photographer. If you originally fell in love with photography by shooting an 8×10, your camera and the way you use it will be far different from someone who fell in love with photography by shooting street with an Olympus XA. Determine for yourself what your version of “The Basics” is, and get back to it. Here’s how I reconnected with mine.

I’m a chill guy. I don’t sweat results [I haven’t even looked at this site’s analytics for more than a year]. I like to squint at a scene, set my aperture for the depth of field I’m looking for, and guess my shutter speed. I’m wrong about half the time. But half the time I’m right! Part of the burnout problem for me was that I’d started to worry a lot about the times that I got it wrong, and I’d been using complicated cameras in an effort to boost my hit rate. I’d also been looking at a lot of really great or popular photographers’ works on Instagram, and really beating myself up about my lack of talent.

My friend Ned Bunnell randomly sent me a message mid-malaise, suggesting that I take a look at the Pentax SL. I did, and soon one was sitting in the office. From the minute that I picked it up, things began to make sense again. A shutter speed dial, a nice lens, no nonsense, no electronics, not even a light meter. Just a beautiful focusing screen resolving the world through a lovely chunk of handcrafted glass. A simple camera for making simple pictures.

I spent a week or so shooting the SL, and I started to let go of whatever vague ambition I had for my photography. I got back to just enjoying the process and not caring about the results. When I get a roll of film back and half the shots are nice, that’s good enough for me. And the Pentax SL was exactly the camera that I needed to get back to that healthy state of mind.

Step Five – Re-engage

By last week I was pretty well over my latest round of burnout. I was back to work taking photos for articles, shooting Christmas card portraits for friends and family, and enjoying every minute of it. I spent a day shooting the Carl Zeiss 35mm F/1.4 adapted to a mirrorless Sony and it felt like the good old days, even if the lens surprisingly disappointed me. That I was even able to make these observations without becoming stressed hinted that my burnout had truly passed.

This past weekend I was able to attend the launch of the Leica SL2 at the Leica Store in Boston. I spent the day chatting with Leica nerds, shooting the new SL2 and the stunning APO Summicron SL 75mm F/2 ASPH, and enjoying the company of friendly photographers. After that, I met with a dozen-or-so film photographers from the Boston Area Film Photographers Facebook Group, and we spent a few hours walking through the city chatting about cameras and photography. I saw some rare machines and made some new friends. It was a fantastic day that reminded me what photography is all about – connecting with people, real people, in the real world.

Your particular re-engagement might look different from mine. You might be in the woods shooting snowy photos of a river. Or on a mountain. Or in the middle of a city, or at a sporting event or club. I don’t know what you’re into or why you love photography. But once you’ve reconnected with the basics that motivated you to shoot photos in the first place, or decided on a totally new direction that feels just right, your burnout should be pretty well snapped. After that, it’s time to get back to work doing what you love.


Got any tips for getting through photographic burnout? Share them in the comments.

James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
31 comments
  • Hi James, thanks as always for the article. Having the same fascinations with and needs from photography you describe, I have been drawn to this site. The link sits front and center (literally) in my bookmarks toolbar. I click every day to see if a new post was made. Because of your film subscription service, I enjoyed shooting Ilford XP2 last week and souped it (mistakenly but nonetheless happily) in HC 110. The images were tagged with your hash-tag. Shooting that roll inspired me to finish 36 frames of Portra 160 with an Olympus OM4Ti. Today, it was deathly cold, and the Oly’s self-timer was set from earlier low light exposures in a cafe. I pulled up on the dial’s “nub’ to reset and the nub cracked off and dropped into the snow. I swore as it was retrieved. The shard is hopefully still in my pants pocket for super gluing, and if not, no biggie. Regardless, you had a big part in my exercising the cameras and releasing my eyes to the surroundings. This activity helped me out of a general malaise that comes around often during major holidays for personal reasons. As far as criticism goes, it comes with the territory of putting your creativity on display. Every time I submit an article for publication on one of the film-based sites, there is latent insecurity about my work. I take solace in the fact that I have the courage to put myself out there. You are doing this in spades and asking nothing in return, and there is no better offering than that.

    I am not a big FB user, but I’ll check out the Boston film group. I live in Bristol RI.

    Kind regards, and a huge thank you,

    Louis.

    • ….tagged on Instagram, my “handle’ is lousousa7412.

    • Thanks for all of that Louis. It’d be great if you can manage to make it up to Boston for the next meet up. We’re trying to do them more often now.

    • Hi Louis! Although the Boston-Area Film Photographers Facebook group has more details we also have an Instagram – @bostonfilmphotography where we share meetup details.

  • Hi James,
    Another great, heartfelt article that couldn’t come at a better time for me. I think I slowly lost the whole ‘joy of photography’ thing. Taking a break and getting on with other projects (like getting fit) seems good at the moment. I agree with getting back to basics, asking yourself. “What got me interested in photography in the first place?” Is a great place to start.
    Best wishes for the season! Don

  • James – thankyouthankyouthankyou for Casual Photophile! It is THE site for compelling articles about classic film cameras. I’m sorry about the idiots who don’t appreciate your love for photography and your informative and insightful writing, but I’m sure they are just a tiny (if loud) percentage of your readers. Sometimes I go back to your reviews to make sure I made the right decision to purchase a Nikon F (check) and a Minolta CLE (check). On top of all of that I get to watch your daughter grow up! Here’s wishing you and your family a wonderful holiday season. Keep shooting and developing (and even scanning).

    • Thanks very much. But you can’t make me enjoy scanning! Never!

      • You gotta try scanning using a DSLR. Super easy and the magic ingredient is using negativelabpro.com to process the files. It actually is super easy and FUN! I kid you not.
        There’s a big thread on it on rangefinderforum.com

  • Well, don’t those two smiling faces make it all worthwhile. Great photos =

  • A very courageous post. All the best to you and your family.

  • Avatar
    Joe shoots resurrected cameras December 11, 2019 at 10:03 pm

    Great article. I’ve had those times in my life and it’s helpful to take a step back and work through why I do what I do. A post popped up in my feed from a guy I follow, but haven’s heard a peep out of for 1.5 years, I hope he reads this.

  • Yet another EXCELLENT article from you. Yours is one of the best blogs on the internet and is part of a very exclusive, exceptional group.

    This post is excellent. My calling is coaching where we have to be aware of athlete (and sometimes coach) burnout. Your advice is spot on.

    Ignore what I describe to the athletes as the “naysayers, haters, and betrayers” who only criticize you in a feeble attempt to feel less inferior about themselves. If you don’t have critics, you aren’t accomplishing anything. You do and you are! For every loudmouth troll there are 100+ who look forward to your posts, regardless of author. Keep up the great work!

    If you ever get to Atlanta, let us know ahead of time. There is a lot of film activity here.

  • Hi James!

    First of all, thanks for running this site. It’s unique, great looking, and full of quality material. Next burnout? As you say. Break, some fresh air, shooting basic or not at all, and then we, the readers will just wait patiently. What you’re saying about getting nasty comments is sad, but hardly surprising. I used to work for Gawker Media back when it was a thing, and while we had a great community, it remained tough from time to time, especially for our female writers. The problem is not that you’d take a rude, totally senseless message seriously. It’s that it makes you stop writing the cool story you were working on, because the attack triggers a coffee brake, and then you may continue less enthusiastically, given how your audience just connected with you.

    The internet. Wonderful, yet unfair.

  • Hey James – just wanted to say that your site is absolutely lovely resource and it’s always a better day when I see you’ve published a new post. Keep up the good work!

  • Enjoyed this article a lot! For me, one of the advantages of owning quite a few old film cameras is that sometimes picking up a camera I have not shot in a while will inspire me. Same is true with a lens. Recently, a depressing rainy day turned into photo fun when I tried some still life with my Nikon FM2n and 55mm Micro-Nikkor.

  • Great post in a great website!
    Please don’t let the trolls get you down. You are doing a terrific service to the photographic community! James, I’ve never met you, probably never will, (did buy an old Minolta lens once), but I’m always keeping an eye on your site. I’m sure I speak for a lot of silent and casual photophiles in encouraging you to keep up the great work.
    Scotty Smith

  • Thanks very much for sharing your experience with us James. I know I can relate to a lot of what you say. Not to the point of not wanting to make pictures, I always feel the need to do that. But the inadequacy, this sort of feeling that one’s images are never good enough. I think it’s important to remember most people don’t share their “bad images” and so this perception that they live in this wonderful utopian paradise is obviously false. I’m sure many great photographers will tell you it’s a constant struggle to make compelling pictures, and what we see are the gems in the rough. It’s nice to be reminded we are all human after all.

  • I suspect dealing with a great amount of internet feedback toward oneself require a bit a suspension of being human and a dose of nihilism. For many of your readers you get a divine aura, some start to think in exchange for your veneration you have to say what they believe, others hate you because what is for you a job or passion for them is a success they believe should be theirs and not yours. There is a line in which one can be grateful for good readers but beyond it we can fall in the soulless trap of doing what they could like more ; and a line in which we can be indifferent to mean readers but beyond it we can either fall into negligence to not minimally protect for safety our private information or judging as a bad person just somebody that has a different opinion (of course insults are not arguments).

    To protect myself from the burnout I do a decluttering of what is unnecessary or not essential. I don’t follow new announcements of cameras or software anymore. I already know what do I want or how to use equipment. I have noticed that usually women don’ t participate much in pages of equipment, but inversely they (or at least I feel that) are more active publishing their photographic work without fretting in having the last camera but in sharing what they like, and I try to follow that example. I follow casualphotophile mainly because your experience using cameras is quite authentic, it is not about impersonal reviews but real life chronicles if it bonds with you in a personal way that makes sense. It has not to have, it cannot be, the same sense as the rest of people, to me is already grate that your work and of the contributors feel genuine.

  • Hi James.
    I was engaged with photography and cameras since 1974, when I get my first real camera, a Canon FTb, as a present from my parents for my secondary school diploma. Then I owned 22 different cameras, Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Rollei and now Sony. Every time I changed my camera I sold the old one, just to have enough budget to spend. This way I do not have on my shelves my beloved Canon F1 or A-1 or the mighty T90.
    It a pleasure to read Casual Photophile reviews on old film camera and remember that days and the cameras I owned and the many other I’d like to own.
    Weel done and keep going!
    Regards
    Tiberio

  • Avatar
    Stephen McCullough December 15, 2019 at 9:53 am

    Hi James

    From someone a few decades older (and therefore with more burnout bouts) I admire your candid and insightful post.

    I too find it hard to balance the benefits of social media with the constant plague of seemingly perfect lives. But as you point out, burnout can hit any aspect of our lives.

    I’ve learned to look after my own body, mind and spirit first. I’m doing so I am a better colleague, Dad, and photographer. And by better I mean that I live in the moment and take what comes.

    I deeply appreciate this site. And your store. Many others do too. We just don’t speak up as often as the haters. But remember one thing about the latter – they spend each day hating. Think about that for a moment. How much richer and more peaceful is your approach of sharing a common interest that is a beautiful blend of science, art and nerdery?

  • This is a great site James. There aren’t really any others I visit as much. thank you for doing what you do.

  • Hi James,

    Like others above, I really enjoy your site. It is one of the reasons I started shooting film again, and for that I am very grateful.

    It is a sad fact that there are many internet users who seem to feel the need not just to criticize, but to attack and insult those they disagree with. It’s their problem not those they are attacking.

    Best wishes to you and your family for Xmas and looking forward to more quality writing from you and the team in 2020.

    Richard

  • Avatar
    Boris Samacovlieff December 17, 2019 at 2:48 am

    Hi James, my name is Boris and I like reading the articles and the posts of your site about and not about photography. Like others before said it is a good and inspiring source of information and really good photography. I went also through times of photographic burnouts or periods of emptynes of inspiration and didn’t touched a camera for weeks. What helped me personally get back on track are basically two things. My greatest inspiring or ideas will come to me when I am moving around. Will mean when I travel or get into a new location with new things to see and to explore that kicks off my inspiration. Second which is easier and not so cost intensive I go through all the images I took in the last 2 decades and think about the nice and magic moments and the feelings connected to that pictures. Almost always I get soon after again the urge to take a camera in hand and to go out taking pictures.
    I am from Germany and like reading and watching you content. Please keep on going you do a great job. Cheers

  • James,

    Thank you for this honest article. I completely agree that taking a break from social media can be a big help to enjoy photography again. I sincerely like your website and I have read many articles from it. Thank you to you and your team for putting up creative and substantial articles about film photography.

    Appreciate it.

    Ian

  • Great article James, and at present I am in the middle of a hiatus re photography… Its not my main thing, I am a motorcycle rider first and last, but not making images leaves me feeling a bit less somehow…. Been 3 weeks or more since the last use of a camera. Time to put some HP5 in the FE.

    • Oof, you’re hurting me now. My motorcycle has been languishing in the garage for two years. Rebuilt the carburetors last spring, had it ready to go. My daughter said “But Dada, if you get hurt riding your motorcycle who will take care of me?”

      What kind of four-year-old says this!?

      Well, the sheet went back over the bike. Maybe I’ll revisit in ten years.

  • James, thanks for running Casual Photophile. I stumbled onto CP two or so years ago searching for info on one of my interests-Nikon film equipment- and have enjoyed CP since.

    As to burnout, I’m a hobbyist who started taking photos in the late 1970s and have gone through several periods when I have no interest in picking up a camera. I’ve tried the “new to me machine” cure, but that’s only like a shot of espresso and resulted in a collection of camera bodies and lenses.

    What works for me is to remember that photography is, in its most elemental state, capturing reflected light. I then find some common object that happens to be in an interesting light, turn off all our cultural distractions, and just look at how the light plays and changes on the object. I find the beginning and end of the day best for this with natural light, but indoor light on the stuff in your office or kitchen or the toys your kids’ leave around the house works too. The easy one is to rotate one of your cameras through the light from a desk lamp. This technique helps me practice what I call “seeing”, blocking out the cultural clutter and seeing how light plays on things, as I go about my day. As I “see” more I’m more inclined to want to photograph – or wish I’d brought a camera with me.

    Best,

    Tim

  • Hi James. Thanks for this article and all of the time that you put into this site. I have you and just two or three other blogs on my RSS feed (remember those?) and it’s always exciting when there’s a new post. Your reflections in this post struck a nerve, as it clearly has for others. I find that it’s hard to have fun for the sake of it, and easy to be disillusioned with the targets and ‘productivity’ that I aim for. Photography, or anything that anyone enjoys over a long time, is no trivial thing. It’s great that you’re helping build the community, and what you’re doing clearly means a lot to many people all around the world (I’m in the UK for example). Looking through a viewfinder, taking a risk on a guessed exposure, is a lonely moment, which can be a welcome escape, but it’s heartening to feel like it’s also an experienced shared by others. Best of luck to you, and here’s to a fantastic 2020

  • I’m actually getting back into film after a long time away, so this article is very timely. I usually just use my iphone for photos and call it a day, but I wanted to take photos with more intention again. I shoot on my Diana F+ occassionally, but I haven’t shot on a 35mm in about 10 years. So I hopped on ebay and found an almost brand new 50th anniversary, all-black edition of the Minolta XD (complete with similarly almost new 50mm f1.4 lens) for $380. I couldn’t pass it up. Now I’m just waiting for it to arrive!

    Best of luck in finding new inspiration.

    • Beautiful purchase and I hope you make some beautiful shots with it. Feel free to share the photos when you take them. I visited your site and Medium. Keep up the good work.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio