Breaking Routines

Small waterfall in Yosemite Valley, high noon

Small waterfall in Yosemite Valley, high noon

Everyone develops routines and habits: waking up at the same time every day, eating the same thing for breakfast, taking the same route to work… and on and on. Routines are beneficial in some ways—they help us avoid spending time and energy making small, unimportant decisions every day.

In photography, routines can help with the technical, left-brained stuff. Always putting lens caps in the same place in your camera bag, or the same pants pocket, can help save time and avoid frustration. Checking off a mental list before pressing the shutter can prevent mistakes. Did you adjust the polarizer? Focus? Set the right aperture? Shutter speed? Did you check the histogram? What’s your ISO?

But routines also dull the senses, and in photography that can be deadly. I’ve photographed this small waterfall in Yosemite many times, but always in the shade. Soft light works well for subjects like this—it makes it easy to use slow shutter speeds, and simplifies the lighting. So I’d never even considered visiting this spot when sunlight was hitting the water.

Last weekend I was shooting footage for some instructional videos in Yosemite Valley. I wanted to talk about using slow shutter speeds with moving water, but the crew only had one day in Yosemite, and the schedule only allowed us to visit this waterfall at noon. As we approached the fall I thought, hmm, this might work. Backlight filtering through the trees created some interesting patterns, and as the sun moved it started to highlight just the right spots. As I was demonstrating how different shutter speeds affected the appearance of the water, I was looking at the images on my viewfinder and thinking, “Wow, that looks pretty cool!”

So a tight shooting schedule forced me out of my routine, we visited a familiar spot at an unfamiliar time, and I ended up making perhaps my favorite image of this waterfall yet. Which makes me wonder: what other mental ruts have I fallen into, and how can I get out of them?

While the left brain likes routines, the right brain—the creative side—needs stimulation. We all fall into photographic ruts, preferring certain lenses, or the same kind of light, or particular subjects. Even when visiting a new location we tend to photograph it in the same way as the last spot. But all it takes to break out of that routine is to try something new. Use the “wrong” lens. Photograph in “bad” light. Fill the viewfinder with mostly empty space—and make it work. Put your subject in the center—or on the edge of the frame.

I’m going to give myself an assignment: to identify my own photographic rules and boundaries, and break them. What are some of your boundaries? How could you break your routines and stimulate your imagination? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

—Michael Frye

Related Posts: The Third Dimension in Photography; Capturing a Mood

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBook Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California

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34 Responses to “Breaking Routines”

  1. foosion says:

    Almost any of the standard creativity or training exercises can be helpful to break out of ruts and get the creative juices running. Use only a single focal length, photograph patterns, shoot flat on your back, shoot motion, capture the essence of blue, etc., etc.

    Inertia and habit are very powerful forces, so doing periodic exercises to break their grips is a very good idea.

  2. Sue L says:

    Great article! The waterfall photo is beautiful by the way! You are so lucky to live near Yosemite. We drove home through Mariposa last week. We were in Yosemite for a snowstorm and I was forced to photo while holding an umbrella!

  3. John says:

    Such a good point Michael. I will keep my look out for my habit patterns in photography.

  4. Excellent advice! That is an outstanding shot too! I’m going tomorrow to a state park I like to shoot at and I had just talked about this type of thing. I am going to try using different lenses than I would normally use and see what I can come up with. Hopefully something interesting! Nothing ventured nothing gained, right?

  5. Terri says:

    Awesome post!
    My rut buster has been to give myself a project, something totally out of the box for me. From there I hope to learn something cool and new about both my camera, myself, and my ability to be creative.

  6. Greg Starnes says:

    Great article. Really makes you think about getting a different perspective, whether it’s time of day, different angles, different elevation or like you say, using the wrong or different lens. The lighting of the waterfall is perfect. Often times we have an image in our mind of what we are looking for and sometimes we miss the obvious that is right in front of us when its different. And of course in your case, the element of luck always has a role in many of our pictures when we just happen to be in the right place at the right time.


  7. Bob Burns says:

    One of my biggest obstacles has been approaching photo shoots with preconceived notions.

    The first few times I photographed in Cades Cove (The Great Smoky Mountains National Park) I was focused on nature. On subsequent visits I began to appreciate the houses, barns, roads and fences. They had been there all along, but I had considered them unworthy subjects. When I started looking with a different vision I created some of my favorite photographs.


  8. Barb B says:

    You often help us think outside of the box, thanks. Did you use an ND filter for that shot, or really luck out with perfect light?

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks Barb. I used only a polarizer. A ND filter wouldn’t change the quality of the light or the contrast, only reduce the amount of light to allow the use of a slower shutter speed. But I was able to get down to 1.6 seconds at f/22 (100 ISO) with just the polarizer.

  9. Peter Wiles says:

    One routine breaker I recommend is to remember to look behind. One can be intent on the obvious shot in front and miss something startling behind, particularly in urban situations.

  10. Maria Sacadura says:

    Great shot, Michael ,and excellent advice.

  11. Sally says:

    Your Right Michael,
    Today I went on a photo shoot with my photo club. I was walking down main street and something made me turn around. There it was my favorite shot of the day down main street. Often when Im hiking I will turn around just to see what the trail looks like and often I get some great shots. Thanks for good advice about breaking routines.

  12. Michael Seretny says:

    One of my favorite ways to break up things is to change camera systems or formats. Any change that forces you to re-think your standard approach is good for the creativity and soul. The lull of knowing where the buttons are and what they do is to convenient. If you are a full-time “know your system photographer”, go out and shoot Holga for an afternoon or shoot film vs. digital. Great article, Michael….thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Nice idea Michael. On the one hand, using a different camera might force you to think to much – to go into left-brain analytic mode. But it would certainly force you to do things differently.

  13. Sally says:

    Just a thought on Michael Seretny’s post…I purchased a new digital camera, and in the mean time, kept going back to my old one until I had time to learn about my new camera. (2 different brands) I found it frustrating because I would actually have to stop and think how to turn them off and on and which dials did what between to two of them. A couple of times I missed a good shot because I had to remember which camera I had in my hands. So I just learned to use my new one faster. Not saying it isn’t a good thing to switch things up though.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Sally, I think that’s a common experience. A new camera can make you think more about how to work the camera and less about light, composition, etc. I think what Michael was driving at was a little different. Using a Holga, for example, would definitely change your esthetic approach. It would be pointless with that camera to try to make tack-sharp images.

      • Michael Seretny says:

        Point well taken…Sally and Michael. Learning a whole new camera would be frustrating and left-brained initially. Breaking your routine wouldn’t include learning a whole new camera. However, I think a change in format, film vs digital, fx vs dx, etc is good. One exercise we have done for class is to go on a shoot with a partner (shooting the same scenes) Then look over how two people shot the same scenes from different POV and composition elements.

  14. Juls says:

    Awesome shot. I have yet to develop a routine for my photography. I’m still in that learning phase. I’m sure that I’m making many mistakes but it sure is fun. Lately, a good friend has been loaning me his lenses to try out. He’s creating a monster. I’m waking up in the middle of the night to babysit my time lapsed photo project of my orchid opening up and buying hummingbird feeders so that I can lure the birds to my window. It’s so cool. Oh yeah, and I cannot wait until I can make it back out to Yosemite again.

  15. [...] just thought, “This won’t work,” and given up. But since I wrote that post about breaking routines a couple of weeks ago I decided to see what I could do with the “wrong” light for the [...]

  16. lindalee says:

    love your book…will br there may 5-10…any good ideas?

  17. Hi Michael, just discovered your site here. I have been looking for a few good quality blogs on Landscape photography, so it was a nice discovery. I’ll Twitter you book links to share with others. Thank you for sharing your creative vision, cheers Steve Coleman

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