I’ve done a bunch of research for this list, and have come up with what I think are a pretty awesome and USEFUL set of tips.
First off, I’m going to assume that you are slightly more than a beginner at this photography thing. Naturally, you are looking to improve your skills and increase the ratio of good images over crappy ones.
I am not going to assume that you have the best equipment money can buy. That shouldn’t matter, unless you are really aiming high fairly quickly.
Lets start with an easy one.
1. Take on a photo project that is 180 degrees the opposite of what you normally shoot.
What do I mean? For example, if you are a street scene photographer who normally walks the city’s mean streets looking for the gritty underbelly of your particular town, try shooting something like a still life in a calm indoor scene.
Or perhaps you are the shooter that the entire time comes to for their baby pictures and family portraits. To get your creative juices flowing, go grab your sturdy tripod and wide-angle lens. Head outside at 5 A.M and find some landscape scenes that need your attention. See if you can get a tree to smile for a change.
Here’s another example. Maybe your thing is shooting modern buildings with a medium or large format setup. Instead, pickup a DSLR and a macro attachment. Head over to the local arboretum and photograph tiny flowers in super closeup with flashes.
These are all good examples of shooting the opposite of what you normally expose yourself to. A change will do you good.
2. Instead of your expensive DSLR, experiment with an old film camera.
This will try the meddle of anyone who is fairly new to photography, and has only used a digital camera. Being a person who learned a lot from shooting with first a 110 format, the SLR and then a 4×5 film camera I know all too well how changing formats can affect the way a person functions and sees as a photographer.
I have a feeling that going the other way will have a profound effect on the way that you think about the photographs you take. What I suspect is that you will tend to self-edit and truly visualize, and appreciate more what you are looking at.
When I have my DSLR, I tend to shoot, and shoot and shoot. In the back of my mind I know that even in RAW (16bit) format I can shoot well over 1000 images with the memory cards on hand. But, if I was to shoot a roll of Ilford Delta 100 film with my Nikon F3, I am pretty well limited to 36 shots. That knowledge puts a serious dent into my willingness to hold down the button on the motor drive.
I am willing to bet that dragging out an old yet fully functional 35mm film camera loaded with a single roll of Ilford (or whatever you like) film will really get your mind IN the game. This approach to becoming self-aware will be refreshing. It will make you more conscious of the subject, the scene, the composition etc, etc.
When you go back to your digital equipment, you will bring with you a new appreciation for the patient approach. (which reminds me of photographer Sally Mann, who shoots with an 8×10 camera on glass plate negatives)
3 Instead of creating art with your camera use a different medium.
Let’s see if you can wrap your brain around a completely different medium and set of tools in order to create.
Get your hands dirty with paint, clay, mud, sticks, papier-mache or whatever strikes your fancy. Just keep away from the camera for a few days.
Stretching your brain to come up with a completely new creative solution to a visual (and perhaps tactile) problem, will be just what you need to jog your gears and loosen up your clogged creativity. I have a feeling that after a few days or weeks creating papier-mache sculptures or tiny oil paintings, you’ll come to photography with a fresh set of eyes, and lots of cool ideas.
4 Do you shoot colour? Pick ONE and do a series of pictures based on that colour.
Stretching your creativity and limiting it at the same time is the point here. Let’s say that you select orange as your ONE colour. Use it to the maximum and shoot perhaps 6 images that feature orange. Make it tell a story. Use it to express an emotion or to direct the viewer through the image… especially if it is a complex image.
Limiting your colour range to just ONE will help to stretch your mind and force you to think differently than you normally would when capturing an image. It’ll be fun and challenging at the same time.
5 Are you a colour shooter (still)? Switch to b&w for 2 weeks.
Make sure that your images are all shot in monochrome. If you can set it on your camera, then do that. To make it even more challenging, shoot black and white film on an SLR, and learn how to develop the film. You might be able to rent a b&w darkroom somewhere close, so you won’t have to go buy the equipment and get your bathroom all smelly.
Shooting in b&w will force you to see potential images in a completely different way. Who knows, you may make the switch permanently. Look up the work of Diane Arbus and Henri Kertesz.
6 Pack up your flash light and tripod for night shooting.
That’s right. Night shooting. Whether you are a city dweller or a country bumpkin, go outside at night and see an entirely different world from what you are used to. To make it a real challenge try shooting with the available light, whatever that may be.
Street lamps can be awesome for casual portraits, as can moon light. Then get out a couple of speedlights on stands or clamps or what ever you have for stylistic portraits in the dark, gritty streets. Make sure you take a big friend with you for safety’s sake though. And keep your equipment to a minimum. Ease of movement is a good suggestion, especially if the neighbourhood is a bit dodgy.
Night time shooting can be a real visual energy boost if becomes a habit. For an example, go look at my post about lightpainting.
7 Self portrait series
There is a photographer based in NY by the name of Cindy Sherman who shoots scene after scene with a variety of characters that is astounding. The coolest thing about her work, is each person in her work is portrayed by herself.
Every picture she’s made is a self-portrait. What I would do, is come up with a series of let’s say 8 -10 scenes, and use yourself as the person in the scene.
Another photographer, I know personally, Rafael Goldchain did a series of family tree images in studio of his early family members. He hired a makeup artist and dressed accordingly to present his entire family to the viewer, one person at a time.
What a great way to stretch the imagination, and avoid a model search by photographing yourself.
8 Do something that scares you shitless
What I mean is to go beyond your comfort zone and attempt a photograph or series of photographs that you would never in a million years normally attempt.
For example, I admit to myself that socializing in pubic is extremely uncomfortable for me. Starting conversation with a complete stranger, not an option.
To stretch my photographic skills last year I decided to add some portraits to my achievements. Portraits of people I’d never met before, so I started approaching local business people, like restaurant owners, musicians, artists, store owners and offering to do some portraits of them.
I photographed about 10 (so far) and produced some rather flattering images that they were given full use of. I added these images to my portfolio and learned a bunch about lighting, equipment, pre and post-production. I would certainly recommend the same sort of project to any photographer who is looking for a new challenge.
9 Go on an editing spree
You’ve probably made 1000 images in the past 30 days. Now if you were to go through each of those images on your computer screen (assuming you shoot digital), you will most likely toss at least half of them.
Now looking at 500 images, you find yourself not quite sure what is keeping you from tossing them all but there are certainly a few images that you like but at the same time there is something about them that just doesn’t sit right with your internal judgement system.
Here is where your editing spree comes in. Start looking at your 500 images with a very critical eye. Make a short list of criteria that the image HAS to adhere to or it automatically gets tossed. Such as, focus, colour saturation, good composition, visual interest, strength to hold the viewer etc. What ever the list, make sure you stick to it and be ruthless.
I bet that if you go through 1000 images straight out of the camera using your strict and ruthless editing system you will end up with less than 30. 30 kick-ass images that you would be proud to add to your portfolio. Proud to share with your associates, and your worst critics.
With this newly acquired talent and set of rules, you will more likely shoot fewer images in the field. This is not a detriment, but rather a benefit because you will have learned to self-edit AS you shoot. A most useful skill to have.
10 Change your view-point
Sometimes when my 2-year-old daughter is running through the house giggling and beaming from ear to ear, I wonder how she sees the world. With this in mind, I grab my camera and drop down to her level
It’s fascinating to think that we go through life thinking that everybody is seeing exactly what everyone else is. Well that is absolute bollocks. I’m 5’9″ tall, so the world I see is completely different from the view of my daughter at only 30″ tall.
I propose that a photographer might benefit from changing their point of view for a day and shooting EVERY image that day from a completely different perspective. Maybe shoot all of them from a ladder, or from a wheelchair as your friend wheels you around town.
I think that doing such a thing would give you an appreciation for the different types of people who you share the world with, but also for the way they live. Why not act like you are 1-year-old again and get down on the floor for a few hours of shooting 24 inches off the floor. Let’s see what cool pics you can come up with.
It’s time to exercise your brain folks.
I hope you will get some benefit from some or all of these tips.
Best of luck in your creative endeavors.
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