Listen up! It's time to put away the Wacom and pick up a camera! Let's talk about exercises you can do every day to make you a better photographer.
Sometimes, it's not about practicing harder, but practicing smarter. Over the past few years, I've gathered a few tricks that seem to consistently help me refine my skills. Consider incorporating them into your routine.
1.) Cover the LCD
One of the greatest benefits of digital cameras is the ability to immediately review shots. It's also one of the greatest drawbacks. Checking the back of the camera after every shot (colloquially known as "chimping") disengages you from your subject, can cause you to miss quickly appearing opportunistic shots, and diminishes your ability to properly understand and estimate the various exposure parameters. There's certainly nothing wrong with a quick check to make sure you're not blowing highlights or to check your focus, but relying on it constantly takes too much of your attention away from the actual photographic process. Try turning off the screen or covering it for a day and seeing what happens. If you're a bit worried about your exposures, remember that most cameras have some sort of light meter in the viewfinder as well; some even have a highlight alert that will flash a small dot if something overexposes.
2.) Shoot Daily
Just like most skills, photography requires regular practice to keep both your creative and technical sides in top order. Put a camera on your neck for at least a half-hour a day, just to have it on your person. You'll find this keeps your mind viewing the world from a photographic perspective and will expand your horizons as unforeseen opportunities pop up throughout the day.
We all love perusing portfolios and admiring the spectacular work of our many talented colleagues, but how often do you really pick a particular image to truly dissect and analyze beyond the initial admiration? When you come across a picture that truly strikes your fancy, make a habit of examining it for composition, lighting, mood, and whatever else has captured your attention. Try to deduce the internal logic of the photo that makes all the elements flow together.
Pro tip: Once you've really deconstructed an image you admire, go out and create an image of your own that uses that same formula. Don't try to recreate the same image; rather, see if you can apply the principles you see at work to an original creation of your own.
4.) Change Your Routine
Are you a habitual person? Break your routine every once in a while. Try shooting a genre you don't normally shoot or using an unusual lighting setup. Even if it's something you won't return to, you'll find that often, insights into our own ways are illuminated by trying other methods.
5.) Restrict Yourself
Sometimes, having a lot of options is a bad thing. It can be overwhelming and leave you unsure of where to start. Imposing restrictions on yourself is a great way to overcome this, as well as an excellent method to hone in on and develop specific skill sets. For example, if you're used to the convenience and versatility of a zoom, throw a prime lens on for a week and leave it there. In addition to developing your technical abilities, this will force you to think in new ways creatively, which you can then draw upon in future endeavors.
6.) Promise Not to Post-Process
With the power of Photoshop, we often allow ourselves to become lax on exposure, cropping, composition, lighting, and almost any other other variable you care to name. If you want to really force yourself to refine your technique and vision, promise not to post-process anything you shoot for a day, a week, even a month. And by "post process," I mean literally any digital manipulation or modification — even pushing a slider in Lightroom or cropping an image. Completely avoiding it will force you to preconceive images in a much more concrete and powerful way. If you shoot raw, consider switching to JPEG for the time being to help remove the temptation.
7.) Look at Your Previous Work
Time gives you perspective. Scroll back through your work of years past and use the temporal distance you've gained to take a fresh look at it. You'll notice habits, ideas, and technical facets that you tended toward that may well inform your work in the present.
8.) Change Your Perspective
Do you know why a lot of snapshots from the late 1920s and 1930s look like they were taken from a low level? It's because most people were using TLR cameras with waist-level viewfinders. Today, most snapshots look like they were taken from eye-level. We tend to shoot from the perspective the camera canonically affords us, often without considering the myriad of other positions available. Don't let design dictate function. Take a day to shoot images from ground level, or from some other perspective that might seem unnatural to you.
9.) Read the Manual
I can't emphasize this enough: if you're thinking about how to operate your gear, you're not thinking about pictures. You should know your gear like the back of your hand. Every time you have to stop to think about how to implement something, not only are you disengaging from your subject, you're using valuable cognitive capacity on something other than the image. Furthermore, modern cameras are small wonders; they often have some very neat and helpful features and customizations buried in the menu system that you might not discover otherwise. Get to know your gear well.
10.) Go Film, or at Least Pretend To
There's no quicker way to not only learn, but master the fundamentals of technique than to work with film. Of course, there's also the added benefit of working with a medium that has a distinctly different character and thus, the potential to inspire. If you don't want to invest in a film system, you can fake it. Follow step no. 1 of this article and add the additional restriction of only shooting 24 or 36 exposures. You'll find yourself carefully deliberating and conceiving each shot in no time.
We all want to be better photographers. Sometimes, it takes a break in our normal routines to push us to the next level. Try these exercises and let us know how they've helped you. Also, if you have any exercises of your own, leave a comment detailing how you develop your skills.