Want to Improve Your Photography? Try This Simple Challenge

Want to Improve Your Photography? Try This Simple Challenge

If you want to learn to take better pictures (who doesn't?), this is the tutorial for you. Try this simple challenge to improve your compositional eye and expand your creativity. 

Wherever you are right now, take a moment to carefully scan your surrounding environment. Can you imagine what the scene would look like through a 24mm lens? 35mm? 50mm? 85mm? How about 135mm? Can you imagine good compositions at those focal lengths fairly quickly?

If you can't imagine these, I'm willing to bet you work with zoom lenses a lot. I don't mean that as an insult. I say it because I had the same realization a few years back. Here's the problem: zoom lenses let you relatively mindlessly create compositions. Do you take note of the focal length on your zoom lens before you take a picture? Probably not. Sure, you can check in Lightroom afterward, but that's not the same as forming the association while you're in the act of taking a picture. 

The problem with this is that it unconsciously habituates you to find compositions through the lens instead of with your eyes. You might not think that's a bad thing, but you'll tend to start planting your feet and zooming in and out from the same perspective. On the other hand, imagine if you were shooting with only a prime lens, say a 50mm. You might back up a few steps and go for a wide composition from a different angle. You might get closer and isolate a nice detail or the like. In other words, you explore every possible composition, angle, height, etc. at the 50mm focal length. Do you go to the same lengths with a zoom lens, or do your explorations consist mostly of turning the zoom ring back and forth? 

I decided to spend this day in downtown Chicago shooting only telephoto compositions. (1/2,000 s, 200mm, f/5.6, Provia 100F film)

Before I go on, none of this is to say that zoom lenses are a bad thing. They're tremendously useful and practically a necessity for a lot of photographers. But they can habituate you to not seeing potential compositions. In fact, if you examine your metadata in Lightroom, I'm willing to bet the majority of your photos shot with any particular zoom lens were shot at the extremes of its range.

When I did this, I discovered that my biggest focal length related compositional weakness was with wider focal lengths, mostly around the range of 16-35mm. I tended to use wide angle focal lengths only to capture a lot of a scene in one shot. In fact, I quickly found that I was distinctly uncomfortable using a wide angle lens up close, and I needed a lot of practice to become better at creating compositions with them. 

The wide angle prime lens on my drone actually gave me a ton of good practice in finding better compositions. (1/120 s, 24mm, f/5.6, ISO 100)

So, how do you fix this? Take the prime lens challenge. It works like this: pick a month where you can take your camera out every day for at least 30 minutes. Set aside four prime lenses, one for each week. Every day, you'll go out and practice shooting with only that focal length for at least a half-hour, only switching to the next focal length after a week has gone by, and so on. 

Wedding Photographer Sample Month

  • Week 1: 24mm lens
  • Week 2: 35mm lens 
  • Week 3: 50mm lens 
  • Week 4: 85mm lens

With these four focal lengths, you cover the majority of the range most wedding photographers use. By working more with the 24mm focal length, you'll develop your ability to make more creative wide angle compositions instead of just using them to capture a lot of people or a wider view of the overall scene. Working with the 35mm lens will help you capture a different perspective of people without the distortion of the 24mm, and so on.

Landscape Photographer Sample Month

  • Week 1: 17mm lens
  • Week 2: 24mm lens
  • Week 3: 100mm macro lens
  • Week 4: 200mm lens

As a landscape photographer, you're probably used to working with wider focal lengths. Nonetheless, working with just the 17mm focal length will help you incorporate foreground elements to create more complete wide angle compositions. The 100mm macro lens (or whatever macro length you prefer) will help you discover hidden shots and more abstract compositions right in front of you (especially since landscape photographer tend to think big). And the 200mm lens will help you learn to pick out interesting details or compositions hidden within larger landscapes. 

What You'll Learn

Working with wide angle lenses for a while made me more comfortable creating up close and personal work with them. (1/160 s, 35mm, f/4, ISO 125)

By spending a month doing these exercises, what you're essentially training yourself to do is previsualize all the compositional potential a scene has as opposed to searching for it through a lens. A lot of the best photographers have this ability; you'll often see them create interesting and unusual compositions from relatively normal scenes. 

What If You Don't Have All Those Prime Lenses?

Of course, you may not own a full set of prime lenses or may even only own a zoom lens. That's ok; you can still take the challenge! Simply pick four focal lengths within your zoom's range, then tape the lens' zoom ring to each focal length for a week at a time. While prime lenses generally have wider apertures than zoom lenses and you'll miss out on some of the compositional opportunities those afford, the point of this exercise is more to learn to visualize all the available compositions at a given focal length instead of just those from a single, more neutral perspective. You can definitely accomplish this with a zoom lens just as well. 

Conclusion

By the end of this month, you should be able to approach a scene and quickly visualize a multitude of interesting and unique compositions from different perspectives and at varying focal lengths, hopefully far more than you could when you began the challenge. Not only will this help build out your portfolio in terms of creativity, but it'll also make you a more efficient photographer, as you'll be able to quickly gather a multitude of shots for clients. 

Have you ever tried a similar challenge? Let me know how it went for you in the comments. 

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1 Comment

Janet Hopkinson's picture

I love this idea for landscape :)