Sometimes our photographic progress seems to stop, and we need a boost for our creativity. Try one of these assignments to stimulate your photographic mojo.
Stuck in a Photographic Rut?
As with any art, our photography reaches a level and then stops progressing. Learning curves typically show us improving steeply, then reaching a plateau, and there we linger before we can move on again. However, sometimes it is difficult to find a way to climb above that level of stability and start improving again.
One great way to improve is to set yourself an assignment.
Have you ever thought about setting yourself a project or assignment? Good assignments are not too prescriptive. They should give the photographer a broad scope for interpretation, so as to suit their location and interests. Here are twelve of my most popular for you to choose from, but use them for guidance, adapting them to suit your favorite genre or style.
1. Observe What You Know
You know the world at your doorstep better than anyone. But sometimes that familiarity leads to us not noticing or appreciating what is there. Look at something that you see every day and think about how you could make it the subject or background of an interesting image. Can you add something to it to make it more interesting? Let your imagination run wild.
Ideas: Put together a collection of photos to entice other photographers to visit where you live, or show the other local residents that there is more to your hometown than meets the eye.
2. Study The Shadows
On some evenings, and only at certain times of the year, the sun reflects off a window on a neighbor's house and shines through the blinds and into a room in my home. As the world turns, the light falls on different objects and casts interesting shadows both from and across them.
Look for shadows at your location and how they project onto other surfaces, or how they interact with the subject itself.
Idea: Choose a building and photograph how is shades the street at different times of day, or how the window frames and doorways are accentuated by their shadows. Look for the shapes and repeating patterns.
3. Natural Light
One of my favorite subjects is just over a mile offshore from the small fishing town where I live. At different times of the year, I need to stand in different places to see the sun or the moon rising behind the island.
Take a series of photos to show how the sun or moonlight plays on and interacts with a subject near you at different times of the day and year.
Idea: Find a spot in a forest that you can visit throughout the day and take the same photo every hour. Or, go to the same spot once a week and take the same photo throughout a season or the whole year.
4. Shoot With Others
The world is filled with people looking for an excuse to go out and take photos. Many of them would relish the idea of visiting a spot to explore it with a camera, but don’t want to go alone. If nobody you know enjoys photography, there are lots of local online groups, and camera clubs with members crying out for opportunities to go out photographing. Pick a nearby venue and choose a time, then ask around on social media.
Idea: Visit your local park or beach with a friend and choose a theme, e.g. litter, red, tall and short, dogs, etc. Spend an hour just photographing that topic and then compare and discuss results.
N.B. If you are meeting strangers for the first time, please consider your safety and choose a public location during the day.
5. Try Taking Minimal Kit
Before you go on a shoot, decide what you are going to photograph and take just the equipment you need for that shot. Set your camera up beforehand and try staying with those settings. You will find that by using the same focal length, ISO, aperture and/or shutter value, and filter, you will create a series of images that cohere with one another. Afterward, examine the images and ask if you are happy with the results. If not, what would you do differently next time?
Idea: Go out before sunrise with just your camera, a wide-angle lens, and a beanbag. Shoot twenty unique photos using just that equipment.
6. Choose a Different Viewpoint
Lots of photographers shoot the same scene in the same manner. However, the most compelling photos are those that show the world in a way we don’t usually see it. Try something different from holding your camera at eye height. Shoot with it down at knee level instead. Alternatively, get in really close too and look at the fine details in the subject you usually miss.
Idea: Shoot a familiar location from a worm’s eye view.
7. Critique Other Photographers’ Images
You can learn a lot from looking at other people’s photos, those both shot by experts and beginners. Study each image carefully and decide what you do and don’t like about it. What works, what doesn't? Are there unwanted distractions in the frame? Do you like minimalism, repeating patterns, landscapes with people in them, black and white, etc.?
Try to work out what settings the photographer used. If you are unsure, you can always ask them; the worst they can do is say no. Would you have done it differently?
If you do study others’ work and are critical of it, please don’t share those thoughts with the photographer unless they ask you to do so.
Idea: Find an old photography book in a second-hand bookshop, or dig up an old photography magazine. Over a coffee, look at the images with a friend, find one that you each like, and try to create an image in the same style.
8. Use a different Focal LengthThe usual approach is to use wide-angle lenses for landscapes, standard lenses for portraits, and telephoto lenses for wildlife. Try mixing things up by using different lenses for different genres of photography. A bird doesn’t have to fill the frame like in the image above, it could be part of a landscape instead. You can also pick out interesting landscape features with a long lens, and wide-angle portraits can give surreal and grotesquely interesting results.
Idea: get a friend to wear outrageous makeup. Fit a wide-angle lens and photograph them very close up.
9. Be Creative
Creativity is about combining different existing ideas in new ways. For example, The Beatles’ classic album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a mishmash of rock, folk, ballads, psychedelia, and music hall brought together in a way that had never been seen before.
Do the same with your photography. Discover ways how you can combine different techniques or genres in your photography to find something new. Alternatively, seek out disparate subjects that clash or harmonize with each other in unexpected ways.
Idea: Try double exposures, one with a long exposure in color and the other with a fast shutter in monochrome. Some digital cameras have double exposure facilities, but otherwise, you can combine them in layers using photo editing software. Try mixing or playing around with other creative techniques.
10. Listen to Music
All creatives are influenced by artists from other fields. For example, the great Henri Cartier-Bresson found inspiration from the surrealist movement. Poetry is often influenced by art, such as Anne Sexton’s The Starry Night, and The Disquieting Muses by Sylvia Plath.
There will be songs or tunes that mean something to you. Listen to one and then shoot photos inspired by that music. You can either interpret the lyrics literally, or just take the feel of the piece as inspiration, or maybe convey the message of the song in your photograph.
Idea: Listen to your favorite piece of music and write down five to ten words that describe it or appear in the lyrics. Over the same number of days, shoot an image that represents each word.
11. Give it Time
When you take photos, wait before you process them. Putting time between shooting and looking at images on the screen helps you to become more objective towards them. If it is practicable, and it isn’t always, then that separation can help you choose which images are worth keeping and which you should reject. It also helps you view the subject afresh and decide that a particular processing would suit the image best.
Idea: Revisit your back catalog and find photos you took a year ago. Consider them with fresh eyes. Critique them and recognize how you would shoot them differently now. What do you need to do to them to make them stunning? What would you exclude from the frame? Would you choose a different exposure? Would you shoot it from the same position? Now, go and shoot the same photo again.
12. Share your photos
Everybody wants recognition for their artwork, and photographs are art. In fact, there is little worth in creating art of any kind if it is not going to be appreciated by others. It doesn’t have to be online. Get them printed and glue them to cards to send to people on their birthdays and other celebrations; a gift of original art is both appreciated and means far more than mass-produced, throwaway cards bought in a supermarket.
Idea: Take your best shots, get them printed to a large size, and hang them on your wall. Consider hiring a community hall for the day and running an exhibition of your work as a fundraiser for your favorite charity. Or, why not populate your Fstoppers gallery? However, experienced at photography you are, there will be those who enjoy and learn from your photos.