12 Photo Challenges to Push Your Creative Boundaries

12 Photo Challenges to Push Your Creative Boundaries

When was the last time you took a photo with your DSLR? The time before that? And before that? Maybe a photo challenge will help you to consistently pick up a camera.

When I asked myself that question I was surprised at the length of gaps between personal shoots. Sometimes it's good to remind yourself that photography as a leisure pastime is enjoyable and that getting back to shooting for yourself feels good.

Personal projects, or challenges, are designed to do just that and you see a proliferation around New Year. However, any time you see those gaps growing between your personal shooting is a good time to start them. In this article I briefly want to cover why we undertake challenges, an example of one I completed recently and some of the challenges out there.

Why Shoot Challenges

I've already said that I get itchy feet if the time between shooting for myself gets too long, but there are other reasons why we undertake challenges. They can force us into new areas of photography that might involve learning a new technique, using new gear, or using the same gear in new ways. It's about expanding our horizons so that we can become a more rounded, fuller, better and accomplished photographer. Challenges are about new experiences that take us in to uncharted territory. They can be exciting, boring, tiring and hard, but ultimately they are satisfying in terms of what we are able to achieve. Some push us in to uncomfortable or even dangerous situations, that force us to face aspects of photography that we have been unable or unwilling to confront.

For example, it might be as simple as shooting with a 50mm lens for a whole day. Many photographers start out with a short or tele zoom, so using a prime becomes a very different photographic experience. It's an ascetic approach that only allows for one way of seeing things, forcing you to make creative decisions in order to photograph your subject. You might choose to take the portraits of ten strangers in an hour. You might choose to ask them or surreptitiously snap away. Either way, I know street photography has terrified me!

10 Photos From the Same Location

To give an example, one challenge I completed recently was to shoot ten different photos from the same spot (actually within 10 meters of it) using a range of lenses, techniques, and viewpoints. I visited Dorothea Quarry in North Wales, a former slate quarry that was at the peak of its production in the 1870s before finally closing in 1970. The open mine is over 100m deep and, as an artificial lake, is used by scuba divers from across the UK. After walking around the site, I chose a location close to the lip of the mine which offered views across Snowdonia National Park with a backdrop of Snowdon itself.

What's great about this challenge is that it makes you think beyond your own standard photographic tropes. You may include these, but by having to shoot a set number of photos you are forced to experiment in different ways. In fact, increasing the number to twenty would really force you to experiment, you might generate a greater number of "duds" but you'll almost certainly shoot in creative ways you hadn't expected. In this particular instance I shot entirely on my Nikon D700, but you could equally incorporate a range of different devices (smartphone, action camera, compact). In the order of how I shot them, the gallery below shows a straight landscape (50mm), 5-shot HDR landscape wideangle (14mm), wideangle abstract wall texture (14mm), long exposure (105mm), 10-shot panorama (105mm), abstract moss texture (105mm), macro (105mm), wideangle tree canopy (24mm), wideangle texture (24mm) and, to finish, a selfie portrait (85mm)!

What was my take-away from this challenge? Packing so many different formats and styles of shooting in to such a short space of time is something I rarely do, so in that sense it was refreshing. Shooting in such a restricted area forced me to change my envisioning of the environment around me, making large creative leaps between different ways of "seeing". Perhaps most significant of all, I created the output in a short period of time, whereas I'm normally quite selective.

What I've learned is that I don't shoot enough abstract or macro work and this is something I will try to rectify. It's notable that gear gives you lots of options. However, it is perhaps the opposite that I should focus upon as a lack of gear forces you to think differently. For this challenge, location is important. Again, moving to an "uninspiring" setting has the potential to force you to be more lateral in the way you interpret the world around you.

12 Challenges

So, what challenges are out there? In no particular order, these are some of the more popular ones that you might have come across:

  • 365: post a single photo a day, with the variation of actually taking a photo every day
  • 1-light: use a single light source (NSFW)
  • Daily Grind: take one photo an hour of your day
  • Selfie-a-Day: shoot a selfie every day, being as creative as you can given there is only one person!
  • 10 stranger portraits in a day
  • Classics: recreate a classic photo from history. This can teach you as much about history as technique!
  • Stick to a Smartphone: take an ordinary day shooting but this time only use the smartphone in your pocket
  • Enter a photo competition
  • Stick to a prime: use only a single fixed focal length lens for a day
  • Single Color: incorporate a single color in to all the photos you shoot for the project. A good starting point is to try to collate this from images in your archive
  • Geometry: produce a collection of images focused upon a geometric shape (e.g. triangles)
  • Go Analog: pull out that old camera and spend the day shooting on film. Digital variations include shooting only 24 frames and covering the rear display so that you only reviewing the images when you get home

Spencer Lookabaugh has some sage advice for a portrait project from conception to product, something that will help starting any of these challenges.

Have you undertaken any challenges? If so, what were the big learning points that you took away? It would be great to see the most meaningful photos readers have produced. Of course, if there are any challenges you think are missing please add them to the list! As a post-script it's worth noting that challenges can often lead on to projects. But that's a whole other article!

Lead image courtesy of Mikito Tateisi via Unsplash, used under Creative Commons.

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9 Comments

David Pavlich's picture

I did a 365 Challenge a few years ago and did a 52 Challenge a year after that. The 52 Challenge was one shot a week, but a specific subject was chosen by the group that participated. It was more difficult than the 365 Challenge, for sure.

David Bolender's picture

I took a 365 challenge a couple of years back when I traveled for business around the Toronto area. I took some of my absolute best and worst photos in that year, but it was the best exercise I could have to expand my photography.

Rifki Syahputra's picture

yes this is good..
I'd like to add one for GAS addict out there.. the "not buying any gear in a month" :)

Adriano Brigante's picture

I'm stuck in a Go Analog challenge for years! :)

Mike Smith's picture

Excellent! Go digital for a day maybe ;)

Gary Smith's picture

These are some good creative stretch suggestions - the single color one in particular (I've been meaning to be more intentional about color inclusions in shoots).

I'd also just like to take a moment to admire the excellence of that stock photo (a free use stock photo, no less). This is not a thing I find myself saying often.

Mike Smith's picture

that stock photo really stood out to me to! the converging linesof the steps gives it depth, but its the child at the intersection of those triangles that is sublime. amazingly it's the only photo mikito has at unsplash