Like the tides of the world, photographic creativity ebbs and flows for many of us. Sometimes creativity can use a jump start, an artificial method to get the photographer to look at the world in a new way to ease, restart, refine or improve your photography.
There are many ideas on how to push yourself to overcome an artistic block or inspire you to keep pushing your boundaries. Not all include the camera. Several websites and books post a mix of tasks or exercises for the intrepid photographer. I prefer the exercises that 1) involve using your camera, 2) are less task based, and 3) are fun!
These are my versions of various exercises that have been passed down from one creative generation to the next. If I have reproduced a favorite, I apologize in advance that I cannot credit the original artist/inventor of the exercise.
Exercise 1: Two dozen
Choose a location. Stand in one spot and take 24 unique photos while standing in the same spot. You can’t move your feet.
When I first did this, I hit a virtual wall after about 12 shots, and that was eye-opening in so many ways. It really pushes you to be creative with your gear and environment.
Exercise 2: Ten out of one
Take 10 unique and/or abstract photos of 1 small subject.
The smaller the topic, the more difficult this can be. A “minor topic” shouldn’t be “New York City.”
Exercise 3: Four corners
Choose a subject and place it, where it exists, in each corner of the 4-picture frame.
Can you go to the other side of the topic? do the same. If possible, shoot on all four sides in all four corners. See what you can think of!
Exercise 4: Artificial Constraints
Create restrictions for a day of shooting or a weekend of shooting. Restrictions can include:
- A fixed focal length lens
- A location
- B&W only
- 4pm-5pm only
- Manual mode only
- Overexpose/underexpose everything
- Spot meters only
- Take photos while sitting
- only things above you
- Only things below you
- No people in the frame
- No structures in the frame
- Fill in the frame
- Negative space in more than three quarters of the frame
Force yourself forward with limitations.
Exercise 5: Turn a “roll of film”.
Go somewhere you’ve always wanted to take photos but hesitated to visit. Take a “roll of 24 or 36 exposures” with your digital camera. After 24 or 36 exposures, the “film” is used up.
See and think before you shoot because you know you only have a limited amount of “film”. If that doesn’t force you to make more critical decisions about your images, pretend you bought a roll of 12 exposures! If you are out of a movie just walk around or sit and enjoy the place.
Exercise 6: Twelve abstracts
Photograph a dozen abstracts of a common object.
Depending on the size of the subject, you may need a macro lens or a telephoto lens. Similar to Exercise 2, but only allowing for the abstract, this exercise should force you to look deeper into an image.
Exercise 7: Wearable subject
Carry a subject with you and put it in the frame wherever you shoot.
Think of the famous Wanderzwerg. Take a favorite thing with you on your trip and find out how to incorporate it into your pictures. Notice how it dictates the frame and composition. Be creative with the placement of your wearable subject.
Exercise 8: The Un-Selfie Selfie
You have to be in every frame.
This is not a “selfie” exercise; so bring a tripod or alternative support. Create, frame and start the self-timer. Then put yourself in the photo in a meaningful and thoughtful way.
Exercise 9: Mixing bowl
Drop many pieces of scrap paper into a mixing bowl. Each piece should contain a single word or phrase. Draw a piece of paper, grab your camera and start taking pictures.
Examples of what may be on the scraps of paper may include:
- soft focus
- Shallow depth of field
- negative space
- The letter “T”
- The shade
- Half done
you have the idea
Exercise 10: Ascend
Try a different genre of photography.
Are you a studio portrait photographer? Try street photography for a day or a weekend. architectural photographer? Exercise at a local park.
Exercise 11: Nine elements
Photograph these nine elements of a scene in one place.
Go to a street corner, park, or other location and take photos that show:
- The shade
bonus round? Also add:
- quality of light
- negative space
wanna make it harder Allow yourself only one image per item.
Exercise 12: Steps
Take a walk somewhere you’ve always wanted to photograph. Stop while walking and take a unique picture after a set number of steps.
10? 20? your favorite number? Every block? The world changes a lot in just a few meters. Stop to catch this. Two different fire hydrants don’t make two unique photos.
Exercise 13: Two rides
Keep your camera in a safe place. Go somewhere without a camera and look for photos. When you reach your destination, go back via the same route while still looking for photos. Finally, camera in hand, retrace your steps for the third time and capture these photos.
When you’re on the go, leave your camera in your camera bag. Don’t pull it out until you’re back at the start. No cheating. Be disciplined. Look closely. Pay attention. go slow Your 180 degree perspective will reveal as much or more.
Exercise X: Design your own
Take pieces of what is above or come up with something that will make you take creative pictures and break through walls.
You can find many more tips online or in books. Some of these take the form of a photo assignment that takes you out of your comfort zone or introduces you to something different than what you normally do. Others are more creative.
Beware of the creative exercises that focus on the technical workings of the camera – the goal should be to expand the creative mind. Getting bogged down in a camera’s menu is probably not the best way to achieve this goal. That said, improving technical skills is always a good thing, but just focus on the creative rather than the nuts and bolts of a particular image.
The images are important, but they are not critical. If you get some “sentinels” from your practice, great! If you can get away with junk but use your wits and eye, then mission accomplished!
After all, a creative exercise should not only be challenging and self-inspiring, it should be fun and never feel like a chore.
About the author: Todd Vorenkamp is a New York-based photographer and writer for B&H explora. B&H explora is your one-stop shop for the latest gear news, techniques, tips and solutions for all your creative endeavors. Find features, videos, reviews, and buying guides about the products and technology you rely on to create your art and edit your media. B&H explora provides the information and inspiration to help you excel in everything you do. This article originally appeared on B&H Photo.
Photo credit: Cover photo by Tom Byrne