I like to think of the development of any skill or art as climbing a series of mountains and plateaus. We progress and improve during the times we are climbing, but those periods are divided by times when our work seems to reach a plateau. In photography, we have to keep practicing, experimenting, and failing to keep learning and improving. Here are 10 ways to set yourself up to do just that.
1. Study Composition
Starting today, make a daily mental note anytime you see an example of good composition. What elements make it pleasing to look at? Repetition? Leading lines? Grouping? Contrast? Symmetry? You’ll start to notice pleasing compositions everywhere. How can you use what you are seeing in your photography to strengthen how you compose your images? Consider getting a notebook and quickly sketching composition ideas as you find them.
2. Get a Flash
When I took the leap into flash photography it opened a whole new world of learning about light and how to control it. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Get a simple YN-560 Speedlight and start experimenting. Don’t worry about doing something wrong. Just play around with it and you’ll start to learn how flash can add a tremendous amount creative freedom to your photography.
3. Take a Course
Knowledge is valuable. Be willing to invest in your own photography education and consider taking a course either online or on location. Do your research and make sure the course you’re signing up for is taught by someone reputable, who has a body of work better than your own. Shameless plug: I’m working on several online video courses. The first of which will teach students all about Aerial Photography and Videography. I’m also working on an Off-Camera Flash Course.
4. Work on a Project or Series that Helps Other People
Everyone has a story to tell and with a little thought you can easily come up with someone in your home town that you could help with your photography. Volunteer to take portraits of animals at your local animal shelter. Maybe you could do a feature on each of the heroic volunteer firefighters at the local fire station. The possibilities are endless but the point is to get out and serve others while getting the chance to try something new and work on your photography. Volunteer work is great because there are no expectations and you will typically have more creative freedom to do what you want.
5. Photograph Something you Hate to Shoot
Most of the time you hate to shoot it because you lack the skills to make it work. Pick the thing that is the most difficult for you and make it one of your proficiencies. This will take study and practice, but will make you a better photographer and will increase your skill set. You might even find a new passion.
6. Combine two Different Concepts
This exercise can be as simple as picking a word out of the dictionary and then finding it’s opposite. How can you portray “hot” and “cold” in a single photograph. The concepts don’t even have to be opposite. Look for contrasting yet complimentary ideas that you can combine for a compelling result.
7. Work with a stranger
Many photographers like to work alone, yet collaboration can be a powerful way to combine efforts and create something greater than either person could create on their own. Brainstorm ideas with a local photographer that you admire, or work with someone in a different creative field entirely.
8. Do a creative self-portrait
One of the hardest things you can ask a photographer to do is take a self portrait. We’re almost never happy with the result. Challenge yourself to create a self portrait that encapsulates who you are. Look here and here for inspiration.
9. Use a Different Camera
Or choose a different technique or process. Film is still available, even if you get one of those disposable film cameras from Walmart. Use a scanner to scan objects or use it some other unconventional way. Rent an underwater camera or housing and experiment with that.
10. Tell a Story in One Frame
What is the most emotional story you can tell with only one image? If you had only one shot that your entire body of photography work would be remembered by, what shot would it be. Come up with a concept and then simplify.
11. Spend More Than 20 Hours on One Photo
I don’t care how. It only takes a fraction of a second to release the shutter on your camera. Spend much longer than you usually do setting up and perfecting every aspect of your shot. Alternatively, plan a photograph that will require a tremendous amount of time in post production. Either way, the object is to spend some major time on a personal project and really go all out. It’s helpful to ask yourself, “If this was a scene in a hollywood production, what more would they do to add that extra touch?”
12. Visit 10 new Locations
Maybe you think you’ve seen everything there is to see in your town. Challenge yourself to find 10 new locations and spend some time photographing them. Even if a location seems like it doesn’t offer anything photogenically, I find that if you spend enough time looking, every location has something to offer.