Skills are like muscles — you need to flex them regularly, or you'd suffer from atrophy. Even when you think you’re already comfortable using a camera, it’s always healthy to learn new tricks and techniques to add to your experience.
Photography is a constantly evolving art form, and you need to adapt to it. Even the best photographers like to improve their skills continuously to get better at their craft. If you find yourself stuck in a creative rut, here are 12 challenges that will stimulate your imagination and take your photo talents to another level.
What to do: Attend a photo walk and explore new places with your camera. They’re regularly organized in many places around the world, so you’ll never run out of opportunities. To join, all you have to do is search for events online and sign up. And the best part? Most of them are free! Just remember that you’ll be walking a lot, so pack light and only bring the equipment you need.
Why you should do it: On a photowalk, it’s inconvenient to bring every piece of equipment you own, so you’ll be forced to work with what you have. Photowalks also allow you to practice taking photos of just about everything—from architecture to people. And did we mention it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet fellow photographers? It’s a great way to make new friends and learn new techniques along the way.
What to do: Challenge yourself to approach strangers and ask them if you could take a photo. If they agree, you can suggest a pose or ask them to do something interesting. Alternatively, be a fly on the wall and take candid photos of people documentary-style.
Why you should do it: Learning how to communicate with strangers is essential in photography. Interacting with people you don’t know will teach you how to deal with future clients if you want to turn photography into a business. Meanwhile, taking candid photos will make you more aware of the environment and recognize moments worth capturing.
What to do: Buy a disposable film camera. Surprisingly, you can still find them at convenience stores, gasoline stations, and even pharmacies for cheap. Once you get the camera, you have 24 shots to document your life using film. Once you’re done, have it processed and prepare to be amazed with cool photos that blow phone filters out of the water.
Why you should do it: If you’ve ever wanted to try film but don’t have a camera to use, then disposable film cameras are for you. They’re cheap and not as intimidating as big film cameras. Most of them feature a flash button, advance gear, shutter button, and that’s it! While these cameras may be simple, they produce images that have all the characteristics of film from the colors to the grainy quality we all love.
What to do: Forget selfies and learn to create proper self-portraits using a tripod and a camera. Once you find the right location, set your device to self-timer mode; if you don’t like using a timer, you can also activate it using a remote control. When you’re ready, press the shutter, walk to your position, and pose. If you want self-portraits on the go, you can also take a photo of yourself in front of a mirror.
Why you should do it: Self-portraits are the ultimate form of self-expression in photography, and to a degree, it is also a right of passage. A little research will reveal that almost every famous photographer has produced at least one self-portrait in their career. Apart from the artistic aspect of this exercise, it also teaches you firsthand how to recognize and fix bad and awkward poses.
What to do: Take portraits of your friends using an instant film camera. Have them try wacky poses or wear crazy costumes that reflect their personality. Once the image is fully developed, you can write little anecdotes or even doodle on the white borders. When you have a small collection of instant photographs, you can arrange them in a photo album or even tape them to your wall.
Why you should do it: When you use instant film, you get to see the image in a matter of seconds. Having something tangible in your hands is a whole lot better than viewing digital files on a screen. Apart from that, instant photos have a distinct look that makes anyone feel nostalgic.
What to do: Document your vacation or tell your friends’ love story through photographs. Your goal is to take a series of photos that tells a narrative—much like a comic book but without the words. Think like a director and figure out how to tell a story through images. And just like a real auteur, try unique angles to convey different emotions.
Why you should do it: Storytelling is critical in photography, and this exercise teaches you to focus on sharing stories effectively. It will help you learn how to string images together to create a cohesive narrative. You’ll also grasp how the camera’s perspective could alter the overall mood of the photo—like how close-up shots feel more intimate than long shots.
What to do: Shoot a bunch of photos following a specific theme. For instance, you can choose landscape as a concept and start shooting different sceneries. Once you have a good number of images, you can layout them with text descriptions and talk about your work. You can also try the minimalist approach by including just the photographs and nothing else.
Why you should do it: Choosing one specific theme allows you to explore different ways of photographing the same subject. You’ll learn how to use different approaches and angles to create unique images. Creating zines also teaches you how to layout your images. You may not realize it right now, but you’ll find it useful when you start designing your photo blog or website.
What to do: Remember the lens mount cap that came with your kit? You can use that to create a DIY pinhole camera. Just drill a small hole through the cap, screw it onto the camera’s lens mount, and you got yourself a little digital pinhole contraption. To take photos, set your device to manual mode–enabling the shutter—and start taking pictures. When not in use, remind yourself to put gaffer tape over the pinhole to prevent small particles from getting into your equipment.
Why you should do it: Since you have to use manual mode while operating your contraption, you'll learn to experiment with different settings to create a proper exposure. Using this simple set-up requires a lot of guessing, but you’ll be surprised with the surreal images it produces.
What to do: Pick one subject to shoot, and capture it in different angles, distances, colors, and light. For example, photograph the view from your window at different times of day and on different days. You might also choose an object and shoot it from up high or down low, far away or up close, or in color and black and white.
Why you should do it: Looking for various ways to present a subject is good practice to see how each alternative will affect our perception of it. It will help keep not only your mind but also your eyes open and aware of the various perspectives from which to photograph.
What to do: Now if you’re looking for a more mind-bending challenge, look no further than one of the 20th century’s most influential artists, David Hockney’s “joiners,” collages made of individual Polaroids or photographs. Using either an instant film or a point-and-shoot camera, shoot small areas of the subject you want to turn into a collage. Try not to post process the photos to keep your final photo unique.
Why you should do it: Taking individual photographs and putting them together to literally show the bigger picture is quite the brain exercise to keep its wheels turning. Of course, just the excitement you get from putting together the photos and finally seeing the collage could be enough of a reward to get you started. Honing this skill could also come in handy when you have to manually stitch photos together to create panoramic or HDR shots.
What to do: Set up your camera in front of any beautiful landscape. If you want, you can also include moving elements such as traffic or clouds. Once your equipment is in place, switch to Aperture Priority and use a wide aperture. If you want light trails like the timelapse video above, you can choose Speed Priority instead and select slow shutter speed (a few seconds worth of exposure is enough). Focus your lens manually and make sure that even the furthest object in the frame looks sharp. Switch on your camera’s timelapse mode (usually found in the menu).
Once you’ve selected the feature, dial how many frames you want to shoot as well as the interval between them. When you’re ready, press the button and wait for a few hours. After the shoot, combine all the photos using a video editing tool, and you’ll end up with a timelapse video.
Why you should do it: This challenge trains you how to compose landscape photos properly, and it’s a creative way to document the passing of time. If you don’t want to create a timelapse video, you can use any of the individual photographs as a standalone landscape image.
What to do: Set your camera on a tripod and switch it to video mode. Record video just like you would normally, but make sure that the subject you want to animate is isolated from any moving elements in the background.
Once you have the footage, you can use you Photoshop, Premiere or After Effects to mask certain areas of the image and highlight specific details that you want to move. Alternatively, you can try Microsoft’s free cinemagraph software called Cliplets to create the effect. It has a user-friendly interface that you can master in a few minutes.
If you want to edit cinemagraphs on your mobile device, you can use various phone apps such as Motion Stills and Flapix.
Why you should do it: Cinemagraphy is a relatively new artform, and it offers a lot of opportunity for experimentation. If you love photography as well creating videos, this is the best way to combine the best of both worlds. Cinemagraphs are also versatile—you can convert them into GIFs as well as video files.
Learning photography doesn’t have to be too technical and boring. These challenges are not only fun, but they also teach you various techniques that you otherwise won’t learn in regular situations. So just keep pressing that shutter, and you’ll discover new, exciting things along the way.