Photography / Tips and Solutions

13 Creative Exercises for Photographers

         

Like the world’s tidal waters, photographic creativity ebbs and flows for many of us. Sometimes creativity can use a jump-start, an artificial method to get the photographer to start looking at the world in a new way in order to facilitate, restart, refine, or improve your photography.

There are many ideas on how to get yourself to push through an artistic block or inspire you to further expand your boundaries. Not all of them involve the camera. Several websites and books publish a mix of assignments or exercises for the intrepid photographer. I prefer the exercises that 1) involve using your camera, 2) are less assignment-based, and 3) are fun!

These are my versions of various exercises that have been passed down from one creative generation to another. If I have reproduced a favorite, I apologize in advance for the inability to credit the original artist/inventor of the exercise.

Exercise 1: Two Dozen

Pick a location. Stand in one spot and make 24 unique photographs while standing in the same place. You cannot move your feet.

The first time I did this, I hit a virtual brick wall after about 12 shots, and that was eye-opening in many ways. It really pushes you to be creative with your gear and surroundings.

Exercise 2: Ten of One

Take 10 unique and/or abstract photographs of 1 small subject.


The smaller the subject, the more challenging this can be. A “small subject” should not be “New York City.”

Exercise 3: Four Corners

Choose one subject and place it, where it exists, in each corner of the frame for 4 images.

Can you go to the other side of the subject? Do the same. Shoot all four sides in all four corners if possible. See what you come up with!

Exercise 4: Artificial Restrictions

Create restrictions for a day or weekend of shooting. Limits may include:

  • One prime lens
  • One location
  • B&W only
  • 4-5 P.M. only
  • Manual mode only
  • Overexpose/Underexpose everything
  • Spot meter only
  • Photograph while sitting
  • Only things above you
  • Only things below you
  • No people in the frame
  • No structures in the frame
  • Fill the frame
  • Negative space in more than three quarters of the frame

Force yourself forward with restrictions.

 

Exercise 5: Shoot a “Roll of Film”

Go somewhere you have wanted to go to take photos but have been procrastinating about visiting. With your digital camera, shoot a “Roll of 24 or 36 exposures.” After 24 or 36 exposures, you are out of “film.”

Look and think before shooting, knowing you only have a finite amount of “film.” If this does not force you to make more critical decisions regarding your images, pretend you bought a roll of 12 exposures! When you are out of film, 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 object, you may need a macro lens or telephoto. Similar to Exercise 2, but only allowing the abstract, this exercise should force you to see deeper into an image.

Exercise 7: Portable Subject

Carry a subject with you and put it in the frame no matter where you are shooting.

Think about the famous traveling gnome. Bring a favorite “thing” on your outing and figure out how to include it in your images. Notice how it dictates framing and composition. Be creative with your placement of your portable subject.

Exercise 8: The Un-Selfie Selfie

You have to be inside every frame.

This is not a “selfie” exercise; so bring a tripod or alternative support. Compose, frame, and start the self-timer. Then, put yourself into 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 have a single word or phrase. Draw a piece of paper, grab your camera, and start shooting.

Examples of what can be on the scraps of paper can be:

  • Blue
  • Circle
  • Panning
  • Soft focus
  • Reflections
  • Shallow depth of field
  • Action
  • Happy
  • Sound
  • Blur
  • Running
  • 4
  • Negative space
  • Signs
  • Weather
  • The Letter “T”
  • North
  • Shadow
  • Slippery
  • Medium Rare



 

You get the idea.

Exercise 10: Change Up

Try a different genre of photography.

Are you a studio portrait photographer? Try street photography for a day or weekend. Architectural photographer? Shoot sports at a local park.

Exercise 11: Nine Elements

Photograph these nine elements of a scene while in one location.

Go to a street corner, park, or other location and make photographs showing the following:

  • Light
  • Shadow
  • Line
  • Shape
  • Form
  • Texture
  • Color
  • Size
  • Depth

Bonus round? Also add:

  • Focus
  • Tonality
  • Quality of light
  • Pattern
  • Negative space




 

Want to make it more difficult? Only allow yourself one image per element.

Exercise 12: Steps

Go for a walk somewhere you have always wanted to photograph. As you walk, stop and take a unique image after a predetermined number of steps.

10? 20? Your favorite number? Every city block? The world changes a lot in just a few feet. Stop to capture this. Two different fire hydrants do not two unique photographs make.

Exercise 13: Two Trips

Put your camera somewhere safe. Walk somewhere without a camera and look for photographs. When you reach your destination, walk back over the same route while still looking for photos. Finally, with camera in hand, retrace your steps for the third time and capture those photographs.

If in the field, leave your camera in your camera bag. Do not pull it out until you get back to the start. No cheating. Be disciplined. Look hard. Be observant. Walk slowly. Your 180-degree perspective will reveal as much or more.

Exercise X: Design Your Own

Take bits and pieces from what is above or come up with anything that gets you to take creative images and break through walls. Share them with us and other photographic artists in the comments section!

You can find a lot more tips online or in books. Some of these take the shape of a photo assignment that takes you out of your comfort zone or introduces you to something different than what you usually do. Others are more creatively based. 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 not likely the best path to this goal. Having said that, improving technical proficiency is always a good thing, but just keep your focus on the creative and less on the nuts and bolts of a particular image.

The images are important, but they are not critical. If you get a few “keepers” from your exercise, awesome! If you come away with junk, but engage your mind and eye, then the mission is accomplished!

Lastly, not only should a creative exercise be challenging and self-inspiring, it should be fun and never, ever feel like a chore.

All photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

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Thank you so much. I've been struggling to find constructive/productive ways to practice with my DSLR. These exercises are excellent ideas and i can't wait to get out and try these. 

You are very welcome, Allen! Good luck and have fun!

Thanks for reading!

I love the excercises ...i teach video production/photography and this will be great for my students to develop their eye and ways  to be creative

Thanks, ron!

I hope your students enjoy the exercises! Thanks for reading!

Amazing! Exactly what I was looking for! With every exercise that is listed, I was literally jumping with excitement with all sort of "Wow!!", "Yessss!", "I'm going to do THIS!" kind of expressions. :D

Photography had started becoming a depressing hobby, because I was not able to break that "visual/virtual brick wall". The pictures I clicked were just Good instead of being Awesome and I had no clue about how to go any further with my Photography. Now I know exactly what and how to do it!

Thanks a ton, Todd! You just saved my hobby :D :) I cannot wait to start implementing these.

Great to hear the article was well received, Ash! Thank you so much for the words, and good luck with the exercises!

Great tips! Thank you for your time - it was worth writing this, it will inspire many photographers I think :)

Hi Agnes,

Thank you very much for the kind words! I do hope it inspires many! 

Have a great day and thanks for reading!

Great ideas to get started again. Thanks so much for sharing them.

You are welcome, Iris! Thank you for reading!

Awesome ideas.  Look forward to getting started on these. Thank you 

Thanks, Vickie! Good luck and thanks for reading!

Awesome exercises!  A friend told me to check out your ideas, and I cannot wait to get started.  In fact, as a journalism teacher, I  think I'm going to have my photographers on my high school yearbook staff work on this with me.  Thanks so much!  

Hey ML!

Thanks so much for the compliment! I hope the yearbook staff knocks a few of these out of the park!

Thanks for reading!

Thanks, this is awesome. I want to start, but I currently have no tripod or support and don't get home until after dark. Any suggestions?

Hey Tyler,

You are welcome! A few things...

1. Add a tripod to your holiday wish list! Regardless of the kind of photography you do, a tripod will someday be essential.

2. These are creative exercises and are not designed to get you the "perfect" photo. So, go out in the dark without a tripod or support and find pictures knowing that they will be soft and movement will happen. Embrace the handheld long exposure and use that to bolster your creativity. If you are shooting digital, it is all free. If you are shooting film, skip your next expensive cup of coffee to compensate for the cost!

3. Or, start inside. A friend once told me to sit on a toilet and make great photographs. Pictures can be found, seen, and made anywhere!

Good luck and thanks for reading!

Wow! What a fun idea! That roll of film assignment is one we look forward to! We may combine that with number 13 and blog about it! Thank you for the ideas!

Hey Charlie! Thank you for reading! I am glad you got inspired!

Great Ideas. This inspired me to start a photography group. It would be fun to do the same exercise with a small group and see all of the different perspectives that come out of it. Thanks for the inspiration!

Thank you, Eli!

Let us know how they work out!

Thanks for reading!

Thank you for the innovative ideas. I've taken digital photos for years, but have gotten into the lazy point and shoot technique just to capture where I've been.  Need to get back to using my artistic creative side. I like your challenges.

Hey Vivian! Go get 'em! Thanks for reading!

Thanks for sharing with others your tips! It is great that you teach others to expand their horizons and make more interesting pictures. I needed this push! Printing out the text and applying it right away. Thank you, Todd, for educating others and making our world more interesting.

Hi Asta,

You are very welcome! Thanks for reading and good luck doing the exercises!

i have painted for yhe last 30 years and have found that what you are saying to be really true to the word. it took me at least 10 years to ge able to capture the one look..i only thank the art spirit for using me well.  have a good day. . eric s.diehl

Hey eric,

Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments! Have a good day, too!

I loved the ideas and can't wait to try them out.  Thanks from across the border.

Thanks for reading across the border, Helene! Enjoy your New Jersey summer!

I'm more  north....near Montreal.

Ahhh, that border! Viva la Canada!

I'm trying to break out of my same routine and subjects.  I've been looking for "assignments."  These are great.  I agree that it would be fun to share on Facebook.

Thanks, Penny! Glad you liked it! Thanks for reading!

Love the ideas!  There have been times when I have really wanted to go out shooting and just not quite had inspiration, tired of the 'same old stuff'.  Another thing I enjoy, is going out with another photographer--one with a different 'perspective', you can stand shoulder to shoulder and each see totally different shots.  (I have done this several times with my daughter) .. I think it would be a blast to do some of these excercises with her and see what we both come up with.

Hey Beth,

I hope you enjoy the exercises and have fun doing them with your daughter! Let us know how it turns out and thanks for reading!

Thank you! I will be in NYC on october taking pictures for a magazine. See you guys on B&H

See you at the Superstore, Paula! Thanks for reading!

Thanks for great ideals.  I am going to share with my photo club.

Thanks for reading and sharing, Judy! Enjoy the exercises!

Already started Exercise 7 earlier this year, happened to have Pokey and Gumby in my camera bag one day and now they are showing up everywhere.  It really helped me get out of a creative photography slump.  Love the first one.  Trying that this weekend  :)

Awesome, Pat! Sounds like a fun exercise! I need to get some "companions" in my camera bag!

Ha ha, the idea about shooting a roll of film is funny because real film is what I use 99% of the time. Good exercise though. But in reality I usually carry at least on extra roll with me, often of a different ASA/ISO, and maybe color vs. B&W, or Fuji vs Kodak. But eventually you will run out if you go crazy with it. Seems I usually have film left over in the camera ,though, that I need to use up so I don't waste any before I can get all the film developed.

Hey Tark,

Maybe there should be another exercise for film shooters....go shoot a "roll" on a digital camera! 

Keep shooting film! It's awesome stuff!

These are wonderful ideas - thanks very much - I look forward to further input from you.  Just saw the Flickr group idea - great.

Your suggestions are very stimulating so I'm going to share them with some fellow photographer friends. 

I've found my prime 50 lens really good when out with an open mind and camera in hand 

It's cold and windy winter weather here at the moment so may have to try some of these ideas around the home

A really great article

Hey janice,

Thank you so much! I wish I could claim the ideas were all mine, but I am just the messenger! 

I love shooting with my 50mm lenses! Where is it cold and windy?

Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing the article!

Thanks for the tips and tricks. I am in a slump and maybe these will get me going. Like you I need a fresh look.

No worries, Ralph! Good luck! Let us know what you see!

Great ideas Todd.  Really simple yet solve the problem and get you thinking.  Look forward to hearing more from you

Johnny

Thank you, Johnny! I am always working on more! Thanks for reading!

An excellent series of ideas. I have used the same idea when I needed to extend myself. Often setting up Still Life to hone my local skill and lighting effects. Or as you suggest going to a location and Seeing how many good images you can find.

It forces you to think and observe, always with interesting results. I have found it also speeds up the time taken to see and capture the image efficiently. To "see" the image and its possibilities.

Growing up with film and the restrictions of number and costs, also seemed to help. Digital means that you can take more images, but are they actually all better? Appreciate the additional ideas.

Hey Brian,

I am glad you enjoyed the article! More definitely does not equal more better! Thanks for reading!

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