13 Creative Exercises for Photographers

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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

Discussion 94

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Thanks for the suggestions.  I'm starting tomorrow.

Hi Karen! Let us know how it goes! Thanks for reading!

Perhaps we could expand this exercise into a group on Flickr and get lots of participation. Kudos, Todd for the creative ideas. Will start soon.

Maybe this was already suggested...didn't read all the posts.

Bill

Hey Bill,

I think you are the first to suggest it! I love the idea. Let us know if you set something up!

two tumbs up :)

Thanks for reading, J!

Exactly what I needed.  Been out of photography for a long time and am just getting into digital now.  Love this exercise.  Thanks so much.

Bob,

Welcome to the digital world! I am glad you liked the article. Thanks for reading and commenting!

I got to 13 shots for the first assignment...going to refresh and try it again tomorrow.  It is the unique that makes me really look at what I am standing around. 

Thanks, Todd. I'll have to initiate doing some of these exercises on the streets where I live. One thing I have been doing more and more of is going out with one lens only and no other cameras. The lens will be randomly chosen without having any criteria and this always turns into a fun day with at least a few surprising results, usually positive.

The past couple of nights I've been shooting some shots limiting myself to being on our 25th floor balcony after dark and no where else. The shots I think are pure junk sometimes get a nice response on 500px.com. Like you always say, photography is subjective! And always fun.

Hey Tom,

I love nighttime urban balcony shooting! One thing I found was that the results did not always match the amount of fun I was having zooming in on the cityscape, but maybe that is just my mind's eye loving the view through the viewfinder more than what I saw later on when I uploaded the image.

Keep it fun! Thanks, again, for reading!

Thanks for the tips! I will start implementing them right away! :)

No worries, Thivi! Thank you for reading! Good luck!

Heavens! What an incredibly helpful article! Thank you for sharing all these wonderul ideas!

Thank you for reading, Norlynda!

WOW! what a great article!

I can't decide which tip I like more, because each and every idea is just so right...

anyway, as much as we put limits and restrictions around us, we gain more creativity and pure art from what we have left.

this rule works in real life perfectly, and photography is not an exception!

Thank you Todd!

Thanks, Eli! I am glad you enjoyed it and, well said! Good luck doing the exercises! 

Perfect way to get one out of a rut!

Thanks, Robert!

Looks like just what I need to boot me out of a slump. Thanks!

Thanks, Marina! Good luck to you! Let us know how it goes!

i have t try it out soon

Good luck, roy!

Fantastic article!!!

Among the best and most appealing about "thinking out of the box" and exploring new grounds in photography.

You just gave me an excellent push to get out of myweekend boredom.

Cheers

Hey Raul,

Awesome! I am glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for reading and good luck with the exercise!

Raul I don't see this as 'thinking outside the box' because aking one work within a restricted set of guidelines, strictly speaking, puts you inside the box forcing more creativity. I guess everyone looks at things differently. Be a boring old world if we didn't.

Great article and just what I needed to get me thinking differently.

Cheers

Am going to do this and I won't have to pretend to get to the end of the roll as I only shoot film! (except for the pics on my iPhone and am learning more about improving them;-) I know from experience the first 2 exercises are difficult as they were given in a photo workshop I took recently.

Hey Sally,

Great to see a film shooter pushing themselves creatively! Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments!

I absolutely love this, and will refer back to it any time I feel I have a block! THANK YOU!

Thank you, Jennifer! Let us know how it goes!

Excellent!  I will do these with my new camera.  Ecept for the film part.  I will pretend I have film.  Thanks

Good luck, Penny! Thanks for reading!

Excellent!!! The suggestions in this article constitute an intensive and complete photography course. The understanding and management of light are quite important. Thanks.

Thanks, Roberto! I appreciate the comments! You are correct, light management is critical to photography, and that should appear in all of these exercises without being the overriding focus of them. You'll find, if you do some of these exercises, you will be looking for "light" just as much as you are looking for "photos."

Thanks for reading!

Thank you for an excellent article. I am definitely going to try several of your suggestions.

Hey Dolores!

You are welcome! Thank you for reading!

Thank u!

You are welcome! Thanks for reading, Leah!

Awesome ideas. Many of us feel some creative block in our careers but sometimes when we push to much we end up hirting our creative process instead. I have used a few of your exercises amd they have helped tremendously.

Thank you, Jan! Glad I could help!

Fantastic ideas! I try to take different perspectives of a scene whenever possible, as I find beauty in the mundane. But these will really stretch my eye for some even more unique photographs. Thanks for sharing!!

Thanks for reading, Patricia! Stretching the eye and the mind is the fun of it all!

The only thing that will help a photographer become a true modern artist, and I know this from personal experience as a commercial photographer who has also sold in the fine art world is:

Stop retreading all the overworn grooves of photography. Stop imagining that any photography is in any way unique, especially after digital replaced film (photography was already tired before digital, but digital made post-film insanely ubiquitous and therefore valueless other than for covering news events, an area in which photography has always been the leader). Sure, there have been some pioneers in low-light, aerial, and underwater photography, but these are all narrow technical advances, and these photographers have not become the next  Van Gogh or Picasso.

Art in the 21st century must be handmade, period. You MIGHT make art out of photography, and I know how it can happen, but if you think copying Mapplethorpe or Stieglitz or Annie Liebowitz will make you an artist, dream on.

The only possible way to do anything new in photography is maybe through setups (doubtful) and photoshop (possible, but an approach so filled with gimmick and utter hackery as to be almost suicidal).

Solution?  Paint. It is the only way you will ever be original, and, yes, painting is also very, very worn, but at least in painting, a real artist over time creates his own brush style and approach. Pixels will never, ever be original. Photography has far too many technique-starved lazy entrants who just couldn't hack spending the time learning how to draw, render and understand color and composition with skill and experience. Just because something is easy and you get first timers luck on some shots doesn't make you a real artist over time.

This was being said about photography 50 years ago. It's only become more true. Don't mistake the profiteering mass media for an art museum, and no, pseudo-celebrity self-referential pop art photo is not original. Even Warhol, the king of pop art, silkscreened, and developed a signature look that supplemented photography. In fact, he took out some of the last possible innovations left in photography as art.

BTW, it's called self-portrait, not selfie. Thanks.

Wow, Try the other side of the bed  tomorrow.  I will now go and burn my camera.  Thanks for the uplifting message.

so only painters are artists? Thanks for sharing that thought even if it is an old one. 

Funny, you appear to hate photography however your reading a photo exercise! And at that, not realizing these same activities WILL improve your chosen media, after all it's all about expression. I know several artist who use photographic images as their basis for subjects. Are they so hateful of photography? I think not. Don't be afraid to grow, you will surprise even yourself.

Mite Be, You may be right, but your comments are irrelevant to the discussion.  The topic is not about the artistic merits of digital photography. It is instead meant to help folks be better photographers and to inspire creativity, and in that effort it has succeeded.  In any creative endeavor, be it photography or playing guitar, it is easy to get in a rut.  Any techniques that expand my repertoire are valuable and appreciated.  

Having said that, you make some great points that are absolutely true.  You just made them on the wrong post.  You also made some comments that are absoultely false.  Paint is NOT the only way you will be original.  Photography is not merely tecnique, it is also composition, and therein lies the key.  In my case, I use the "photograph" as a canvas.  I use Photoshop and other tools as my "brushes".  But the most important and artistic aspect is the composition. 

Mite Be.  I think the name says it all.   You never quite were, or have been.

They look so creative ans I will try them soon. 

Very nice article!

I like exercise 6, the photo of the led lens reflector with the image reflection of the photographer made it eclectic.

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