Welcome to the world of photography beyond what you can do with your smartphone! With an interchangeable-lens digital camera (DSLR or mirrorless) you can do so much more than when you’re using the camera in your phone. Even though it can be intimidating at first, there are some fun photographic challenges that even beginning photographers will enjoy. Not only are they relatively easy, these photo assignments will build photographic fundamentals for all your future visual endeavors with your camera.
Some of these assignments are from an Introduction to Photography college class that I teach. Learn from my veteran students and try not to “overthink” the assignment; just go with the flow and have fun. We are surrounded by unlimited photographic subjects and beauty. Open your mind, see your image before you capture it, and enjoy making great photos.
Photographs ©Todd Vorenkamp
Fundamentals: Metering, Composition, Light
If you have a subject or object in front of a bright background (backlit) it’s easy to create a silhouette photograph. This is great for photography at sunrise or sunset or anytime you are dealing with a backlit subject.
Depending on your metering mode settings, the camera might try to compensate by choosing an exposure somewhere between the bright background and the dark subject, and you will get an all-white, blown-out background and a dark, but not silhouetted subject.
To prevent this, force the camera to meter on the bright background using a different metering mode and/or auto-exposure lock (AE-L), compose your shot, and make your silhouette.
2. Action Panning
Fundamentals: Exposure Control, Light, Camera Movement
When you use a slow(er) shutter speed and pan your camera with a moving object, you can capture a stunning image that conveys movement. Creating an action panning image is easy. Creating a good one requires either skill, or luck, or both!
To capture motion, you must slow your shutter speed down so that movement in the frame can happen. As the shutter is open, you should pan your camera while it’s pointed at a moving subject, release the shutter, and continue panning through the exposure. If you do it correctly, the subject will be in relatively sharp focus while the rest of the world in the image frame is streaky and blurry.
For more pro tips on panning, check out this article.
3. Long Exposure
Fundamentals: Shutter Speed Control, Light, Movement
Like the “Action Panning” exercise, another way to experiment with how the camera can capture the passage of time is with a long-duration exposure. While these are usually done at night with low light, you can easily create them indoors and on days when the sun isn’t blazing.
Think of a scene where subjects are moving in which you want to capture that movement. Stabilize your camera on a solid surface (or use a tripod) and start a long exposure. Anything that moves while the shutter is open will blur in the image.
Contrary to what I said above, you can also do this on a sunny day using neutral density filters.
Fundamentals: Creativity, Seeing, Composition
Not a purely technical assignment, creating an abstract image requires the photographer to shift their brain from photographing realistic objects in front of the camera to “seeing” an appealing composition inside the frame. This is when photography takes a hard right turn down Main Street in Artville. Almost any object can be turned into an abstraction with the camera, and usually requires getting (and focusing) closer to your subject.
5. Shallow-Depth-of-Field Portrait
Fundamentals: Depth of field, Aperture control
Photographers (and viewers of photographs) love portraits with soft, blurry backgrounds. This aesthetic is so desirable that many smartphone cameras now have the means to simulate this optical effect. While professional portrait lenses are designed to help achieve this look utilizing super-wide maximum apertures, you can accomplish this effect with almost any lens.
While a large aperture is part of capturing shallow depth of field, you can also achieve this effect by using a longer focal length, as well as decreasing your camera-to-subject distance. The three ingredients needed include: getting close to your subject, opening your aperture as wide as you can, and making sure the background is a good distance behind your subject.
6. Look Up/Down
Fundamentals: Creativity, Seeing
Many photographs are taken in the “horizontal.” This is because we are accustomed to looking straight ahead when we walk, drive, or type on our keyboards and look at computer screens. The camera has not learned this boring way of seeing the world, so it is totally cool with being pointed up or down from the horizontal.
We are surrounded by potential photographs to be made, but they do not surround us on a level plane; they are found across the sphere that surrounds us. Go out for a walk with your camera and look anywhere but straight ahead (when it is safe to do so). Make cool images!
7. Shoot High/Low
Fundamentals: Creativity, Seeing
Just like our boring ways of seeing things that are level around us, we also tend to take most of our photographs from eye level when standing. While this gives us comfortable, familiar-feeling photos, it doesn’t usually excite the eye or give the viewer a different perspective.
As the photographer, you can change the height of the camera by kneeling, lying down, squatting, standing on tiptoe, holding the camera above your head, standing on a ladder or chair (safety first!), or doing anything else required to put the camera somewhere besides where your eyes (or the viewer’s) would normally be.
Fundamentals: Seeing, Composition
Another way to see the world in a unique and often overlooked way is to capture images in reflections. Water, glass, a shiny car hood, and other things can and will reflect light toward your camera.
A great exercise in creativity and seeing is to head out on a mission to make photographs by capturing scenes that are in reflections.
9. Negative Space
Fundamentals: Composition, Seeing
Negative versus positive space in discussions of art can turn heady, but it does not need to be confusing. In a simplified photographic frame, positive space is that which is occupied by something—a person, building, cloud, etc. Negative space is what remains.
Think of a photo of a lone tree on a hill with a blank sky behind it. Embrace that blankness for a unique photograph.
10. 10 of 1
Fundamentals: Creativity, Composition
This is one of the exercises from my 13 Creative Exercises for Photographers article in which you challenge yourself by taking 10 unique photos of one small subject. It sounds easy, but—like the tips above—try not to think horizontally. Go high, low, close, far, surround the subject with negative space, change lenses and focal lengths, and so on.
Challenge yourself to get 10 truly unique images of that single small subject and apply what you learn to your photographs moving forward.
Fundamentals: Lens Characteristics, Composition
We have all seen photos in which the sun is in the frame, emitting sharp diffraction spikes/star effects/sun stars/starbursts/or sun flares (there are many names for this optical phenomenon). Guess what? They are easy to do and can be a fun, “organic” addition to your photographs.
Safety first! Do NOT look directly at the sun with a DSLR camera and telephoto lens.
The hyperlinked article above takes a deep dive into the subject, but the basic method is to mask the sun partially with an object in the frame (or shoot distant points of light) and have your aperture stepped down a bit to let the lens create the spikes.
Fundamentals: Composition, Exposure Control, Focusing
As ubiquitous as the “selfie” has become, there is still an art form to the self-portrait. With an interchangeable lens camera, you have the advantage of flexibility when it comes to taking a self-portrait. Start by not holding your camera out to the end of your arm and pointing it back at you. Think creatively. Use a mirror or reflection, or set up the camera and walk into the scene. There are innumerable ways to create a compelling self-portrait.
So, those are a dozen fun things to do with your new camera. What other tips or exercises can you share? Do you have any questions about what I wrote above? Engage us in the Comments section, below.