Photography / Tips and Solutions

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

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Lucky enough to stumble across this article. Thanks:) they seem really fun ideas to start with!! especially the portable subject....

Glad you found it, Nidhi! Thank you!

Thank you for these ideas!  I am setting up an event with some photography friends to try some of these out.

Good luck, Ali! Let us know how it goes. :)

Todd, what a wonderful dozen of tips. I will print them and drop them in my bag for my next photographic journey. Thanks !!

Thanks Germán!

Good luck with the exercises!

I love all of these ideas. It really makes you think about taking more meanfully pictures instead of just snapping way.

Hi Rachel,

I am glad these resonated with you! Creativity is the most fun part of photography for me!

Thanks for reading!

For a long time I've been trying to capture photos on my own want angle, but the result is different from what's on my mind. And now I can say that I found the answer to my problem. Thank you to the creator of this blog. Keep helping everyone!

Thank you for reading, George! Good luck shooting creatively! 

Those seem like some fun inspiring exercises. Thanks for sharing!

If I can add one, I would add let someone else use your camera to take a few shots of something they would like to capture. Most people like using a camera every now and then, especially if it is different from their own which is probably their phone. Offer them a tip of your own, teach them something you know. Also take a moment to see what someone else happens to see while you are in the same spot. 

Ken

Hey Ken,

Of course you can add one!

And, that is a great tip! For some workshops, the night before, I ask the students to bring a photo of a fork with them to the class. Some photograph a stainless utensil, others get creative. It is always interesting to see what people capture!

I just a Samsung S8 phone. I want to do this with my phone. This is a test list.

You can do these exercises with any camera, Benny! Good luck!

So very glad I stumbled across this article. I want to rush right out and get started but I don't think my boss would appreciate it. ;p  That being said, it's almost the weekend and it's the first weekend all year someone doesn't have something planned for me to do. Guess what I'm going to do?

Thank you so very much for the awesome ideas. Your images are amazing and thought-provoking.

Happy shooting, Glenda!

Need me to tell your boss you are heading out for a bit? :)

Good luck and enjoy your creative weekend!

I'm testing out a model 420 Polaroid that I rescued from a thrift store, and these are great exercises to get me acquainted with the camera! Thanks so much- recommending these to my friends!

Thanks, Lucca!

Yep, these exercises are for any and all cameras! Enjoy the 420!

I hate the cold. So I hate winter except for snow and ice. I' going to use all of these to force me to get out.  That way I 'll be that much better when it gets warm out again. THANKS

Hey Jim,

Here is a little secret...some of these you can do indoors! 

Stay warm and check out this article before you freeze...https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/infographic-essential-tips-cold-weather-photography

Good luck! Thanks for stopping by!

I'm so happy to find this.  My best friend purchased a Sony a5100 for her 12 year old, saying he likes to take photos.  I told her to get him something "affordable" to see what he can do without his iPhone, and I'd be over after Christmas to take him photo-hunting.  Now, with some of these ideas in hand, I don't have to spin in a circle trying to think of fun things to do. THANK YOU!!!! :)

Hey Janet!

Awesome! I am glad you found this and hope you had fun with the exercises!

Yeah, thanks for this exercise, will try this!!

Let us know how they work for you, Pavitrha!

Wish I could save this on Pinterest!

You can always memorize it, Debra! 

Thanks for reading!

Thanks Todd,

Being 66 it seems like I live the rut more than not. But I have a passion with the camera that makes life keep going. If nothing else, just creating some special captures for my grandkids. Going to see if I can do all these; some will be easy, some more challenging. But it's what I been looking for.

Hey Danny,

Isn't it sad that creativity seems to diminish over time? As adults we rarely "pretend" to be someone else and we seem to, more and more, live lives of predictability and pattern.

I too need to get out and do all of these! Thanks for reading and writing in!

It's really helpful to have these exercises... especially when you've been stuck in a rut,for several months!!! Needed a way out!!!! B&H rocks...

Thanks, Shawn! I hope you got out of your rut and are rocking awesome photos!

Earlier this year I did exercise 13, Two Trips. I walked several blocks of an old historical part of town then crossed the street and returned to the starting point. I said to myself, what is there to take pictures of? Then I discovered that any photo of buildings, cars, or people are actually historical photos. Twenty years from now the businesses, the cars, and the fashions will be different. So look beyond lines and patterns.  The fact that they don't build buildings this way anymore may reveal some interesting details. Then when you process the images by converting them to black and white can make a new image look old.

Hey Nikon Jim,

I am sorry for the delay...missed your post!

Yes, every photograph is recording history. Documenting change in a neighborhood is a great way to use photography!

Sounds like a great outing and thanks for sharing some tips. Thanks for reading!

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!

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