creative photography

Want to stay creative as a photographer? Here is a list of amazing activities that will help you keep producing fresh ideas in the same situations, a list which will help you to see the world in a different way each day. Try these. Some seem too simple, especially if you are an intermediate photographer, but starting again, working on a simple task that a child would enjoy can be the catalyst for re-inventing your photography and taking you out of that creative rut that all photographers get in to from time to time. There is no failure with these tasks, you just have to try them, one a day,10 minutes shooting, for 10 days and I promise you you will notice a change in the way you start to see the world. The first 10 activities are aimed at beginner and intermediate photographers, but I would challenge any photographer, no matter how experienced, not to learn something from doing them.

1. Shoot ten images that include a triangle

Walk out into your street and round your block. Make 10 images that contain a triangle shape. Now it can be an obvious triangle  i.e. within an architectural structure, but if you really want a challenge look for triangles made by harsh light, or trickier still subtle triangles of light that you only spotted on second look. Why might this help you to see better? Look at the work of so many master photographer and painters ( think Henri Cartier-Bresson, Matisse) and you will start to realise how often they use triangles in their composition, often subconsciously. Grouping the subjects of your photo at the corners of these triangles always, always  works ( think family group  photos, or simply balanced compositions of trees!). 

2. Shoot ten images with perfect symmetry

This can work well on an evening walk when the streetlights help the symmetry of the buildings and streets to come to the fore.

3. Keep it super simple - shoot ten images with just one, very clear subject

One subject, close up or wide, with lots of negative space or cropped tight. Either way, it will hopefully make you realise how often your photos contain two, three or four subjects and actually they would be better with one !

4. Spiral round your subject. Start far out and move in a circular path shooting ten images as you spiral closer to your subject. This forces you to see your subject from every angle and every distance. It is amazing how may different images of the same thing you can  make using this simple spiralling technique. One of the images or often more, will stand out and really work well.

5. Shoot 10 times from on high and ten times from low ( right down to super low down, on the floor!). Want to shake up your portrait?  Shoot from steps giving a birds-eye view on the subject. Its a way that cartoonists add dynamism to their work. Shooting with your camera back flipped out means you can get you camera actually down in the grass resting on the floor. What a way to simplify a background. The worms eye view is another technique used the world over by kids' and adults' cartoonists. Go and look at a cartoon in a comic to see the birds and worms eye views in action!

6. Shoot ten silhouttes

Get that camera, low, low down, again resting on the floor if possible. Shoot into the setting  sun, if you can and it's safe, but you can make silhouettes without a sunset. Effectively we are just simplifying by underexposing 3 stops so your subject goes pitch black to make the detail disappear. Find a bubble of empty space in your composition and get a friend to walk into it. This is a great way to make a simple silhouette that will really make the subject stand out. I guarantee it will take away the breath of your friend when they see it on the camera  back.

7. Abandon Colour

Delve into your camera menus and set up your camera so that you actually commit to capturing images in black and white. Then go on your walk round the block and take photos. Just focussing on shapes/forms/textures really heightens your awareness of these key aspects to composition, ready for when you step back into the world of colour. Colour is very hard to master (Matisse). Most photographers get seduced by trying to work in colour. Some of the true photographic geniuses , like Sebastian Salgado, manage never succumb to this seduction and go through life seeing and capturing images entirely in black and white. 

8. Shoot ten compositions with a large and small object. 

This was a technique used by Monet. Other painters put small figures beneath great trees and it always works.

9. Go for repetition( ten times!)

Now the idea is that you fill your frame with a structure that repeats. This is a great way to see texture  and to help you start to see good clean textured backgrounds that you could place a subject against.

10. Its all in a name!

I do this activity with school kids at my workshops. They love it and the first time I did it I have to say that I learned more from it than doing the other 9 more serious and straight laced adult activities above. Basically, you look for and shoot the letters of your name. I am always amazed when I realise how many different ways kids can eg find the letter 'H' within a scene. The joy with this activity is in seeing how many different ways there are to see the same letter, even within a small space eg a garden or courtyard. Try it! If you work in nature and print up the letters 7x5 later you will have a really nice reminder of your learning activity. Most of photography is about seeing, often subtle shapes with a scene eg an S-shaped curve within a river scene or A shapes with a mountain range. This activity is a beauty for helping with this.

Ok, so you enjoyed the first ten activities and want some slightly deeper, more involved things to try that will take longer and make you think more deeply about how you are making images. Here are some more creative activities for intermediate and advanced photographers

(these are loosely based upon a brilliant ebook by Marc Silber "Secrets to Amazing Compositions", with a lot of my own additions and examples.

1. Use a grid view to place your subject at the intersection of thirds. Your subject should always have more space infront of them so  they can look into it. We all know about the the rule of thirds, but this subtle addition of shooting a portrait subject sitting so that they look INTO the empty space in front of them definitely works.

2. Diagonals can really add a sense of motion to your image. They also add vitality. Shoot multiple triangles and diagonals within one frame and try positioning your subject at any of the corners.

3. A Steelyard( or pivoting scale) composition has a large and a small object. Picture a pivoting beam set of scales with the big object near the pivot balancing the small object far from the pivot. You can make your subject the big or the small object but have to imagine the pivot between them and get them to balance. Try it . Monet used it .

4. Moving to arrange groups of masses/ shapes

( idea and quote are from Camille Silman in Marc Silbers book)

“Think of everything as shapes. You’re arranging the shapes in such a way to interact and to activate space, to push things forward and pull things back, to draw your eye here or guide your eye there. When you understand that, and you do it that way, composition becomes like a ballet, really it becomes choreography.” This is very good advice for how to group masses that you’re photographing: While shooting, move around until you find the angle or perspective where you have your masses lined up in a way that really conveys the feeling you’re after. My advice is to capture many images until you know you have just what you’re looking for.

5. Experiment with different numbers of items in your shot and explore balance between them.

Ones. The simplest. Always works. Safe but not quite as much interest for your viewer as when you can lead them around 3 or more different subjects/ shapes. Twos and threes, of similar objects . All can work. Usually by moving closer to make one of the objects larger it adds depth to your photo. Moving closer to one of two subjects effectively gives you the balanced steelyard composition.

Williman Palluth explained it this way:

“The eye automatically seeks out the most prominent objects or points of attraction in a picture, often jumping from one to another like stepping stones into the scene. If they are quite far apart, they may need to be loosely connected by a line or attraction such as a road or a path, or maybe a few fence posts to gently lead the eye.”

6. L-shaped compositions.

Imagine an L shape. It won’t work alone, but by adding a subject we can get a pleasing balanced subject. Where? Imagine it to roll from the top of the L along the bottom and settles off to the right. Placing a small subject here can balance the L beautifully. Painters often did this with a tree and a person beneath its extended bough. 

7. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, your not getting close enough”Robert Capa .

Getting close on a wide angle lens makes the viewer feel like they are there.

If you’re afraid to disturb your subject. Move closer one step, wait, then another step and wait. Using this method rather than walking at someone is far less intimidating and they often become blind to the photographers presence by this slow acclimatisation!

8. Fill the frame. This is the newspaper photographers rule , especially for a tabloid newspapers where space is so limited . Practice using every last bit of space and completely filling the frame. Crop ruthlessly in camera by moving closer if you can. Often it’s easier to fill the frame on a telephoto lens.

9. Make your subject small but make them stand out. This can be achieved by shooting from a low angle into the sun, or maybe by placing your subject against a white area in your photo.

10. Notice the rhythm of your photographs: where the viewer’s eye enters and exits. “Eye Movement” is critical when the viewer interprets your image and you must try and think about this movement during the image making process. Look at how light moves through your photograph and where it takes your eye. If there is something that would pull the viewer’s eye away from the desired flow through your photograph (such as a splotch of light or reflection in a lower corner), compose your shot to avoid it in your frame. This goes back to being active. Always scan the edges and corners if every frame you shoot.

I really hope these more advanced techniques have given you all some food for thought. Please share or leave comment below , if you have found them useful.

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