Take the Alphabet Challenge
This photo exercise forces you to look beyond the obvious and see in a creative way. It’s a simple idea, but can be surprisingly tricky and somewhat addictive. It’s also a lot of fun and is guaranteed to sharpen your eye. Here’s how it works: Find and photograph something that looks like a letter in the English alphabet. Use your imagination and you’ll begin to notice letters everywhere. The only thing that’s not allowed are photographs of actual letters such as billboards and signs. I’ll get it started with the letter A.
Tape off the LCD Screen
Use an index card or gaffers tape to cover your LCD screen off. Some cameras even let you do this through the menu. However you accomplish it, the goal is the same. You don’t want to rely on the screen to help with your exposure or composition. As an added benefit, you’ll be more present with nothing to distract from the subject in front of you. When you get home and download your photos, the results will be a surprise.
Slow the Shutter Down
Spend the entire day using a shutter speed of 1/6th of a second. It’s not fast enough to freeze a subject or prevent camera shake. It is slow enough however, to reveal the motion in the world around us. You’ll have some throw away frames for sure. Keep at it though, and you’ll see things in a whole new way.
Push Your Boundaries
Only by trying new things can you discover all that you’re capable of. If you typically shoot nature, do a free portrait session for a friend. If you know nothing about sports, try shooting a softball or baseball game. You just may surprise yourself and find a hidden talent. If not, the experience will at least have been educational.
Create a Photo Calendar
They make great holiday gifts and are a wonderful way to share past adventures. Ansel Adams believed that “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Ironically enough, that’s the exact amount you’ll need to fill each month. I also view this exercise as a measuring stick for growth. What did I do better this year than last and how can I make improvements for the days and months ahead?
Enter a Weekly Photo Contest.
Some of my favorites have a different theme every week. You can use a photo from your archive, or challenge yourself to shoot something new with the theme in mind. If your photo is not picked, don’t be discouraged. Many of these sites receive thousands of entries. Also, a word of caution, avoid any contests that ask for an entry fee. There are so many free and legit options to choose from. Sometimes, local newspapers also call for reader submissions. This can be a great way to get published in your home town.
A Book a Month
Blog posts, forums and web articles can absolutely help develop your photography skills. To strengthen your understanding of some of the more challenging topics, try reading some of the best books on the market. To get you started, here are a few of my top recommendations.
Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer’s Photographer
The Unforgettable Photograph: 228 Ideas, Tips, and Secrets for Taking the Best Pictures of Your Life
John Shaw’s Closeups in Nature
Photojojo!: Insanely Great Photo Projects and DIY Ideas
A Beautiful Mess Photo Idea Book: 95 Inspiring Ideas for Photographing Your Friends, Your World, and Yourself
Print, Frame, and Hang
If you’re photos only live on your hard drive or phone, you are missing out on a golden opportunity. Why not use your beautiful artwork to decorate your home or to give as a gift? You may be surprised to learn that many online labs provide professional quality prints at very reasonable prices. While custom framing is certainly a nice option, it can also be expensive. Those who prefer the DIY route may opt to visit a local craft store for a terrific selection of frames and mattes. For a really polished look, consider a dry mounting board which prevents the print from curling on the edges.
Plan a Photo Road Trip (or several)
We all love to go on vacation, but let’s face it, your photography doesn’t always coincide with the family’s plans. This year, be sure to dedicate some quality alone time to your image-making. Plan a few road trips where the main focus is photography. If you think friends or family will rush you, leave them home. This will give you the necessary focus to reflect on all you’ve learned, and apply it to the camera.
Use Manual Focus for the Entire Day
Auto focus has gotten so reliable, that many photographers have never tried doing it manually. It sounds daunting at first, but the experience can be liberating. You will no longer have to wait for the camera to achieve focus. Instead, you simply adjust the manual focus ring until the subject looks sharp to your eye, and shoot. Some cameras even offer a special “focus peaking” feature which outlines the subject in white when in-focus. Other cameras have a “live view” option for the ultimate in manual focus control. After using it for a few hours you’ll quickly realize the creative benefits it provides.