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8 photography exercises to train your eye and mind

Artists rarely wait for inspiration; instead, they seek it out using creative exercises.

The artist John Baldessari, for example, advised his students to go to thrift stores, find broken objects, and mend them. In her seminal book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron advises readers to go on “artist dates,” or weekly solo adventures to places that interest them, from museums to toy shops. Once, Paul Klee famously had his students draw the human circulatory system.

Photographers have their own unconventional prompts that they use to overcome creative blocks and train their eyes. We asked eight experts from different backgrounds, from food and lifestyle photography to advertising and portraiture, to tell us about the exercises they’ve developed to get their creative juices flowing and their minds focused. Read on for their best ideas.

Rebus & his truck © Lisa Godfrey

1. Photograph the same subject every day, week, or month

“During my shelter-in-place, I photographed my dog, Nita, every day,” the Philadelphia-based lifestyle photographer Lisa Godfrey remembers. “I photographed her in multiple locations but also in the same two places to help illustrate the passing of time. There’s a short version on my Instagram @godfreysdogpack. I’m working on a longer version that is a little more dramatic as the landscape starts to green up.

If you don’t have time to shoot every day, make it a weekly or monthly project. “I also have a long-term personal project of photographing dogs in the Adirondacks,” Lisa tells us. “I have been doing this for over ten years, and I produce a yearly dog calendar that I use as a promo piece. It has helped me land a number of projects with national brands over the years. On average, I photograph a dog a month. Sometimes it’s one of my dogs, sometimes not. It gives me a goal and keeps me motivated.”

Talking to Strangers in Brooklyn #5 © Matt Carr

2. Try the street portrait challenge with strangers

“I have a bad habit of expecting all my creative projects to be good enough to go into my portfolio,” the portrait photographer Matt Carr admits. “It’s an unrealistic expectation to put on yourself, and it can block any creativity before it starts. So when I’m feeling that way and not actively working, I just grab a camera and hit the streets to take street portraits using ambient light.

“I find it exciting to find someone intriguing, convince them to do a portrait, and use what I have to make something interesting. It’s slow work, and seven out of ten people say ‘no,’ but those three who agree can make your day.

“For a young photographer, there are some valuable lessons there. First, it helps you understand how to handle rejection, and second, it teaches you how to use any light and background you can find. It can also teach you how to work with people who aren’t used to having their photo taken and how to communicate with people who aren’t in a creative field.”

Image © Judy Doherty

3. Go shopping

“My favourite prompt is to go shopping for farm-to-table produce,” the food and product photographer Judy Doherty tells us. “I love to go to the farmer’s market to see what is in season from the person who grew it.

“From there, I love to photograph the food, make it into a recipe, and photograph it some more. I can often go off on a tangent for even more ideas. Since I am a food photographer, I get excited about all kinds of ingredients and all things food. You can see some of this crazy creativity in my Nature Morte collection. I take hundreds of photos of the same thing and just keep changing it up and exploring.”

Of course, you don’t have to do this just with food; you can also do it with clothing, fabric, and knick-knacks found in a local thrift store.

4. Make photos with a specific person in mind

This idea comes to us from the Atlanta-based photographer and art director Ahmad Barber, who calls it the “Who am I photographing this for?” prompt. “Whether it is a personal passion project or something for a client, understanding the audience of your photograph is important to making sure that you are hitting the right target,” he says. “I sometimes create that audience in my mind, be it an art director, a fine art gallery curator, or even someone I love who is just my biggest critic. It always helps me pay attention to particular details and go the extra mile to elevating my images.”

Grace, 2019 © Alex Michael Kennedy

5. Take only twelve photos a day

“One of my favourite photographic exercises is all about setting limitations,” the Los Angeles-based photographer and filmmaker Alex Michael Kennedy says. “For example, take one roll of film, and go out with absolutely no plan as to what you want to shoot and finish the roll by the time you get home.

“I’ve found that shooting without a plan allows you to operate outside of any boundaries we place on ourselves as photographers. It allows you to discover things and be impulsive about what you find interesting as a subject. Furthermore, limiting yourself to one roll keeps you from just shooting everything you see. You have to make the conscious decision that the scene in front of you is well worth being one out of the finite images you can make that day.”

You can do the same thing if you’re shooting digital; just set yourself a clear limit. We based the “twelve photo” rule on a typical role of 120 film, but the number itself doesn’t matter so much.

Ocean Daydream © Jamie Grill Atlas

6. Use a different camera

“I often use a different camera for personal exercises than I use for my commercial work,” the New Jersey-based photographer Jamie Grill Atlas says. “Maybe it’s an old film camera or a Polaroid. It could even be your phone; try a new app or a new setting. Maybe your experimental work will lead you to a technique you end up using again and again… or maybe not.

“For me, the real purpose of these shoots is just getting me out of my head and back where I belong: behind a camera, following my gut. You’re shooting not for the end product but just for the process of shooting. It’s okay to take bad pictures. It’s okay to shoot in bad light. You can scrap everything you’ve taken at the end of the day. Just the act of putting your eye to the lens can be enough to push you through the burnout and towards your next moment of inspiration.”

Portrait of Glynn Turman by Christina Gandolfo

7. Watch the first scene of a movie

“When watching films, I like to pay attention to the first scene,” the Los Angeles-based photographer Christina Gandolfo explains. “It’s akin to the first sentence of a book for me, and something not to be missed. More broadly speaking, in film and TV, I notice camera angles, the use of light, the production design, and the way performers move through a scene.

“Often it’s just one thing—even the use of one colour—that can spark an idea for a still photo I want to create, or maybe it just serves as a note to file away for one of the next times I shoot. To capture it, I’ll take a quick snap with my phone.

“I also turn to old magazines sometimes when I feel stuck. Seeing how people posed or were lit or the emotion that’s captured—whether in a commercial context, fashion or editorial—can spark ideas for things to try or test. I keep an active folder of screenshots and phone pics that serves as a mood board for myself, and I’ll return to it when I need a creative lift.”

Hope © Michelle McSwain

8. Write down your goals (with a pen and paper)

“I take time every few months to write down new goals for myself on little pieces of paper,” the portrait and lifestyle photographer Michelle McSwain tells us. “Then, I tape them on the wall in front of my desk so I see them every day. Next, in a notebook, I write down actionable ways to achieve those goals.

“For example, if my goal is to shoot for a shoe brand, then the actions I take to achieve it are setting up a few test shoots focused on shoes, compiling a list of shoe brands I’d like to work with, researching contacts and reaching out to them with a link to some of my relevant test work, and creating mood and inspiration boards to get myself inspired.”

It’s important that these goals are physically in front of you, so take out a pen and paper, jot them down, and post them around the office or studio to keep you motivated.

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.