“As photographers, there are times when we feel like we have nothing left,” the photographer and educator Kristen Ryan tells us. “But I’ve learned that those moments don’t mean we’ve hit a wall but that we’re at the edge of our next step. Most of us put our cameras away when we feel stuck, and sometimes that is much needed. But sometimes it’s best to keep pushing—to look up to that next level and find new techniques to explore with and create.”
For Kristen, one way to level up and explore is through photography challenges. She’s just entered year eight of doing the 365 Project, for instance, where she takes a photo every single day for a year. That’s 2555 days and counting. Depending on your niche and schedule, your approach to photography challenges might take on new forms and iterations, but the goal remains the same: to push you out of your comfort zone.
1. Do the 365 Project
We’ll start with this classic challenge, recommended by Kristen. You can do it with a group of friends and colleagues or on your own. “The rules are yours to create,” Kristen tells us. “If you have goals to learn in your photography, start there and let that be your focus. You will begin to see that the project usually takes on a meaning of its own as you get into the flow of it.
“Be open to everything that crosses your path; explore how you create; try new things, and embrace the occasional failure. It is all a part of this process.” Kristen now mentors fellow photographers starting 365 projects through her online course, Year in the Life, available for purchase from Hello Storyteller. “This project made me stop and see my life in slow motion,” she says. “Instead of constantly looking ahead to what needed to be done next, or places to be at, tasks to finish, it made me see the in-between moments.”
2. Or commit to a 30 day one
If 365 days seems overwhelming, try 30. “I’ve done two 30-day challenges to force myself to do more photography,” the photographer and film student Teo Crawford tells us. “At the time of the first one, I wasn’t feeling inspired, and therefore I wasn’t practising my photography as much as I would like to. By committing to a challenge, I could get myself to shoot at least one photograph every day.”
His advice? Show your work to other people. “Sharing the photos strengthened my commitment because I knew that someone was going to see it,” he says. Teo also recommends keeping an open mind. “Try not to have any expectations,” he suggests. “I never went in with expectations, so I was pleasantly surprised to have a couple of decent photographs at the end of the challenge.”
3. Tackle a new theme every month
P52Clicks is an online photography community offering monthly themes to shoot, beginning in January and running throughout the year. Photographers can join the Facebook group and follow along on Instagram to get started. From there, community members can post weekly photos on Instagram using the monthly hashtag for a chance to be featured.
Whether you join P52clicks or organise a similar challenge yourself, the photographer Angie Mahlke recommends starting with a group of friends. “I created P52clicks in 2017 with a few friends when we wanted to keep ourselves motivated to learn and grow and also to have some accountability to reach our goals,” Angie remembers. “The project encourages weekly shooting since we all know the only way to learn is by continually practising, but we focus on one theme a month. A monthly theme grants you the opportunity to practice the technique over and over again.”
4. Shoot the colours of the rainbow
Cary Krogsgaard just started Color Quest Weekly, a new hub on Instagram, to inspire her fellow photographs to explore the colour wheel. “It was created to bring together photographers at various experience levels and working in different genres to share images with one commonality: colour,” she tells us. “Each week, a new colour or colour combination is introduced, and participants can share new or previously posted images using that particular colour or combo.
“I hope this project will motivate photographers to examine how they’ve used colour in their past work and inspire them to use it more intentionally in future photography sessions.” You can join Color Quest Weekly by following along on Instagram, or you can use it as inspiration for your own colour-themed challenge.
5. Submit to Justin Mott’s photo contest
The photojournalist and educator Justin Mott originally created his free photo contest for his YouTube subscribers, but it’s open to everyone. “The spirit of my monthly contest is to give photographers, both amateur and pro, something to shoot when they need inspiration,” he tells us. “I announce a new theme the first week of the month, and participants have the entire month to capture and submit one photo that fits the theme.
“Entering is as easy as posting the one photo you’d like to submit and tagging me on Instagram @askmott. People who are shy about sharing their images publicly can email them directly to my office admin. I do a full YouTube episode for each of them, breaking down my favourite four to five images, along with some tips about the theme, and then I reveal the winner and a new theme for the upcoming month.”
6. Join a loop (or start your own)
“Loops, if you’re not familiar, are simply a group of photographers who come together and all post at the same time on Instagram, typically with a theme,” the family photographer Jennifer Magnuson explains. “Then you tag the next photographer who is participating, creating a loop of images.”
Jennifer is part of several loops, including the Creative Perspective Loop, started by fellow photographer Nikola Viens and running every Thursday at 2:00 PM EST. “We keep the guidelines vague to allow for all types of genres of photography, but our challenge each week is to post an image that has something creative about its composition, light, framing, or general perspective,” Nikola explains.
“We consider macro, drones, underwater, faceless or close crops, bugs or bird’s eye views, and more as part of our accepted images. We currently have 60 participants who post when they have an image (not all participants post every week). I am also in the process of starting a hub where anyone can submit images by using the hashtag #creativeperspectiveloop to be featured.”
7. Experiment with self-portraits
This idea was inspired by another Instagram loop, the Self Portrait Narrative Loop. “The #selfportraitnarrative loop is a small group of women photographers from around the world challenging themselves by taking self-portraits,” Jessi Hamersky, one of the group’s members, tells us. “I was thrilled to be able to take part in this Instagram loop because I always want to improve and see growth in my photography.
“I was a bit intimidated to take part in this group at first, but I love surrounding myself with insanely talented and supportive photographers, despite my own insecurities. I’ve found it to be the absolute best way for me to grow as a photographer and to elevate my skills and hone my own voice.” Of course, you don’t need to be part of the official loop to challenge yourself with self-portraits, though it helps to find a peer group for support. As Jessi explains, photographing ourselves can feel daunting, but it’s often the projects that make us nervous that deliver the greatest rewards.
8. Limit yourself to one camera, one lens
This idea comes to us from the landscape photographer Paul Thomson, who embarked on this challenge and documented the process via his YouTube channel. The premise is simple: visit a beautiful location, bring a single camera and lens, and see what you can find. Limiting your gear will force you to look at the world differently and problem-solve in real-time—all while getting you back to the basics. Paul also found that it inspired him to notice more details within the landscape.
9. Organise a film swap
This idea comes from the experimental photographer Mathieu Stern, who is based in Paris. “The idea was to do an international film swap between the U.S.A. and France,” he says. “One photographer would shoot one roll of film in his country and then send it to another photographer somewhere else in the world so he can shoot the same roll of film a second time, resulting in double exposures. As a twist, each photographer has no idea what the other participant captured on the film, so the results are impossible to predict.
“I really love some of the double exposures we got with this challenge, and it was a fun experiment to have, even during lockdowns.” He documented the behind-the-scenes of his film swap on his YouTube channel, which is full of helpful ideas and tips. “My advice if you want to do a film swap is to shoot your film for the first time in one orientation only, and tell the other photographer to keep the same orientation,” Mathieu suggests. “That way, your results will be much easier to read.”
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.