Five Self Assignments That Teach You To See - Digital Photography School
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Five Self Assignments That Teach You To See

In my 20 years in photography, I’ve seen a lot of different assignments teachers have given their students.  Most I have heard, or been given myself from time to time, have centered around learning to use the camera.  Things like “Use Only One Exposure Mode”, “Use Only One Lens”, or “Use One Aperture Setting”.  The most interesting to me, from a photographic standpoint, involved learning to see.  The reason I say this is that simple camera use can be easily learned. It’s basic math when you boil it down.  But learning to see creatively, learning to compose a shot, takes much more than learning buttons, dials, and controls.  These self assignments force you to look around you, to really see what you’re shooting and try to make interesting images.

1. Pick A Color

Pick up your camera and choose a color for the day. Go out and make images with that color as a dominant element in the image. Find as many different ways as possible to do this.

This image I went in search of things red. 1/320, f/7.1, ISO 1000. EOS 5D Mark II, EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro.

This image I went in search of things red. 1/320, f/7.1, ISO 1000. EOS 5D Mark II, EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro.

 

2. Pick A Shape

Choose a shape and create images which use that shape in an interesting way. It could be features in architecture, artwork, or juxtaposition of multiple structures. Squares are relatively easy. Start there, and then search out triangles, circles, or combinations of shape.  Again, look for the most interesting composition you can to highlight that shape in your image.

I ventured into Central Park in New York City without a real game plan in mind. I found a sundial and started shooting that, and then went in search of more circles. Found this ironwork and used it to frame a pair of lovers in a rowboat. 1/160. f/2.8, ISO 100. EOS 5D Mark III, EF 24-70 f/2.8L II at 24mm.

I ventured into Central Park in New York City without a real game plan in mind. I found a sundial and started shooting that, and then went in search of more circles. Found this ironwork and used it to frame a pair of lovers in a rowboat. 1/160. f/2.8, ISO 100. EOS 5D Mark III, EF 24-70 f/2.8L II at 24mm.

3. Shoot Something Different

If you’re like me, you probably have one type of subject you gravitate to more than any other.  But it’s easy to get too comfortable, and miss opportunities to make great images, when you’re only looking for one thing.  Once in a while it’s a good idea to change things up and shoot something different.  If you’re a sports shooter, try shooting a still life.  If you’re a landscape artist, try shooting macro.  These types of exercises forces you out of your comfort zone and helps you learn to see in a new way.

Normally I'm a landscape guy first. But I decided I wanted to try a still life of one of the tools of my trade.  I used some black plexi as the table, and black matte board for the background. I used a single speedlite in a softbox above and behind the subject. EOS 5D Mark II with EF 24-70 f/2.8L II. 1/200, f/8, ISO 100.

Normally I’m a landscape guy first. But I decided I wanted to try a still life of one of the tools of my trade. I used some black plexi as the table, and black matte board for the background. I used a single speedlite in a softbox above and behind the subject. EOS 5D Mark II with EF 24-70 f/2.8L II. 1/200, f/8, ISO 100.

4. Shoot Reflections

Reflections are a powerful element in photography, but I’m almost embarrassed to admit how long it took me to actually start SEEING them.  I had a “lightbulb moment” one day when shooting with a friend of mine, and since then, I am constantly looking for reflections as an element in my work, whether it be portraits, landscapes, or still lifes.

This is probably the most photographed puddle in New England, but it's great for producing a reflection of Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. Reflections add interest to images so always be on the lookout. EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II. ISO 100, 1/20, f/16.

This is probably the most photographed puddle in New England, but it’s great for producing a reflection of Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. Reflections add interest to images so always be on the lookout. EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II. ISO 100, 1/20, f/16.

5. The 15 Foot Circle

Stand in the center of a room, or wherever you happen to be.  Make photographs only of subjects that happen to be within 15 feet (or 10, or 5) of where you’re standing.  Give yourself a time limit. Exhaust all possibilities. Get as many images as you can using only that area before moving on.  This kind of exercise forces you to really look at things and work to compose interesting images.

I was standing in a dining room at the holidays last year and decided to try the 15 foot circle. This was a line of candles on a fireplace mantle. EOS-1D X with EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II. ISO 400, 1/250, f/2.8.

I was standing in a dining room at the holidays last year and decided to try the 15 foot circle. This was a line of candles on a fireplace mantle. EOS-1D X with EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II. ISO 400, 1/250, f/2.8.

For beginners, these assignments are great for learning to see. For more experienced photographers, these are great ways to stay fresh, to restart the creative eye when you’re feeling blocked, or to just do something different.  What other self assignments have you tried to refresh your photographic vision?

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick's work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

  • ScottC

    Did something similar to the 15 foot circle once, then it was “10 meters”. It was an eye opener?

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/sets/72157625319620514/

  • Marnie

    Hi Rick,

    Thank you for the inspiring post. I’m a beginner in photography and absolutely love it. I’m taking photos of different things as i’m learning how to use all the functions on my camera. I’ll definitely try some of these self assignments especially the 15 foot circle and colours.

  • http://www.redbubble.com/people/lensbaby Salvacion

    These are great tips! Very good reminder for me especially since I tend to forget about #3 and #5! Thanks for sharing!

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    I think I have never tried pick a color and I am going to give it a try. Next would be pick a shape.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Patrick

    The Reflections exercise is a great one that I ‘discovered’ more by accident at first, and was thrilled when viewing photos, and found I had caught an amazing reflection while paying more attention to the actual subject. – Loved them ever since, and now look for an oportunity every chance I get.

  • Brady White

    Remember – learning to see is not just at eye level – get down low or up high for a different perspective.

  • http://www.throughcherylseyesphotography.com/ Cheryl Garrity

    Rick,
    You have made me think. I need to purposefully choose to photograph things out of my comfort zone. You exercise is on my to-do list for this week.
    Thanks

  • raghavendra

    i need to give this a try. But i loved to start with ‘shoot something different’

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2013/08/two-big-wheels.html

  • http://cottoncandydiva.com Evelyn

    Great post! I will definitely be trying these out, thanks

  • Jim Bridger

    I recently took a course and the instructor gave us 2 assignments at the beginning of the 6 week course. One was to pick a color only he made us all do the color “green”. The second assignment was to purposefully take out of focus shots concentrating on lighting, shadows etc. I thought that these were silly tasks until I did them. The variety of photos by my classmates was very interesting. I really think that this sort of assignment, as you say, made me “see” in a different way. Thanks.

  • Lorri A

    Once my arm is our of plaster I am going to be doing these exercises. I am still making photographs but not at my usual rate, the plaster cast gets in the way. :(

  • http://clh-photography.com Candy

    Great assignments! I’m going to share them with my photography group and on my photoblog!

  • http://betterphotography.co/ Mary

    These are wonderful ideas! It’s amazing how often I go out to do some photography and I just don’t see anything to shoot. These tips really get you thinking and seeing. Thanks!

  • Shannon

    Thanks for these ideas. Having a 9-5 job as a photojournalist makes it difficult for me to find “me” time with my camera and I’ve hit the wall. I’m actually leaving work early today since I went in early and I’m going to give one of these a try.

    One thing I do like to do to stay fresh, though, is get low or get high. I try to get a different point of view than the expected for each of my assignments, along with the safety shots just in case the different ones are too different for my editor :)

  • Grace Quinn

    Thank you for the tips, Rick! I have had so much interest in photography since I was about 14 (i’m now 21). school is not much of an option for me right now and I feel intimidated to go shoot. Ive been hired for a few weddings, events and portraits. I have no clue what i’m doing!! Luckily, I got photos for every event. However, like I said before, I have no clue how to use my camera. I have been hungry to learn lately but don’t know where to start. Again, it’s intimidating.. Great assignments suggested! I will practice these like lesson plans while I study my camera. Thanks!!

    If anyone has any suggestions or could point me in any direction, I would really appreciate it!!

    -Grace

  • Archerbod

    I made a reasonable living as a portrait and wedding photographer about 25 years ago with film SLR equipment. Recently taken up the camera again and to get familiar with the new equipment my daughter and I have a weekly challenge for fun with each of us suggesting a one word ‘brief’ then comparing results in up to 3 photos each. I find that by having another person to produce their interpretation of the same brief opens my eyes to alternative techniques and ideas that I might not have seen.

  • Big Mac

    These are useful tips that I will add to my bag of tricks. I created several “assignment folders” for those days I feel uninspired. They are things like: Lines & Patterns, B&W, Macro, Forced Perspective, Different POV, etc. Some days I just feel in a rut. So to keep motivated I try to capture something for one of the assignment folders.

  • christopher_stevenson

    I’ve had countless people ask what gear and/or settings I’ve used to get the good stuff. The default answer was usually something like “I don’t remember. I just take time to see it; or see it coming.” Great article, Mr. Berk. We need more like this. Thanks.

  • KP

    Rick, your article has really helped me out in my photo skills. I am even going to print this out so I can use it in my photography. I’m only a teenager so i have a long way to go but since I’m a beginner, this helped out big time. You’ve been a super big help! Thanks a lot!

Some older comments

  • Shannon

    August 27, 2013 01:34 am

    Thanks for these ideas. Having a 9-5 job as a photojournalist makes it difficult for me to find "me" time with my camera and I've hit the wall. I'm actually leaving work early today since I went in early and I'm going to give one of these a try.

    One thing I do like to do to stay fresh, though, is get low or get high. I try to get a different point of view than the expected for each of my assignments, along with the safety shots just in case the different ones are too different for my editor :)

  • Mary

    August 23, 2013 11:17 pm

    These are wonderful ideas! It's amazing how often I go out to do some photography and I just don't see anything to shoot. These tips really get you thinking and seeing. Thanks!

  • Candy

    August 23, 2013 10:47 pm

    Great assignments! I'm going to share them with my photography group and on my photoblog!

  • Lorri A

    August 23, 2013 09:16 am

    Once my arm is our of plaster I am going to be doing these exercises. I am still making photographs but not at my usual rate, the plaster cast gets in the way. :(

  • Jim Bridger

    August 22, 2013 02:20 am

    I recently took a course and the instructor gave us 2 assignments at the beginning of the 6 week course. One was to pick a color only he made us all do the color "green". The second assignment was to purposefully take out of focus shots concentrating on lighting, shadows etc. I thought that these were silly tasks until I did them. The variety of photos by my classmates was very interesting. I really think that this sort of assignment, as you say, made me "see" in a different way. Thanks.

  • Evelyn

    August 16, 2013 11:22 pm

    Great post! I will definitely be trying these out, thanks

  • raghavendra

    August 16, 2013 12:52 pm

    i need to give this a try. But i loved to start with 'shoot something different'

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2013/08/two-big-wheels.html

  • Cheryl Garrity

    August 16, 2013 02:49 am

    Rick,
    You have made me think. I need to purposefully choose to photograph things out of my comfort zone. You exercise is on my to-do list for this week.
    Thanks

  • Brady White

    August 16, 2013 02:27 am

    Remember - learning to see is not just at eye level - get down low or up high for a different perspective.

  • Patrick

    August 16, 2013 02:25 am

    The Reflections exercise is a great one that I 'discovered' more by accident at first, and was thrilled when viewing photos, and found I had caught an amazing reflection while paying more attention to the actual subject. - Loved them ever since, and now look for an oportunity every chance I get.

  • Mridula

    August 15, 2013 05:39 pm

    I think I have never tried pick a color and I am going to give it a try. Next would be pick a shape.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Salvacion

    August 15, 2013 04:34 pm

    These are great tips! Very good reminder for me especially since I tend to forget about #3 and #5! Thanks for sharing!

  • Marnie

    August 15, 2013 11:59 am

    Hi Rick,

    Thank you for the inspiring post. I'm a beginner in photography and absolutely love it. I'm taking photos of different things as i'm learning how to use all the functions on my camera. I'll definitely try some of these self assignments especially the 15 foot circle and colours.

  • ScottC

    August 15, 2013 08:26 am

    Did something similar to the 15 foot circle once, then it was "10 meters". It was an eye opener?

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/sets/72157625319620514/

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