Get Outside Your Photography Comfort Zone to Learn and Grow as a Photographer

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As photographers, we usually start out photographing everything and anything. All subjects are game as we explore our new found passion. When we grow and get more serious about our craft, we often try to find our unique place in the industry. Our niche, our comfort zone, where we can specialize and make a name for ourselves.

This is a good thing! A photographer that has a unique niche is more memorable than a photographer that covers every subject. It’s better to be the dog portrait guy, or the black and white waterfall girl, than to be forgettable.

Convict Lake California by Anne McKinnell

One of my favourite things to photograph: water scenes at twilight.

But just because you’ve specialized in a particular area of photography doesn’t mean you can’t continue to explore your craft. There is much to be learned from photographing other things, and applying any lessons learned to your niche. In fact, there is much you can learn from photographing things that you specifically don’t like to shoot.

Get out of your photography comfort zone

So I challenge you to come up with a short list of things you don’t like to photograph, and then give them a try. Remember, you don’t have to be good at it. Don’t worry about trying to create a masterpiece. You’re not going to show these photos to anyone. But, by getting outside of your comfort zone and giving yourself the permission to play, you’re bound to learn something along the way.

Elephant in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania by Anne McKinnell

Applying lessons learned about shadow and light in portrait photography to wildlife photography.

Afraid of portraits? Photograph one

For example, when I did this exercise, the thing on the top of my list was portraits. I’ve always been somewhat terrified of doing portraits! Also on my list was sports, cars, and architecture.

It was serendipitous when a friend of mine asked me to photograph her newborn. As the terror swept through me, I remembered my list and realized I should take the opportunity. Of course I advised her to hire a real newborn photographer since I had no experience in this area. But I still tried, and I made some images that were pretty good. But more importantly, I learned some things that I could apply to the areas of photography I was more interested in, like landscapes and wildlife.

Working inside was new to me and since I didn’t own any lights, I worked with natural light from the window. As I positioned my subjects around the room, I noticed how the light fell on their faces, and learned to pay very close attention to the direction of the light. I also noticed how important it was not to have any distracting things in the background, which also applies to many other areas of photography.

Great White Egret by Anne McKinnell

Using rim lighting and non-distracting backgrounds (learned doing portraits) in wildlife photography.

Try sports photography

The second thing on my list of things I wasn’t interested in photographing was sports. So I headed up to the local university where there is always something happening on a weekend, and found a rugby game to photograph.

I learned something very important that day. You see, I don’t know a thing about rugby, and it quickly became obvious that I couldn’t capture a special moment, because I had no idea when it was going to happen. I had to sit and watch, and try to figure out how the game worked, and only then did I have a chance.

I didn’t make any good images that day, but I sure learned a lesson that I apply to wildlife photography all the time. I sit and watch, and learn the behaviour of the animals before I try to photograph them. That way I can anticipate what is going to happen, and come away with a photograph that captures a special moment in time.

Lion and cub at Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania by Anne McKinnell

Anticipating the special moments in wildlife photography.

How about architecture photography?

Another thing on my list at the time I did this exercise was architecture, but after playing with it for awhile I discovered a new passion. Now I love photographing architecture. One thing I learned is that most architectural subjects are inherently symmetrical, and while the rule of thirds works, symmetrical compositions work really well too. Now I apply this principle to other subjects that are inherently symmetrical as well.

Yucca at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico by Anne McKinnell

Using a symmetrical composition in landscape photography.

Challenge yourself! Give yourself time to play! Remember that this is an exercise just for you, to help you explore your craft and grow as a photographer.

Exploring subjects is just one way to accelerate your photography learning curve. (It’s a great way of finding your niche too!) For more ways to speed up the learning curve, check out my eBook “8 Ways to Accelerate Your Photography.”

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

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