It’s tempting to think you need a new piece of photography equipment to become more creative. While sometimes it’s true, (macro photography, for example, is much easier with a macro lens) creativity works best within restraints.
So, how do you become more creative without buying more gear? Here are some ideas to take you out of your comfort zone and give you new skills to master.
1. Find a new subject
Every photographer has a favorite subject and others that they photograph rarely, if at all. For me, that would be any kind of still life, including food photography. The first challenge is to find a new subject. It should be something that you haven’t photographed before. Even better if it helps you learn new photography techniques.
For example, are you a landscape photographer who has never taken photos at night? Then set yourself the challenge of taking some great photos of the night sky. You won’t need any extra gear – just the desire and drive to learn a new skill.
Once you’ve found a new subject ask yourself the question, “How can I take this to the next level?”
For instance, in my case (using the earlier example of food photography) it’s easy to go to a restaurant or cafe, order some food, and take a photo of it. There’s hardly any work involved as it’s the chef’s responsibility to make the dish look good, as this photo below shows.
It’s a lot harder to do the same yourself at home. Preparing the dish from scratch and presenting it properly so it looks delicious is much more difficult. But you’ll learn a lot more about food photography from the process.
2. Find themes and projects
A theme is a connection between photos. One way to identify the themes running through your work is to pick your favorite 10-20 photos taken in the last 12 months. Examine your choices analytically. What subjects are you photographing the most? What lenses do you use most often? Are your favorite photos color, black and white, or a mixture of the two?
You are looking for themes that help you decide what you want to photograph next. When I did this exercise I saw that two themes dominated – long exposures and street photography. This is a long exposure photograph from Spain.
This is a street portrait taken at Carnival in Cadiz.
As a result, this coming year I will find some new locations for long exposure photography, and more cultural events to photograph. The idea is to build a body of work around an interesting theme. The project will grow as you pursue it.
3. Find new light
Let’s say you are a portrait photographer who works in natural light. You like to be on location with your models at the end of the day and work during the golden hour.
If this is you, what other types of light could you shoot in? If you normally shoot outdoors, what about an indoor location? If you like working on sunny days, how about a cloudy or rainy day?
I lived in Wellington, New Zealand for several years. There were only two or three foggy days during that time. It was a new type of light for me – here’s one of the photos I took in the fog.
You can apply this to any genre of photography. Think about the type of light you prefer to work in, and then change it around by trying something different.
4. Use the wrong lens
The earlier exercise of picking your best images from the previous 12 months should highlight the lenses you prefer to use for your favorite subjects. What happens if you try something different?
The idea here is to use the wrong lens for the job, or at least a lens you’re not accustomed to using.
Imagine, for example, that you are a photographer who only ever uses telephoto lenses to shoot portraits. What happens if you use a wide-angle lens instead? How can you make it work? Yes, the portrait will look horrible if you get too close to your model with a wide-angle lens. But what about taking a more environment approach? The model becomes part of the scene and the wide-angle lens helps you capture it. The exercise will force you to see differently and find creative ways to use unfamiliar equipment.
But what about taking a more environmental approach? The model becomes part of the scene and the wide-angle lens helps you capture it. The exercise will force you to see differently and find creative ways to use unfamiliar equipment. I made this portrait with a 24mm lens. It’s okay, but the distortion means it probably wasn’t the best lens to use.
Here’s another photo, taken with the same lens. I used it to photograph the model in a natural environment and it worked much better.
Hopefully, these creative exercises will help you become a better photographer. Feel free to adapt and combine them. For instance, what happens if you shoot a new subject with the wrong lens in a new type of light? You won’t know until you try it, but you’ll have fun finding out.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about the creative side of photography then please check out my ebook Mastering Photography.