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Photography is like most other professions or hobbies in that you will improve and get better with training. But, like other skills, you need to try and set yourself a structure and actively try and improve the areas that you may not be good at. Sure, like anything else, there are those that are naturally skilled at seeing a scene and pre-visualising a shot, but the following photography exercises will help anyone become a better photographer.
Like most photographers who grew up in the 90s, my first introduction to photography was at college and university using film. I spent hours in the darkroom developing the photos I had taken. Whilst, like most, I love the romantic notion of shooting with film, the reality is that digital photography offers so much more freedom.
However, the one downside of digital photography is that it also allows you to snap away without really having to worry about the number of photos taken. Not like using film where literary every photo taken cost a few cents.
But also, without the ability to review the photo instantly on the back of your camera, it meant that you had to trust your instincts and ability for capturing a great photo. All of this combined to ensure that you really had to think before taking a photo – thus meaning you had to be better at seeing something and capturing it.
If you have been photographing for a while and want to take your skills to the next level, get or rent a film camera and spend a while using it. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised when you go back to your DSLR camera.
Another way that you can train yourself to make every shot count is by setting yourself a limit on a photo session. Say you are planning on photographing a local market, set yourself a limit of six shots for the day only. So if you reach six you’ll need to delete one before taking any more.
The reason for this is that you will have to become really analytical about your photos. Setting yourself a small shot list can help ensure you capture six photos with variety that capture the whole experience rather than just a small element.
As an example, if you were photographing a market you could set out your six shots as such:
You would then work through your shot list and aim to capture the best photo that you can for each one and in theory replacing each shot you have taken with something better. You will then end up with six fantastic photos from a shoot rather than 300 mediocre ones. Do this enough times and you’ll notice that your “great” photos from a shoot will begin to rise.
Do this enough times and you’ll notice that your number of “great” photos from a shoot will begin to rise.
Every photographer has something that they are the least comfortable with photographing. For you, it might be something technical like photographing in low light conditions. For others, it might be capturing landscapes or a fear of photographing people.
Whatever you are least comfortable with, you should aim to improve that. Not necessarily because it is something you will use in your branch of photography, but because it will teach you new skills that will become useful in your genre of photography.
For example, you may be a wedding photographer and decide that you are going to improve your sports photography. That genre requires you to work fast as the action moves quickly, so learning skills that can help you do that will no doubt come in useful at weddings.
Trying a new aspect of photography will also give you a glimpse into something different and you never know, you may end up loving it.
New photographers often ask me what I would recommend they do when starting out in travel photography. I always respond that I think they should get a portfolio together and approach a managed stock agency. The key word in the previous sentence is “managed”. So what is a managed stock agency? Fundamentally there are two types of stock photo agencies. There are ones that you simply upload photos and as long as they pass technical quality checks (i.e. there are no chromatic aberrations, they are sharp, no nudity, etc.) they will be accepted regardless of composition or subject.
Then there are managed stock photo agencies where not only do your photos go through the same rigorous quality checks, but someone at the agency also edits them. This means someone might look through the 100 photos that you have submitted and choose 20 to go up for sale on their site. They obviously choose photos that they feel will sell and this is a really good way to gauge how sellable your photos are and also if you are improving over time.
For example, for your first few submissions, you may find that the agency accepts an average of 10 photos but by your 20th submission that average might be getting to 30 or 40. This shows that you are improving.
The general rule of photography is that you photograph certain subjects at certain times to be able to capture the best photos. For example, landscape shots will be shot during the golden hour, portraits on overcast days, food outdoors in the shade, and so on. While there is a reason for these rules and wherever possible you should aim to follow them as you will capture great photos, sometimes breaking them will give you far more dramatic photos.
But photographing in harsh conditions like midday for outdoor photography, low light conditions or backlit for portraits, will also mean you have to think outside the traditional photography box and work out how you can tackle the difficult conditions. Not only will this help you gain valuable skills but it may also come in handy when you are on a real shoot and encounter these conditions.
Another great exercise to improve your photography is to work on a brief. You can either set yourself a brief or you can ask someone you know to set you one, but treat it as a real-life brief that you might get from a client. Get the person setting the brief to give you as much detail as possible and when you have taken the photos, present them to him as if he is the client.
Get their feedback and if you need to shoot things again, do so. The great thing about working on a brief is that you have a very specific remit of what is needed and as such you will find yourself being much more focused. If you work with a stock photo agency then you can always ask them for a brief as they will often have specific photo needs that they will be more than happy to share.
I have lost count of the number of times I have heard someone say, “I’ll fix that in post-production”. The purpose of post-production should be to enhance your photos rather than create them. You should always aim to get as much right when you are taking the photo rather than trying to fix it in post-production later.
By setting yourself a photography exercise that you won’t use any post-production you will have to try and get the photo right at the time of shooting. So if there’s a rubbish bin (garbage can) in your frame you’ll need to try and find a way to crop it out. Or if the light isn’t great you’ll need to wait until it is.
By removing the safety blanket of post-production you will find yourself getting better at taking photos.
The exercises above are not the only options. As you progress through your photography journey whether that is a profession or a hobby you will come up with your own photography exercises that you can do. The key is to constantly look to improve and never stop learning.
Have you got any other good photography exercises? Please share them below.