Don’t Know What to Shoot? These 4 Photography Exercises Will Keep You Motivated

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Whether you’re just getting into photography, or if you’ve been at it for years; you can keep yourself rejuvenated, and keep the creative juices flowing by always trying new things.

If you’re feeling uninspired photographically, that’s a sign that you need to shake things up by trying something completely different, or at least something that isn’t your usual style. You might be surprised at how small exercises can boost your creativity while teaching you new techniques and solidifying old principles in your mind.

Who knows, you might even discover a new passion!

To give your brain a little kick in the butt, challenge yourself to try some of these photography exercises. Even if they aren’t new to you, going out shooting with a new purpose feels refreshing and may lead to something completely new.

Fire Wave at Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, by Anne McKinnell

Fire Wave at The Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, taken from a high perspective on an opposite hilltop

1. Change your perspective

Photographers often get in the habit of shooting at eye-level which tends to make photos repetitive and somewhat common. We know this, and so we take the odd shot on our knees or even occasionally lying on the ground.

But is this really enough? Aren’t there other vantage points?

Challenge yourself to go out shooting and never shoot from eye-level for a whole day. Instead, find a new vantage point any time you take a picture. Get yourself up high above your subject, and crouch and shoot from a low angle. But that’s just the beginning. Ideally, you should try shooting your subject from a variety of angles.

Take one shot from below and one from above. Then, take one even lower, and one even higher, if possible. Then, step back a bit. Then step forward. Move to your right, and move to your left. Taking the same picture from many positions adds variety and will help you understand it better. Plus, you may discover a way of seeing something that you didn’t expect.

If you resolve to do this with every picture you take, you’ll begin to really understand the subtle effect that perspective has on an image, which points of view work for which subjects, and how this can inform your shooting style from here on out.

Fire Wave at Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, by Anne McKinnell

Another perspective on Fire Wave, this time taken up close, from a low angle.

2. Create a story

Rather than trying to capture your subject in one single image, try doing a series instead. Create what LIFE Magazine coined a “photo essay” – a series of images surrounding a single subject or group of subjects, each of which pinpoints a different aspect of its nature. This can be as simple as zooming in on its finer details, or photographing it in different contexts. This method of doing things defines the subject not only by how it appears in a single moment, but also by the way it changes (and the way it stays the same) over several moments. It also helps to craft your visual storytelling abilities.

Choose one subject and cover it completely, the way a journalist would. Do this either by photographing every aspect of it you can think of, photographing it through the course of a day, or by revisiting it over and over throughout a week. Include shots at different distances and using different focal lengths – include some close-up details and some wide compositions – and whittle all the shots down to around ten final images, making sure that no two photos are alike. When you have your picks, try to organize them in an order that tells a coherent story, whether it’s narrated or implied.

Terlingua Ghost Town Texas by Anne McKinnell

These three photos are from Terlingua, a ghost town in Texas.

3. Shoot in Black and White

For a whole day, turn your camera to Black and White mode and don’t take it off. Of course, you can convert your RAW images to black and white after-the-fact in post-processing, but as an exercise, try shooting them in Black and White.

At first the limitation may seem frustrating, but Black and White photography requires a completely different way of seeing the world in terms of shape, form, and contrast, rather than through the common visual cues that you’re used to. Composing your photos in this way will invariably improve your compositions in colour photography, too. You can play with contrast settings in-camera or in post-processing to perfect the highlight to shadow ratio which defines a good monochrome image.

Bandon Beach, Oregon, by Anne McKinnell

Bandon Beach, Oregon.

4. Make manual long exposures

For this exercise, you’re going to take full advantage of digital photography’s instant feedback, and use it to play with making manual long exposures.

With your DSLR mounted firmly on a tripod, set the ISO to 100, set the aperture to the smallest opening (the largest f number like f/22 for example), and set the shutter speed to Bulb mode. When the camera is to Bulb mode, the shutter will stay open for as long as the shutter button is held down, but it’s a better idea to attach a wired remote shutter release to prevent camera shake.

Once you have your composition and your focus set, press and hold the button on the remote to hold the shutter open for a few counted seconds. Just guess how many seconds will be required based on the light level. Then, check your results. If the image is too bright, try again, but count half as many seconds. If the image is too dark, count twice as many seconds – or more, if necessary. Do this over and over again, in different scenarios and lighting situations. This practice will hone your ability to read the levels of light present at any given time.

You’ll get the most interesting results if there is a certain amount of movement in your frame, such as drifting clouds in the sky, crowds of people, or running water. The longer your exposure is, the more blurred that movement will appear to the point where water may seem like nothing more than mist, and people will disappear from the image altogether. If you have a solid neutral density filter your exposures can be even longer, creating more extreme effects.

Folly Beach Pier, Charleston, South Carolina by Anne McKinnell

Folly Beach Pier, Charleston, South Carolina – 2 second exposure.

Folly Beach Pier, Charleston, South Carolina by Anne McKinnell

Folly Beach Pier, Charleston, South Carolina – 30 second exposure.

Don’t wait until you start feeling uninspired to try these exercises! Keep your photography energized and creative by trying something new on a regular basis. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be your “thing”, it’s fun and you’re bound to learn something.

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.

  • Russ Bishop

    Great tips Anne! More than enough to keep anyone busy for a long time.

  • Great article. Here is my 4S long exposure with Lumia 1020

  • Anuj Grover

    Lovely article. Although still “DSLR-less”, I love to read photography articles.. Why the heck are these DSLR babies so expensive!!

  • Showing the world what the 1020 can do eh, bro? 🙂

  • Hahaha! Yeah, why not? 😀

  • Lumia and proud of it! 😀

  • Great article on getting beyond photographer’s block! Making it personal or having some sort of theme or goal in mind also helps. And black and white is always classic! – Vanessa

  • Karen Lotts

    Great article. Just up graded to a new camera…..still trying to figure it out and this article helped me!! Now I just need to find time to take photos!!!

  • Michael Owens

    Not very sharp though eh.

  • Its hand-held, maybe that’s why 🙂

  • Edmund

    Hmm, I think that no lens is at its best at f22. Why not recommend an ND filter?

  • Michael Owens

    Probably lol

  • Mary-3amStamper

    Great article, Anne. I love that the exercises are simply phrased and easy to understand what to do! Can’t wait to start doing them!

  • Kovács Róbert

    Yes! Between f8 and f11 is the sharpest…at f22 great diffraction coming in

  • Goeffrey

    Hi Anuj,
    Go to ebay and get a used DSLR for under 100 dollars.
    There are deals and deals.

  • Anuj Grover

    Hi Geoffrey,
    Appreciate the advice. I’m based in India and did check ebay. Found mere 24 listing as compared to about a few thousand listings on ebay US.
    Shall keep trying my luck though 🙂
    Thanks again!

  • Sharon Ann Witteck Austin

    I appreciate the depth of content and suggestions you wrote for 2. tell a story!

  • Ted Dudziak

    Great tips that should be included in a regular outing. The last one may be a bit of a challenge since it implies the use of a tripod but photographers tend to get creative to get “the shot”.

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