The Joy Of Photography Experimentation

The Joy Of Photography Experimentation

One of the great aspects of writing for DPS is the large audience it entails. One of the great challenges of writing for DPS is the large audience it entails.

This post will not be for everyone and I do apologize. Not every post can be. For those who are set in their ways and only wish to see absolute perfect exposure in every single shot, ever, then you can skip this post. I’m going to talk about messing up and getting things wrong, on purpose.

In this post I want to encourage those of you starting out in photography. I want to encourage you to try for two things; 1) Learn the basics. Understand the basics. Become well versed in the basics of how light is captured and presented in the digital realm and in print. Knowledge of the basics will allow you to create art you enjoy seeing. 2) Experiment with abandon. Don’t be afraid to mess up. Don’t bother asking others “What would happen if I forced a higher shutter speed?” Just do it and learn from it.

The joy of experimenting with digital photography is instant feedback (via a camera’s display and histogram) and hopefully instant understanding. “When I do this, this happens.” Photography, for all its glory as an art form, really isn’t all that exciting from a discovery standpoint. It follows certain laws of physics in regard to what light does. From experimentation I know just how much darker my exposure will be if I increase my shutter speed two stops. It’s not like I discovered a new species of plant in a rainforest or a new galaxy in the night sky.  But it is still just as valuable from a learning standpoint.

Experimentation is what you do after you get out of the classroom (as a photography instructor, I of course believe starting with guided explanation of the fundamentals is important). You will read about what you should and shouldn’t do and most people’s intent is in the right place. They are trying to help you learn without you having to spend the time and expense of doing it yourself. In the days of film this was very helpful indeed because experimenting always had an out-of-pocket expense for film and development.

In the age of digital photography, after the initial expense of a camera, lens and memory card, that barrier is gone. Reading websites and books can still be a shortcut to learning (and an eyeopener to ideas you never even thought about) and shouldn’t be totally dismissed. Alongside that learning, though, you will gain more from doing than from reading and this is where experimentation comes in.

Want to see what a scene looks like overexposed? Go for it. Think a picture needs far more blue saturation when viewed on a PC? No problem. Think you can make a great macro lens out of two extension tubes and a reverse mounting ring? More power to you.

Chances are most of your shots will not come out to your level of satisfaction. But some might. Some might look very, very cool to you. A shot might even ‘speak’ to you. And that is the heart of art. Connection with an image. Emotion stirred. If it works for you, don’t worry too much what others, including me or any other fancy writer on a website, might thing. It doesn’t have to a literal rendition of a scene nor does it need to be tack sharp in all corners.

Chances are at some point in the future you will look back at shots you took 10, 20, 40 years ago and they will either still speak to you or you will think they are horrible. “What was I thinking?” is a phrase often spoken with regard to photography, fashion and haircuts. But without experimenting, without trying new things, without learning for yourself, you will not progress towards your own vision and creating art you enjoy.

You will read over and over about what you ‘should’ do in photography. There is a great amount of learning to be had from those who have taken the time to learn and offer their wisdom. Alongside that learning, experiment. See for yourself what happens when you do X or Y. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. They are a great teacher.

And if others don’t have a strong interest in helping you learn, don’t pay much attention to what they have to say while you are experimenting. You’re not doing it for them, anyway.

Have fun and keep shooting.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • the palette November 15, 2011 03:58 am

    It's the best time to make a few plans for the long run and it is time to be happy. I have read this submit and if I could I want to counsel you some fascinating issues or suggestions. Perhaps you could write subsequent articles referring to this article. I want to learn even more things about it!

  • Jay Fitzpatrick May 24, 2011 12:36 am

    I created a pretty cool image once totally by coincidence while trying to do a self-portrait of me blowing bubbles. I found that if I left the shutter open for 1.5 seconds and used a flash as well as a little ambient light (a 25-watt bulb), I could capture a soap bubble AND a streak which resulted from the reflection of the light bulb while the bubble floated downward. Now I have been further experimenting with this technique, learned by happenstance.


  • Jason McDonald May 22, 2011 12:17 am

    I love it! Great article. That's all I have to say. :-)

  • Madison Raine May 21, 2011 04:34 am

    @dayne_alpha how long have you wanted to be a photographer? If your young, then you should just get a plain normal digital camera, one to make sure you are sure you want to be a photographer, you might change your mind. (Like I've had two or three different digital cameras these last few years, and now at the end of this year I'm going to get like a real NICE camera, ) When picking out a camera, see how much it cost, what all is included, like lenses, and what features it has. But still I recommend getting a cheap digital camera for like a $100 first, and then wait a while then get a nicer one. Or have you been taking pictures already with a digital? How old are you? If you don't mind me asking.
    Madison Raine

  • dayne_alpha May 20, 2011 03:14 pm

    I am photo enthusiast. I really wanted to be a professional photographer someday. But I don't know where to start. I don't have basic informations on what kind of camera is appropriate for a beginner. What will you recommend? Hope to know more about this. Thank you!

  • Madison Raine May 20, 2011 05:05 am

    @Mridula , well it is good you found this site. I found it last year since I was trying my best to learn as much about photography as my little brain can handle. Because my parents don't want to buy me a real nice camera until they know I'm serious about photography. So all my pictures are done on a cheap little digital camera, it's killing me slowly.

  • Laura May 20, 2011 04:39 am

    THIS IS THE BEST article I have ever read! I am constanly "learning" by reading books, magazines, web articles and anything else I can get my hands on. Your words have put it into perspective for me. You have given me the push I needed to go out and experiment. To not care what others think, but to care what I think and to try what I want to try. Thank you.

  • Kapil May 19, 2011 06:31 pm

    Until I read this article I thought I am going mad and little hesitant to show my pics about my "experimentation". But after reading your article I think :) I am on the right path. I am experimenting quite a bit with shutter speed and light.
    Hence the title of my theme - K Light - Paint Scribble Write. Down below is the link

    My latest - Dino Light

  • Mridula May 19, 2011 05:29 pm

    I wish I had discovered this website as soon as I acquired a DSLR but then better late than never.

  • SJCT May 19, 2011 06:12 am

    Thanks for the article! Being fairly new to photography (DSLRs at least) I tend to experiment...a lot. Sometimes the results are good, sometimes the results are great and sometimes the results are pretty bad. No matter what though, I always learn something.

  • Vijay May 18, 2011 07:20 pm

    Some of my recent experimentations that I love..

    Taken in Paris -------

    [eimg link='' title='Story of Shadows....' url='']

    [eimg link='' title='on the banks of Seine River' url='']

  • utsuri May 18, 2011 12:31 pm

    I've always thought as the classwork and books of photography like a painter learning about paint, brushes and canvas. Different types do different things, and you have to know how each brush works, but to really understand how to make orange from red and yellow you need to mix the paint on the palette. And then, if you add more yellow than red, well you have a different orange. Same as if you have a slower shutter speed, or a wider aperture. Change the focus. Maybe the background's more interesting than the foreground. Maybe, like's been said above, the accident shot, the one you messed up, actually looks way cooler and more interesting than the 'perfect' shot. Perfection is boring; mistakes make us human. It's what makes things interesting. At least, that's what this novice photog is thinking. (It probably helps that her artist mom encouraged creativity)

  • utsuri May 18, 2011 12:31 pm

    I've always thought as the classwork and books of photography like a painter learning about paint, brushes and canvas. Different types do different things, and you have to know how each brush works, but to really understand how to make orange from red and yellow you need to mix the paint on the palette. And then, if you add more yellow than red, well you have a different orange. Same as if you have a slower shutter speed, or a wider aperture. Change the focus. Maybe the background's more interesting than the foreground. Maybe, like's been said above, the accident shot, the one you messed up, actually looks way cooler and more interesting than the 'perfect' shot. Perfection is boring; mistakes make us human. It's what makes things interesting. At least, that's what this novice photog is thinking. (It probably helps that her artist mom encouraged creativity)

  • Erik Kerstenbeck May 18, 2011 10:53 am

    For all Hockey fans!

    This was an experiment using a bit of Vitamine E Oil to get some reflection from this Hockey Puck. The net pattern on the puck is from the grate of the soft box I used to light this....I like to think of it as the back of the net!

  • Curtis Cunningham May 18, 2011 12:26 am

    Thanks for sharing. Here's my latest experiments:

  • Curtis Cunningham May 18, 2011 12:21 am

    Thanks for sharing. It was a great encouragement to me as I find myself experimenting more and more these days in between paying jobs.

    Here's a couple examples of the kinds of things I'm trying these days:[eimg url='' title='the-mad-scientist-9164.jpg']

  • Niki Jones May 17, 2011 11:35 pm

    All very true, I look back on photos I shot years ago and quite often shake my head that I ever thought they were good, however the key thing is that I learned something from each of them that I applied a little better the next time.

  • louie rochon May 17, 2011 11:31 pm

    Just wanted to thank you for your contributions to photography. I've read the last few pieces and recently related to your article about breaking the rules. I'm working on a series of macro florals that started exactly that way - an accident, and I have found an art form that I love and many others find fascinating as well.

    I shoot these flowers in macro in a completely dark room and light them with hand held led flashlights and long exposures - pretty unconventional but amazing results. I have 30 seconds or more to switch lights on and off, move around them (a dance of sorts) with mini flashlights, highlighting perhaps just one tip of a petal and as you said in your article, with digital, I can instantly make adjustments (hold that right light for 3 seconds more, etc).

    Anyway, thank you for encouragement.

    Best wishes,

    Louie Rochon[eimg link='' title='ranolculan sunset' url='']

  • shotslot May 17, 2011 08:47 pm

    Cheers Peter I think it's really useful to encourage people to get away from 'doing what they are told to do' and I'd also add something else in that without experimentation you'll never develop your own style, you'll just endlessly reproduce that of others. Moving on from imitation is a key part of learning - when we take our driving test we can drive, but aren't necessarily competant to deal with everything that's thrown at us and I think photography is the same - we learn the basics and then we learn how to 'bend' the rules.

  • Linus May 17, 2011 06:47 pm

    Nice article. I agree the best way to learn is experiment yourself, but make sure you know the basics and your camera manual to adjust those "basics". Here is an example of first of my few shots for night time photography.
    I tried some shots with different angle of view and the results were great :). Here is one of them:

  • Noel May 17, 2011 05:20 pm

    That's absolutely true... being an amateur photographer, yes! I study the technical aspects and it's ruling for a purpose, to bend those rules in an pleasant and artistic manner. Sometimes I have an image experimentation, I totally follow all the rules of photography, setting the white balance, subjects on the third part, well balance histogram, and yet am not happy with the result, it looks to me an ordinary photo...nothing so special, so I played with it, darken some areas, exposed some areas, tilt and I found much pleasing. There is nothing wrong in following those rules, but if you want to recognize and exemptable, you need to step out. (now I am in 4 months of experimenting, my images is not good enough but so different from the first time I click the shutter)

  • scott May 17, 2011 03:10 pm

    Great article, reminds that I really need to step out the norm and just how easy (and inexpensive it is to do so). I'll be giving this a try.

    So far my experiments have been limited to post processing, with an eye towards improvement of the basics rather than artisitic effect.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck May 17, 2011 11:35 am


    Once I started freezing everything and then shooting it. My Wife had a glass fish which I placed in some tupperware, filled it with water and threw it in the freezer. I had the fish sticking its nose out of the ice...I applied a bit of blue light. Sort of a stylized "Ice Fishing" ....what was I thinking?

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer May 17, 2011 11:10 am

    My latest photography experimentation was not that radical, but since I basically never shoot silhouettes and very rarely do any personal shooting, last week I experimented with some great blue heron sunset silhouette shots:

    I am saying this in every comment i write on dPS & I cannot believe more people do not mention the extreme annoyance of a fadeout popup coming up on every page on dPS begging us to subscribe to their news letter. Right in the middle of reading a post, that experience gets interrupted. This practice should be completely stopped, and at the very least if you have entered your e-mail the site should remember you and not ask every single time you return. If you are extremely annoyed by this, please comment as well.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck May 17, 2011 11:02 am


    On a trip to Napa, CA, I saw a series of pictures that I had trouble to identify. After a while it struck me that they were slices of fruit shot dead on. I experimented with a bit and settled on this Blood Orange which I lit from the bottom. It took numerous tries and adjustments to get what I finally liked, and like the author said, "What was I thinking?"

  • Graciousness May 17, 2011 10:44 am

    The problem with photography is that its reliance on technology as a medium of creation, therefore, people tend to forget that photography is an art form and not merely a technological process. I've read it so many times where people say that it's not art and I cringe everytime that is mentioned. When a photographer or an artist is focused on the process of creation that technicality precedes the content of his or her work over expression of personal vision, then the soul of his passion or endeavors is lost. Mediocrity is produced.

    The technical aspect of photography is to lead us towards knowledge of our medium (the camera) so that we can shape our vision with our images (photographs). Knowledge is suppose to free us to express, not limit us to create. Hence, this article brilliantly reminds us to get out of our technical boxes, step over the line, find our style and voice through images we produce. Go against the crowd and create an uproar with your work if you must. In the end, if the image you produce speaks of your own inner vision and it has fed your hungry, creative beast inside, then art is created.

    Only through experimentation can we discover and create something new for ourselves and hopefully, the world!

  • Johnp May 17, 2011 10:35 am

    Yes I agree as well with Peter. I find it harder to be more artistic in a photo as I tend to concentrate on getting the photo right (exposure, focus, etc) rather than on the artistic side of an image. I think you need to "messup" occasionally to let the artistic juices flow.

  • Albin May 17, 2011 10:25 am

    I think this is good advice for serious novice shooters who find themselves paralyzed by "too much information" on photo sites. On the other hand, I'm sure you're not saying "ignorance is bliss." I was a family snapshot shooter until a few years ago, and have move up to higher-end Canon P/S cameras, but not to DSLR for my limited purposes. When I started, I didn't know from nothing, including blown highlights, underexposed details that could be "pulled out" with Photoshop, or ISO noise from camera presets. It was camera user forums that opened my eyes to how to look at my images and how much better they could be if I figured out my machine.

    So yes, there's something to be said for having an open mind about shooting, but an open mind doesn't necessarily mean an empty mind.

  • happyspace May 17, 2011 10:10 am

    Thanks Peter. When I experiment, all the theory that I have read really comes together and makes sense.

  • Madison Raine May 17, 2011 09:08 am

    It's an amazing thing when you mess up but the photo ends being beautiful. I love when that happens! Or if you just have a "blah" boring photo and you edit it just a tiny bit and it ends up looking amazing.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck May 17, 2011 08:30 am


    I love experimenting with different object and lighting situations. Here is a slaice of blood orange that I lit from underneath - makes the entire slice glow!

    I froze a pocket watch inside a block of ice and photographed it after it had melted a bit.

  • Paul S May 17, 2011 07:42 am

    Great article I do crime scene photography and I always teach others just go shoot try and take shots everyday under all types of conditions. It so much easier now thanks to digital. We use to have to shoot a bunch of film and hope we got our evidence. Now we know we have it before we leave the scene. Also thanks to digital photography we now get better fingerprints from photos than lifting them with dust and tape.

  • Jason Grear May 17, 2011 07:32 am

    I was on a shoot with friends and for the first time did a custom white balance. After shooting the model, I went to another part of the shoot and began shooting another model. I couldn't figure out why my pictures were blue until I remembered the settings. I prefer the blue images over the properly white balanced images. Good post!

  • Grant D. Taylor May 17, 2011 07:12 am

    I agree completely with this article. Experimentation is key to photography. Photography would still be a room with a hole in the wall if someone had not experimented with trying to make the image permanent and plenty of people said that they should not do it. I love experimenting with photography. It is what makes photography the most fun and rewarding.