Three Exercises to Limit Yourself and Grow as a Photographer

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Today’s digital cameras are marvels of modern technology, allowing even the most inexperienced photographer access to state-of-the-art imaging systems that were the domain of supercomputers, and research institutions only a few decades ago. With prices plunging continually lower, and more devices equipped with cameras than ever before, photography has reached the point of ubiquity: cameras are everywhere, and anyone who wants to take photos can do so. But sometimes, the best thing you can do to grow as a photographer is to take the opposite approach and set some strict limits for yourself. By operating within the bounds of some simple constraints, you will often find yourself exploring new photographic possibilities that you had never realized were there before.

Duck pond

1. Limit the number of shots you take

Memory cards are extraordinarily cheap. It’s tempting to buy the biggest card you can afford in order to ensure you can fill it with thousands of pictures and not worry about running out of space. But not too long ago, photographers were limited to just a handful of pictures at a time. Each roll of film (i.e. memory card) could hold 36 shots at most, and they were crazy expensive by today’s standards. Imagine paying four dollars for a memory card that could only hold a couple dozen photos and only be used once! Nevertheless, for decades our photographic forefathers were able to churn out amazing images by working within these limits, and so can you.

Cicaida tree

The next time you go out to shoot, limit yourself to only a handful of pictures–set the number beforehand, and stick to it. In doing so, you will have to be much more purposeful about what you photograph. Rather than take the “spray and pray” approach where you shoot hundreds of photos now and find the good ones later, take a more measured and intentional approach by really studying your subjects and finding the best shots through careful planning. You might be frustrated at first, but will soon find that you develop a much more intimate relationship with your subjects, the lighting, the composition, and other elements of photography. Limiting yourself to only a few pictures will help you make each shot count, and help you shoot for quality instead of quantity.

Night lights

[caption: I limited myself to only a few pictures, and doing so helped me take time to study the surroundings and work on composition and framing.]

2. Limit your focal length

Zoom lenses are a wonderful thing, and are a great way to help you get closer to the action or take in a wide angle of view on a given scene. But zoom lenses on consumer cameras are a fairly recent invention, and not long ago every camera shipped with a simple prime lens, meaning it could not zoom at all. Imagine not being able to zoom in and out! You would have to physically move yourself to get closer to the action–not at all what people expect nowadays. But by limiting your focal length you can, ironically, find yourself stretching your photographic muscles in ways you never thought possible.

Flower bug

[caption: By limiting my focal length I was forced to look for new ways to photograph some flowers and in the process I found a little red spider who seemed happy to pose for me.]

When you allow yourself only one focal length, it forces you to look at the world with a different perspective and see new opportunities for pictures. Let’s say you are out with your kids at the park, but instead of standing on the side and zooming in, try locking your lens at one focal length such as 24mm or 35mm and physically walking around to get closer. You will soon discover new perspectives that you overlooked, because you were relying on the zooming capability of your lens. Or if you normally like to take photos of nature or architecture at a wider settings like 18mm, try setting your focal length to something like 55mm and see what happens.

True, the pictures you take will look nothing like what you are used to, but you will see the world from a new perspective and find all sorts of different photographic opportunities you never realized were there. If the temptation to start zooming in or out strikes, don’t give in. Move yourself around and look for ways to work within the limit you have set, and you will be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Toy top

[caption: Normally I would focus on the entire child playing with a toy, but I think the image of the spinning top with hands in the background is just as effective.]

Of course the best way to limit your focal length is to buy a prime lens, which I highly recommend. Not only will you learn to maximize the possibilities afforded by a single focal length, but you will get other benefits like a much larger aperture which means better photos in low light, and nice blurry backgrounds too.

3. Limit your subject

We’ve all heard people tell us to take time to stop and smell the roses, but what about taking time to photograph them? Or, specifically, one single rose. That’s the idea here: rather than taking pictures of many roses, trees, buildings, sculptures, or people – focus on just one subject and look for new and interesting ways to capture it on digital film. Study it from every possible angle, and find ways of positioning it (or yourself) that might not seem so obvious. Try returning at different times of day, or seasons of the year, and see how it changes. You might end up with dozens or even hundreds of pictures that are boring, uninteresting, or just not all that good. But you will also likely end up with some gems that are far beyond what you thought you could accomplish before.

Tree perspective

[caption: by sticking with only this one tree I was able to find a new way of photographing it that I had never considered before.]

Limiting yourself, in a world with limitless photographic opportunities, might seem counter productive at first. But if you give it a try, you will find that putting some constraints on your photography will help stretch yourself in new ways and find interesting picture opportunities that you might have overlooked hundreds of times before.

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Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as sringsmuth.

  • dantefrizzoli

    I always forget that long ago I could only take 27 pictures.

  • I know what you mean. The switch from film to digital certainly has spoiled us! I remember when my brother got a 64 Megabyte card in 1999 and I thought he would never fill that up. Why would anyone ever want to take so many photos? 🙂

  • Alpha Whiskey Photography
  • “We could not review our images until all 30 shots were taken.”

    That’s a fantastic exercise to try and I enjoyed the photos you posted from your experience. It’s so tempting to look at the little LCD screen after every photo, but I have found this takes me out of the moment and made me more concerned with getting what I thought was the perfect photo instead of one that captures an emotion or tells an interesting story.

  • Tod Davis

    I picked up an old film SLR at a garage sale, it is amazing how shooting film (with just the prime lens it came with) has help all of my photography. In a way despite the advantages of digital, i think it has taken away from the art that photography was

  • javaman83

    I have a 50mm prime lens that rarely leaves my DSLR. It certainly makes me much more thoughtful about my photos, and I’m really fond of the results I’ve been getting with it.

  • Years ago I was skeptical of the usefulness of a 50mm prime lens (“It doesn’t zoom!”) until I bought one of my own, and it changed everything. I’m glad you have gotten some good results! Do you have them posted online anywhere?

  • javaman83

    https://plus.google.com/photos/112772876999603814616/albums/5978180018799302129?authkey=CIP56PXvyYaqYw

    I’m still learning, but everything in that album was taken with it. I don’t have the greatest camera, it’s a Canon Rebel XT, but it does the job.

  • Looks good to me! And that Rebel XT is no slouch either. Just because the camera body is old doesn’t mean it can’t take good photos, as you have shown. My only suggestion would be to get on eye level with the children more–the photos of Justin (I assume that’s the child’s name) where he is looking right into the camera connect with me a lot more than the ones that were taken from a much higher angle. Keep up the good work!

  • javaman83

    Thanks! I’ll keep that suggestion in mind. Justin is my son, actually, and I was trying to wear many different hats that day. I was happy the pictures came out as well as they did.

  • Rye

    I only have a Nikon D3100 and 50mm 1.8G lens. Before I read this, I thought that I really need other lenses and much better camera body to take great images. Now, this article seems like telling me “IT DOESN’T MATTER”. Thanks!

  • Oh wow, you can get so much mileage out of that setup it’s not even funny. As a very small example, you can look at my blog (www.weeklyfifty.com) where every photo I post is taken with that same 50mm 1.8G lens on a Nikon D200, which is a super old camera and way worse than your D3100 🙂

  • blackripleydog

    I could not agree more about limiting the number of shots. I shot for fine art landscapes and follow that practice all the time. If I am experimenting with a new technique, I will take plenty of varied exposures to make sure I am getting what I came for, but generally I will take only a few frames at the right time and then move on. My brother-in-law on the other hand, has his camera set for full-auto and it is just bang, bang, bang………. Ironically, he prints nothing. Post some online and that is the extent of it.

  • I like your practice of taking a few frames and then moving on. I used to worry so much that if I didn’t take a hundred shots of a plant or flower, I would miss the perfect shot. Now I might take two or three shots and then just move on with my life. If they turn out, then great. If not, then I’ve learned something and will improve next time.

  • Susanhope Otf MasonRbe

    For me, when I was younger, in my late 20s and early thirties, I found that shooting film actually held my photography back quite a bit. That was because I was low income and the cost of buying film and then paying for the development was an economic hardship for me, and I could not afford to practice. I never knew what I had, until I got the pictures back, so if I messed up a whole roll, that was an expense I could not afford. My photography has improved more since digital became the norm. I still have much to learn about settings…but composition is my strongest suit. I remember taking one shot, when I was still shooting film–which should have been a masterpiece. The composition was perfect. But, when I got the picture back it was pretty badly out of focus. The composition was still perfect, though. If I had had a digital camera and a tripod, I would have been able to see that it was out of focus right away, and I would have re-shot the picture until I got it right, and then deleted the bad ones.

  • bibin paul

    nice article. simple and effective.

  • Anthony Aaron Cernera

    Very nice – I enjoyed this post! I strongly agree with the primes suggestion. It is one that a protog gave me a while back and the only thing that helped as much as that was going manual. When I’m shooting with a prime I feel like my whole body is into the project and somehow that leads to most thoughtful and emotive shooting. Thanks!!

  • northlander30

    I completely agree with your view Susan! I too started out using an older Praktica MTL3 with a Pentax f1.8 50mm and Opticam f2.8 135mm both primes and I could never get my photos tack sharp or even in focus for that matter. The camera belonged to my Dad and I used it quite a bit when I could afford film. He could take beautiful photos with it. I never could! I now own that camera and lenses and I got into digital photography back when they were first introduced and expensive as hell! I now own the Canon EOS Rebel T3i and I use the lenses from the Praktica with it as well as my Canon lenses. And of course lots of film lol 8,16 and 32gb cards lol.

  • Susan, I sometimes forget how easy we have it nowadays with our digital cameras. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been to get everything properly composed only to find out your shot was out of focus! I often like to hearken back to simpler times, photographically speaking, but incidents like this which are entirely preventable today make me so glad we do have our modern digital devices 🙂

  • Thank you!

  • it would be interesting to practice more and learn from your own errors.

  • blackripleydog

    I recently stayed overnight in Acadia shooting long time exposures on Cadillac Mtn., at Sand Beach, Thunderhole and Jordan Pond working on my technique for shooting the Milky Way. Even tried painting with light at Thunder Hole. I did not leave the Park until 4 that morning. It was a learning experience. Being very deliberate in what shots I took. Nice results but slightly disappointing due to marginal technique and realizing that I needed a heavier tripod due to the constant wind.

  • Scott McElhiney

    Susan, this is almost exactly the story I tell people… digital was what brought me back to serious photography. As a teen I couldn’t afford to experiment, in the last few years I’ve used digital to wrap my head around the basics on the spot and experiment with techniques I couldn’t waste my funds on back then. I chimped the camera a lot while learning and getting comfortable with using manual settings, but more importantly, I usually catch myself when I do something like turning off the autofocus on the lens for a landscape on the tripod and not turning it back on later when taking photos where I need the speed of the camera to deal with the focus… I like that I could take baby steps from Auto to AP to M and not even care what the ‘scene’ modes might be.

  • Fobok

    Same for me. I loved photography in college, I had a Canon EOS RebelX SLR camera I’d had given to me. (Probably nowhere near top of the line, but it was nice enough for me.) But, unlike the people who gave it to me, money was tight for me and I was always afraid to take pictures because film was so expensive, I ended up barely ever using it, only to finally sell it a couple years ago. I could now have over 15 years of experience if I’d had the advantage of digital back then. Now, I’m literally *just* getting back into photography.

  • blackripleydog

    Another thing to consider is if one were to just shoot countless exposures and you do get a money-shot; was it because of refined technique or dumb luck? Knowingly perfecting your craft and ramping up the frame rate do not go hand-in-hand.

  • Exactly. If you get a fantastic shot, but have no idea how you actually made it happen, then what have you learned? You might run around a basketball court shooting the ball randomly, and accidentally land a few awesome buckets. But that doesn’t mean you know how to be an NBA star.

  • Leah Brett Dussault

    I have a Nikon 1 J2 and because of how the mirrorless setup works the most equivalent lens to the nifty fifty is a 18.5mm f1.8. Unless I need another focal length specifically it’s all I shoot with. I can see my photography getting better constantly because of that lens.

  • Michael Nicholls

    I’m fortunate in that I started with film. I think – in fact I know what helped me really improve, was studying the work of inspirational photographers. A personal favourite of mine is the late Axel Bruck.

  • Rich Sanders

    I actually Disagree with alot of the coments here, when i started photography whith a DSLR, there was soo much i could do that i felt it was hard to focus and actually think about what i was doing. since i could just snap off and review all my pictures in a short time i could just keep shooting untill i got what i wanted. I took a class that required the use of an SLR and film. I borrowed a friends old canon slr for the class. the only linse he had was a 50mm prime so that made me think about my techniques even more. I felt that since i had less room for error i had to focus more and actually think about the decisions i was making and what i needed to do to make each snapshot count. I guess to each his own here. I think you will get mixed reviews depending on what generation you talk to. I think people in my generation have trouble focusing because of the sandbox that is digital photography and the older generation remembers how big the price tag on film photography was. either way the purpose of this article is to learn by limiting your focus on certain things. It makes you think more about what you are shooting and how you want to caputre it. Digital and film have very different limits and if you think about the artical they are really saying treat digital like its film. Limit the number of photos you can take, limit your focal length (maybe try prime instead of zoom) and limit your subject (treat a day in the field like a photography class)

  • Great post Simon! As a beginner myself I’ve found that its really hard when you first start because you want to shot everything (anything that looks cool or interesting or tells a story). I’ve even gone to the point of only shooting with my 40mm lens (don’t have a 50mm yet 😉 ) so these tips are great. Thanks for sharing them!

  • I know what you mean about wanting to shoot everything, Luc. And that’s not a bad thing! It’s kind of exciting to see the world through a camera lens for the first time, almost like everything around you is new and exciting. Don’t lose that curiosity, even if you end up taking pics of things that seem boring or don’t tell a story 🙂

  • Thanks Simon for the words of encouragement. I am learning to shoot through the boring times and good times and practice, practice, practice!

  • nospam

    Wow deleting bad images?! Who does that… I keep ALL images all the time.

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