How do you get photography into them?
July 24, 2008 4:59 PM   Subscribe

What are the best exercises to improve photographic skills? I am planning a series of workshops with both young and mature students who want to engage with photography. The workshops can be a preparation for studying photography at university or form a basis of a portfolio. Ultimately I am trying to encourage creative development and critical thinking about photography.

I am looking for exercises and workouts that help to develop visual literacy skills, make students think creatively and force them to get out of their photographic 'comfort zone'.

The challenge is to set up tasks that make the students ask questions about the limits of photography, about the ways in which photographs are being produced and perceived.

What assignments encourage thinking and seeing like an artist, an art director or an editor?

The essence of the question is: What are the best ways of developing creative photographic skills?
posted by slimeline to Education (16 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Take lots of pictures. This helps with composition and also to learn how the camera and lens translate the world into pixels.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:14 PM on July 24, 2008

Composition is the major aspect that can be improved upon quickly and easily. Rule of thirds etc, demonstrate and practice it through actual photography but also drawing, study of photography and study of art.
posted by fire&wings at 5:37 PM on July 24, 2008

I like to give myself certain limitations that force me to see things in a different way. For example:

-Shoot only subjects within 5 feet.
-Shoot with only a prime lens, or a zoom at a single focal length.
-I sometimes shoot things I'm normally not inspired by or subjects I am not good at. (I took my camera to the last baseball game I attended a couple days ago, for example. I also don't think I am good at nature photography, for example, so I sometimes make myself shoot landscapes.)
-Go to a relatively mundane place or event to look for opportunities for photography.
-Shoot some night shots with a tripod.

Basically, it's easy to think there is nothing interesting enough to photograph. But making an assignment to come away with just one good photograph in a specific situation or location forces the photographer to see things in a new way.

Some other suggestions:
-Shots of people that tell something about them without showing their faces.
-Shots of objects on the ground
-Shots of clouds
You can also assign objects like, shoes, toys, money, etc. Or assign a cliches subject, but approached in a new way: trees and flowers for example.

Paradoxically, the more limiting and strict the assignment, the greater the opportunity for creativitly.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 5:40 PM on July 24, 2008 [4 favorites]

-- Studying the history of photography
-- Shooting black and white film and learning to develop and tone in the darkroom
-- Taking a drawing class
-- Learning about other photographers
-- Learning how to use artificial light
-- Using natural light--shooting at sunrise and sunset
-- Shooting portraits
-- Shooting news assignments
-- Learning about cinematography
-- Learning about Photoshop
-- Learning the business of photography, the internet, Flickr, copyright
-- Hanging out with professional photographers
-- Shooting with plastic cameras like a Holga
-- Going to gallery shows
-- Going to a photography seminar/conference
-- Assisting
-- Reading photo books
posted by girlmightlive at 5:44 PM on July 24, 2008

Look at a lot of good photography, and think about what makes it "good".
posted by mikeand1 at 6:01 PM on July 24, 2008

This is a basic addition to the above, but profound in my experience... Try shooting several shots of a subject (whatever it may be), and do NOT have the subject centered. Have the subject on the right, left, top, bottom, etc. Have some sort of linear (or the like) element guiding the eye to, and away from the subject. A picture of "Joe" hitting the home run ball with Joe in the center, swinging his bat, is great. However, Joe ofset to the right and a better capture of the ball itself and perhaps Fred at first base moving offside is better!
posted by alcoth at 6:06 PM on July 24, 2008

Shooting assignments which track a composition lesson. Say you have a lesson on angles and division of the frame then send them out to take pictures which use the lesson. night shots and Fuzzy Skinner have some good shooting ideas. Preferably something like this is tied to a lesson in advance (which is likely implied in their answers). Other things to explore are angles of view and specific lighting situations. There are so many more. Pick the composition book from which you will teach and pick a few (yes, a book, so they walk away from the class with something they can refer back to later).
posted by caddis at 6:31 PM on July 24, 2008

girlmightlive's list is really good. I think being able to draw on photo/art history is extremely useful.

One thing I did in school that I thought was helpful was copying artists that I liked. In a more fine art oriented class I was required to research an artist of personal interest, and then do a series of photographs in their style (photographically but also conceptually). This meant learning about how they shot, why they chose the subjects they did, why they photographed them the way they did, etc.

In a more commercial/studio class I was required to go out and find a tearsheet from a current magazine that I liked and then recreate it perfectly. Lighting had to be exact, styling had to be exact, pose and composition and everything else had to be happening for a reason. These assignments were designed to teach us professional standards - your client doesn't give a shit if you couldn't find the right prop or if you couldn't get the color just right or whatever, you just have to do whatever is necessary to produce the image and that's all that matters, no excuses.

I think the major lesson I took from those two things was photography as visual problem solving, which is really what it's all about. You have your subject and your camera and something you are trying to express in two dimensions, how do you make it happen and why?
posted by bradbane at 6:59 PM on July 24, 2008

Bradbane's suggestion is good. Have your students work with a 4 x5 for a week or two. It will force them to think differently about taking photographs. I disagree with all the advice about teaching composition. There's no one composition that's better than any other. A shot that puts something in a corner or off to the side is not inherently better than a straight on shot.
posted by xammerboy at 9:51 PM on July 24, 2008

Spend an hour shooting the same subject.
posted by qvtqht at 10:10 PM on July 24, 2008

Although I do like xammerboy's idea about 4x5, it would be a bit impractical for those new to photography. It also has a decent chance of turning them off for a very long time.

When I started photography, the tip that helped me out the most was very simple. I used precisely one 36-exposure roll of black and white film with a 50mm prime lens every day for a month. This has several benefits. Primarily, it made me realize that there exists something to photograph most anywhere if you want to look for it. Secondarily, it prevented me from getting too caught up in technical details. Although I do prefer digital photography for most anything, there is something to be said for restricting yourself to black and white film for developing the ability to frame a shot without using Photoshop as a crutch.
posted by saeculorum at 10:30 PM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

About one third of the way into my long career in photography I transitioned from 90% photojournalism to 90% commercial work.

Among the many changes this brought was the fact that I went from using a tripod in only the most infrequent cases to using it in the majority of cases. Much to my surprise, over a relatively short amount of time I found myself wanting to use a tripod for pictures when I didn't even need it for stability purposes.

The use of a tripod usually forces a more deliberate and ultimately refined composition, and my work improved across the board through this approach. In some ways, this is enhanced even more by today's digital cameras. Being able to preview or post view individual shots, make adjustments as necessary, and shoot again until the shot is really nailed is a great lesson.

Try treating even the most rudimentary digital camera like a miniature 4x5 when used this way, and you'll likely be pleasantly surprised, with results frequently surpassing what you'd shoot with the usual digital machine gun approach.
posted by imjustsaying at 1:03 AM on July 25, 2008

Might be worthwhile to play with variations of a fixed composition: Set tripod, lock, and run through things like changing zoom level, f-stop, exposure length, time of day - with the same shot. Compare depth-of-field effects, how does this look in various settings and why might I as the photographer choose to focus my image in precisely this way? How does additional lighting change things? How does it change when I add or remove a lens hood, or switch between a normal vs wide-angle lens?

I think for a lot of people - myself included - simply placing the camera on full manual is outside the comfort zone. You can teach all you want about aperture and focal length and etc., but nothing helps drill the instructions home like actually seeing how changing these settings affects an image. But if I hadn't ever done it, I wouldn't have that cool long-exposure shot of the Louvre at night now, would I?
posted by caution live frogs at 7:01 AM on July 25, 2008

I've heard about an exercise that Freeman Patterson used to do with his students. It involved going out into a natural field with a hula hoop, closing your eyes and throwing it blindly. The challenge was to shoot beautiful, artistic photos entirely within the circle where the hoop landed.
His book Photography and the Art of Seeing is a great resource for making beatiful images from seemingly mundane subject matter.
posted by rocket88 at 8:37 AM on July 25, 2008

Spend an hour shooting the same subject.

That's basically what I came in here to say, but I'd put it:

Take 300 pix of the same object (assuming digital) within a single day. Of course the exact number isn't important. What is, is forcing the shooter to get over the hump of thinking that it'd be impossible to come up with the apparently-crazy-number of different takes you set for them, and thus stumbling into the infinite field of possibilities on the other side of the hump. It's an unforgettable discovery...
posted by dpcoffin at 1:05 PM on July 25, 2008

I studied photography for a solid 4 years, but it wasn't until well after I was done my degree that I felt confident taking photographs. The thing that flipped the switch was assisting for "real" photographers, seeing how they operate in the real world, and thinking, "Hey--maybe I could do that!"

As far as taking better pictures is concerned:

- Be fully aware of the direction and quality of the light source.
- To improve in-camera composition, don't crop anything, ever.
- Use only fixed lenses of varying lengths in order to better understand their respective effects before ever touching a zoom.
- Treat the subject like you're on a movie set and GET COVERAGE, i.e. shoot from many angles and distances, at least until you know what tends to work for you.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:15 AM on July 30, 2008

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