One of the most difficult things in photography is to stay motivated and inspired. I know that I’ve personally hit “photographer’s block” many times in my career.
Sometimes it is good to try out different photography assignments, to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, try a new approach, and to take action. Simply sitting on your bum and thinking about photography won’t improve your photography. You can only re-spark your passion for photography by making photos, or doing something hands-on.
Here are a list of photographic assignments that I hope help you. You can skip around and choose the assignments that appeal to you:
#1. 5 yes, 5 no
If you’re interested in street photography, often the fear of rejection is worse than the rejection itself.
If you want a simple assignment to build your confidence, try the “5 yes, 5 no” challenge.
The concept is simple: approach a bunch of strangers and ask for permission to make their portrait. You have to keep asking until you get 5 people to say “yes” and 5 people to say “no.”
You will discover it is harder to get a “no” than a “yes”.
If you’ve got all 5 “yes’s” but not 5 “no’s”, you need to purposefully go out and look for the scariest people you think will say “no.”
The purpose of this assignment is to help you face rejection. In life, photography, and everything else, we are slaves of fear. This will help you face your fear head-on.
#2. “10 no”
If you’re really, really afraid of getting rejected, try out this assignment (a variation of the 5 yes/5 no assignment).
Go out and try to get 10 people to reject having their photos as quickly as possible.
If you go out and try to find people to say “yes” to getting their portrait shot, you might become paralyzed. Instead, only approach people who you think look unfriendly and will say “no.”
Funny story: you will find that often the scariest/meanest looking people are the nicest (and vice-versa).
#3. Exposure compensation
I am a big proponent of shooting in “P” (program mode). Essentially the camera chooses the aperture/shutter speed for you, as well as the exposure.
If you want to get better exposures in your photos (in P mode), try experimenting with exposure-compensation.
Ask a person to stand in the bright sun, and take a series of different photos (with different exposure compensations):
0, +1, +2, +3, -1, -2, -3
Then look at your LCD screen, and look at the exposure of each photo. Then look at the real world — how does your exposure-compensations change how your photos end up looking?
Don’t get too nerdy with this. Figure out what exposure-compensations work well for your camera, in different settings. Each camera thinks differently and has different exposure compensation modes. So treat this assignment as a way for you to better understand the light, and how your camera thinks.
If it is really bright outside, I generally photograph at -1 exposure-compensation, to make the skin tones of my subject look more natural, and also to darken the shadows. I love the dramatic look this gives my images.
Furthermore, if you’re shooting in the shade, you will often need to shoot +1 exposure-compensation to light your scene better.
But once again, experiment with different exposure-compensations, and figure out what works best for you.
#4. 1,000 photos in a day
If you’re a photographer who only takes 1-2 photos of a scene and tends to run away, try this assignment.
The assignment: take 1,000 photos in a single day.
The purpose of this assignment is for you to learn how to “work the scene”. If you see a good scene, try to take at least 10 photos of each scene. This will allow you to capture better perspectives, angles, and moments.
I don’t want you to always take 1,000 photos everyday. But this might help you break through “photographer’s block.”
#5. Eye contact/no eye contact
When I’m shooting street photography, I’m not sure whether a photograph with eye contact or without eye contact will be better.
Solution? Try to get both.
If I’m shooting candidly, I will get close to my subject, and take multiple photos, until they notice my presence. Then I wait for them to notice me, and then I take a photograph when they make contact.
Then when I go home, I have the decision of choosing between two version of a photo: one with eye contact, and one without. Sometimes eye contact works better, sometimes it doesn’t.
There is a saying that “eyes are the windows to the soul.” I generally find photos with eye-contact to be more compelling, soulful, and intense for the viewer.
However at the same time, sometimes having photos with the subject looking away from the camera gives you a more moody feel.
I often like to study famous (painted) portraits of people in the past for inspiration. Look at the paintings with eye contact, and without.
#6. Ask your subject to look up, down, left, right
If you approach a stranger, and ask permission to make their portrait (or if you’re photographing a model), it is hard to direct your subject.
One tip I learned: ask them to look in different directions.
For example, ask your model to look into the camera, and don’t smile. Then ask them to look up, down, left, and right.
Often people have a “better side.” Not only that, but by having your subject look up and down, you change the mood of the photo.
When your subject is looking up, they look more confident, encouraged, and powerful.
When your subject is looking down, they look more downtrodden, depressed, and negative.
Another tip: ask your subject to look at your hand while you’re photographing them. Then move your hand, and see how their eyes track your hand.
Changing the eye and head position of your subject will change the emotion of the photo. Experiment with different head positions with your subject, and you will have more photos to choose from.
#7. Only photograph things on the ground
When it comes to photography, we often just photograph what is in front of us, at eye-level.
Yet we never look down, and we never loop up.
As a simple assignment, do a photo project of just photographing stuff on the ground. You will find lots of interesting subject-matter if you look closely enough.
The world is a rich and beautiful place to take photos. Sometimes we complain that there is “nothing to photograph.” Yet in reality, we’re just not looking hard enough.
Change your perspective and view. Don’t just look ahead. Look down. Look up. Look into cracks in-between walls. Be curious, and change your perspective.
#8. Take at least 10 photos of each scene
I mentioned this tip a bit earlier, but the mistake we make as photographers is that we’re easily satisfied with 1-2 photos, and we move on.
The problem with only taking 1-2 photos (and then checking our LCD screen) is that we don’t push ourselves. When in doubt, try to photograph 25% more than you think you need to photograph.
This will force you to be more creative. You will try to photograph your scene from different distances (close, far) and from different angles (left, middle, right). You can also switch up your positioning (crouching, standing, or tippy-toe).
It is rare to see a good photo-moment. Don’t settle with just 1-2 photos. “Work the scene” and try to take at least 10 photos of each scene. Then you will push your creative boundaries, and be more likely to make a good photo.
#9. Limit yourself to only 36 photos in a day
For this assignment, you’re only allowed to take 36 photos in a day (same amount of photos in a roll of film).
This exercise will help you learn restraint. It will balance out some of the other assignments which encourage you to take more.
If you only had 36 photos you could take in a day, how much more selective would you be with your shooting? What superfluous photos would you not shoot?
I also find that by taking fewer photos, I appreciate each scene more.
You can do this assignment on a digital camera, or on a film camera.
#10. Shoot 1 street corner for an hour
In street photography, we’re impatient. Rather than sticking in one good area and waiting for our subjects to come to us, we run around (often wasting our energy) to just find a few good photos.
The solution: find an interesting street corner, don’t move, and photograph it for an hour.
The purpose of this assignment is to realize that it can be more effective to find a good scene, background, or area, and wait for your subjects to come to you.
Not only that, but if you stay put in one area, you will get to know the area better. You will observe the flow of subjects, and get a feel of a place better. Not only that, but you will be more “invisible” in the scene — people will ignore you.
#11. Delete all the photos from your social media account
An occasional purge is good for our physical, mental, and spiritual health.
Try to do this every once in a while: delete all the photos from your social media, and start from scratch.
Don’t delete the original photos. Keep them on your hard drive, print them out, or archive them.
However if you have a lot of photos cluttering your social media account, make a practice of doing a 100% purge. Delete all the photos (or mark them private), and then re-start from scratch.
Often we let our past work prevent ourselves from innovating and creating new future work.
Purge your past. And start refreshed.
#12. Go a month without using social media
Often as photographers we fall victim to the “social media” treadmill of always uploading a photo everyday, just to feel relevant. We want it for the likes, the comments, the new followers. Yet we get addicted to social media like heroin. Without our daily “hit” of external affirmation, we feel our photography is pointless.
Yet photography should be a personal pursuit. Why care about what others think about your photos? How do you feel about your own photos?
Uninstall all the social media apps from your phone (don’t worry you can re-install them after a month). Don’t upload any photos, look at anyone else’s photos, and try your best not to cheat.
By “fasting” from social media from a month, you will get a better sense of why you make photos. And I can guarantee you, you will feel less stressed and anxious to keep up with the “social media rat race.”
#13. Only shoot black and white for a year
We don’t see the world in monochrome. Black and white is an abstraction in the world. That is why it looks more “artistic” to the average person. It is novel, unique, and different.
However it takes a while for you to train your eye to see the world in monochrome.
Many photographers shoot black and white their entire life, and still never master it. I’ve also found that if I switch between black and white and color too often, I can never learn how to really see the world in one.
The assignment is to shoot only black and white for an entire year. You can shoot RAW+JPEG with a black and white preview. And perhaps you can just use the black and white JPEG’s. If not, apply a simple black and white preset to all of your RAW photos (upon importing them).
How would you visualize the world in monochrome? I’ve found myself looking more for emotions, mood, smoke, shadows, lines, graphical elements, and minimalism.
This will be different for you, but learn how to see in monochrome.
#14. Only shoot color for a year
The opposite assignment to the prior one; shoot only color for a year.
To see the world in color is different than seeing the world in black and white.
Personally, I’ve found shooting color to be more difficult than shooting black and white. Why? Because color leads to more complexity. You need to compose and frame a scene well, but also think about the color-combinations of a scene.
Not only that, but different colors evoke different moods and emotions.
Monochrome is easy to use because it reduces and removes distractions. Color introduces more complexity and distractions.
I would personally recommend most photographers to first try to master monochrome before taking on color photography.
Color photography also requires your exposures to be better, and for you to shoot in better lighting conditions. For color photography, try to shoot sunrise and sunset (golden hour), or use a flash.
Train your eyes to become sensitive to different colors and play and have fun with it. See how you can mix different colors in a scene, whether they be complementary colors or contrasting colors.
#15. Only shoot JPEG for a month
RAW and post-processing is a blessing and a curse. The problem is that many of us modern photographers over-rely on fancy post-processing techniques to improve our (mediocre) photos.
I’m guilty of it — I’ve added HDR to my photos, added selective color, intense vignettes, and “overly-processed” many of my photos (thinking that they would make the photos better).
But no matter how much you polish a turd, it will still be a turd.
Shoot only JPEG for a month.
If you’re really anxious, shoot JPEG+RAW (but only use the JPEG’s) for a month.
This way you can’t rely on fancy post-processing techniques to “salvage” your photos. A great photo shouldn’t require any excessive post-processing.
#16. Only shoot with your smartphone for a month
We often make the excuse that we don’t always have our cameras with us. I know personally when I owned a DSLR, it would be a pain in the ass to carry with me everywhere I went.
But today we’re blessed by modern technology, especially with the smartphone. The smartphone is the ultimate camera: it is always with us, fits in our front pocket, and can also be used to edit/post-process/publish our photos.
If you have a big bulky camera and never take photos, take this challenge upon yourself: only shoot with your smartphone for a month. Lock up your “real” camera in a drawer, and see how you can be the most creative with just your smartphone.
The purpose of this assignment is to realize that photography is less about the gear and more about your personal vision, and how you see the world. The tool isn’t as important as your eye.
This assignment might also teach you the importance of just always having your camera with you, ready, and prepared to click.
#17. Stick to one camera, one lens for a year
We’re rich. We live in a culture of abundance. Most photographers I know aren’t starving. Most photographers have an over-abundance of cameras, lenses, and gear.
If you’re a photographer who has too much “choice anxiety” from owning too much gear, only stick to one camera, one lens for a year. Lock up your other gear in a drawer, better yet, sell it or give it away to friends.
If you really want to hone in your photographic vision; you don’t want to be distracted by gear. Also it takes a long time to get to know one camera and one lens/focal length quite well.
By sticking with consistent gear, you will have fewer gear distractions, which will give you more creative focus.
#18. Only shoot horizontal, vertical, or square for a month
I believe in “creative constraints”: by having fewer options, you are forced to be more creative.
For example, take framing. Try to only shoot horizontal (landscape), vertical (portrait), or square-format for a month.
Framing and composition is all about knowing what to leave out of the frame.
Restrict yourself to one orientation for a month and you will find more visual consistency with your work. And you will be forced to compose more creatively.
#19. Only shoot one square block for a month
With unlimited options, we become paralyzed. We don’t know what direction to take our creative work.
Restrict yourself geographically. For a month, only shoot one square block (both sides). This way, you will really have to dig deep, and find something very interesting in that one square block.
The benefit of this project is that you know exactly where to shoot. Just one specific area. And I think it is better to get to know one area very well, rather than knowing a lot of different areas superficially.
Being a great photographer isn’t about traveling the world, to exotic places, and making interesting photos overseas.
Being a great photographer is making the best out of what you have. For not complaining where you live; and being the best photographer in your own home town.
#20. Shoot everyday for a month
The only way to become a better photographer is to shoot more. The more you shoot, the more feedback you will get, and the more connected you will feel with the world.
For a month, take at least 1 photo everyday. It can be with your smartphone, DSLR, or whatever camera you have.
Just make sure it is something personally meaningful to you. Don’t just take the photo for the sake of it. Take a photo everyday of something that stirs your heart. That makes your soul sing.
The Zen masters recommended having a “daily practice.” By repetition, we reach a deeper understanding of “truth.”
In photography, we can read a hundred photo theory books, and still not learn anything. We only learn through taking photos, repetition, feedback, critique, and constantly seeking to improve ourselves.
Don’t put pressure on yourself that everyday the photo has to be great. But just build the habit.
#21. Don’t shoot for a month
To balance out the prior experiment; try to go a month without taking any photos.
You’re not allowed to take photos for a month.
Ironically enough, this assignment might be the best way to re-invigorate your passion for photography. Why? We take photography for granted. But when something is taken away from us we appreciate it more.
#22. Shoot “selfies” for a week
Many of us complain that we don’t have interesting subjects to photograph.
Not true; your best subject is yourself. Because you’re always available, and you won’t say “no” to yourself.
There are different ways you can shoot ‘artistic selfies’ of yourself. Photograph your shadow, reflection, or put your camera on a tripod and setup a scene and shoot yourself.
To photograph yourself is an incredibly intimate experience. It is an experience that allows you to be comfortable on the other side of the camera. Not only that, but it makes you realize that no matter what, you can always photograph something — who better than yourself?
#23. Have your portrait (professionally) shot
I learned this lesson from Sara Lando: if you don’t like being photographed, have another photographer (professionally) shoot your headshot. You will learn what is comfortable (and what isn’t comfortable) being a subject.
If you are a photographer, yet you don’t like having your own photo taken, you debilitate yourself. You assume everyone else doesn’t like having their photo taken (not true).
The secret is how can you make a photo of others (and of yourself) that makes the subject comfortable, at ease, and happy to be photographed?
#24. Shoot with a focal length (you’re uncomfortable with) for a week
We all have our preferences for a certain lens or focal length. If you want to push your creative boundaries, shoot with a focal length that you are very unfamiliar or uncomfortable with for a week.
If you’re a 28mm guy, try shooting only with a 200mm lens for a week. If you’re usually a 200mm telephoto type of person, try a 35mm lens. If you usually shoot with a 50mm lens, try a 28mm lens.
By shifting our focal length, we shift our perspective, how we see the world, and how we approach our subjects.
By pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone for a week, you will gain a new perspective and also perhaps find more gratitude for the focal length you’re already comfortable with.
Or better yet, you might find a new focal length you prefer that can help you be more creative and innovative with your work.
#25. “.7 meter challenge” (1-arm length challenge)
I learned this assignment from my buddy Satoki Nagata. If you’re uncomfortable getting close to your subjects, pre-focus your lens to .7 meters (about 1-arm length distance), and only shoot that distance for a month.
This assignment will force you to get physically and emotionally closer to your subjects.
You don’t need to shoot all your photos candidly. Ask for permission.
The more comfortable you’re shooting at a close distance, the easier it will be for you to take a step back.
#26. Decapitate heads for a week
I often find photos of hands, feet, or body gestures more interesting than faces. So the assignment is to take photos of your subjects without including their faces/heads in the photo.
Try it out: for a week “decapitate” your subjects (don’t photograph their faces). This will force you to see the other characteristics and attributes of your subject on a deeper level.
#27. Buy a mannequin (and use it as a test subject)
I learned this assignment from my friend Charlie Kirk: if you want to learn how to make better portraits, how to better use studio/flash, or how to frame, buy a mannequin as a test subject.
The great thing about having a mannequin is that you will always have a willing subject.
Try using different focal lengths, different settings, different apertures, shutter-speeds, different lighting setups, and anything else you want to experiment with.
This will allow you to better understand how to use your camera technically, how light (especially artificial light) works. Not only that, but you will have a forever patient subject at your disposal (whenever).
#28. Only shoot with a flash for a week
There is a bias in photography against shooting with a flash. People say it looks “harsh” and unnatural” when compared to using natural light.
Yet the flash helps us overcome difficult lighting situations. It gives us more freedom to shoot at different points in the day, when the light might not be so nice.
For a week, experiment taking photos only with a flash. You will discover how the flash works during the day, in the shade, indoors, and other effects it might have on your images.
Having a flash is a good tool in photography. It can help you open up creative doors and opportunities. It will give you more freedom to shoot at all points during a day.
You don’t always need to shoot with a flash, but try to learn it to the best of your ability, and you can use it in special situations (or in all situations).
#29. Put together a photo album
Today’s world is (mostly) digital. In photography, we spend 99% of our efforts sharing our photos online. Very rarely do we print our work, arrange and edit our work, and create physical objects with our photography.
Buy a cheap photo album at the store or online. Print a bunch of your photos as small 4×6’s. Then put together a photo album.
Do it with your partner, children, or friends. Make a theme, concept, or a story. Have fun. Spread the 4×6 prints on the floor, and figure out what kind of pairing, sequencing, and flow you want to add to your album.
Handling physical prints is a different experience than just looking at them on your computer or phone. The physicality of photography adds another dimension for us to be more creative, to find more by-chance connections, and for us to be more engaged with others.
Making a photo album is a nice communal activity, something that families did a lot in the past. Making photo albums can help us re-connect ourselves with the past, but also create physical documents that will be well-preserved into the future.
#30. Print your portfolio
Most of us have our portfolios online. Few of us have printed portfolios.
Look at your entire library of images, and ask yourself: Which of these 10 photos represent who I am as a photographer?
Then print out those photos at any size you like. Figure out how you would like the photos to be sequenced. Then carry them around with you, and share them with your friends. Ask them to sequence your photos according to their emotion and feeling.
Learn to show your photos as prints, rather than just a phone or computer. See how people react differently to your photos, and see how it feels different for you as a photographer.
Photos don’t exist until they’re printed. When photos exist in atoms, we have a deeper connection with them as humans. When we can hold a photo, or a memory in our hands, it feels more real. We appreciate it more, and we feel more connected with them.
I find a nagging sense of incompletion if I don’t print my photos. I appreciate my photos on my computer, but I love them when they’re printed.
This assignment will also give you a good opportunity to re-evaluate your entire body of work and ask yourself: What photos really show who I am?
#31. Give away a photo everyday (for a week)
I feel the best gift you can give others as a photographer is prints. Why? Because prints are meaningful, easy to transport, and relatively inexpensive to print.
As an assignment, print out a bunch of your photos, and for a week, give out at least 1 print a day (to a stranger, friend, your barista, family member, etc). See how it affects their mood, and your own mood.
Photos are about sharing moments, art, and history. Share a little bit of your own soul by giving away your photos. You might discover that giving away your photos for free is more meaningful than selling them.
#32. Start your own photography blog, and blog consistently for 30 days straight
I’m not a big fan of traditional “social media” – because you have no control. You’re a slave to the platform, and you don’t have as much ownership and creative opportunities.
When you create your own blog, you have more flexibility. You can publish your photos, text, and ideas in different format. If you own the blogging platform (I recommend wordpress.org) you then really own your content.
Blogs are great because they are historical documents of our past. Blogging is more difficult than sharing photos on social media, but it is also more personally meaningful.
Furthermore, if you have a blog, it is easier indexed by Google. And anyone with a web browser can access your work rather than only people on a certain social media platform.
The assignment is to start your own blog, and blog consistently for 30 days straight. It can be about anything. You can just upload a photo everyday, upload photos that inspire you, or share some personal stories behind your favorite images. Don’t take it too seriously, but try it for a consistent month.
By making a blog, you gain more ownership of your own photography, creativity, and work on the internet. If you’re a slave to a social media platform, your influence is very limited and you don’t have as many different ways to express yourself creatively.
I see blogs as the future of photography — don’t be left behind.
#33. Write down a list of photographic subjects you don’t like to photograph
How do you know what your “style” is in photography? For me, it is knowing what you don’t like to photograph.
For this assignment, figure out what genres of photography you dislike. Write them down, and simply avoid taking those photos.
Then, by process-of-elimination, figure out what kind of photographer you are (based on what you don’t like to photograph).
Most people I know who are interested in street photography don’t like to take photos of sunsets and landscapes. People I know who like to shoot flowers don’t like to take photos of people. Photographers who like to shoot monochrome generally dislike shooting color (and vice-versa).
Find out who you are via subtraction and process-of elimination. Treat your photographic style the same.
What do you not like photographing? Then just don’t photograph it — photograph the opposite.
#34. Intentionally try to take bad photos for a week
One of the biggest barriers in our photography is that we always try to take really good photos. But it is rare that we make good photos.
So flip the concept upside down: try to intentionally shoot “sh**ty photos” for a week. Get rid of your concepts of good composition, framing, and light. Just take bad photos of whatever you find interesting.
Follow your gut, soul, and instincts. Just click. Don’t think too much.
Then after a week, see if you feel more loose in your photography, less “blocked” creatively. Do you take yourself less seriously? Are you having more fun?
Perfectionism ruins us. Seek to make “good” photos. And in order to do so give yourself permission to make bad photos.
#35. Create your own photography portfolio website
If you want to be more serious with your photography (and taken more seriously), make a photography portfolio website. It can just be your firstnamelastnamephoto.com (or better yet, firstnamelastname.com).
Make your own photography website, and put on your 3 best projects (restrict each project to your 10 best photos). This way, you will be able to think more about long-term projects, rather than getting swept away in the social media madness of just uploading a single (random) photo a day.
When you pass away, what kind of body of work do you want to leave behind? Do you really think that your social media profile will exist after you pass away? Will anyone even look at it?
Having a website (instead of just having social media) is better, but not the best.
Aim on creating a body of work, and several bodies of work, then publish them as books.
#36. Buy one photo book a month (for a year)
I’m a big proponent of photography books and education. For a simple motto, remember the phrase: “Buy books, not gear.”
Gear quickly gets outdated. A great photo book will increase in value over time, both monetarily and its value to you as a photographer.
I recommend trying to invest in at least one photo book a month (for a year). You don’t need to buy an expensive photo book — invest in a book that you plan on re-reading over and over again.
I also recommend buying photo books whenever you have the urge to buy a new piece of gear. Why? Photo books will actually help improve your photography, and the novelty of a new photo book will inspire you.
Every photographer needs inspiration from somewhere. Most of us get our inspiration online, on social media.
There are great photographers online, but if you really want to learn the work of the masters, invest in photo books. Photographers spend many years, thousands of dollars, to create their own book. Therefore you’re more likely to get better images in a photo book, than just when looking online.
A good photo book will last for your entire life and will always be a great source of inspiration for you.
#37. Look at all the portfolios of all the Magnum photographers
You are what you eat. If you look at the work of great photographers, you will aspire to make great photographs.
I also go this assignment from my buddy Charlie Kirk: go to the Magnum Photos website and study all the portfolios of the Magnum photographers.
Write a list of which photographers you admire. Analyze their work, and ask yourself, “Why” you like their work.
Furthermore, when you find a photographer whose work really speaks to you, buy all their photo books, watch all their YouTube interviews, and learn as much about them as you can from them.
The more great images we look at, the more inspired we will be to make great photos. By analyzing great compositions and images, we will subconsciously take better photos when we’re shooting.
Also you will find there are a lot of Magnum photographers whose work you don’t “get” or “like.” That is fine — just think to yourself, “What about their work do I not like? And why would other people like their work?”
#38. Attend a photography workshop
I think photography workshops are great because you get a “shortcut” in your learning and education.
For a workshop, you get a distilled source of information from your teacher, often in a few days or a week.
I personally think that photography workshops are a much better “bang for the buck” than photography schools. And they’re much shorter, focused, practical, and hands-on.
Find a photography workshop on a topic that interests you. And know that you’re investing your money into your education, which is always one of the best investments for your money.
If you want practical instruction in photography, to learn, have any questions addressed, attend a workshop or two.
#39. Learn how to process black and white film
I don’t think digital is better than film, nor is film better than digital. They’re different. But more similar than dissimilar.
I feel the process of shooting film, and learning how to develop it, makes you appreciate the art and process of photography much more.
When I started off in digital photography, I took for granted that you could take a photo and instantly see it on the back of your LCD screen.
Shooting film has taught me patience, appreciation for the process, and the tactile hands-on approach.
If you’ve never processed your own black and white film, give it a try. There are tons of YouTube tutorials on how to do it. By processing your own black and white photos, you will feel a lot more connected with your images. You might fall in love with the process and the magic.
After shooting film for several years, I came back to digital photography with new enthusiasm. I appreciated digital photography so much more in terms of the convenience, the flexibility, and the modern technology.
If you’ve never processed your film before, give it a go. And not only that, but try to print your photos in a darkroom at least once — the experience might totally change how you view photography.
#40. Photograph only hand gestures for a day
I think that great photos tend to have two things: 1) Great composition and 2) Great emotion.
We all know how to make better compositions. Few of us know how to capture emotions.
A practical way to capture better emotions: capture hand-gestures and body language of your subjects.
So for a whole day, do nothing but photograph people doing interesting hand-gestures. Not only that, but afterwards, look at your photos (with hand-gestures in them), and mimic the hand-gesture. This will help you connect emotionally, and empathize with your subjects.
Photos of people just walking (and doing nothing with their hands) tends to be boring. Hand-gestures are much more dynamic, interesting, and emotional.
Much of communication is body-language and hand-gesture based. Photos are silent and don’t say words. But hand-gestures do.
I hope this list of 40 photography assignments will help inspire and uplift you. It is hard to stay motivated in your photography, but know that photography isn’t a race. Photography is a personal journey for yourself. You want to take your time, enjoy the process, and gain personal meaning through your photography.
Never compete with any other photographer. Don’t compare yourself to other photographers by how many followers/likes you have on social media.
Only gauge your progress in photography by your own standards of yourself, and by your own gut.
Know that dips in motivation in photography are natural and part of the game. What matters the most is how are you going to overcome these mental blocks and barriers in your photography. Are you going to let them encourage you to try harder? Or are you going to give up photography all-together.
Tenacity and staying in the game of photography is the goal. Never give up friend. Let’s stick in photography together for the long-haul.
About the author: Eric Kim is an international street photographer. You can find more of his photography and writing on his website and blog. This article was also published here.
In classical portraiture there are several things you need to control and think about to make a flattering portrait of your subjects, including: lighting ratio, lighting pattern, facial view, and angle of view. I suggest you get to know these basics inside out, and as with most things, then you can break the rules. But if you can nail this one thing you’ll be well on your way to great people photos. In this article we’re going to look at lighting pattern: what is it, why it’s important, and how to use it. Perhaps in another future article, if you enjoy this one, I’ll talk about the other aspects of good portraiture.
Lighting pattern I’d define as, how light and shadow play across the face to create different shapes. What shape is the shadow on the face, in simple terms. There are four common portrait lighting patterns, they are:
- Split lighting
- Loop lighting
- Rembrandt lighting
- Butterfly lighting
There are also Broad and Short lighting which are more of a style, and can be used with most of the patterns above. Let’s look at each of them individually.
1. Split Lighting
Split lighting is exactly as the name implies – it splits the face exactly into equal halves with one side being in the light, and the other in shadow. It is often used to create dramatic images for things such as a portrait of a musician or an artist. Split lighting tends to be a more masculine pattern and as such is usually more appropriate or applicable on men than it is for women. Keep in mind however, there are no hard and fast rules, so I suggest you use the information I provide here as a starting point or guideline. Until you learn this and can do it in your sleep, default to the guideline whenever you’re not sure.
To achieve split lighting simply put the light source 90 degrees to the left or right of the subject, and possibly even slightly behind their head. Where you place the light in relation to the subject will depend on the person’s face. Watch how the light falls on them and adjust accordingly. In true split lighting, the eye on the shadow side of the face does pick up light in the eye only. If by rotating their face a bit more light falls on their cheek, it’s possible their face just isn’t ideal for split lighting.
NOTE: any lighting pattern can be created on any facial view (frontal view showing both ears, or ¾ face, or even profile). Just keep in mind that your light source must follow the face to maintain the lighting pattern. If they turn their head the pattern will change. So you can use that to your advantage to easily adjust the patten just by them rotating their head a little.
What the heck is a “catchlight”?
Notice in this photo above that the baby’s eyes have a reflection of the actual light source in them. It shows up as a little white spot, but if we look closer we can actually see the shape of the light I used in this portrait.
See how the bright spot is actually hexagon with a dark centre? That’s the light I used which was a small hexagon shaped soft box on my Canon speedlight.
This is what is known as the “catchlight”. Without the eye of the subject catching this light, the eyes will appear dark, dead and lifeless. You need to ensure that at least one eye has a catchlight to give the subject life. Notice it also lightens the iris and brightens the eye overall. This also adds to the feeling of life and gives them a sparkle.
2. Loop Lighting
Loop lighting is made by creating a small shadow of the subjects noses on their cheeks. To create loop lighting, the light source must be slightly higher than eye level and about 30-45 degrees from the camera (depends on the person, you have to learn how to read people’s faces).
Look at this image to see where the shadows fall, and on their left sides you can see a small shadow of their noses. In loop lighting the shadow of the nose and that of the cheek do NOT touch. Keep the shadow small and slightly downward pointing, but be aware of having your light source too high which will create odd shadows and cause loss of the catchlights. Loop light is probably the most common or popular lighting pattern as it is easy to create and flatters most people.
In this diagram the black backdrop represents the bank of trees behind them. The sun is coming over the trees but they are completely in the shade. A white reflector is used at camera left to bounce light back into the subjects’ faces. The reflector may or may not be in the sun but you can still pick up light even if it’s not. Just play with the angles, by changing the placement of the reflector you can change the lighting pattern. For Loop lighting it will need to be somewhere around 30-45 degrees from the camera. It also needs to be slightly above their eye level so the shadow or loop of their nose angles down towards the corner of the mouth. That is one mistake I often see beginners make with reflectors is to place them down low and angle it up. That lights up the bottom of your subject’s nose and does not create a flattering pattern.
3. Rembrandt Lighting
Rembrandt lighting is so named because the Rembrandt the painter often used this pattern of light in his paintings, as you can see in his self portrait here. Rembrandt lighting is identified by the triangle of light on the cheek. Unlike loop lighting where the shadow of the nose and cheek do not touch, in Rembrandt lighting they do meet which, creates that trapped little triangle of light in the middle. To create proper Rembrandt lighting make sure the eye on the shadow side of the face has light in it and has a catch light, otherwise the eye will be “dead” and not have a nice sparkle. Rembrandt lighting is more dramatic, so like split lighting it creates more mood and a darker feel to your image. Use it appropriately.
To create Rembrandt lighting the subject must turn slightly away from the light. The light must be above the top of their head so that the shadow from their nose falls down towards the cheek. Not every person’s face is ideal for creating Rembrandt lighting. If they have high or prominent cheek bones it will probably work. If they have a small nose or flat bridge of the nose, it may be difficult to achieve. Again, keep in mind you don’t have to make exactly this pattern or another, just so long as the person is flattered, and the mood you want is created – then the lighting is working. If you are using window light and the window goes down to the floor, you may have to block off the bottom portion with a gobo or card, to achieve this type of lighting.
4. Butterfly Lighting
Butterfly lighting is aptly named for the butterfly shaped shadow that is created under the nose by placing the main light source above and directly behind the camera. The photographer is basically shooting underneath the light source for this pattern. It is most often used for glamour style shots and to create shadows under the cheeks and chin. It is also flattering for older subjects as it emphasizes wrinkles less than side lighting.
Butterfly lighting is created by having the light source directly behind the camera and slightly above eye or head level of the subject (depends on the person). It is sometimes supplemented by placing a reflector directly under their chin, with the subject themselves even holding it! This pattern flatters subjects with defined or prominent cheek bones and a slim face. Someone with a round, wide face would look better with loop or even split to slim their face. This pattern is tougher to create using windowlight or a reflector alone. Often a harder light source like the sun or a flash is needed to produce the more defined shadow under the nose.
5. Broad Lighting
Broad lighting is not so much a particular pattern, but a style of lighting. Any of the following patterns of light can be either broad or short: loop, Rembrandt, split.
Broad lighting is when the subject’s face is slightly turned away from centre, and the side of the face which is toward the camera (is broader) is in the light. This produces a larger area of light on the face, and a shadow side which appears smaller. Broad lighting is sometimes used for “high key” portraits. This type of lighting makes a person’s face look broader or wider (hence the name) and can be used on someone with a very slim face to widen it. Most people however want to look slimmer, not wider so this type of lighting would not be appropriate for someone who is heavier or round faced.
To create broad lighting the face is turned away from the light source. Notice how the side of the face that is towards the camera has the most light on it and the shadows are falling on the far side of the face, furthest from the camera. Simply put broad lighting illuminates the largest part of the face showing.
6. Short Lighting
Short lighting is the opposite of broad lighting. As you can see by the example here, short lighting puts the side turned towards the camera (that which appears larger) in more shadow. It is often used for low key, or darker portraits. It puts more of the face in shadow, is more sculpting, add 3D qualities, and is slimming and flattering for most people.
In short lighting, the face is turned towards the light source this time. Notice how the part of the face that is turned away from the camera has the most light on it and the shadows are falling on the near side of the face, closet to the camera. Simply put short lighting has shadows on the largest part of the face showing.
Putting it all together
Once you learn how to recognize and create each of the different lighting patterns you can then start to learn how and when to apply them. By studying your subject’s face you will learn which lighting pattern will be best for them, and for the type of portrait and mood desired. Someone with a very round face that wants to appear slimmer in a grad portrait, will be lit very differently than someone that wants a promo shot for their band that makes them appear mean or angry. Once you know all the patterns, how to recognize and master quality of light, direction of light and ratio (we’ll discuss that in a future article) then you will be well equipped to handle the challenge.
Of course it is much easier to change the lighting pattern if you can move the light source. However if the main light source is the sun, or a window – it’s a bit tougher to do that. So what you will need to do instead of moving the light, is to have the subject rotate in respect to the light to change the direction it falls on them. Or change your camera position. Or change their position. So basically move the things you can move in relation to the light, if you cannot move the light source itself.
Corral yourself a subject (as in a real live person, not your dog) and practice creating each of the lighting patterns we just discussed including:
- butterfly lighting
- loop lighting
- Rembrandt lighting
- split lighting
Remember to show both broad lighting and short lighting – for each of the different patterns, where applicable. Don’t worry about any other aspect (ratio, fill light, etc) for now, just concentrate getting the patterns down pat first. Use light from a window, a floor lamp with a bare bulb (take the shade off) or the sun – but try and use a light source that you can see what’s happening (I’d suggest that you do not try using flash until you’ve got more experience, it’s harder to learn with because you can’t see it until after the photo is taken) This also works best to start out with the subject facing the camera directly, no turning except to create the broad and short.
Show us your results please and share any challenges or problems you encountered. I’ll try and help you solve them so you and others can learn from it, and get better for next time.