Project Workshop – Kick-Start a New Year of Photography

Looking for a way to kick-start your photography in 2015?  Here are 3 ideas to get you going.
It's January.  You've survived the festive excesses, made a few resolutions for what you will, or will not, do during 2015.  Now it's back to work. Somehow the New Year seems to create a big hole which soaks up all our enthusiasm (or is that just me?!)   So it may well be time for a project, to kick-start your year of photography.  Here are 3 ideas that might help you think differently about your photography in 2015.

#1 Photo Per Day

This is serious discipline – the stuff of boot camps. The task is simple: take one photograph a day for one month- simple to say; tricky to do. I did it a few years ago when I was living in Umbria, which you probably think makes it very easy. Well some days, such as the day of Carnevale, there were lots of interesting subjects to hand, but when you've been snowed in for a few days it starts getting tricky. You are surrounded by the same things that you see every day: how can you photograph them? And make them interesting? This is, of course, the crux of the challenge. I would bet that most of the photos which you take are of subjects that you like or have an interest in: a beautiful landscape, a stunning panorama, a striking urban setting or your family. Now the challenge here is different, since you have to make the ordinary different, and the banal interesting. Not so easy, huh? Here's a few examples of my own efforts: This was not a studio shot, but simply my lunch during one of the frequent power cuts in rural Italy. My neighbor's mailbox might not seem an obvious subject, but to me it said a lot about the elegant chaos you often find in Italian life. Simply  a bowl of fruit on the dining table and a local market stall selling shoes: goldshoes bowl&blinds candlelight

Take up the challenge and create interesting images from they every day things that are around you.

#2 Restricted Options

If taking a photo a day does not appeal or fit in with your normal life too easily, why not try a limitation technique? This is an idea endorsed in other areas as well as photography.  Guitar teachers will encourage students to improvise using only one or two strings, or only playing between frets 8 and 10. In the case of photography, the principle is that rather than taking out your entire armory of equipment, then take the basic body plus one lens. Of course, I'm working on the assumption that readers of this site will probably own a DSLR and several lenses. If you don't have a choice of lenses, the alternative is to simply use the camera always set at the same focal length. The principle is that by restricting the options open to you, you have to explore different ways of achieving a successful result. The reason I suggest this restriction of using a ‘fixed' focal length is that since a zoom lens is almost the norm on modern cameras, there is a tendency to automatically zoom in when we wish to make the subject larger in the frame, rather than also considering the option of moving closer to the object. This may seem a trivial difference but the difference in the final image is very noticeable. Before venturing out with your new ‘restricted kit' it's probably worth doing a little experiment. Take your camera with your zoom lens fully zoomed in. Select an object – say, a box. Take a shot with it virtually filling the frame, preferably with one corner pointing towards the camera. Now zoom out with the lens, and move in to fill the frame as you did before, and then compare the shots. The shot taken with the longer lens setting, will give a ‘flatter image' whereas the closer shot with the wide angle setting will give the object more ‘shape' the front corner will seem to ‘protrude' more towards the viewer. Now try it again but with someone facing the camera – a head shot but looking to the side of the camera at a slight angle. The difference as to how the two images show the person's nose will certainly explain why slightly ‘longer than standard' lenses are favoured for traditional portrait photography where the intention is to capture and flatter the subjects ego a little! So now you've done your experiment, you can head out with your ‘restricted' kit and explore the possibilities. The point of this exercise is to get a more complete understanding of what this particular set up will give you. And there's lots more you can do with this approach. What about depth of field? Depth of field depends on two principal factors – it varies with aperture size and focal length of the lens. In short, the smaller the aperture, the larger the depth of field and the longer the lens, the shallower the depth of field. This means that you can choose your lens to get the type of image you want. If you want to show a ‘busy city full of people' scene, the long lens is ideal, as the compressed perspective gives the visual effect of cramming the people together. Of course, if you want to show a sea of faces, all in focus, then you might choose a wide angle and then close down your lens as much as possible to increase the depth of field. These are the sort of ideas you can try out, and of course with a Depth of Field preview button, which many cameras have, you see the effect immediately as the camera shuts the aperture down to the selected stop. Which ever lens you take out as your restricted kit, it'll make you try different ideas . . . . . and that's what this is about!

#3 A Bit of Homework . .

If all this seems too much to fit in with your already stressful life, what about a bit of study? Nothing too taxing, sitting in front of a log fire with a glass of red wine . . which might also make it more appealing in the winter months.  So here's a couple of ideas:

Study Your Equipment

Do you really understand your equipment? Can you operate it without actually thinking about the process involved? Modern cameras may be incredibly sophisticated, but all this comes at a price – the multiple menus, are not always (if ever) as intuitive as they should be and so camera operation is not always logical and straightforward, as it might be. You can do more, but only if you can remember how….. (I sometimes dream of the days when I used an OM1n with 50 mm, with just a 70-150 zoom and a 24mm wide. ..ah, bliss!) Anyway, take some time, and look at the kit and the manual – as I did the other evening (in front of the fire) – and I guarantee you'll find something you didn't know about: an interesting setting or shortcut – as I ALSO did the other evening.

Study Some Theory

What about studying a bit of theory? (again nothing too taxing . . . . ) You may be ‘old school' growing up with manual cameras and learning the basics from the bottom up, but I suspect most of you will have begun your photographic journey with an automatic compact and gradually moved to more ‘serious' equipment. So, maybe it's time to read a bit about the mechanics of photography. This could also involve a bit of experimentation, like the idea I suggested above with Depth of Field. You could learn new techniques, get a better understanding of things you may already know about: depth of field is just one element; the rule of thirds; The Golden Mean; all sorts of interesting stuff. I'd strongly suggest that you read this sort of material in a book as opposed to on ‘sites'. Sites are great for many things (you're reading what I've written here, aren't you?! so I do believe in them) However for certain things a book format is more appropriate, as it is more likely to be structured in a way that gradually develops your understanding, and you are less likely to be distracted by e-mails and Facetime messages!

Study Photographers

While we are on the subject of books, what do you know about other photographers? In my last post, I mentioned quite a few of the greats, as there's so much to learn from, out there- Haas, Weston, Erwitt, Lartigue,  Capa, Parr, Kertesz – the list is never ending.   It's often struck me as strange that although painters have favourite painters, musicians have favourite players, and sports players have their heroes, photographers are often unable to name a single photographer. Photography has existed since mid 1826, and in 1888 George Eastman's Kodak made it available to the general public. So there's a whole mass of material to have look at from Adams to Winogrand from Cameron to Cartier-Bresson. I would recommend a specific book as the starting point for this project which is The Photo Book published by Phaedon Press. It is an A-Z of photographers with each page showing one image and a short biography of the artist. Each photographer is also cross referenced with suggestions of other ‘similar' artists you might want to check out. It's great starting point, and it will introduce you to a whole world of wonderful images. So there you are, three possible projects to kick-start your photography for 2015! Next month I'll have some more projects on which to test out your newly-honed photographic skills!

5 thoughts on “Project Workshop – Kick-Start a New Year of Photography”

  1. Thank you for this article. It was one of my goals for 2015 to take a photograph every day. I’ve slacked a little and this was good inspiration to keep trying.

    Do you have any suggestions for books related to photography theory? Maybe ones that have been especially helpful to you?

    1. I always recommend ‘The Photography Book’ by Phaidon Press – it’s available in three different sizes, and it’s just been updated. The same publisher also does a series called 55 each one of which looks at the work of a particular photographer. I’ve been taking photos for such a long time, I can’t really recommend any ‘technique books’ but Phaidon is a wonderful source for studying great photography.

      Have fun!

  2. margarida marques

    I am retiring from work by the end of May. I always loved photography and therefore I would like to invest my new spare time to improve my knowledge in this field. I live in Mozambique and often travel abroad. What could you recommend to meet my wish of getting a proper training? Thanks a lot.

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