We’ve all been stuck in a photography rut, stagnantly wading through the same old library of photos. Without a jolt of inspiration, we all can fall prey to the same old techniques and tricks. If that’s how you’re feeling, then this article has 25 ideas to jumpstart your creativity and get you thinking in new ways about your photography. Better yet, all of these ideas don’t require anything except a camera. That’s right–no flashes, modifiers, reflectors, triggers, filters, or anything else needed. Just you, your camera, and somewhere to walk around.
All of the following ideas are intended for a casual photowalk, perhaps in your neighborhood, a nearby mall or shopping district, or on a local nature hike. Most of the ideas rely on fundamental concepts of photography and composition. So whether you’re out walking the world or stuck in your studio apartment, these ideas should give you new inspiration or refresh a basic skill that you may have forgotten.
Grab your camera and let’s go…
1. Use a different camera.
Leave at home the type of camera you use most often. If you always walk around with your phone, leave it at home and bring your dSLR. Or if your dSLR is always slung around your neck, limit yourself to your phone’s camera. Or maybe blow the dust off of an old point-and-shoot that’s been in your drawer for a few years. Seeing the world through a different viewfinder will immediately have your head searching for new ways to photograph the world. And for those of us who love the complete control that “manual” mode provides, simpler cameras that automate the process might push you to see something else in your photo, something that you might ignore if you had complete control of your camera.
2. Use a different lens.
Find the one that has been buried in your bag, the one that you haven’t used in a while. If you use your primes all the time, use a zoom–or even your old kit lens. Or do the opposite: if your zoom never comes off of your camera, take it off and use a prime. For me, my 50mm prime is most often on my camera. I have a crop-sensor, so the 50mm is great for both taking photos of my kids inside our home and just walking around the neighborhood. I’d challenge myself to take my Tamron 28-75, the one Jim recommends here. Just like a different camera will shake things up, so too will a different lens.
3. Depth of field Tip 1
Use a depth of field that you don’t usually use. Much like tips one and two, just do something that’s not your standard. If you’re like me, you tend to open your aperture wide for a shallow depth of field. I’m a family portrait photographer, so a shallow depth-of-field (like f2 or f3.6) and buttery bokeh is what clients want these days. On this walk, I’d stop-down my aperture (f8, maybe?) and use a deeper depth of field. If you’re a landscape photographer who shoots at f8, f12, or even higher, then do the opposite. See what happens when you consider only depth of field, especially if it’s out of your comfort zone.
4. Depth of Field Tip 2
This one is a challenge. Take a photo that looks good with both a shallow depth of field and a deep depth of field. Find a composition that will allow this range in depth of field to work. Helpful Hint: you’ll need something in the foreground, middleground, and background, which brings me to…
5. Depth of Field Tip 3
Consider how you compose the foreground, middleground, and background. How much of each will you include in the frame? More often than not, I tend to ignore the foreground. My subject rests comfortably in the middleground and I’m aware of the background (mostly so that I don’t have something odd sticking out of a person’s head!), but the foreground is usually an afterthought. I’d challenge myself to examine the foreground.
6. Get low (or high).
Stop taking photos while you are standing up. We all see the world from a 5-to-6 foot perspective. Get on the ground. Stand on a playground, fence, or car. (Okay, maybe don’t stand on a car–but you get the point.) Take your photo from an extreme perspective, a perspective from which no one normally sees the world. Get a bug’s view, or a bird’s, or child’s. Get low. Get high. Crouch. Kneel. Just don’t stand.
For this photo, only concentrate on capturing texture. Smooth, rough, glossy, mirrored, fuzzy, prickly, soft, hard, bumpy, frosted, brushed, matte, woven, squishy, sticky, grainy, coarse, rubbery, creamy, viscous, scratchy, you name it. In fact, challenge yourself to take an image that showcases contrasting textures.
8. Aspect Ratio
For just about all of us, our cameras take photos with a 3:2 ratio. That’s why a 4×6 photo is so standard–it keeps the aspect ratio of the original file. Challenge yourself: take a single photo that works for all three of these aspect ratios: 3:2, 1:1, 16:9. That’s a standard, a square, and a panorama.
9. Light Quality
The quality of your light is how hard or soft the light is. If you’re not used to judging light as “hard” and “soft,” then think about the shadow created by the light. If there is a distinct line for the shadow, then you’re working with hard light. If the the shadow is less distinct and kind of fuzzy, then you’re working with soft light. Here are several ways to use the quality of light to challenge yourself: a. Take a photo that showcases a quality of light that you typically don’t prefer. As a portrait photography, I tend to covet soft light. I’d challenge myself to find hard light. b. Take a photo that showcases both hard and soft light. You’ll really have to keep your eyes peeled to find a photo that fits both into the same frame.
10. Light intensity
Light intensity is just how bright or dim the light is. On a cloudless day at noon, the sun’s light is intense. A room lit only by a single candle is far less intense. Go out and find two different photos, each with much different light intensity. Or if you're always looking for that beautiful golden light that's the perfect intensity, not to high, not too low, (and who isn't, really?) then shoot at midday and challenge yourself to use intense light. Or if you're uncomfortable in low light, challenge yourself to shoot at a time with light far less intense than you're used to.
11. Light direction
Consider your basic direction options: back, side, front, top, or up from below. What do you usually look for? As a portrait family photographer who is usually on the run without flashes and modifiers, I tend to put the sun to my subject’s back and then use something nearby to reflect the light back onto them. I avoid top and up light as much as I can, so I'd challenge myself to take a photo that features top or up light. Challenge yourself to light a photo from a direction you're unaccustomed to or that you tend to avoid.
Or you could try taking two photos of the same subject from opposite directions. Assuming that your light source is stationary (the sun tends to be), then you'll have two photos with light in completely opposing directions. Which do you like more? Were both photos equally successful?
12. Light color
Think about light color in two ways. First, think about color temperature. Do you have the warm, orange light of sunset? Do you have the cooler, more blue light of a shady spot? Or do you have street lights or car headlights or the glow from a nearby store window? Just like I mentioned with direction, so too should you challenge yourself to find a color temperature you don't normally seek out. Second, seek out actual colored lights: string lights, neon signs, tail lights, etc. Find light that has a color and play with it. Illuminate a subject with its colored glow. Blur it out for some unique bokeh. Challenge yourself to perhaps find light for each color of the rainbow!
13. Motion Tip 1
Using a slower shutter speed, introduce motion into your photo. Find a spot where something is moving by you–cars, people, water, a fan–stay stationary, set a long shutter speed (one second? three seconds? ten seconds?), and see what kind of movement you can get in your image. (You might need to prop your camera on something to keep it still. A tripod would obviously be perfect, but you only need a flat, stable surface to hold your camera still. Just be careful no one bumps it!) With this technique, your background and foreground will remain in focus while whatever is moving in the frame will show some motion blur.
You'll want to lower your ISO as much as possible. You'll probably have to stop down to an f-stop like f11 or f16. During midday, this challenge will be especially tough. A neutral density filter would be your best friend if attempting this on a sunny day.
14. Motion Tip 2
Do almost everything like Motion Tip 1, except this time move your camera to follow the subject instead of keeping your camera stationary. This time, your subject should stay relatively in focus while the background shows motion blur. For this, you probably won't need as long of a shutter speed, nor will you probably need a high f-stop or neutral density filter. You can introduce motion this way relatively easily. The challenge will be focusing well and timing your movement to coincide with your subject's movement.
15. Negative space
Instead of filling your frame with your subject and a detailed background, use your frame to create negative (empty) space around your subject. You'll need to unclutter your scene for this. Negative space requires a simpler scene or at least a scene with some emptiness. You might also achieve this with a wide aperture (and the resulting bokeh), too; though a tougher challenge might be finding natural negative space rather than creating it with bokeh.
16. Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is probably the most famous compositional rule photographers use to their advantage. Essentially, imagine splitting your frame into thirds both vertically and horizontally. Where the lines intersect and the lines themselves tend to be the places where you should place visually important parts of your photo. (Jim wrote well about the Rule of Thirds here.)
Take two photos of the same subject to put the Rule of Thirds to the test. For the first, place the subject (part or all) on either the lines or the intersections. Then take the same photo without using the lines or intersections. Which do you like better? Can you make both work? The Rule of Thirds is the easiest technique to apply to make your photos better. It should probably be #1 on this list.
Play with the lines you can find in the world, whether they be street lines, branches, walls, benches, doorways, windows, flower stems, you name it. If you give your scene the “squint test,” thus reducing it to basic shapes and lines, you should be able to see the various lines in the scene.
Consider playing with horizontal, vertical, diagonal, converging, or curved lines. Or consider whether or not the lines are literal lines or implied lines. Implied lines are created by the interaction of subjects in the scene, especially any negative space between subjects. Consider, too, whether you can use lines to create a visual path (especially to one of the lines or intersections of the Rule of Thirds!). Find a way to use the lines in your photo, literal or implied, to lead to your main subject.
As with lines, you can also play with shapes in your photos. Whether man-made or natural, literal or implied, look for circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles. Feature one of the shapes–especially triangles. People love triangles. Consider whether or not you want to highlight the shape itself or also its dimension. Will your shapes be two-dimensional or three-dimensional? Are you walking around a park or mall? Do you see pyramids, spheres, prisms, cones, or cylinders? Can you juxtapose opposing shapes? Circle versus triangle; rectangle versus square; cone versus cylinder. Two shapes enter, one emerges victorious. Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away, but you get the point. Find a shape and make it the subject of your image.
You have much to play with when it comes to color. Start first with hue: what colors can you capture. Think further about which hues capture our attention compared to those that don’t. Red and orange tend to stand out while blue and green don’t really. (Grass is green and the sky is blue, right? We see those colors all day, every day, everywhere. That’s why they don’t necessarily draw our attention the way a red balloon or an orange sign do.) Next, seek out various saturations. Do you see the full, vivid blue of a cloudless spring sky or the pale, dull blue of a faded blue jeans?
Move on to considerations of harmony and contrast. Do you have a scene that features harmonious colors? Perhaps you have a row after row of similarly painted homes. Or do you have a scene with contrasting colors? The various rows of fruit and vegetables at a farmer’s market should provide contrast.
Finally, consider the mood you can create with color. Do you have a cheerful scene full of yellow and orange? Do you have a neutral scene of greens and brown? Do you have a gloomy scene with blues and purples? Can you play with color to upend the traditional mood associated with each color?
Search for a scene or subject that will provide your frame with symmetry. A symmetrical image is one that can be folded in half and have the same (or almost the same) image on either half. Symmetry can provide a great sense of balance or weight to a photo. By combining one or more of the other tips in this article with the concept of symmetry, you can achieve a truly striking image. Just be sure to make any lines perfectly horizontal or vertical; otherwise, your symmetry will be lost.
Whether literal or implied, you can create focus by framing a subject within the scene. Doors and windows are easy frames to find in the world. You can also consider the shapes created by trees or pathways as frames, too. When looking for a frame, you simply need to find a shape or a color or some negative space in which to put your subject.
Showcase the patterns you find on your walk. Look for pattern in shape, color, texture, line, light, or any of the other elements already described. Consider whether or not you want depth to your pattern or if you simply want to showcase two dimensions. Patterns, like much else in this list, can also be literal or implied. Can you find an implied pattern and showcase it?
Now we’re looking a little deeper into our surroundings. Become Alice and find your looking glass to another photographic world. Use puddles, windows, metal surfaces, cars, or mirrors, of course. What effect does using a mirror have on your scene? Does the mirror create a frame? Does the mirror create distance from the viewer and the subject? Does the mirror provide repetition or balance? Take two photos of the same subject, one in a reflection and one not. Which do you like better? How does the mood change? Reflect on your surroundings. Take a photo using a reflection.
The penultimate challenge: take a self-portrait. Use a stream. Or a window. Or the back of a street sign. Or your shadow. Take a self-portrait that is crisp and clear. Or take one that gives the impression of you, a blurred out, featureless version. All of the tips above have focused on your surroundings. Don’t forget about yourself. Take a self-portrait.
25. Time Limit Challenge
Using the checklist provided, head out into the world, set a timer for 30 minutes, and try to accomplish ten of the techniques on the list. Maybe even pick the ten ahead of time–that’ll really limit your goals and focus your technique. This challenge is for those out there like me. Your days are busy with a full-time job, kids, school, cooking, cleaning, errands, the works. You rarely find extra time for your photography because everything else comes first. 30 minutes is a reasonable amount of time to be able to pluck out of most everyone’s schedule. And ten photos isn’t really that many, right?
As you head out into the world and improve your photowalk, use the hashtag #10in30photo to share your results. Let’s see how creative we can get as we improve our photography.