15 Photography Exercises Guaranteed to Improve Your Skills
Practice makes perfect
It takes practice to produce high-quality photography. As a beginner, it’s vital that you learn some basic photography exercises in order to improve your skills.
The very best photographers practice regularly, in order to better understand their equipment, improve picture composition and develop their individual style.
To help you on your way, here at the IDI Blog we’ve listed our 15 favourite photography exercises that are guaranteed to make you a better photographer…
1. 100 Paces
This is one of those photography exercises aimed at improving your skills of observation.
Place your camera on an automatic setting and take 10 pictures of your surroundings. Make sure that all of the pictures are different.
Next, move 100 paces forward and take another 10 photos. After you’ve completed this exercise three or four times, you’ll start noticing things that you would have missed before.
Advanced tip: To crank it up a notch, repeat the exercise with your camera set to manual.
2. Guess the Settings
Ask a fellow photography enthusiast to play “guess the settings” with you – make a competition out of guessing the settings for each image before looking.
You’ll soon become much better at recognising the effects produced by each different setting.
[Flickr is a great place to learn about the various camera settings. If you look below each image, you’ll often find the settings listed – f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, and so on.]
3. Macro Max
A common mistake made by beginner photographers is a failure to fill the frame.
To rid yourself of this tendency, practice taking shots which involve you getting as close as you can to your subjects without losing focus.
Not only will you produce professional-looking, detailed images, but you’ll also get to know the capability of your lens.
4. Squirrel Hunter
Moving subjects are particularly tricky to capture, so a bit of extra practice might be needed to hone your skills.
A great exercise to help with this is visiting your local park and taking some photographs of squirrels, pigeons, or whatever other wildlife you see running around.
Advanced tip: For an even greater challenge, try capturing some close-up shots of moving insects.
5. Shooting Blind
Digital photography gives you the freedom to take hundreds of shots during a single trip and delete them as you go.
But with the option to delete so readily, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of not focusing properly on each shot.
Set yourself a limit (e.g. 30 photographs) and head out for the day. Turn off the preview on your DSLR‘s screen and don’t look at any images until you get home.
You’ll soon discover the merits of taking your time. Alternatively, you could go out shooting with a simple film camera.
6. Black and White
Black and white photography exercises require you to look at the world in a different way. Contrast, textures, and shapes become more prominent in the absence of colour.
Set your camera to monochrome and go for long walk, capturing images as you go.
You’ll soon see that some images are enhanced by their lack of colour, while others might require a more complex palette to work well.
This exercise is intended to give you an insight into the mind of your favourite photographer. Select a few of their best images and try to recreate them as closely as you can.
Don’t worry if they’re not exact copies; this approach will help you to pick up new techniques, which will influence and progress your own style.
And remember, the photographers you admire didn’t become great by chance – they had to practice too.
8. Shot in the Dark
Getting used to low light situations can be challenging.
To practice, go out shooting after dark with your flash turned off. You’ll soon learn to make the most of low light sources and long exposures.
This exercise will help you to get to know your settings better, and it’s fascinating to see how the camera captures night scenes differently to the human eye.
Reminder: Remember to take a tripod with you!
9. Selfie Conscious
As a photographer, it can sometimes be easy to forget what it’s like to be on the other side of the lens, especially when taking portraits.
Why not try setting your camera up on a tripod and taking a number of self-portraits?
For capturing your “selfie”, a remote shutter release or timer will do the trick.
By putting yourself in the hot seat, you’ll have a more rounded understanding of your craft and a little more empathy for your future subjects.
A chess board is a great tool for learning about depth of field and aperture value.
Place the pieces around the board, as if you’re in the middle of a game, and get in close. Experiment with different aperture settings to see what effect they have.
First, try to get all of the pieces in focus, before then trying to get only the pieces close to the lens in focus against a blurred background.
Pay attention to the lines of the chess board and let them inform your framing by leading your eye to a particular point of interest.
With a little experimenting you’ll learn a lot about aperture and depth of field, which you can then take beyond the board and apply to your own photography.
11. On the Hour Every Hour
The next time you have a free day, take a photograph of the same subject every hour.
This exercise will give you a deeper understanding of light and its changing effects throughout the course of a day.
You’ll soon be raving about the photographer’s precious ‘golden hour‘ (shortly after sunrise and just before sunset, when daylight has a reddish glow).
Pro tip: Pick a day when there is a clear sky to get the best results.
12. Upon Reflection
Spend a day shooting only reflections of your subjects.
Use puddles, car mirrors, glass, polished metal – anything you can find with a reflective surface. Be sure not to press the shutter unless you’re pointing at a reflected image.
This exercise will help you consider new ways of photographing familiar subjects, giving them a new angle and adding another dimension of interest.
13. Know your ABCs
Take 26 photographs, each of a subject beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. Take your time over every picture to get the best image of your alphabetised subjects.
You’ll have to get creative as some letters are far more difficult than others. Best of luck with X.
A variation of this is to grab a friend and each pick a letter at random. The first one to return with ten photographs of subjects beginning with that letter wins!
14. No Zoom
Zooms can make photographers lazy. They can sometimes be an easy fix for any problems you have in getting around your subject.
But don’t be afraid to get up close and personal. Disable your zoom and go out shooting with a fixed lens.
This will encourage you to engage fully with your subject and capture it from more interesting, intimate angles.
15. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Imagine that you’ve been commissioned by a local authority to capture your surroundings in a way that would appeal to visitors in a new tourism campaign.
You’ll soon find that capturing places in their best light isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.
Next, switch it around and take a selection of photographs which make the area look less appealing than it actually is.
These exercises will help you to see places that you’re familiar with in completely new and contrasting ways.
If you found these photography exercises helpful, and want to expand on them further, check out our free eBook: How to Take Better Pictures – Beginner’s Guide to Professional Photography.
Despite how easy it looks, photography is hard. Deceptively hard. In reality, there are three separate learning curves to conquer: the technical aspects of the camera3 Steps To Learning The Basics Of Photography With A Virtual DSLR3 Steps To Learning The Basics Of Photography With A Virtual DSLRRather than learning your photography from books and tutorials, this web application from Canon Canada is the most fun yet. Outside of Auto from Canon is a gentle introduction to the basics of photography.Read More, the theory of light and shadowsThis Rule of Light Will Instantly Improve Your PhotosThis Rule of Light Will Instantly Improve Your PhotosHaving trouble with lighting in your photos? This one principle might be the reason why.Read More, and the actual composition of a photoUsing the Golden Ratio in Photography for Better CompositionUsing the Golden Ratio in Photography for Better CompositionDo you struggle with photo composition? Here are two techniques based on the Golden Ratio that will drastically improve your shots with little effort on your part.Read More (sometimes called “seeing the shot”).
That last part is the hardest thing for beginners to grasp. Light is a hard science and cameras are just buttons, but composition has an artsy component that can’t be easily taught. It must be discovered by the photographer himself.
Fortunately, there are exercises out there that can help “develop your photographic eye”, so to speak, and practical experience is the only guaranteed way to understand composition. Here are the most effective exercises we’ve found.
1. Crop Someone Else’s Photos
Great photography starts with the eye, not the camera. This means it should be possible to develop your photographic eye without even touching a camera or lens — and it is. For this exercise, all you’ll need is a basic photo editing program10 Free Photo Editor Tools To Make The Most Of Your Shots10 Free Photo Editor Tools To Make The Most Of Your ShotsWhatever happened to all the snapshots you've taken in the past? If you've got plans and ideas, here are some great Windows and some cross platform tools to process them with.Read More like Paint, GIMP, or Picasa.
First, learn the fundamental rules of photo compositionHow to Compose a Photograph: 5 Essential Rules to FollowHow to Compose a Photograph: 5 Essential Rules to FollowIf you want to get really good at photography, there are some vital rules around image composition that you should consider. Here are five of the most important.Read More. You don’t have to know all of them right now, but you should know at least one, as this exercise will force you to start putting these rules into practice. We recommend starting with the Rule of Thirds.
Next, go to a free photo-hosting site like Flickr or 500px and download a whole bunch of images to your computer. (The easiest way it to right-click and “Save Image As”). Any kinds of images will work, but this exercise works especially well with portraits and landscapes.
Now, open one of the images in your photo editing program of choice and start cropping. Try all of the standard aspect ratios, including 1:1, 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9. Try cropping vertical photos as horizontal, or horizontal photos as vertical. Move the subject around. Be creative.
The point is to experiment and see how different crops can change the look and feel of an image, and how certain crops are more aesthetically pleasing than others. This experience is invaluable when you start framing your own shots through the viewfinder.
Note: You can play around with someone else’s images, but do NOT upload them or republish them on the Internet in any way. That would be a violation of copyright lawConcerned About Copyright? A Guide For Legally Using Images On The WebConcerned About Copyright? A Guide For Legally Using Images On The WebCopyright is a complex subject. A fair amount of understanding makes it easier. If you're wondering under what circumstances you can use someone else's creative work -- expect some answers here.Read More unless you have express permission from the image’s original owner.
2. With 1 Subject, Shoot 10 Photos
Here’s a common mistake made by newbies: always taking photos from the same height and from the same angle. It’s natural to stand up straight and snap shots from eye-levelThe Top 5 Photography Tips For Absolute BeginnersThe Top 5 Photography Tips For Absolute BeginnersIf you're an absolute beginner at photography, here are a handful of tips that should be considered "essential learning". Here are the top five.Read More, but that’s boring. Everyone knows what the world looks like from eye-level!
If you want your photos to be more compelling, start changing it up. Capture the world from unusual angles and positions — viewpoints that are foreign to most people. Now that’s interesting.
This exercise helps train your sense of angles. First, find a subject. Any subject. It could be a stove-top kettle, a pet dog, a fire hydrant, an herb garden, a manhole cover, or even a dumpster. Anything works — just find something.
And then take 10 photos of it. No two photos should be alike. Try looking directly down at it. Then try looking directly up at it. Shift the angles a bit so you’re looking down/up from the side, and then shift again so you’re even further. Look at the front of the subject, then the back, then the sides.
The possibilities are countless, and even the smallest tweaks to the angle can have a noticeable impact on the resulting photo. Do this for hundreds of subjects and you’ll start seeing angles everywhere you go without even trying.
3. With 3 Objects, Shoot 10 Photos
In some cases — like landscape, astronomical, and street photography — the idea is to capture scenes in the moment as they are. In other cases — like portrait, food, and product photography — the idea is to construct scenes from out of nothing.
As you imagine, creating something out of nothing isn’t easy. There are many factors to juggle (e.g. lighting, background, etc.) but one particular aspect that newbies find difficult is how to position multiple subjects within the frame.
That’s what this exercise is about. Find three random objects, such as action figures, fruit, bowls, candles, plants, or whatever else you have available. It doesn’t matter if they’re related to each other or not, although it will be easier if they’re all similar in size.
Now position them however you wish. Think of it as if you’re composing the objects for a photo shoot (that is what you’re doing). Do this 10 times, rearranging them in different ways each time. Over time, this will stretch your creative muscles and develop your eye.
4. With 1 Lens, Shoot 1,000 Photos
The focal length of a lens controls more than just the zoom factor of a shot. Yes, all things being equal, an 18mm requires you to be closer to the subject than a 50mm or an 85mm. But different focal lengths can evoke different feelings from a photo, too.
For example, the wide angle of an 18mm lens comes with a lot of distortion, which can produce a comical or whimsical effect. On the other hand, a 200mm lens has a compression effect that makes the photo seem flatter than, say, an 85mm or 50mm lens.
In short, different focal lengths require different states of mind when composing shots. That’s why we recommend mastering one kind of lens at a time, preferably starting with a 50mm prime. Read up on the most common lenses used in photography5 Common Photo Lenses & When To Use Them5 Common Photo Lenses & When To Use ThemThough there's no photographic rulebook when it comes to focal length and aperture, there are a few best practices to remember.Read More and which ones you should use.
For this exercise, all you have to do is stick with one focal length for your next 1,000 photos. It’s easiest with a prime lens, but if you only have a zoom lens, just pick a focal length and leave it there. Switch to another focal length when your 1,000 photos are complete.
By the end, you should have a better understanding of how to use the different focal lengths at your disposable. The way you approach a flower photo differs whether you’re using an 18mm or a 200mm lens, and this exercise helps solidify that knowledge with experience.
5. Hula-Hoop Photo Walks
Creativity is often seen as something that’s infinite, boundless, and full of possibilities. And while there’s technically nothing wrong with that, the truth is that creativity needs limits and constraints to really flourish4 Must-See TED Talks On Creativity, Inspiration & Passion4 Must-See TED Talks On Creativity, Inspiration & PassionCreativity. Inspiration. Passion. These are all concepts of which we are very much aware, but not many of us can precisely pinpoint their source. Where does creativity come from? What is it that causes a...Read More. It sounds weird, but it’s true.
If you’ve ever felt like you wanted to take photos but didn’t know where to start, where to go, or what to shoot, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Restrictions are good, and that’s how this exercise is going to unlock your creative potential8 TED Talks That Will Help Unlock Your Creative Potential8 TED Talks That Will Help Unlock Your Creative PotentialPractical advice for being creative is rare and hard to find, but it's out there if you know where to look. Here are our picks for the best TED Talks on being a creative.Read More.
Take a hula hoop and go outside. Toss it up into the air, then let it bounce and roll around until it eventually comes to a stop. Now stand inside the hula hoop, take a look around, and shoot 10, 20, or 50 photos of anything, but try to make them good.
When you’re done, toss the hula hoop into the air again and repeat the process. If you don’t have a hula hoop, just pick a random direction and walk a random number of steps to find your next spot. Pretty soon your creative juices will start flowing, guaranteed.
6. Weekly Photo Challenges
Weekly photo challenges are popular on the Internet these days, but different photography communities have different names for them: Photo of the Week, 52 Photos Project, Sunday Photo Prompt, etc. The key is to take 52 photos over the course of one year.
Ideally, you’d take part in some kind of community version of the challenge because this gives you a chance to see the photos of other participants and a chance for others to critique your work8 Places to Get Feedback on Your Photos8 Places to Get Feedback on Your PhotosOne of the best ways to improve your photography skills is to gather genuine feedback from people who know what they’re talking about. These eight sites are where you can do just that.Read More. But if you prefer to stay independent and do a personal challenge instead, that’s fine too.
Sometimes each month has a theme, but not always. It’s up to you how you want to do it. We recommend setting a regular weekly deadline and sticking to it, whether that means every Sunday, Wednesday, or whatever. Need inspiration? Check out 52PhotosProject, 52Photos, or Journal52.
7. Recreate Someone Else’s Photos
Once you have a little more experience under your belt and you feel comfortable behind a camera, you may want to try recreating photos that others have shot. Browse Flickr and 500px, pick a few that seem within your skill range, and have at it!
The goal here isn’t to make an exact 1-to-1 replica of your source material, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t get that far. Rather, this exercise is meant to get you thinking in ways you haven’t considered, to push you outside your comfort zoneHow To Spark Personal Growth: 5 Tricks Of The EntrepreneurHow To Spark Personal Growth: 5 Tricks Of The EntrepreneurNot everyone has to be an entrepreneur, but everyone can learn something from the entrepreneur. By tapping into some of those entrepreneurial traits, you can radically alter your own life in an upward direction.Read More.
At first, your imitation photos will look like garbage compared to your source photos. That’s normal! Keep at it, however, and you’ll start to see fast improvements — and along the way, you may even start to discover your own voice and sense of style as a photographer.
It’s a Long but Rewarding Journey
Don’t expect to unlock your photographer’s eye overnight. It’s a gradual process that could take weeks, months, or even years before you really start to “see” photographs before taking them. But I assure you, the journey is well worth taking. Don’t give up!
If these exercises weren’t enough and you need even more exercise ideas, then we highly recommend checking out these photography courses on Lynda.comHow to Improve Your Photography Overnight with Lynda.comHow to Improve Your Photography Overnight with Lynda.comLynda.com is great for online learning. Of the 546 photography courses available, here are some of the best ones for sharpening your skills in just a few hours.Read More. In particular, Ben Long’s The Practicing Photographer is a series of exercises just like these, with a new one added every week.
Which exercises did you find the most useful? Know of any other exercises worth mentioning? How did you learn photography? Share with us in the comments below!
Image Credits: White Sandals by Pool by Ann Haritonenko via Shutterstock, Coffee Scoop by stefanolunardi via Shutterstock, Ties on Wall by Halfpoint via Shutterstock, Smartphone and Food by Efired via Shutterstock, Outdoors Photographer by leungchopan via Shutterstock, Wide Angle Cat by Rrrainbow via Shutterstock, Top Down Desk by Evgeny Karandaev via Shutterstock
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