Research suggests that creative activities can promote well-being and help us avoid stress, regardless of our skill levels or experience. In fact, even small creative sessions in everyday life can boost our emotional health, meaning that you don’t need to be a full-time artist to reap the benefits.
If we learned anything in the last year, it’s that photographers know how to get creative even without a huge budget. In recent months, we’ve seen photographers from around the world create extraordinary pictures using limited resources. 500px Ambassador Laura Ferreria, for instance, set up a quarantine photoshoot in her bathroom shower. Dariane Sanche created a stunning beauty look using materials found at the dollar store, and Jovana Rikalo found inspiration in her household plants.
For photographers hoping to level up their skills, learn new tricks, and hone their vision, we came up with this list of just 12 exercises that you can fit into your everyday life, no matter your schedule. We’ve included assignments for street photographers, portrait photographers, food photographers, and more.
Photograph during your lunch break
Photographers with day jobs have long used their lunch breaks to hit the pavement and grab some shots. In the 1970s, for instance, the photographer Charles Traub took photos of passersby during his lunch break while working at Columbia College in Chicago.
Wherever you are, take advantage of the midday hustle and bustle, and take some street portraits in your neighborhood. You can even shoot the same block or corner every day at around the same time. Traub frequently returned to spots like Michigan Avenue, with unforgettable results.
Play the lottery
Write down as many random photo subjects as you can on different scraps of paper. These can be as simple as a fork, a cup of coffee, a table, a book, etc. Some can also be more abstract or open-ended, such as the color red, shadow play, or nostalgia. The more objects and ideas you can generate, the better.
When you’re done, put all your paper scraps into a shoebox or Tupperware container for storage. Then, whenever you need inspiration, go ahead and give it a good shake and draw one scrap from the pile. Whatever you find on that scrap of paper, you have to photograph.
Collaborate with a stranger
This one has become a trend on TikTok in recent months; head outside, and look for someone you find interesting. Once you find someone, approach and ask if you can take their portrait (don’t forget to keep a safe social distance). The worst that happens is they say “no,” but even then, you’ll build confidence. If they agree, you can take down their email so you can send them the final photo.
Re-stage a historic photo
The American photographer Sandro Miller recently released a book (published by Skira) of portraits of the actor John Malkovich recreating iconic images from the history of photography, including works by Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon. Of course, their collaboration spanned years, but you can follow in their footsteps by choosing one photo you love to recreate at home.
It can be a still life, a portrait, or something else; this exercise is meant to deepen your understanding of how great photos are constructed and lit. An alternative would be to shoot a photo in the style of a photographer you love. Choose a different subject but try to get a similar mood or color palette.
Count to five
Create a series of photographs representing numbers one through five. You can start, for instance, by shooting a still life of a single pear, then photograph a pair of cats, then a line of three trees. From there, maybe you catch a group of four birds or a line of five boats on a lake. This exercise is about noticing everyday details and seizing the moment, so bring your camera everywhere in case an opportunity presents itself.
Listen to music
This one comes from Eric Kim’s fantastic pocket-sized Photo Journal, which includes lots of creative prompts for photographers. He recommends listening to an album and creating a photo for every song, but you can also do just one song if you prefer. Set your library to “shuffle,” and use whatever song starts playing as inspiration. Illustrate how the song makes you feel, or set out to photograph a moment or object mentioned in the lyrics—it’s up to you.
Photograph someone from an unusual vantage point
We borrowed this exercise from the famous artist John Baldessari, who often encouraged his students to photograph the backs of things or the “underneaths” of subjects for an “uncharacteristic view.” Some ideas: create a portrait using the back of someone’s head, or bend down to photograph them from below, looking up.
Stay “glued” in one spot
This one’s for urban, street, and cityscape photographers: find an interesting location or background, and choose a place to sit or stand. Take fifteen unique photos from that single spot. You can turn around, bend down, or go on your tiptoes—but you can’t move left or right or backward or forward. You can change your camera settings to create motion blur or change your depth of field. Of course, you can also wait for interesting elements—like people or dogs out for a walk—to enter the frame.
Pay homage to your favorite book
The conceptual still life photographer and 500px Ambassador Dina Belenko often draws inspiration from books and fictional characters. You can do the same by pulling an idea from a novel and photographing it, whether it’s a meal eaten by the protagonist or a collection of the hero’s favorite objects. You’ll likely have to do some grocery or prop shopping before getting started.
Work from a creative brief
In between client shoots, don’t forget to schedule time to shoot for yourself and your portfolio. While the actual shoot times will vary, starting with a brief is the perfect way to get your creative juices flowing. Plus, setting up a personal session using a brief will help hone your skills for working with clients in the future.
You can start by checking out Quests on 500px, a great spot to get inspiration and direction for upcoming projects. They always have a few Quests open at a time, and they have a roster of talented guest judges. Winners can receive cash prizes, mentorship opportunities, and more. Follow the brief laid out by the editors, and give it your own personal twist.
Re-edit an old photo
Go digging through your archive and find a photo you love but have forgotten over time. Go ahead and pull it into the editing app of your choice. Edit the same photo in three different ways, aside from how you might have processed it in the beginning of your career. You can try trendy edits like “light and airy” or “dark and moody” or go classic with black and white or an old-fashioned film look. Make the three edits as different as possible, and challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone.
Cut and paste
Photographic artists ranging from John Stezaker to Man Ray have experimented with collage, so consider printing out your photos (you can also use found images from thrift stores, photo albums, or magazines) and make your own analog photomontage. This exercise will connect you with the physical, tactile roots of photography, but it’s also a game of trial and error, so remember to use images you can reprint or pictures you don’t mind ruining.
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