Five (More) Creative Exercises to Improve Your Photography

Oded Wagenstein

In Part I of this article, Oded Wagenstein provided five creative exercises to help break through the "what do I do now?" blues, including how to compose storytelling portraits, how to best review your own work, the importance of photographing close to home, using an unconventional lens, and why sharing your work helps you grow as a photographer. And here are five more!

1. Make Portraits of Strangers

As a portrait photographer, people are always surprised to hear that even for me, talking to strangers isn’t easy. You don’t want to say something stupid; you don’t want to embarrass anyone, and you don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy. There is no doubt that the ability to start a conversation with a stranger is an important ability that can enrich your life. I use the camera as a platform—a tool—to help me overcome the fear of getting out of my comfort zone. If you approach someone and ask to make his or her portrait, what’s the worst that can happen? At best, you’ll spend a few minutes with a stranger and practice your portrait skills. Or you’ll get a polite "no" from someone that you’ll most likely never see again. I can live with that. Can you?

Pick an afternoon and go somewhere in your city (or a city you are visiting) where people gather. Study body language and facial expressions; study the visual story of people. And when someone catches your eye, approach them and ask to make their portrait. Even if portrait photography isn’t your typical genre, this exercise is a confidence builder that allows you to practice the art of working with others. And you never know when that may come in handy.

2. Learn to Frame a Portrait

The right framing is one of the key elements in a successful storytelling portrait; being able to choose the most suitable framing is important for every photographer. Some might argue that there are rules regarding framing and cropping a portrait, but I say that the only “rule” is to ask yourself whether the framing supports the story.

Practice by making portraits with a friend or family member and make notes—actual notes—as to (a) the most interesting thing you want to show the people who see your photograph, and (b) where the story is. Is it in the person's eyes? If so, do a close-up portrait, perhaps with a slight crop of the forehead for emphasis on the eyes. If the story is about the environment of the person, do an environmental portrait by capturing the person in his or her setting (work, living space, etc.). For purposes of this exercise, you could create a stage for your friend or family models that depicts them in a particular setting. Practicing with people you’re comfortable with will give you more confidence when you’re working with people you don’t know.

3. Understand Depth of Field

In a majority of close-up portraits, the key element is the person's eyes. But when you get that close to someone, you take the risk of losing your focus due to the shallow depth of field (that space in which things are in focus in your image). When the depth of field is too shallow (a smaller aperture, such as 1.4 or 2.8), most of the frame will not be in focus and getting the focus on the subject's eyes (instead of eyelashes and eyebrows) can be tricky. To avoid a too-shallow depth of field, use a larger aperture of 5.6 or greater. This helps to avoid the shallow depth of field that comes from shooting from a close distance, and will help you avoid losing that sharp eyes.

Practice using different apertures when making close-up portraits of family and friends, and take notes on focal points. Then carefully check the differences between the final images when you are doing post-processing to see which apertures and focal points worked best. With time and practice, it becomes second nature. When photographing strangers, if you’re nervous, you don’t want to miss making a great portrait because your depth of field was too shallow.

4. Choose Your Mode

I’ve been teaching photography for almost a decade, and on a daily basis, I talk to students who struggle with shooting in manual mode. This creates tremendous frustration and causes some of them to lose the enjoyment of photography altogether. Being able to enjoy what you do is a must-have element if you want to become a successful photographer. But not knowing how to shoot in manual mode? Not necessarily necessary. Some of my best friends are making amazing images while using the Automatic mode in their smartphones.

As a quick review, these are the standard DSLR camera modes:

  • Manual (M) – You select shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, focus and flash (if applicable).
  • Aperture priority (A) — You select the aperture; the camera chooses the other settings. Useful when you want to maintain a consistent depth of field, such as when making close-up portraits or when photographing stationary objects.
  • Shutter priority (S or Tv) — You select the shutter speed; the camera chooses the other settings. Helpful in photographing fast-moving subjects like athletes or children by choosing a faster shutter speed, or to blur objects like waterfalls with a slower shutter speed.
  • Program (P) — The camera selects shutter speed and aperture, but allows you to override other defaults such as ISO, white balance, which is similar to Auto mode, but allows you some control over ISO and white balance. Check your camera’s manual for more information on Program mode.

In addition to Automatic mode, your camera may also have an action/sport, portrait, night, landscape, and macro modes. Check your manual to see what your camera offers.

Create a series of a single subject, making a few photographs in each mode. Compare each image in the series in post-processing and decide which one(s) you want to continue to use. Challenge yourself, but remember that while shooting in focus at the right exposure is important, so is enjoying what you do! By experimenting, you’ll learn the capabilities of your camera and find the mode that works best for you.

5. Leave the camera behind

A few years ago, I was traveling in Tajikistan when a local man asked me to join his local wedding. It was a unique opportunity, and I was thrilled just thinking about the kind of photos I would get there. At the location—a big restaurant—the stunning Tajik wedding was in full swing, complete with live music, mountains of food, and people with the most interesting faces I had ever seen. It was dark outside and after a few clicks, I realized the bitter truth: the lighting was impossible to work with. I sat on the side, frustrated by the fact that I didn’t have a flash, and while I was thinking about the waste of time, one of the guests asked me to dance. I initially refused; I wasn’t there to dance, I was there to make outstanding work. Suddenly I realized that I do not live just to make photos, as those photos will turn into dust someday. So a few seconds later, I left the camera behind and was having the time of my life! Dancing, laughing, and getting to know those amazing people, some of whom I am still in touch with today. It was a night to remember, for many reasons. But it was the night I learned to leave the camera behind and just enjoy living. Don’t waste your life seeing everything trough the viewfinder; use the camera as an experience-maker and not as a divider between you and your life.

That’s my story; what’s yours? Practice writing about photographic experiences that are important to you, lessons you have learned, or things that have gone horribly wrong. Part of the beauty of photography can be in pairing images and words for a full storytelling experience. Get lost in it; enjoy the process.

If you like this article, you might also like Oded's eBooks, The Visual Storyteller and Stories & Faces.

Oded Wagenstein is a cultural photographer, writer, workshop leader and regular contributor for National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, Time Out (Israeli editions) and Getty Images. Between writing books on photography and traveling the world, he shares his knowledge with students at the largest photography school in Israel and in international workshops. Oded can be found online via Facebook and on his website


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