One of the keys to always improving as a photographer is very simply … to shoot! I don’t think this is something just for the beginning photographer, either. I consider photographing that goes beyond simply getting a great shot is important for all of us. I had a workshop many years ago with the great photographer, Ernst Haas.
He said that it was important for all of us as photographers to keep doing the equivalent of the pianist’s finger exercises. He noted that no concert pianist only played when they expected to create a brilliant concert, but they were always honing their craft as a musician. That’s important to us as photographers as well. So by constantly doing exercises that push us a little and take us out of our normal way of doing things, we too can be doing visual exercises to keep us sharp.
For me, this is often setting my camera to shoot in black and white and forcing myself to only shoot black and white for a while. (I’ve talked about this concept before, but the way to do this is to shoot RAW + JPEG, set your camera to black-and-white or monochrome, and start shooting. Everything you see in the LCD will be in black-and-white, plus your JPEG files will all be in black-and-white while your RAW files will be in color because RAW cannot be any other way.)
Another example: Whenever I get a new lens, I will go out with just that lens for an afternoon and only shoot with it. I don’t have any expectation of getting great shots, but I do have an expectation of honing my craft and better understanding what this lens can and cannot do.
Simply going out and taking a lot of pictures, pictures that you are experimenting with trying new things even though you don’t know if you’re going to be successful, will always help build your strength as a photographer and hone your craft.
Here are a few exercises that I have found over the years to be very useful both for myself and for students. I think they are great “finger exercises” for photographers.
- The telephoto and wide challenge: Put a zoom lens on your camera and go out with just the camera and that lens. Take a picture with the widest focal length setting of that lens. Then for your next picture, zoom your lens all the way to its maximum telephoto position and take a picture. Force yourself to alternate the widest focal length with the maximum telephoto focal length as you shoot. Create each shot as something new for composition, i.e., don't simply zoom into your wide-angle shot. This will give you such a great feel for the craft of changing focal length. The two shots here were literally done this way with my Lumix 12-35mm zoom on my Panasonic GH3.
- The close-focus challenge: Put a lens on your camera, and it doesn’t matter what lens this is, then set your camera to manual focus and the lens to its closest focusing distance. Now go out and photograph by only using this minimum focus distance. If you think you’re going to be tempted to change your focus distance, put a piece of duct tape over your lens to keep you from changing the focus point. This will give you an amazing feel for close-up work and the potential of any lens.
- Know your aperture: I think every photographer should do this at least once because this will give you a better feel of the craft of choosing an f-stop than anything I know. Go out and find a close-up subject with a distinct background behind it. But your camera on a tripod and your lens at a single focal length, then focus on your subject and take a series of pictures starting with your maximum f-stop (such as f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6, depending on the lens), then change your f-stop one f-stop at a time as you go toward your smallest f-stop (such as f/16 or f/22). Then try this at a moderate distance and a far distance. Don’t be surprised if you see very little difference when your subject is far away. Also try this at different focal lengths. (An aside: One time when I was writing for a photography magazine many years ago, I wrote about changing your f-stop to affect the appearance of the background and how that even the change of a single f-stop could make a difference at close and moderate distances. The editor got in an angry letter from a reader that said I didn’t know what I was talking about because it was only if you changed from a very wide f-stop to a very small f-stop that you would actually see any difference. Obviously he had never done this exercise! Do this exercise, and you might be surprised at the results.)
- The reality of white balance: I have often talked about the importance of shooting a specific white balance and not using auto white balance when you’re shooting outdoors. I do care how many times people say that they can change this in the computer, the insidious thing about AWB is that it is often “almost” right so that your eye adjusts to seeing what is on the screen and you don’t make the needed change. The thing about white balance is that there is no international standard so that white balance settings on one camera are not exactly the same as white balance settings on another. The only way to really know what your camera is capable of is to do a series of shots where you change your white balance. Set up your camera on a tripod and try shooting a subject in sunlight, in shade, and on a cloudy day, each time going through a whole range of white balance settings, including ones that you don’t think will work. Sometimes you can find some really creative things going on through the use of the “wrong” white balance setting.
These are just a few examples of some great little exercises that can help anyone grow as a photographer. You may have some other ideas. Please share them in the comment section of the blog!
I am also in the process of setting up a podcast that I am thinking of calling, Nature and Photography and Life. I’m hoping to have this online, so to speak, by the end of November. I will let you know when it is available.