A few weeks ago I wrote about what to do when you find yourself in a photography rut. One of the ideas is giving yourself creative photography assignments or briefs.
This idea is so powerful that I wrote an ebook about it, The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments. Today I’d like to share some of my favorite assignments from the book with you.
It’s important to let you know that I’m not going to give you an assignment list that reads like this:
- Take a landscape photo
- Make a street photo
- Take a photo of somebody’s pet
These assignments go deeper than that. Some of them are easy. Most of them are challenging. All of them are designed to get you to see the creative potential in everyday subjects.
To help you find the right assignment for you I’ve divided them into four categories: Composition, Subject, Technique and Creativity.
To give you a taste of what’s in the book here’s an assignment from each of these categories. Whether you buy the book or not, I hope you’ll find these ideas useful. Feel free to print them out and keep them. And if you do the assignments, send me the results. I’d love to see them.
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Photography assignment 5: A bird’s eye view (Composition)
Knowing where to put the camera and which direction to point the lens in is as important as deciding what to include in the composition.
Most people instinctively take a photo from eye level. Good photographers explore different points of view. They might kneel or lay on the ground for a worm’s eye view. Or they might use a drone to look down on the world from above.
This assignment is about looking down. It doesn’t matter how high the camera is, just the direction it’s pointing in. There are lots of possibilities. A simple example you’ll see on Instagram is somebody making a photo of their bare feet in the sand at the beach, or their shoes while standing in a drift of autumn leaves. It’s been done before but it’s easy and effective.
Another option is to try a flat lay style of composition. That’s where you arrange a set of objects on a table (or some other interesting surface) and make a photo from above. It’s kind of two dimensional but that’s the appeal.
Outside look for viewpoints that let you look downwards. Stand at the top of a set of steps and look down. Go to a building’s higher levels and look down through the windows (or over the edge of the roof). How different do things look when seen from above?
- Find an interesting subject first then look to see if there’s a way you can look down at it.
- On sunny days looking down on the subject gives you the opportunity to add shadows to the composition. This is most effective at the end of the day when shadows are longer.
- Food photography is a natural fit for this assignment. Wooden tables make great backdrops for food. Use sidelight to bring out the textures.
Why this photo works
You don’t have to use a drone or a stepladder to take a photo from above. Look for changes in level, retaining walls or steps that let you look down on your subject.
Here, the symmetrical arrangement of the tables and chairs creates an interesting composition. The subtle tonality and mixture of textures adds interest.
Photography assignment 29: Hint of mystery (Subject)
Many photographers try and show the entire subject in their photos. But what happens when you only show part of it instead?
Garden designers think like this. They like to include hidden corners to encourage people to step into the garden and walk through it. In a similar way, by not showing the viewer everything, you’re encouraging them to become more engaged with the photo in search of answers.
In this assignment your brief is to create a sense of mystery and unanswered questions by showing part of the subject, not all of it. Here are some ideas for how you can do it.
- Hide part of the subject in deep shadow.
- Use a telephoto lens or move in close so that part of the subject is excluded from the frame. Try telling a story about the subject by only photographing part of it.
- Use a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus. Dark backgrounds are more mysterious than light ones.
- Light is an important part of creating a sense of mystery. Mysterious photos are often made in moody light.
- Standard and telephoto lenses are the easiest ones to use for this assignment. Their narrower field of view helps you exclude more of the scene from the photo.
- Resist the temptation to show everything in a photo. What you leave out adds to the sense of mystery and unanswered questions.
Why this photo works
This photo of a man’s foot poses more questions than answers. Where was it made? Why is he wearing sandals made from old tires? What does the rest of the scene look like? You’ll get a better idea of the answers when I tell you that I made the photo in a town in Bolivia, and that the man whose foot I photographed is from a nearby rural village.
Photography assignment 38: Slow shutter speeds (Technique)
Most of the time photographers use shutter speed to freeze action and prevent camera shake. But you can get interesting results by putting your camera on a tripod and using slower shutter speeds.
In this assignment your brief is to experiment with using slow shutter speeds and a tripod mounted camera to create photos with blur. The idea is that part of the photo is sharp (that’s why you use a tripod) and part of it’s blurred.
Waterfalls are a great example. Water flowing over a rock in a stream or river is another. Whatever your subject, start by setting the shutter speed to around 1/4 second. Then, once you’ve done that, experiment with different shutter speeds to see which one gives you the best result.
You can also look for other subjects other than water, like grass blowing in the wind. Include something like a rock or a fence in the composition to juxtapose the blurred grass with something sharp.
- The image stabilization systems in modern cameras and lenses let you use shutter speeds as slow as half a second without camera shake. If you have an image stabilized lens or camera then test it to see how slow you can go and still get sharp images.
- Use a polarizing filter to remove reflections from wet rocks.
Why this photo works
Waterfalls are a great subject to experiment with using slow shutter speeds. Here, a shutter speed of one second let the water blur nicely. I used a short telephoto lens to photograph the most interesting part of the waterfall, rather than try and capture the whole scene.
Photography assignment 43: A sense of place (Creativity)
Black and white is the ideal medium for capturing a sense of place. It captures the character of places just as much as the character of people.
Part of the reason for this is that black and white has a timeless, mysterious quality. Being one step removed from reality helps us see a place through fresh eyes. We see beyond the surface (color) to the essence of something (shape, form and texture).
This assignment’s brief is to use these qualities of black and white to capture the spirit of a place. The choice of place is up to you. The important thing is that you find a way to capture its character.
Working locally is a disadvantage in one way because it’s harder to see it with fresh eyes. But it also gives you an advantage because you know it better, including the hidden corners that visitors miss. Think about the things that make the place unique. If you’re in a town, for example, that could be the style of architecture. This applies to homes people live in as well as public buildings. And character doesn’t have to be old. Even the newest housing estate has some kind of character to capture.
If you’re photographing a landscape, what are the unique geological features that make it special?
Think about the light and weather as well. If there’s a marked difference between the seasons, then the character of a place changes through the year.
- You don’t have to travel to somewhere exotic for this assignment. Think local. How can you capture a sense of the place where you live?
- If you’re working locally it’s easy to turn this assignment into a project. How does the sense of place change with the seasons?
Why this photo works
I made this photo in a narrow road in an English town. The architecture is typical of the area. Note how two of the windows are blocked in, a legacy of the window tax enforced between the 17th and 19th centuries.
The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments
These assignments come from my new ebook The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments
It builds on the lessons in The Magic of Black & White by giving you 50 assignments to develop your black and white photography skills.
I’m proud of this one and wish I’d had it 20 years ago when I was starting out in photography. Click here to see the details.