Avoid creative stagnation and discover new ways to approach and inform your photography with projects that everyone can try
Photographers have a habit of constraining themselves by subject, which isn’t a bad thing because it helps us to excel at one or more subjects. The downside, however, is that when you limit yourself in this way, you can sometimes go for days, weeks or sometimes as long as months without shooting. Practice makes perfect, and shooting subjects other than what you’d typically capture can both inform and provide new approaches that can give you a creative edge.
We go to the gym to keep fit and play sports to maintain and improve our skills, and photography isn’t any different. While you could argue that photography is a bit like riding a bike, once you know how to do it you never forget, the more you shoot the better you will become, and there’s always something new to learn so why not have some fun while doing it?
So, to avoid stagnation there are many easy and fun photo projects you can embark on to keep your creative juices flowing. Some could expand your skills and knowledge of the subjects you already shoot, some could force you to shoot subjects you’re less familiar with while others could simply force you to think outside of the box by making you approach shooting in a particular way. To give you an idea of some of the projects to try, here are seven ideas that don’t require new kit and can be easily completed in your spare time…
1 Start a 52-week project
You’ve probably heard of the 365 project where you shoot one image every day for a year; it sounds easy enough, but it’s a much larger project than many people realise and often requires a more fluid approach to subject matter. Not to mention, capturing an image you’re proud of every day of the year is easier said than done.
An alternative to this is the 52-week project where you set a theme, subject, technique or something else for each week of the year. You then focus on that variable for the week and shoot accordingly. The theme can also be shooting or editing-based, so there’s plenty of scope to vary your weekly theme based on the weather and how busy you are.
You could, of course, select a single theme for the entire year but change the weekly approach in some way to keep things interesting and importantly, learn some new skills. But the beauty of this project is that it sets a manageable and basic framework to work to, and could even be a longer-form version of other smaller projects.
2 Limit yourself in some way
A limitation is a great catalyst for creativity. When you reduce the variables, you often have to think outside of the box and approach subjects in different ways as a result of the limitation you set yourself. The limitation is most often based on gear or camera settings, but you can also set aesthetic or even geographical limitations.
Getting back to gear, the most common limitation photographers set themselves is to only shoot with a 50mm lens. This is an attractive option because a 50mm lens is hugely versatile in terms of focal length, plus you have a large f/1.8 or f/1.4 maximum aperture for differential focus, but it has to be said that this is a bit of a cop out.
"When you reduce the variables, you often have to think outside of the box and approach subjects in different ways as a result of the limitation you set yourself."
The first time you try shooting with a single lens, a 50mm could be an effective way to ease yourself into the idea, but to push yourself try shooting only with a more extreme focal length such as 16mm or 200mm. Opting for a more extreme focal length will make you think, and it’s the problem-solving here that draws out new and interesting creative solutions.
3 Focus on a single idea
Focusing on a single idea is a little like limiting yourself with gear or a camera setting, but the difference is that the focus is on aesthetics rather than the technical side of photography. Both have their merits and are worth trying independently or combined, but with the focus on a single idea you could have more technical freedom while enjoying a visual focus.
Ideas you could focus on include colour, shape, texture, light or time of day etc. The focus only needs to be simple, but certainly doesn’t mean that the images will be uninteresting. A great starting point is colour, where you pick a single colour and aim to shoot that. Red and yellow are ideal because they contrast with most other colours and once your eyes are in tune, you’ll begin to see potential images you’d never normally notice.
If you’re looking for a tougher challenge you could also limit yourself to a subject or theme alongside a single colour. But even a series of images of different subjects where a focus on a single colour is obvious will have a strong thread running through them so either option will work well.
4 Learn a new technique
Photographers are creatures of habit, and the pursuit of a style for our photography can further exacerbate this; you find something that works for you and you stick to it because everything becomes easier with time and you know that X or Y technique will work towards creating an image that fits your style.
There’s nothing wrong with being able to produce high-quality images that look a certain way with relative ease, that’s exactly what many professionals have done since the early days of photography. But it always remains important to experiment and try new things to avoid getting stuck in a creative rut, and learning new techniques is a tried and tested way to do that.
For example, portrait photographers who only shoot under natural light could try off-camera flash or studio photography. Even if you don’t have the lighting kit you need, you could hire a flashgun, triggers and modifiers or hire a studio for a few hours where lighting is often included. Trying something new doesn’t mean having to spend lots of money buying new kit, but if you find a new direction for your photography after hiring, you can be sure that any investment in new kit will be worthwhile.
5 Shoot a different subject
Most photographers have one or two subjects that they typically shoot. This is the perfect way to excel and become known as a photographer who shoots a specific subject, but it can also have the effect of creating a kind of echo chamber. Focusing purely on a single subject often means you’re approaching photography the same way every time you shoot, so moving outside of your comfort zone could help your photography in general to develop.
For example, landscape photography is slow and considered where you often wait on location for the conditions to be just right, whereas street photography is much faster and spontaneous with a strong element of observation. The two couldn’t be more different in many respects, but if your focus is one of these subjects shooting the other can provide a whole new way of seeing and responding to the world photographically.
So, not only can shooting completely different subjects inform your photography on a creative level, but it can also help to avoid stagnation. What’s more, you might even find a new subject that you enjoy shooting as much as your main subject.
6 Try the A-Z challenge
The A-Z challenge couldn’t be simpler – you shoot one image of a subject that begins with each letter of the alphabet. It’s the kind of project you can shoot on your lunch break, or even on a walk at the weekend. This is the most basic form of the project, but you can be much more creative with the way you represent each letter of the alphabet.
The image above could represent D for door, P for puddle, R for reflection and W for water or wet. So, while the most obvious subject is the door, there are other more interesting options available within the image that illustrate how you can push yourself creatively with the project.
The most obvious way of working is chronologically, but you won’t necessarily see images that fit the alphabet in order. To help here, carry a notebook so you can check off what’s been covered so far, and adding a small descriptive note can be useful as a reminder of what you shot for each letter.
7 Experiment with special effects
The term special effect in photography is a little ambiguous because it could be argued that every photo is a ‘special effect’ when compared to the way the human eye perceives the world. But ignoring this more philosophical view of photography, let’s just say that a special effect is something that results in a subject being captured in a way that’s significantly different to the way it would be captured when taking a snapshot.
Special effects can be created in front of the camera, like spinning burning wire wool, or in-camera using techniques such as intentional camera movement (ICM). They can also be created by holding things in front of the camera lens, such as a prism to refract and scatter light or a piece of glass or plastic smeared with Vaseline to create blur. For the latter, never apply Vaseline directly onto your lens front element or a filter you’re not prepared to ruin.
The main point of shooting special effects is to have fun, but you’ll often have to experiment with camera settings and composition, so the side effect is that you’ll also expand your photographic knowledge and experience. Sometimes it’s refreshing to do something purely for fun, and special effects are the perfect option.
James is a freelance photographer and journalist producing content for photography magazines and websites and is a former deputy editor of Practical Photography magazine. He’s also the author of The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing.View all articles