Through the Gadling Lens: 7 photography exercises for the brand-new photographer

I bought my very first SLR camera about 15 years ago. I knew nothing about photography at the time, so I enlisted the aid of a professional-photographer-friend to come with me to help me choose my camera, and, since I had his attention, teach me a few pointers about photography as well. “You’ll be buying second-hand,” he informed me, “and you will pay nothing less than $500.”

Gulp.

A few days later (and exactly $501 poorer), my friend and I walked out of my local camera store, a 10-year-old Nikon SLR in my shaking hands. “Now what?” I asked.

“Now,” he responded, “we shoot.”

For the next week or so, my friend took me to various sites in and around Houston, and had me burn roll after roll of film. In addition to teaching me the technical basics, he also gave me some exercises so I could learn about form, composition, contrast and colour. What he taught me was invaluable, and I’ve never felt the need to take a photography course as a result.

Recently, I’ve met a lot of people who have just bought their first digital SLR (or received one as a gift), and really don’t know where to begin. So if you happen to be in that boat, I thought I’d share some of my favourite exercises for a bit of inspiration, and practice. Since these days, most people aren’t putting rolls of film in their cameras, instead, I would suggest that you shoot 20 photographs for each exercise — and then, if you like the results, please share them with us in the comments section below.

And so, without further ado, the exercises:
1. Set your camera to black and white, and shoot away.

My photographer friend was adamant that the first roll of film I ran through my camera be black and white film. “That’s the way you’ll really become a photographer,” he said. “Colour can hide a multitude of sins. Once you’re comfortable in black and white, then you can move to colour.”

In many ways, he was right: shooting in black and white can teach your about form and texture and contrast in a way that colour photography really can’t. For example, in the second shot above, you don’t notice the sunset, but you do notice the “texture” of the rippling water, and the shadow created on the ocean’s surface as the sun sets. When you first take your camera out, go ahead and take several shots in black and white mode, and really study the results. You may never shoot in black and white again, but the lessons that you learn will be ones you’ll take with you when composing all of your shots in the future.

2. Once you’ve got black and white down, start focusing on colour.

Once you’re comfortable with shooting in black and white, go ahead and start shooting in colour. But what I would suggest is to choose a colour, and then go out on a photo shoot and try to capture that specific colour in all your shots. For example, if your chosen colour is yellow, shoot as much yellow in as many locations as you can — and notice the different tonal changes, how light can change the hues and how the colour “handles” translucence, or opacity. This exercise can help you to train your eye to really search out colour as the focal point of composition.

3. The 100 paces exercise

This exercise is one I actually read recently online (and for the life of me I can’t find the link, sorry!), but I think it’s a great exercise to inspire creativity when you don’t have a lot of time to travel somewhere fabulous to practice your photography. The premise is as follows: grab your camera, walk 100 paces in any direction, then stop. Take 20 shots of whatever you find at that spot.

The point of this exercise is to force you to look closely at your surroundings, consider various angles and find something unusual about your specific location. I’ve actually done this exercise (two results of which are shown above), and it was a great way to clear away the creativity cobwebs, and look at familiar places in a whole new way.

4. Play with the rule of thirds.

To refresh: the rule of thirds is a general rule of design and photography that states that if you were to divide each dimension of the frame, or viewfinder, into thirds, then to increase visual interest, your subject should line up along one of the lines or axes that you’ve drawn.

So to do this exercise, when you go out for a photoshoot, instead of placing your subject directly in the middle of the frame, offset it slightly, so that the subject roughly lines up along an axes drawn at a third of the frame. Note that this “rule” doesn’t mean that every shot should be taken on thirds (some shots just work better perfectly symmetrically), but it does force you to think about different angles and ways to shoot.

And also, when doing this exercise, don’t forget that you have axes both vertically and horizontally — for example, in the shot of my daughter above, her eyes and mouth line up pretty perfectly on the horizontal axes; conversely, in the bottom image, the tree lines up pretty well on a vertical axes.

5. Tap into your inner photojournalist.

This is a great exercise to do at local festivals or fairs in your town: grab your camera and head out to the site, and start snapping away. But instead of just taking photographs of your travel companions, or your travel companions next to some landmark or a particular street performer, actually compose shots using what you see around you. Notice things like forms and patterns — for example, in the shot of the artist suspended in silks, above, notice how the position of her body mimics the shape of the tree in the background. In the second photo, notice the angry message juxtaposed with the woman flashing the beautiful smile and the peace sign with her fingers. Really look for the story you can capture within the shot.

6. Get close.

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In this case, the distance to your subject will be somewhat limited by the focal length of your lens (in both shots, above, I used a macro lens, which lets me get really, really close to the subject), but in my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes that new photographers make is failing to fill the frame with their subject. So I would suggest that a new photographer take her camera out, and for at least 20 shots, fill the entire frame with her subject. Get used to getting close, and really testing how close you can get to your subject without losing the ability to focus. Once you’ve developed that comfort, then you can start backing up, and playing with shots from farther away.

7. Schedule a photoshoot.

Who says photoshoots are just for professional photographers? One of the funnest, most educational things I did when I first started shooting was invite two friends of mine to drive down to the beach with me, so I could practice using my camera — and I was very careful to ensure that they understood that in addition to shooting the beach, I would be taking their photographs as well. We picked a beautiful day, drove down early, and made a day of it — we shot all morning on the beach, grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant, and drove back. The result was a beautiful day filled with great memories, coupled with some great shots that they cherish to this day.

Of course, one of the best ways to make sure that you get great shots is for your subjects to feel comfortable with you — and that’s what spending a morning shooting can do — your friends will eventually forget about the camera. But the other, biggest trick about taking a great portrait?

Don’t stop shooting.

Don’t just shoot the posed shots — shoot when one of your friends wanders off to feel the water on her bare feet (as shown in the first shot above). Don’t just shoot the image of your friends holding each other and smiling into the camera — capture the moment when they think the shot is over, and the pull back to smile at each other (as in the second shot). Just shoot, and shoot and shoot — I guarantee you you’ll be thrilled with one of the resulting shots.

With that, grab your cameras, go out there, and practice, practice, practice — and feel free to use the exercises above for inspiration. And please, if you love some of the results, don’t hesitate to upload your images onto the web (Flickr‘s great for that sort of thing), and then, please, share the links in the comments below. I’d love to see what you capture, and read any insights you may have discovered along the way.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more, Through the Gadling Lens, click here.