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.”


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.

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.

Through the Gadling Lens: the best vacation photos from our Gadling pool

A few months ago, I wrote a post describing the types of shots that I always try to take when I’m traveling — the kinds of shots which will make a complete album capturing all of the memories and images around my trip. Well, this week, I’ve culled through the Gadling flickr pool to pick some of my favourite images from some of the wonderful photographers out there, and I thought I’d describe what makes these images pretty terrific … in my opinion. Obviously, beauty is subjective, so I’d love to hear your thoughts about the images in the comments — nothing like some great debate to spark some inspiration.
1. Landscapes

I love this amazing shot of Machu Picchu in Peru, taken by magnusvk. Now granted, in a setting like this, it’s probably pretty hard to take a bad shot; still, the balance of colours is amazing, and in particular, I love that it wasn’t taken on a picture-perfect day — the clouds add such interest. In fact, magnusvk described the process he used to capture such a great image:

“Go in the rainy season, get up as early as you can, take the first bus up and just ignore the rain. That’s the only way to have Machu Picchu more or less for yourself for a couple of minutes. The morning mood, as you can see, is beautiful and really does reward all hardship.”

Really great advice, and it’s actually something to keep in mind no matter where you are — early morning shots are often a beautiful way to watch an area waking up to the day.

Above is another stunning scenery example, taken by arex in Yosemite national park. What makes this image so stellar is the contrast: if you notice, the whites at the tops of the snow-capped mountains in the distance are completely white, and the blacks from the shadows of the trees in the still water are totally black. Having these tonal shades throughout the image make the photograph completely striking to the eye — you can almost image the total stillness and quiet that must have been there at the time the photograph was taken. Really breathtaking shot.

2. Iconic images

Oh, how I love this photo, captured by jrodmanjr — I mean, do I even have to tell you where this image was taken? It is truly the quintessential image of San Francisco. But what I love about it is how it was taken — it’s not just a quick snapshot of a passing cable car. It’s shot from right on the tracks, in silhouette. It’s in black and white, which makes the image so timeless. But, of course, what makes this image so incredibly striking is the way it has been framed and cropped — the long, tall image draws your eyes immediately to the shape of the cable car, and the passengers hanging out of the side. Can’t you just imagine this image blown up to an enormous size — 5 feet by 10 feet, maybe — and hanging in an industrial loft home in San Francisco? Such a great shot.

3. Portraits

As you know, I love a good portrait. But the only thing I love more than a portrait is a portrait with a sense of humour. The happy photo captured by gypsysoul73 above is one such photo — I love the laughter and life of the people in the image juxtaposed with the inanimate statue on the bench they share.

Even more brilliantly, however, is the shot below, taken by PDPhotography:


The point is, obviously, that some really great portraits can be inspired from the words, art, graffiti, or whatever happens to be around you at the time. About 5 years ago, my husband and I did a whole series of portraits of ourselves imitating each item of art we saw on exhibit in the Art Institute of Chicago — one of my favourite vacation albums to date. I mean, I don’t have any idea of the image above was staged or not, but really, does it matter? It’s a great shot, and thanks to the image I suspect PDPhotography is never going to forget where he was or what was going on at the time he took that photograph. Well done.

And finally, as an idea for a great portrait of the travel companion who is reticent about being photographed, take a look at this fantastic image captured by StrudelMonkey while traveling in Bali:

Isn’t this great? Nothing like an image of sandy feet to really capture the spirit of relaxation on a beach holiday. And I love how you can just make out the word “Bali” on the book being read in this shot. A truly unusual portrait that communicates exactly how restorative a seaside vacation can be.

4. Nighttime

Finally (although we haven’t talked about this in the past), it’s also a great idea to capture a few nighttime shots while you’re traveling. It can be very tempting to reserve all your your photo-taking to the times of day when you’ve got wonderful bright sunshine, but remember of course that many memories occur after the sun goes down.

When you do take your nighttime shots, try taking a few without the flash — it really can help capture the mood of the evening in a way that flash really can’t. Of course, in darkened spaces, you’re probably going to want to hold your image very steady, so be sure you have your portable tripod with you (for some discussion on how to take photographs in dark places, check out the Through the Gadling Lens post of a couple of weeks ago, on how to shoot in caves — the philosophy is the same). And for some inspiration, check out the following:

Remember that sunsets don’t just happen on the beach: ultraclay!, above, shows that you can get some equally stunning sunset shots in the city, as well. A word of caution, however — as much as I love a good photograph shot into the sun, the truth is that shooting into the sunlight can cause some wear on the light sensor in your camera, so shoot this way sparingly.

Cities often come alive at night, and a few images of the streetlights, cars, and illuminated skyscrapers like the one captured by CaptBrando, above, will bring back memories of those times you tripped the light fantastic on your vacation. Just remember to keep your camera very steady as you take your shot.

And finally, of course, be sure to get pictures of the places where you have memorable meals or drinks. The one captured by Geir Halvorsen, above, is particularly great, because of the bartender’s illuminated face — and again, notice that no flash was used in the image. The result is that you feel like you’re actually sitting right next to the photographer as he enjoys his evening.

Fantastic images, and kudos to all the photographers featured in this post — hopefully you received some inspiration from their great images.

Incidentally, please note that Through the Gadling Lens will be moving to Thursday mornings at 11 a.m. EST, starting next Thursday — so this should give you some extra time to come up with any questions you might have that you’d like me to address. As always, send them to, and I’ll do my best to answer them in future posts!

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.

Through the Gadling Lens: shooting inside

When we think about travel photography, we usually think of images of amazing vistas, vast seascapes, impressive skylines — you know, the world outside. But the truth is, when we travel we spend a considerable amount of time inside: in museums and cathedrals, local homes, great restaurants, caves, castles … wherever. And so, while every travel album must have beautiful scenic shots (which we discussed in last week’s post), no album would be complete without a few interior shots, as well. So this week, we’re going to talk about how to take great interior shots — what to shoot, and how to shoot them.
There are a couple of tricks with shooting an interior shot in order to capture the ambiance and the actual feel of the joint when you photograph it. While every photographer differs in her practice, the following are the three steps that I’m very careful about ensuring that I do to maximize my chances of getting a true-to-life shot:

1. I turn off the flash. For me, flash is, in essence, “false light” — and if I really want to capture the feel of the place where I’m sitting, the flash will take away all sense of ambiance and mood. I never say “never,” but 99% of the time, I make sure that the flash is turned off.

2. I adjust my ISO. Remember the “light catchers“? Since I’ve chosen to turn off the light while I’m taking a particular interior shot, now is the time my ISO really comes into play. Because there is likely not going to be tons of light, I tend to adjust my ISO to a pretty high number: if I’m near a window that is bringing in lots of natural light, it could be that 400 will be sufficient; if, however, there isn’t very much light, I might up it to above 1000, to ensure that camera shake isn’t an issue. If, however, you want a nice sharp image (and therefore, want to use a low ISO number), remember that you’re going to need a tripod (or somewhere to rest your camera so that it holds steady) so that the shutter can stay open without the risk of camera shake.

3. I look for the light. This is slightly different from step 2: I’m not talking about just being aware of the quantity of light, this step is about the quality of light. Is there merely one incandescent bulb, casting a beautiful shadow? Perhaps that’s what I’m looking to capture. Or is light flooding into the dark space, and I want to capture the rays? Either way, I take a look at the source of the light, and help it frame my composition.

Given the rules above, here are a few examples of how I put them into action:


If the place I’m staying is pretty singular — accommodations I find extra-special, perhaps, or located in a place that I’m not likely to visit again, I almost always take a shot of the room before I get myself situated (read: make a mess of the place with all of my stuff). The point of a travel album, after all, is to provoke memories of your trip — and since you spend a considerable portion of your sleeping hours in some sort of shelter, why not ensure that you’ve captured the feel of your room, as well?

For example, the photograph above was taken at Acajou, a small eco-hotel on the north coast of the island of Trinidad, in the Caribbean. When my family lived in Trinidad, one of our favourite things to do was to travel to the north coast to witness the nesting of the giant leatherback turtles — and one year, we’d heard of this new eco-lodge that had opened up that was quite comfortable, so we decided to give it a try. This place was truly lovely — dim lighting (so as not to disorient the turtle hatchlings), cottages made from locally sourced wood, and the cuisine in the tiny restaurant was all organic and locally sourced. The hotel was staffed from locals from the remote village where the hotel was located. A really beautiful place that added to our fantastic experience.

Needless to say, we visited several times after.

Because the room was relatively dark (due to the dark wood), I opened the small door that led to the tiny deck, and turned on the lamps — and then rested my camera on a nearby shelf. I upped the ISO to about 600, and set the self-timer, and clicked the shutter, and walked away — the camera took the shot by itself, with no camera shake, and the result is the relatively non-grainy image you see above.

The shot above was taken at the Hotel Valencia in San Antonio. It was taken on a sort of impromptu trip, courtesy of Hurricane Ike: when my husband Marcus and I saw that Ike was bearing down on our home in Houston, we decided we wouldn’t ride it out, and instead head inland to San Antonio. I quickly got on the internet to look for a hotel, and decided to make a mini-vacation of it: Marcus and our young daughter Alex had never been to San Antonio before, so I found this great little boutique hotel and quickly booked a room.

The hotel was really lovely, and had this great interior courtyard where guests could relax quietly. Because, technically, this isn’t an “indoor” shot — the courtyard is open to the sky, above — there was lots of natural light flooding in. I took the shot holding the camera at a relatively low ISO setting (somewhere in the neighbourhood of 400). Our “vacation” was tense — we spent much of it combing the news services looking for images of how Houston was faring with Ike — but this image reminds me of the lovely place we stayed as we waited it out.


When it comes to museums, cathedrals or other monuments, you need to be really careful: in some cases, photography is strictly forbidden (for example, they tend to frown on your taking shots of the British crown jewels at the Tower of London); in other places, they don’t mind you taking pictures, as long as you don’t use a flash (because, ostensibly, they fear what the light from the flash does to the museum pieces). Again, as a general rule, be sure to turn your flash off before capturing any images.

I’m particularly pleased with how the shot above turned out. This was taken inside Pendennis Castle in Cornwall, England (the exterior of which you can see as the first large photo in last week’s Through the Gadling Lens column). When we got inside the castle, it was incredibly dark, except for the bright light outside streaming into the windows. I wanted to capture the moodiness of the castle, so this time, I actually set the ISO to really low — like 200. I placed the camera on a low bench (like the ones you see in the image above), and again,
set my timer to shoot the image. The shutter ended up staying open quite a while (there’s no way I could’ve taken this shot by holding the camera), but the result is the lovely, non-grainy shot you see above.

This shot is of the organ in the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral. Photography was not prohibited in the cathedral, but in such a holy place (the sounds of the choir could be heard practicing when we arrived), there was no way that I was going to use my flash as I walked around. So in the shots I took here, I cranked the ISO way up — to somewhere like 1600. It still didn’t eliminate all camera shake, but the image, I think, is still far better than if I’d used a flash.


When it comes to shooting vast interior spaces, the rules are pretty much the same as shooting any landscape — make sure your lens is wide enough, adjust your ISO, and click away. My only additional recommendation is that when you do shoot a large space, don’t forget to look up: often (as in the case with the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, shown above, or Waterloo Station in London, shown below) architects take advantage of large spaces by making beautiful or utilitarian ceilings, so be sure to capture them in your shot.


And finally, one of my personal favourite moments to capture while traveling are mealtimes. I find that often my most memorable times occur while breaking bread with friends, or locals, or trying out a new restaurant (which might explain my current struggle with managing my weight, but that’s a post for another blog).

Again, the same rules apply: watch for the light, turn off your flash, and adjust your ISO accordingly. If you’re lucky enough to be eating at a location where there is tons of light flooding in, then shooting is easy. Just grab the moment where everyone is sitting with excited anticipation (as above) …

… or in the alternative, grab a shot of your picture-perfect food.

For those times when there maybe lots of windows, but it’s doing nothing for your light situation, try to figure out how to make your light work for you. For example, the following shot was taken in a little tea room in the Cotswalds — despite the large picture windows, the cafe itself was amazingly dark. So instead of giving up I decided to shoot into the light: the unsuspecting patrons were therefore silhouetted (giving no real clue to their identity), but the mood of the cafe was captured.

And finally for those great night shots at fabulous restaurants, this is where that great trick of lowering your ISO, using your dinner table as a tripod, and telling everyone to hold their breath while you use your timer comes in handy. You can get great shots that truly capture the ambiance of a tony restaurant (like Two, below), in just this manner:

See? And no customers were harmed by blinding flash in the taking of the above photo.

So that’s it for interiors — and the best part? You don’t actually have to travel to practice! As always, if you have any questions or comments, as always, please leave them below, or e-mail me directly at karen DOT walrond AT weblogsinc DOT com. I’ll be happy to address them in upcoming posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.

Bringing Polaroid back from the dead

February 18th 2008 was a sad day for photography fans all around the world.

It is the day the Polaroid corporation announced the closure of their three instant film production lines. By December, all production came to a halt, and 450 people were without a job.

Polaroid produced just enough instant film cartridges to supply fans with their favorite product until Q1 of 2009 and some fanatics stocked up on as many packs as they could.

Initiatives started all around the world to help keep the product alive, and one group of people in The Netherlands has actually managed to purchase all the manufacturing equipment that made up the Dutch Polaroid plant. The group has even signed a 10 year lease for the original buildings.

Their plan is to use the production line to develop new integral film for the Polaroid camera lineup, and once again allow photographers all around the world to get instant photos from their camera with that familiar clickbzzzztclick noise.


Sleeping Chinese shares hysterical non-action shots

Everyone has their own idea of what makes the perfect photograph. For some, it’s a city skyline at the magic hour. For others, it’s a field of flowers stretching towards the horizon. And for one German expat living in Shanghai, it’s candid shots of Chinese citizens sleeping in public.

Sleeping Chinese is the brainchild of a German who simply goes by “Bernd.” While in China, he has snapped photos of Chinese people sleeping on benches, rocks, shopping carts and under trucks. The site has gained such popularity and the gallery has grown so large (700+ photos), that Bernd has invited visitors to the site to submit their own photos of “sleeping Chinese.”

I, for one, am all for silly photo projects like this. When you travel, how many shots of building exteriors and famous statues do you need? You can find those types of photos in books, magazines, websites and postcards. The best pictures capture quirky moments in time that no other person could replicate. Those moments are unique to you. And if your moment happens to include a sleeping Chinese citizen, then here’s to you!

Before you go thinking that sleeping in public is only popular in China, rest assured that you can find it just about anywhere. I happened upon these tuckered out Japanese folks at a Mos burger in Tokyo earlier this year.