How to Increase Your Creative Skills in Photography — Both the ART & SCIENCE Sides.
Want to increase your overall creative skill in photography? Want to increase your “compositional skills” and be able to have a better vision for your photography? Want to increase your skills in the science of photography— knowing what lens, aperture, and shutter speed to use? It takes practice.
If the answer is yes to the above, then read on. I’ll explain how to do this on your own, with no investment by giving yourself the challenge to create a self- assignment picture-story of one subject.
When I was just a couple years into photography, at age 14, (1974) I actually wrote to the photo editor at National Geographic magazine because being an NG photographer is what I wanted to do. I wrote and asked him what it took to be hired by NG. It was very nice that the photo editor there, Dean Conger, actually wrote back to me on National Geographic letterhead and he told me “Jeff if you want to be a National Geographic photographer, here’s what you need to know. We are up to our eyeballs in photographers but we’re only up to our ankles in good ideas.” So his suggestion to me was to “Find out what you’re really passionate about and then go to college for that passion. Be it biology, zoology, conservation, medicine, whatever. Because with that education and insight, it would then lend itself so you can really understand the subject at hand and make some better, unusual, not-done-before images of that subject. Perhaps even to find a new story “angle”, not just a new photo angle, to that subject that no one has ever done before. Then create a photo-essay of that subject. Find images you’ve NEVER SEEN BEFORE… and make those images happen. ”
Here are a couple of photos of mine that were VERY successful in the stock photo world selling over a hundred times each.
This igloo was specially made in the Ruth Amphitheater of the Alaska Range, specifically for making a stock photo. We purposely did not chink (fill in the cracks) so that it would look more authentic and we put two doors on it, so it could be photographed with different backgrounds.
This image was also created specifically for stock photo purposes. I had my friend Danny wear a yellow t-shirt while fishing so he would stand out from the plane.
I’m not suggesting you go to college. But, what I’m suggesting, if you really want to increase your skills, is to PRACTICE your photography. Photography is just like anything else in life— the more you do it, the more it gets ingrained, becomes second nature, and the more confidence you have and the easier it becomes. On my photo tours, many people have studied photography before. But because they don’t practice it regularly, they lose their skill.
I have found that one fantastic way to increase your skills in photography is to create a self-assignment. An assignment of some subject that you’re passionate about or maybe just that you have easy access to.
For instance, here in Alaska (and other arboreal rainforests in the Pacific Northwest), we have this plant called Devil’s club. It’s a nasty, nuisance plant that looks fantastic, but most people really don’t like much because of the spines on the stalk that usually tears holes in your skin and sticks violently onto your pant legs causing severe pain at every step. But from a photographer’s standpoint, they have some great patterns to them. The leaves are unique, the flowering berry is unique, and they run in fields where they have this cool graphic pattern.
So every now and then, when I was out shooting something else or hiking, I would make pictures of devil’s club. Because they caught my eye. But it would be random images. Just every once in a while. Every few months. Every few years or whatever I would make a picture of something unique that I saw in those devil’s club, but nothing really serious. More of a “snapshot” kind of thing. Until one day I had an hour and a half to kill before I needed to get on a plane to go on a trip. I walked into the forest nearby the airstrip just for the solitude. As I was walking in the forest, the trail went by this big canopy of devil’s club. It was late July so the devil’s club was in full bloom. Without bending down too far I could see underneath this canopy, and the sun was such that I saw the veins in the leaves and the little spikes in the middle around the leaves. It’s just something that caught my fancy that might make for an interesting photo. I took the next 20 minutes or so looking for the very best canopy image I could make from underneath the devil’s club. That’s what you see in this photo here.
And I went so far as to take my time and make this image using hyperfocal distance so that I would get everything in focus. I used a tripod and I really worked hard to make this image the best that I could for what I like. Even though I knew there wasn’t the snowball’s chance in anything that it would ever get published, or maybe even see the light of day. It was just good therapy and good photography that I was after. It really caught my eye.
Then after I made this photo I thought to myself; well heck, maybe it would be fun to do a complete story on devil’s club. Follow the devil’s club through its life cycle. Photograph it in the spring, follow it in the summer for the graphic patterns, and in the fall as it dies out. And as I thought about the potential story, I also knew this could and would increase my photography skills. It would force me to concentrate on ONE subject and truly “see” the subject for what it is– look at it from different angles and perspectives– the “art” side of photography. I took my time in order to create a “Photo Story” of the devil’s club and look for images that were different enough from each other in order to show the viewer a “story” about this plant in photos
And at the same time, if I wanted to make some really different images I would need to use the “science” of photography in order to make that happen. Perhaps as a long exposure of the wind moving the leaves. Or a telephoto look of the leaves in the rain in order to compress the raindrops together to see how weather affects the leaves. Or getting enough depth of field so that one would see more of the plants. Or even a lack of depth of field, so that I concentrate the viewer’s eye on just one aspect of the plant. All those things would play a role in increasing my skills because I’m concentrating on creating a different look to a body of images of the same subject.
So, that’s what I worked on to hone my skills AND have fun. I worked on this self-assignment of devil’s club for a short time in a forest near my home. With something as simple as this subject, the photography lends itself to being very creative as well as being a challenge. A big challenge to find a unique graphic pattern. To find an angle that will create a sense of wonder or mystery in the viewer’s eye. That’s a lot of what photography is all about —-getting the viewer to look closely at a subject for whatever reason. And what’s fun and interesting about a self-assignment like this— is now I have a mission. And I have a reason to go out there and really be creative and do some experiments.
You can do a self-assignment similar to this of any subject you want. It could be of cracks in the sidewalk. It could be jet airplanes at your local airport. It could be animal droppings. It could be literally anything that you either take a fancy to or that you’re really interested in. Or perhaps it’s a subject you purposely would shy away from normally. Stretch out of your comfort zone. Maybe do portraits of the homeless. Or photos of front doors. Maybe do a little homework about the subject so you know some specifics about the biology or life cycle…or maybe not. Just go out and shoot “nature” that ‘s within a one-block radius of your home.
And then, as you do this, be sure though that you try to tell a story with the photos. If you look at a magazine article; say National Geographic, you’ll notice they have three types of photos in their stories:
These three types of images, combined, give the complete “picture” (sorry for the pun) of what the subject is all about. Take a look at my “Places of Alaska” piece on devil’s club and what I’ve shot to get an idea of these “story photos”. It might give you an idea.
Another GREAT exercise to do when creating one of these self-assignments in order to stretch your creativity, and make it special,
is to only use ONE lens for all the images. Whether it’s a fixed focal length prime lens, or it’s a zoom lens does not matter. But if you make it just one lens, that will make it that much more difficult and you’ll be working harder to try to make the photo work. It’s another really good exercise if you want to hone your skills.
Also, as an aside, this particular assignment that I did for myself on “devil’s club” is a fantastic thing to do on a cloudy day. Oftentimes my tour photo clients ask me “What am I supposed to shoot on a cloudy day”. Well, frankly there’s a LOT to do on a cloudy day. One does not need sunshine to make good photos; especially landscapes and portraits.
But, that said, one really good thing to shoot on cloudy days is to go into the forest or go into the city and photograph things a little bit more up close where you’re not seeing the horizon or sky. Make the image all about the subject instead of its big surroundings.
THE NEXT STEP: So it’s now time for you to create a self-assignment. What are you going to shoot? Make a plan for the subject and location. Perhaps give yourself a time and image count constraint (Take 2 hours in one area to make 6 unique photos). Don’t leave it open-ended or you may never get it done.
Then, I’d love to see them. E-mail or post the images to your website and let me know how to view them. I’d like to look at them and see what you’ve come up with.
After you’ve done this assignment. If you want some critique on your images, you can certainly sign up to have me critique your photos here. During a live 15-minute zoom call, I’ll explain in detail my thoughts on your composition and science technique. I’ll give suggestions on what you may consider doing differently to improve.
I’m giving away two-15 minute photo critiques to two people who complete this self-assignment in the next two months and submit images for review by November 1, 2020. You don’t need to write a story you just need to send in between 5 and 12 photos for your “photo essay”. The images must be made between now and when you submit them. No older images. This is not a photo contest. It’s to be a new, photo-story lesson whereby you learn to “see” the image and to use your photo science tools in order to create something different.
Get in touch with me via e-mail. I’ll also be recording my critique and putting it online for others to view and learn from. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.
Photographer & Photo Workshop Instructor
Official Photographer of Alaska’s Iditarod since 1982