Part 2 Improving Your Photography Skills (the power of the personal photography assignment)

Model Cynthia Ann with hair & makeup by Aryn Wilson.

Model Cynthia Ann with hair & makeup by Aryn Wilson.

Part one of two:
If you really want to grow as a photographer you have to be challenged. Imagine a video game with one level… Kind of doesn’t really exist and why? Boring! How about a race where you are the only competitor? Not much of a challenge. But take anything we do in life and add a challenge to it and it becomes interesting. After all what is life in and of its self? Just a bunch of challenges, that’s it, just a bunch of challenges.
So you want to grow as a photographer? Give yourself a challenge. Or as I like to call them “assignments.” It doesn’t matter whether you are a total beginner or a professional, or whether you are a hobby shooter that just got a new camera for Christmas. Or a working commercial photographer. I can tell you first hand that there is no greater thing that you could be doing to improve your photography skills than going out and capturing images. But the process must be focused and have a purpose or a goal. It must have an end result that you want to accomplish. Example; you say to yourself “I have the whole day free and I want to go and capture images and just have fun.” Ok… Was there any kind of plan? Or are you just gonna go out the door and hope something happens. Now don’t get me wrong, walking out the door with the camera and having it with you all the time is a great habit to get into. After all I wrote a post sometime back about the best way to capture an amazing photo is to first have the camera with you. Sounds stupid I know, so yes always have some sort of camera with you… And don’t get me started on the “well I always have my iPhone.”
Now let’s get to it. Think of what it is you want to get better at. Do you want to take better portraits? Maybe you want to improve your landscape skills. How about you shooters that would like to capture sports? Or do you just want to improve a specific skill? Myself a few years back I decided I wanted to improve my long exposure skills. But rather than just going out and letting something happen I decided to give myself an assignment and make something happen. In the end I hit my goal and the accomplishment felt good, not to mention I had a few great images that I could print and hang up. The images drew lots of compliments and most of all I improved my long exposure skills and I have that tool under my belt. I don’t always shoot long exposure, however it is so nice that when I want to do it, I can. It makes a nice skill for capturing exotic backgrounds that I use in my Photoshop composites. And it all started with a personal assignment. Here is a breakdown of what I did.
I looked at a lot of long exposure photos at the various places I visit on the web. I read as much as I could on the subject, also spent some time at Youtube. But it doesn’t matter whether you read ten books, watch twenty videos and talk to fifty people about it. You still have to go out and do it. Now for long exposures a photographer needs a neutral density filter for the lens. It helps block light allowing the shutter to stay open for long periods of time hence the term long exposure. So I purchased the filter and then I chose a location. Many photographers like to capture moving clouds or moving water with long exposure. I chose water because it is always available. Clouds on the other hand are not always optimum or there may just be no clouds that day. So I have the equipment, the location, the subject and I chose a day when I had plenty of time available. My assignment was to successfully capture some great long exposures of a sunken forest and a local reservoir. The image would show the old tree trunks rising up out of what would look like ice.
So where’s the challenge you might ask. First and for most I chose a very cold day in the winter to do this and that was no fun. But that is when I had the free time and it increased the challenge. The rest was just a matter of calculating how long to keep the shutter open and composing or framing up the scene. Not falling in the water or getting the camera and gear wet also added to the challenge. After about 3 hours I was ready to call it a day and head home. Upon downloading the images and to see my work unfold in front of me was very rewarding. Then came all the fun of editing and choosing whether to keep the color or go with a black & white. In the end I hit my goal and learned a new photography skill along the way.
Now I challenge you to give yourself an assignment. Plan it out, read about it or take a class on it. Write it out and make a plan. Gather the gear you need. Purchase the proper gear or borrow from a friend. Make a gear checklist and plan your date, time and subject. Expect the unexpected after all it is a challenge. Do the assignment with another photographer. Some people are motivated to workout at the gym with a workout partner, so maybe you can do this with your assignment.
In part two, I will talk about a much larger and more complex assignment.
Part Two:
In part one I spoke about how giving yourself personal assignments will cause you to grow as a photographer. My previous post gave a real life example of what a personal photography assignment is. Because I continually want to grow as a photographer and as an artist I have actually given myself harder assignments as time goes on. Last year I decided that needed (not wanted) to learn how to work with models and conduct both location shoots and studio shoots. So I laid out a personal project that involved finding an interesting location and I put together a team and did the shoot. Two models, two hair & makeup artists and a clothing designer. I learned a lot and had fun along the way. The location being the old Eastern States Penitentiary made for a very interesting location and was very challenging because we could not start shooting until 5:00pm. The biggest challenge was light or I should say the lack of light. Plus when your shooting with a team of people there is the challenge of getting everybody and everything to come together. Then there were the micro assignments leading up to the shoot. Things like planning out the locations to shoot within the location itself. This required two trips to ESP to look and decipher what windows, doorways or hallways would be the best spots. In the end I captured some nice images but I know I should have done better.
The studio project went much better, I had scheduled three models for the day and two stylists/makeup artists. The day of, two models and one makeup artist actually showed up and in the end we captured nice images. Sometimes I link one project to another. The images captured at the studio shoot would later be used for another project, where I would use the studio images to make composites in Photoshop. The backgrounds for the composites would come from Thailand. I had a personal trip planned for traveling to Thailand and I thought this would be a great opportunity to make a specific goal of seeking out locations and capturing images to be used for backgrounds to finalize the Photoshop composites.
As I have come to learn with photography not only do personal projects create growth in knowledge and real life experiences, but the projects are what people notice if you use the power of social media to let the world see what it is you’re doing. After all, I could post all of the photos of customers that I have done portraits for and while the photographs may look nice, they are nothing more than just portraits, nice but not that interesting to the mainstream. But when you do something as simple as dressing a model up as a scarecrow it all of the sudden gets people’s attention and lets them see something more interesting than just a portrait.
So now for the upcoming year I have been planning out my projects and most will be moving in the same direction as last year, while at the same time being a little different and… yes more interesting. Certainly there will be projects that will center on making more composite images in Photoshop because this is the overall direction I want to follow as an artist. I’m using my photography as a skill or tool to actually create and therefore I feel I am more an artist than a photographer. I guess you could say an artist with a camera.
I will say it again “no matter what your skill level, if you want to grow as a photographer, give yourself a personal assignment.” It really is a lot of fun and it will give you the skills to improve your shots at the next family wedding, maybe the next vacation or just having fun with the kids and grandchildren. Just do it and have fun.

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