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Are there any photography challenges that actually help you improve your craft? I see a lot of photo challenges that emphasizes taking a picture every day for a year, every week, etc. What does that actually do for you?
In this article, we’ll help you understand what you should expect from a photography challenge and how may improve your results.
The Purpose of a Photography Challenge
Most of the photography challenges you hear about seem to be directed at beginners. The basic advice is to take a photo every day for a period of time in order to get used to your camera and hone your skills.
The problem with this type of challenge is that it’s too vague to truly deliver any valuable results. The purpose of a challenge isn’t merely to take a photograph.
Perhaps the problem is the use of the word “challenge.”
After all, you aren’t engaging in a duel. This isn’t a competition where you win a prize. You aren’t contesting anything.
Dictionary definitions aside, the purpose of a photography challenge is to improve a specific aspect of your photography. It should push you beyond your comfort zone and require you to concentrate on a specific aspect of photography.
If all you have to do is take a photo a day, you can just sit on the couch and click the shutter in random directions every day. That doesn’t make you a better photographer. It’s not even a good use of your time.
Defining a Photography Challenge
There are two key criteria required of any challenge:
- It must be time-bound
- It must have a measurable result
Anyone can say that they’d like to get better at something, but that’s a vague statement. How do you know if you’re a better photographer after completing a challenge? How do you know when you’re done?
Deadlines change your perception of events. They force you to act.
Many people start a photography challenge because they think it will be fun, and they may end up taking better photos. It just doesn’t work like that.
You need to know what you want to improve. Be ambitious about your desired expectations and results. Instead of saying “I want to get better at taking portraits”, go for something bolder. “I want to take portraits with my own definable style that are good enough to be on a magazine cover.”
Swing for the fences.
Be Aware of the Consequences of Your Ambitions
If you want to swing for the fences, and I think that’s a good idea, you should be aware of what it takes to achieve the results you desire.
You can take beautiful photos with minimal photography gear, but some genres may require making some additions to your gear collection. Sports and wildlife photographers spend a lot of money on telephoto lenses and travel. High end portrait and fashion photographers spend a lot of money on lighting, studio set design and catering.
You may be able to replicate some of these results with less expensive gear. Before you spend money on something costly, make sure you’re committed to doing the type of photography that requires those tools.
The First Challenge: Decide What You Want to Improve
When deciding the type of photography challenge you want to do, be specific. This isn’t just about being a better photographer. It’s about being a better [GENRE] photographer. Study the work of other photographers you admire in a given field. Decide what you like about their photos and why it’s important for you to improve your results to surpass them.
Your objective may not be about a genre. Maybe you want to improve your use of creative ideas, photographic accessories, or just keep yourself from being stale with the same type of shots you’ve already created.
Here are a few ideas to consider.
Improve Your Portrait Photography
There isn’t a photographer in the world who isn’t occasionally asked to take photos of another person.
When that time comes, you need to understand what makes a good portrait instead of something that gets shared on Awkward Family Photos.
Portrait photography combines the use of flattering posing and lighting. Do it right and your subject will love you. Do it wrong and your subject will hate their photo and you for taking it.
All portraits serve a purpose. Improving your portrait photography is as much about understanding your subject as it is about capturing their image. Tell their story.
Here’s the interesting thing about travel photography. You don’t have to travel in order to do it. Many of your favorite travel photos were taken by someone who lives near the location.
The key to capturing great travel photographs isn’t to prove that you went on a long trip to a beautiful part of the world. Instead, it’s to capture the location in such a way that other people are willing to travel a long distance to visit your subject.
There is something unique everywhere. Even barren sand dunes or salt flats make great subjects for travel photography. You don’t have to take photos of tropical islands with pure blue water.
Find the interesting subject of a place. Capture its energy or essence. It may be exciting or peaceful. The reason to visit may be the food instead of the landscape. Whatever it is that makes a place worth visiting, drill into its essence and capture it.
Remember, people don’t just visit casinos or beaches. Some people are drawn to old prisons, like Alcatraz. Your subject doesn’t have to be upbeat. It has to be interesting.
Get to the essence of your subject. Remove distractions and unnecessary elements from your photo. Distill the photo until there’s nothing left to take away.
That is the purpose of minimalism. When you remove distractions, your subject has greater impact.
You may think this is as simple as putting your subject in front of a white background, but it’s not that simple. You need to make sure your lighting ratio is correct, or your white background will overwhelm your subject and blow out the edge detail.
Minimalism isn’t just for the studio. You can use it in food photography, wildlife photography, street photography and more. Most of us see the world with clutter, and we mentally dismiss it. When you share a minimalist photo, it strikes a nerve with your viewer. It’s something they don’t expect.
Life is messy sometimes. Remove the clutter and make an impact.
Improve Your Black and White Photos
Black and White photography isn’t merely the result of desaturating all of the color from an image. Good black and white photography requires a combination of elements to make the photo interesting.
- Beautiful light and shadows
- Tonal range
One of the quickest ways to create a bad black and white photo is to convert a busy image to monochrome. A photo that may work in color can be horrific without it. You have less information to use with black and white photos, so don’t make it hard on yourself by trying to include competing elements with a lot of detail.
Minimalist black and white photos are powerful, soothing, soulful, peaceful or raw. Find your message and convey it. Black and white is a great way to concentrate the power of your message. Do it without distraction so your message doesn’t get lost.
Shooting for Color
Sometimes color is the subject.
Color tells a story of its own, often generating impact through emotions we associate with different colors. It’s a primal, visual tool that you can use to great effect.
Much like black and white, I think color works best when it’s bold and minimalist. Whether you shoot, fashion, food or fishermen, color is your friend. Learn how to use color contrast or shades in order to draw the eye to your photos.
Color also creates wonderful backgrounds, allowing your subject to stand out. Combined with light, color makes us feel warm or cold, healthy or sickly. It’s a powerful tool for manipulation.
Here are a few resources I use to help work with color:
Just because your photo is a still image doesn’t mean that your subject can’t move. Conveying motion gives your subject a sense of action. Don’t be afraid to use blur in your photos.
I’d much rather see a motion blur on a car moving on a road than a photo of it sitting still. Cars are supposed to move. So are many other aspects of our environment. Learn to capture that movement and convey it to your viewers.
Motion adds energy to your subjects.
Learn to Use Shapes
The world is full of lines and shapes. Some of the most simple shapes are the most powerful. People understand and resonate with shapes.
If you can isolate those shapes away from distractions, you can combine the power of shape and minimalism in your photos.
Shape can be your subject, or it can be a tool to draw the viewer’s eye to another area of the photo.
How to Get Results From Photography Challenges
If you want to try some photography challenges that actually help you improve your skills, remember the rules.
- Time Bound
- Measurable Results
- Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Pay close attention to the last point. Push yourself. Be ambitious with your objectives. Do something new and different. Try things that you don’t expect to work. Don’t let others convince you that you can’t do something, or that you aren’t good enough.
The biggest benefit of a photography challenge is learning to believe in yourself so you can do the things that astonish other people.
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