Photography Challenges: Self-Assignments

Interior of a Santa Fe home by Laura Machen.

A sample of a student’s work.
© Laura Machen. All rights reserved.

Were you ever told to spend no more than seven minutes on your homework when you attended classes? Were you ever in a class where the teacher read you a rule and told you to break it? Have you ever really considered a roll of toilet paper?

Not when I went to school, you say?

Too bad.

These experiments we used in the inaugural class for photographers. The results were always inspiring, often hilarious, and totally fun.

Photographers can get stuck in a rut of making the same pictures over and over again. Hey, it’s safe and people like them–right? But creative safety is the last thing for which any photographer should strive.

Experimentation plus investigating the extremes of both mechanical and human sight are what photography as an art is all about.

The Seven Minute Solution

So that’s what we did. We started the week with a warm-up. Just like you might stretch before the full exercise routine begins, we stretched our minds and eyes by loosening up with a seven minute photo session. This exercise was part art and part scavenger hunt, but the goal was to shake off the cobwebs and photograph specific topics quickly, on command. For example, students had sixty seconds to take five pictures using a one second shutter speed.

Or to take five pictures without looking through the viewfinder. Don’t think, just respond! 
Or click five pictures six inches from a subject.
Or snap five pictures while you’re lying on the ground. Quickly!
Or five pictures of something that begins with the letter “e.”

Why? Sometimes we “out-think” ourselves and let our brains take over our feelings. This exercise got us loose and laughing, and many of the pictures were amazing. Being forced into quickly seeing, feeling and shooting primes photographers to respond intuitively. That freedom helps you get to the essence of a subject. So we burned through a lot of images in seven minutes, but we remembered the results of those seven minutes all week.

Bre…ak the RULES

Another exercise that set the tone for the week appealed to the rebel in all of us. Every student was assigned a rule from an old photograph textbook and told to break it as boldly as possible. These included rules such as, “Always make sure your subject is in focus,” “Remember, the face is the most important part of a portrait,” and “Be sure to hold the camera still.” Who says! We shredded the rules and made beautiful pictures.

There is no right or wrong way to use tools like shutter speeds or wide angle lenses. There are only different effects. A camera is more than a recording device. It’s a means of expressing yourself. So distort or blur or shake or overlap or whatever! Photograph closer than the human eye can see. Compose with something obscuring your view. Use a shutter speed you know won’t freeze your subject. It might work, it might not, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.

From this experimentation arose the major motto of the week, “Try it.” If it works, great–if not, let’s cheer the attempt. There’s no such thing as a failed image, since all images inevitably lead us somewhere interesting. Remember, for all the masterpieces we see and hear–including beautiful artwork, perfect dance steps, or cool tunes–there were many more rejected versions.

Now about that toilet paper…

We’ve already said that a camera is more than a recording device. It’s a tool for a photographer, just as an instrument is a tool for a musician. All photographers use light to make images, and all musician use notes to make music. But have you ever thought about how many different kinds of music those notes can make? From swing to rap, classical to rock, punk to tribal– they’re all made up of the same notes, just arranged to express different emotions. Let’s face it, The Beatles have something way different to say than Mozart. Cameras and light are there for you to express your emotions, your opinion /your say about a subject. We proved this when everyone photographed a roll of toilet paper. Each student’s vision showed through his or her interpretation of that common object. We had elaborate still lives and minimalist constructions and collaborations with nature. Anything was possible (except decorating the trees, the one unbreakable rule of the week!), and everyone rose to the challenge. It’s all about vision and voice. It’s never about what camera, what lens or in what exotic location you can photograph. It’s about seeing.

Image of sculpture sitting on toilet paper base with toilet paper cloke by Marla Meier.

© 2014 Marla Meier. All rights reserved.

Close-up image of toilet paper by Marla Meier.

© 2014 Marla Meier. All rights reserved.


So try these exercises at home as self-assignments:

Grab a partner and make a list of things for him/her to photograph for a seven minute session. Don’t tell your partner what’s on your list, just tell him the category and start timing a minute. Don’t let your partner rest in-between categories. If he gets a little silly or stressed, good. It’s all about loosening up and responding and not taking every frame so seriously. Seven categories of five frames apiece. Now, your partner can surprise you with his list.

Break rules. Make “mistakes.” Take pictures thinking, “What if?” instead of ‘`This will never turn out.” Challenge the technical and compositional suggestions in your camera’s instruction manual. Go against your photo textbook. Try it. Cheer the experiment, and imagine where it might lead.

Take the T.P. challenge. Go for it. Sculpt it, nail it, write on it, drape it, wad it up, strew it about, soak it, create fashion, create art–just create. I promise this exercise will serve you well when you’re trying to push your creative eye. It will also come back to you when you’re photographing familiar things you see every day–like your school, family or friends. Enjoy!

by Wendy Walsh

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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