'Self-assignments' can help you keep your photo skills sharp.
In these uncertain times of limited interactivity with other people and fewer opportunities to travel, it’s easy for a photographer to get a little rusty around the creative edges while the camera sits alone in a dark backpack waiting for the next adventure. Perhaps it’s time to try something that professionals have been doing for years to keep the creative juices going — the self-assignment.
In a nutshell, a self-assignment can involve any photographic subject, concept or genre. The goal, in addition to helping cure boredom, is to hone your photographic skills, learn new techniques and provide a challenge to try something different. The subject of a self-assignment may be something different from anything you’ve ever photographed and may be even out of your comfort zone, but, like exercise at a gym, it will make you stronger photographically. Like physical exercise, proceed at your own pace and, most importantly, have fun.
While there are unlimited possible self-assignments, limited only by your imagination, here are five suggestions to get you started. The only camera equipment required is what you have at your disposal, even if it’s a camera phone.
Street photography is a genre that documents everyday life in public places, usually city streets. Historically, bustling cities and crowds were the primary subjects, but static subjects such as posters, graffiti, sidewalks and building features are also good candidates and can sometimes take on an abstract look. Storefront window reflections can add an extra dimension to an otherwise ordinary photo. Also, consider shooting in black and white to pay homage to the early days of street photography.
The 15-foot photo
At home, stand in the center of any room in your home. Look for photographic subjects that happen to be within 15 feet of where you’re standing. You may have to really open your mind to the possibilities. Think about the available light and the light that’s needed to best show the subject, as well as the lens length, exposure and composition. You will be amazed how many mundane objects can actually be quite impressive in a photo.
The environmental portrait
Many photographers are not comfortable shooting portraits of other people. The environmental portrait is an informal way of interacting with others while photographing them in the environment where they live, work or play. The objective is to create an image of them in the context of that environment, not just a close-up facial shot. This usually involves keeping a little more distance from the subject and possibly using a wider lens. This type of photo goes further than just showing us the person — it now tells a story about the person and becomes more engaging to view.
Textures are all around us, and typically we don’t really think about them when taking photographs. This self-assignment is to seek out textures from ordinary objects, including trees, rocks, plants — you name it. Find the angles and lighting that best show off that object’s texture. The size of the object doesn’t matter. Notice how different lighting directions and camera angles have an effect on the perceived texture. Showing texture is one of the secrets to conveying a more tactile feel to an object in a photograph. For example, a cactus will be perceived as being “sharp” when the texture of its spines is emphasized.
Silhouettes are always mysterious and can add impact to your photograph. A silhouette can be of any person or object. However, since the silhouette will be black, you need to make sure that the outline of the person or object is clearly defined. In the case of a person, you want to make sure that you see arms, legs and facial features in addition to the torso. Like the environmental portrait, silhouettes work best when there is room left around the subject to put the background in context and to help tell a story about the scene.