Despite how easy it looks, photography is hard. Deceptively hard. In reality, there are three separate learning curves to conquer: the technical aspects of the camera, the theory of light and shadows, and the actual composition of a photo (sometimes called “seeing the shot”).
That last part is the hardest thing for beginners to grasp. Light is a hard science and cameras are just buttons, but composition has an artsy component that can’t be easily taught. It must be discovered by the photographer himself.
Fortunately, there are exercises out there that can help “develop your photographic eye”, so to speak, and practical experience is the only guaranteed way to understand composition. Here are the most effective exercises we’ve found.
1. Crop Someone Else’s Photos
Great photography starts with the eye, not the camera. This means it should be possible to develop your photographic eye without even touching a camera or lens — and it is. For this exercise, all you’ll need is a basic photo editing program like Paint, GIMP, or Picasa.
First, learn the fundamental rules of photo composition. You don’t have to know all of them right now, but you should know at least one, as this exercise will force you to start putting these rules into practice. We recommend starting with the Rule of Thirds.
Next, go to a free photo-hosting site like Flickr or 500px and download a whole bunch of images to your computer. (The easiest way it to right-click and “Save Image As”). Any kinds of images will work, but this exercise works especially well with portraits and landscapes.
Now, open one of the images in your photo editing program of choice and start cropping. Try all of the standard aspect ratios, including 1:1, 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9. Try cropping vertical photos as horizontal, or horizontal photos as vertical. Move the subject around. Be creative.
The point is to experiment and see how different crops can change the look and feel of an image, and how certain crops are more aesthetically pleasing than others. This experience is invaluable when you start framing your own shots through the viewfinder.
Note: You can play around with someone else’s images, but do NOT upload them or republish them on the Internet in any way. That would be a violation of copyright law unless you have express permission from the image’s original owner.
2. With 1 Subject, Shoot 10 Photos
Here’s a common mistake made by newbies: always taking photos from the same height and from the same angle. It’s natural to stand up straight and snap shots from eye-level, but that’s boring. Everyone knows what the world looks like from eye-level!
If you want your photos to be more compelling, start changing it up. Capture the world from unusual angles and positions — viewpoints that are foreign to most people. Now that’s interesting.
This exercise helps train your sense of angles. First, find a subject. Any subject. It could be a stove-top kettle, a pet dog, a fire hydrant, an herb garden, a manhole cover, or even a dumpster. Anything works — just find something.
And then take 10 photos of it. No two photos should be alike. Try looking directly down at it. Then try looking directly up at it. Shift the angles a bit so you’re looking down/up from the side, and then shift again so you’re even further. Look at the front of the subject, then the back, then the sides.
The possibilities are countless, and even the smallest tweaks to the angle can have a noticeable impact on the resulting photo. Do this for hundreds of subjects and you’ll start seeing angles everywhere you go without even trying.
3. With 3 Objects, Shoot 10 Photos
In some cases — like landscape, astronomical, and street photography — the idea is to capture scenes in the moment as they are. In other cases — like portrait, food, and product photography — the idea is to construct scenes from out of nothing.
As you imagine, creating something out of nothing isn’t easy. There are many factors to juggle (e.g. lighting, background, etc.) but one particular aspect that newbies find difficult is how to position multiple subjects within the frame.
That’s what this exercise is about. Find three random objects, such as action figures, fruit, bowls, candles, plants, or whatever else you have available. It doesn’t matter if they’re related to each other or not, although it will be easier if they’re all similar in size.
Now position them however you wish. Think of it as if you’re composing the objects for a photo shoot (that is what you’re doing). Do this 10 times, rearranging them in different ways each time. Over time, this will stretch your creative muscles and develop your eye.
4. With 1 Lens, Shoot 1,000 Photos
The focal length of a lens controls more than just the zoom factor of a shot. Yes, all things being equal, an 18mm requires you to be closer to the subject than a 50mm or an 85mm. But different focal lengths can evoke different feelings from a photo, too.
For example, the wide angle of an 18mm lens comes with a lot of distortion, which can produce a comical or whimsical effect. On the other hand, a 200mm lens has a compression effect that makes the photo seem flatter than, say, an 85mm or 50mm lens.
In short, different focal lengths require different states of mind when composing shots. That’s why we recommend mastering one kind of lens at a time, preferably starting with a 50mm prime. Read up on the most common lenses used in photography and which ones you should use.
For this exercise, all you have to do is stick with one focal length for your next 1,000 photos. It’s easiest with a prime lens, but if you only have a zoom lens, just pick a focal length and leave it there. Switch to another focal length when your 1,000 photos are complete.
By the end, you should have a better understanding of how to use the different focal lengths at your disposable. The way you approach a flower photo differs whether you’re using an 18mm or a 200mm lens, and this exercise helps solidify that knowledge with experience.
5. Hula-Hoop Photo Walks
Creativity is often seen as something that’s infinite, boundless, and full of possibilities. And while there’s technically nothing wrong with that, the truth is that creativity needs limits and constraints to really flourish. It sounds weird, but it’s true.
If you’ve ever felt like you wanted to take photos but didn’t know where to start, where to go, or what to shoot, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Restrictions are good, and that’s how this exercise is going to unlock your creative potential.
Take a hula hoop and go outside. Toss it up into the air, then let it bounce and roll around until it eventually comes to a stop. Now stand inside the hula hoop, take a look around, and shoot 10, 20, or 50 photos of anything, but try to make them good.
When you’re done, toss the hula hoop into the air again and repeat the process. If you don’t have a hula hoop, just pick a random direction and walk a random number of steps to find your next spot. Pretty soon your creative juices will start flowing, guaranteed.
6. Weekly Photo Challenges
Weekly photo challenges are popular on the Internet these days, but different photography communities have different names for them: Photo of the Week, 52 Photos Project, Sunday Photo Prompt, etc. The key is to take 52 photos over the course of one year.
Ideally, you’d take part in some kind of community version of the challenge because this gives you a chance to see the photos of other participants and a chance for others to critique your work. But if you prefer to stay independent and do a personal challenge instead, that’s fine too.
Sometimes each month has a theme, but not always. It’s up to you how you want to do it. We recommend setting a regular weekly deadline and sticking to it, whether that means every Sunday, Wednesday, or whatever. Need inspiration? Check out 52PhotosProject, 52Photos, or Journal52.
7. Recreate Someone Else’s Photos
Once you have a little more experience under your belt and you feel comfortable behind a camera, you may want to try recreating photos that others have shot. Browse Flickr and 500px, pick a few that seem within your skill range, and have at it!
The goal here isn’t to make an exact 1-to-1 replica of your source material, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t get that far. Rather, this exercise is meant to get you thinking in ways you haven’t considered, to push you outside your comfort zone.
At first, your imitation photos will look like garbage compared to your source photos. That’s normal! Keep at it, however, and you’ll start to see fast improvements — and along the way, you may even start to discover your own voice and sense of style as a photographer.
It’s a Long but Rewarding Journey
Don’t expect to unlock your photographer’s eye overnight. It’s a gradual process that could take weeks, months, or even years before you really start to “see” photographs before taking them. But I assure you, the journey is well worth taking. Don’t give up!
If these exercises weren’t enough and you need even more exercise ideas, then we highly recommend checking out these photography courses on Lynda.com. In particular, Ben Long’s The Practicing Photographer is a series of exercises just like these, with a new one added every week.
Which exercises did you find the most useful? Know of any other exercises worth mentioning? How did you learn photography? Share with us in the comments below!
Image Credits: White Sandals by Pool by Ann Haritonenko via Shutterstock, Coffee Scoop by stefanolunardi via Shutterstock, Ties on Wall by Halfpoint via Shutterstock, Smartphone and Food by Efired via Shutterstock, Outdoors Photographer by leungchopan via Shutterstock, Wide Angle Cat by Rrrainbow via Shutterstock, Top Down Desk by Evgeny Karandaev via Shutterstock