Every artist needs a source of inspiration, whether it’s a “muse” (your kids, your spouse), a list of your favorite photographers on Flickr or a place, such as a beautiful natural spot or your own neighborhood. But sometimes even the most tried and true sources of inspiration can fail to give you the kind of motivation you need, and that’s when you need to find other ideas. Personally, I like to adopt a project—not necessarily just a particular theme but a whole project idea, something that will require time and effort. I find that after I’ve spent a few hours, days or even weeks absorbed in a specific project, my creativity gets a big boost overall. Do you have any photo projects you’ve been longing to try out? Now is the time—and if not, here are some of my favorite ideas.
A to Z
You can go a couple of different directions with this idea, but I think it’s really fun to do a very literal version of the A to Z project and photograph objects that are shaped like actual letters. Here are a few of examples:
Now this idea falls into the “lengthy project” category, because it might require weeks worth of effort before you’ll manage to find objects shaped like all 26 letters. Now, you could cheat of course line up a series of objects into letter shapes, but really, where’s the fun in that? Instead treat this like a scavenger hunt, where you’re scavenging for letters instead of objects.
This may sound a little daunting, but once you really start looking around you might be amazed by how many letter shaped objects are out there in the world, just waiting for you to stumble over them. I’ve seen fence posts shaped like capital I’s, for example, and I’m fairly certain you could find a pair of mountain peaks shaped like the letter “M” or a doughnut shaped like, well, do I really need to tell you?
Just a couple of pieces of advice before you embark on this project—first, try not to cop out and photograph actual letters, such as the ones painted on signs or in shop windows. I know, when you’ve just spent the last week and a half trying to find an “R” it might be really tempting to just give in and go down to your local Red Robin for lunch (and some cheating). But I think you’ll find it a lot more rewarding when you finally have that ah-ha moment with a R-shaped object somewhere else in the world.
Second, try to fill the frame with your letter-shaped object. Because a lot of your shots are simply going to imply letter shapes (rather than be really obvious to your viewer), you want to make sure that you’re placing those letter-shaped objects front-and-center, so there can be no doubt why you took that photo and what your subject is supposed to represent.
Now here’s a project that could be really cheap or really frighteningly expensive, depending on how you choose to approach it. Photo drones, of course, are all the rage right now and you can spend a few hundred to a few thousand dollars on one, depending on how hooked you are on the idea. I love a photo drone as much as the next guy but they do have some drawbacks, the first being that they tend to get flown into people and then much chaos ensues, including potential lawsuits and other things that will probably ruin your day (see what I mean by “expensive?”) So if you do decide to use a photo drone to take pictures, please keep not only the privacy of others but the safety of others in mind and fly only in areas where there aren’t any people, or where there are only people who know what you’re doing and have consented being photographed, but who also know that there can be some risk involved with the use of photo drones.
Looking down on driftwood beach #fromwhereidrone by Flickr user Dirk Dallas
Personally, I like to use one of a few other techniques for aerial photography. The first and most obvious is simply choosing an elevated place to shoot from like a balcony (safest) or a tree branch (please only do this if you are 100 percent sure that you won’t get hurt). Just plant yourself in that spot and take some bird’s eye view shots of the action going on below you.
If you are very bold and have a camera you don’t like very much, you can use the “camera toss” technique to get some great aerial photos. Now, whenever I talk about camera toss of any kind I always like to tell people that they really shouldn’t ever try this technique unless they are prepared to smash their camera into tiny little pieces, because let’s face it, if you’re throwing your camera eventually you’re going to drop it, and if you threw it high enough it’s probably not going to survive. Now, you can try using a “tough” or “rugged” class camera for this experiment but even cameras that are designed to be impact-resistant probably aren’t going to survive a fall from a great height. Most manufacturers assume that any impact will happen because you dropped the camera from a standing position, which for most people is about five or six feet. When you toss your camera it’s usually going a lot higher than that.
Toss the Camera - Self Portrait by Flickr user JosuÃ© Braun
Good aerial photography via the camera toss technique requires not only faith (and a camera you don’t care about) but also good timing. You’ll need to use the self-timer, and you’ll need to have a good sense for when it’s going to go off so you can toss the camera at just the right time (right before the shutter release). Keep your focal length wide—that will give you a better chance of actually capturing the subject you intended to capture. Put your camera in burst mode (if it has that function) and use a fast shutter speed (remember your camera is going to be moving so much that it will actually transcend camera shake). And, of course, you’ll need to toss your camera in such a way that the lens is pointed down towards your subject when the shutter does go off, so there’s going to be some coordination involved as well. Sadly, this is going to require some practice—I say sadly because the more you practice, the more cocky you’re going to get—and the more likely it will be that your poor camera ends up meeting with an accident.
The next aerial technique I want to suggest is kite photography, which is exactly what it sounds like. You’ll need, of course, a very light point and shoot camera for this (or a camera designed for use on a photo drone, which by nature will be small and light). And unless you’re way more awesome at launching a kite than I am you’ll need a camera with video capability. That’s because even a very long self-timer setting may not give you enough time to get the kite in the air and positioned where you want it, so you’ll be better off just shooting video and then choosing stills from your results. That’s going to give you much better control over the outcome, because instead of just taking a few photos in burst mode at a time (that you probably won’t have a ton of control over), you’ll have a complete stream of frames to choose from from the time you launched the kite to the time you got it on the ground. (Note: you’ll need to do your best to land your kite gently, or you’ll have the same problem as you will camera tossing).
baking by Flickr user Jeff Attaway
A day in the life
You can do this project with your own life, or with the lives of your kids or a friend or family member—provided you warn them in advance that you’re planning to stalk them with your camera for an entire day. This is a great project for stimulating creativity because it forces you to take photographs of things you wouldn’t ordinarily photograph, like your kids putting their shoes on in the morning or busting into your snack stash when they get home from school. These are probably things you tend to think of as mundane, which is why it’s such a great idea to turn them into photographs. Photographing the mundane is an excellent way to force yourself to think creatively—you have to be creative, after all, when you shoot things that happen every single day in the same way. And don’t forget that there’s a certain amount of magic in capturing those everyday routines, especially when you have a family that’s growing and changing. Your preschool aged son may want his routine 10 hugs and kisses when Dad leaves for work in the morning, but he’s almost certainly not going to feel the same way when he’s in the fourth grade. Make sure you capture that sweet moment now, because tomorrow the things that are routine will be really different from the routines of today.
Another reason why this is so good for your creativity is because you’ll have your hand on your camera for an entire day, which means you’ll have a lot of time to reflect on what you’re doing with composition, camera settings and camera angle. When you do any activity for a sustained period of time not only do you start fall into a rhythm but you also get better at what you’re doing. You refine your technique and you start choosing the right settings almost without thinking about it, and that leaves your mind free to consider the creative possibilities of every situation you photograph.
Try unusual perspectives for this one—a floor view perspective is a great way to show a child putting her shoes on in preparation for the day ahead. Pay attention to things like background clutter—if you’re like most families, you’ve got a certain amount of mess that accumulates throughout the day, so make sure that you angle it out or use a large aperture to blur out any distractions.
One more wonderful thing that a “day in the life” photo shoot can do for you is get you used to thinking about light and how it changes throughout the day. The photos you get indoors in the morning are going to have a completely different mood to the ones you take outdoors in the afternoon, and the ones you take outdoors in the afternoon will have a whole set of different challenges from the ones you take in the evening after the sun goes down. There’s really nothing like a “day in the life” challenge to get you thinking about the light and the differences between artificial and natural, soft and hard.
Of course, this is just a small handful of project ideas—you can find many more just by browsing Flickr groups or checking out some of my other blog posts. It doesn’t really matter where you go with a project idea or what specific project you choose, what matters is that you see it through to completion and that you feel a renewed sense of creative inspiration both during and afterwards.
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