Numbers Project :: Digital Photo Secrets

Numbers Project

by David Peterson 0 comments

Are you running out of ideas? Don't worry, every photographer goes through a period of time where he's in a rut—he's bored with all the usual subjects, he's shot every landscape in his area at every time of the day and in every season, and he's just not feeling very inspired. If you're experiencing a little bit of photographer's block yourself, now is the time to embark on a new project. Assigning yourself a photo project is one of the best ways to force yourself into creative mode and bust out of that photographer's block mode for good. Keep reading for some ideas.

Numbers project

This is one of my favorite photography projects, because it can be as long or as short as you like it to be. Start with the number one, and then work your way up to 10—or to 100, if you're feeling particularly ambitious.

Now you might think you can just take that idea and roll with it, but there are a few things that you really need to keep in mind before you get started. First, there's the whole "simplicity" rule that I know you've often taken to heart—how exactly does one "keep it simple" when she's photographing 100 different subjects at the same time? And what about the rule of odds, how can you best make groups of two, four, six, eight etc. work if you're supposed to be sticking with odd numbered groups?

Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that photography "rules" are meant to be broken. If you shoot a pair of objects instead of a group of three, the clouds will not open up and claim you in the name of the broken commandments of photography. But breaking rules is tricky business, and you shouldn't attempt it before really understanding the best way to do it. That's really the reason why those rules exist—because breaking them is not for the faint of heart.

Let's start with number one, just to get you rolling.

Number one is a perfect example of a photo that will mesh with the "rule of simplicity." Choose a single object as your subject, but try to pick one with some heart. A lone tree in a field is a great example of a subject of one—surround it by plenty of open space, like long stretches of grass or snow and a bright blue sky. An image like that will make a profound statement about loneliness and isolation, or perhaps even resilience. Whatever subject you decide to go with, make sure that it's a subject that makes a statement about the meaning behind "one," which could vary from lonlieness to triumph (as in first place). Place it in a background that gives that idea some context, but make sure that the background is simple so that it's not competing with that lone subject.


Now what about two, which is impossible to reconcile with the rule of odds? Think about objects that you typically see in pairs, such as shoes, eyes or a bicycle's wheels. A person who is viewing objects that are typically presented in pairs isn't going to be looking for a third object, so if you compose this shot well you can create a successful composition that does not conform to the rule of odds. One great way to accomplish this is to center your subject. A pair of eyes shot from straight on and centered in the frame is going to give your viewer a profound connection to the person who owns those eyes, even if the rest of the face isn't visible. Place those two eyes off-center, however, and the image is going to look a little strange, and may even make the viewer feel uncomfortable.


This one is easy—it's a natural place to practice the rule of odds. Choose three objects and try to position them in the frame in an eye-catching way. You can go for symmetry with this composition, too—try placing one object in the center of the frame and the other two at evenly-spaced positions on either side. You can also choose to arrange the objects in a way that suggests depth and dimension, by placing one of the objects in the foreground and the other two at various points in the middle and background. Alternately, you may want to employ the rule of thirds for this photo—place the main object in the foreground, at one of the four rule of thirds intersections, and then place the other two objects in the opposite third of the frame. Remember to think about balance—a larger object at one intersection will be nicely balanced by two visiually smaller (or more distant) elements in the opposite third of the frame.


Once you get to the number four, things get a little trickier. The number four, of course, is an even number, which means that you risk creating a static composition if you don't think carefully about how you're going to arrange things. Since you are likely going to be choosing objects that are similar or the same as each other, consider composing symmetrically, just like you did when you were photographing a pair of objects. Try to set up your objects in such a way that you have a mirror image on either side of the composition. Place the objects into a quadrant, that is, alott the same amount of space in each corner and to try to arrange your subjects so that they are equally spaced. Symmetrical compositions are soothing and have a sense of balance, even though they are more static then rule of thirds compositions.

You could also try arranging your set of four along the golden spiral. Think of the golden spiral at the shape of a Nautalis seashell. Place one of the objects at the center point where the spiral begins and then place the other three at points along the spiral. In order to make this composition work you need to think about balance – using objects of different sizes is one way to create the kind of balance that can turn a potentially static set of objects into a dynamic one.

Larger groups

Once you start getting into larger numbers, you'll be considering pattern as well as the identity of the objects themselves. When you fill the frame with a pattern, your image will become more about the pattern and less about the objects that make up that pattern. As you get into much larger numbers, filling the frame can create a sense of infinity, tricking the viewer into feeling like those objects might just go on forever, even beyond the frame.

Consider breaking the pattern with a similar but slightly different object—you can still count that object as a part of the group, but if you make it different enough then you create a really compelling composition, giving your viewer's eye a place to go immediately upon viewing the image. For example, you could have one red apple in a group of green apples. Place the red apple on one of those rule of thirds intersections and you'll create an image that is both dynamic and interesting to look at.

Final thoughts

As you start to get into larger and larger numbers, don't fall into the trap of just photographing sets for the sake of achieving each one of those numbers. Try to think about those objects in context of the number. For example, the number 10 could be used to capture 10 fingers or toes, 12 could be used to capture a dozen donuts or a dozen eggs, in other words, objects that we commonly see grouped in collections of 10 and 12. You don't have to be exactly that specific, but consider whether the objects belong in those larger groups — for example, 100 pennies make a dollar, and there are 88 keys on a piano.

Now, you don't necessarily have to seek out groups of objects that make sense within those numbers, for example, 100 is not a number that the average person can look at and identify without actually physically counting every object, so you could simply choose objects that fall into the category of "a lot," such as leaves on a tree or pebbles on the beach. As long as you're thinking through each one of your choices and not just plowing through for the sake of completing the project, you're going to end up with compelling images.


Above all, try to have fun with this one. Remember this is an exercise in inspiring your creativity and encouraging you to think outside of the box — or inside of the box, if it's a box full of a dozen different objects. The most important thing that you are seeking to accomplish with this project is breaking out of your rut, so don't just experiment with numbers, experiment with composition, pattern repetition, textures, and light. Think of all the different ways you can group those objects together and try every idea that occurs to you. This is one way to really get your creative juices working, so don't discount any idea, because you might not realize until after you're looking at the final photograph what a great idea it actually was.


  1. Number one
    • Keep it simple
  2. Number two
    • Go for symmetry
    • Choose objects you would normally find in pairs
  3. Number three
    • Follow the rule of odds
    • Choose symmetry or the rule of thirds
    • Think about balance
  4. Number four
    • Place objects in a quadrant
    • Arrange along the golden spiral
  5. Larger groups
    • Fill the frame
    • Create a pattern
  6. Final tips
    • Choose objects normally grouped in each number (a dozen doughnuts, 88 piano keys)

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.