5 Creative Exercises for Photographers

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As a creative writer, nearly every day I make use of creative writing exercises in order to keep my inspiration and creativity alive and well. I’ve found that many of these creative writing exercises are incredibly helpful when I deal with creative block, and I’ve also found that the results of many of these exercises somehow find their way into longer stories or other projects that I’m working on. I don’t do a lot of exercises, but I make sure to do one at least once a day before my real writing session begins.

I had this idea that creative writing exercises could translate into useful creative exercises for visual artists, especially photographers. I strongly believe that inspiration moves easily across genres of art, so I thought it would be fun to think up and share with you some creative exercises that you photographers could try out on your own. Having no experience as a photographer, I’m curious to see whether or not these would be actually useful to you? Please feel free to share your opinions in the comments!

I’ve derived these exercises from my favorite creative writing exercises, all of which can be found in the last section of John Gardner’s craft book, The Art of Fiction. If you’re interested in seeing the source material, check it out; he has some interesting ideas about creating art.

Without further ado, here are five creative exercises for photographers as based on John Gardner’s writing exercises.  With a little work, these can be adapted to any creative field as well.

The Simple Action Exercise

Derived from Gardner’s prompt to describe a simple action, such as sharpening a pencil or shooting a rat, in at least 400 words, this exercise asks that you also complicate your own attempts to capture a simple action. Take a portfolio of shots of a simple action, such as a person stepping from the curb into the street. Your goal in creating this portfolio is to discover as many ways as possible of photographing the same simple action in completely different ways.

The Anything But Exercise

Create a small portfolio of photographs that describe and intensify two characters, as well as the relationship between them. You may photograph anything but people; feel free to photograph other objects, such as landscapes, weather, clothing, and so on. Here you should focus on establishing contexts and using details in order to give meaning to a photograph’s ‘bigger picture,’ so to speak.

The Untold Secrets Exercise

Create a series of photographs that depict two characters, one of whom has a secret. Don’t reveal the secret, but make the viewer intuit it. Only you and the character know this secret. Use various photographic techniques to hint as to the nature of the secret. You can be as simple or complicated as you wish in photographing clues; the idea here is to work on creating subtle tones in your photographs.

The Non-Human Exercise

Create a series of photographs that depict a landscape, scene, or some other subject as seen through the point of view of a non-human entity. The original Gardner exercise requires that the writer describe a landscape through the eyes of a bird; however, you don’t need to do that. The goal of this exercise is to encourage you to seek out shots that do not originate from a human position.

The Old Man and The Barn Exercise

Finally, this exercise asks that you use your camera to depict the world from a specific person’s perspective. In this exercise, Gardner asked that a writer describe a barn as seen by an old man who has just been killed in a war without mentioning the son, the war, death, or the old man. This may sound a bit silly, but the goal of the exercise is to have the camera be a tool to project emotion onto a landscape or object. How might you show a viewer what that barn looks like? Obviously, you can substitute any building here, but the goal is to create an image of a structure or shelter that gives its viewers a sense of that emotion and loss. If you can find emotion in an inanimate object, then you’re well on your way to being a great photographer, writer, artist.

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