Sometimes we get stuck in a rut. We feel lethargic and uninspired. We feel the urge to blow a bunch of money on a new lens or a new camera, in hopes that it would somehow reinvigorate our passions. But what if we already have what we need to overcome photographer’s block? Here are 5 simple experiments to try to expand our photographic horizons.
5. Shoot with Your Least Used Lens
We’ve all been there. A late night Craigslist session, an impulse BUY IT NOW! on eBay, or a well commissioned salesperson at a camera store. We all have lenses that we sparingly use.
Mine used to be the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro. Fantastic lens. Brilliantly sharp. But I’m not gifted with the patience to shoot macrophotography and I also bought it as a portrait lens. I found it to be slightly too long, too slow to use in dim light without stabilization, and too inexpensive to part with. So I kept it. For years. In a closet.
Right now, it’s my Holga 25mm Pinhole lens. Super fun lens. Incredibly inexpensive. However, a plastic meniscus lens at f/8 has limited usability at night or indoors. But rather than dwelling on limitations, a lens’ unique character could force you to think outside the box and be creative.
This is one of my favorite shots and it never would have happened if I didn’t keep using the pinhole lens after dark. Sometimes, you just can’t plan for and don’t know what would happen when you push yourself outside of the comfort zone.
So I suggest choosing the lens you use the least. It may be a 135mm longish prime, a 20mm ultra-wide, or even a 18-55mm kit lens, but whatever the lens, it’s still in your stable for a reason and it may just lead you down a photographic path you least expected.
4. Change Up the Aspect Ratios
Aspect ratios change everything. The framing changes. The composition change. It changes the way our eyes scan the image. It may remind us of the silver screen or a square polaroid photograph. Whatever the reason, committing to a different aspect ratio in-camera or after-the-fact can catalyze new creative possibilities.
This idea came after recently discovering the internet music station Majestic Casual. They have fabulous taste in portraits and they source their remix cover photographs from photographers around the world. One limitation they had was that the YouTube video format was 16:9, so all of the covers were cropped to 16:9 from their usual 3:2.
Speaking of cinematic, a wider format can remind the viewer of the movie screen. Herbert from Variety of Light is a master at recreating the cinematic feel in his still images.
The color grading and perspectives along with the wide format really makes his images feel like movie stills. So, try abandoning the storied 3:2 format, or worse the 4:3. Go wide or go square and let the new frame lines take your photography to somewhere you’ve never been before.
I bet most of you have already tried this or is in your bag of tricks so I won’t dwell on this one. But as minimalists say, less is more. I wrote a whole piece on why we still shoot B&W in this day and age and whether black and white is considered cheating.
The gist of the article is, we gain simplicity, poise, and timelessness by doing away with distracting colors. We lose a bit of authenticity, youthfulness, and liveliness by ditching color.
So while it is a double edged sword, forcing yourself to view and shoot the world in B&W has its advantages in that you pay much more attention to contrasts in light, gradients in shading, and visual structures within the image. And remember, if you shoot B&W RAW in camera, you can always switch back to color in post should you choose to do so.
2. Shoot from the Hip
At the risk of sounding lomographic, there is reason behind their philosophy. We are often too focused on what’s behind and within the viewfinder to actually look at what’s in front of it. I know how this sounds. It’s counterintuitive. Of course we are looking at the subject we are shooting. We are framing it. We have our cameras pressed to our nose. We are fiddling with the camera at the same time. Oh wait, so maybe we are not looking as intently as we ought to…
When I used my Holga 25mm Pinhole lens for a few portrait shoots, I noticed that I was shooting a lot more than I used to with a traditional AF lens. An average 3hr on-location portrait sesh could net me anywhere between 250-400 frames. I don’t burst very often and I delete along the way.
However, with the Holga, I kept my finger on the shutter and sometimes framed shots with the back LCD. Since I didn’t have to think about focusing with the Holga lens, all I did was look and shoot. The settings were pretty much fixed if the natural lighting stays about the same. On average, I would get 400-600 frames with a Holga lens.
The results were also more liberating. I found that I was able to capture a lot more micro-expressions than I would have if I composed, waited 0.5 seconds for focus lock, recomposed, and clicked the shutter. It’s surprising how a split second can mean the difference between a candid image and a contrived one.
So shoot like a cowboy and let it hang. Use a wide-normal lens and set it to f/8. Pay more attention to what you’re shooting than thinking about it or fiddling with the camera. Timing is everything, which leads us to…
1. Switch to Auto Everything
Hear me out. This one will be a little controversial for some. Purists please un-bunch your drawers. What if I told you that sometimes choosing to leave your camera on Auto mode does not diminish you as a photographer in any way?
There is a freedom in pointing and shooting. A freedom from distraction and an overabundance of decision. Just like the previous tip about shooting from the hip, this one is geared towards liberating ourselves from the camera itself and focus on what really matters.
If you had to design the perfect camera, I guess it would be one where it could read your mind. No buttons. No dials. No rings. An infinitely variable aperture and focal length controlled by thought, reacting instantaneously.
But until then, pop it into Auto every once in a while and change up the way you shoot. Focus on looking ahead and choosing the right moment in time rather the right camera settings.