13 Creative Exercises for Photographers at Home

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With nearly everyone, almost everywhere, working from home, studying from home, or just staying at home, there’s increased pressure to make use of this time in productive ways. As a photographer who much prefers working “en plein air,” this indoor time is a challenge. However, this isn’t to say that my appetite for making photographs has dwindled. In fact, if anything, I’ve been racking my brain even more over the past weeks looking for creative sparks. So, inspired by Todd Vorenkamp’s popular 13 Creative Exercises for Photographers article, I am proposing a new, additional series of 13 creative exercises, with the focus on being at home.

Exercise 1: Find the Light

The first lighting class I had at university took the form of the professor giving everyone a simple incandescent bulb and telling us that this was our only light source for the semester. Everyone (expectedly) hated it but, even then, I knew there was going to be some value in working with such a simple tool to create a foundation for working with more sophisticated tools later on. The first assignment from that first class was to turn on the light and then hide it somewhere, preferably in another room; somewhere where you couldn’t immediately sense or see the light. Turn off all the room lights and then, in seemingly complete darkness, photograph your light bulb. This exercise will test your patience and long exposure skills but will also give you a feeling of the way light gives shape to subjects in the absence of other ambient light sources.

Exercise 2: Outside from Inside

Second prize to being outside is the feeling of gazing out a window; find your favorite scene from a window and photograph it. Then photograph it again—but differently—the next day, then do it again, and again, and again. Force yourself to study and break down the scene; use different lenses, photograph at different times of the day. See if you can make the scene work for you and, conversely, see if you can depict the scene with as much accuracy as possible. Things tend to become a lot more interesting over time.

Exercise 3: Food Diary

The emphasis on being home is multi-faceted, and one area that’s thriving as a result of these domestic days is the rise in cooking at home. While fine-tuning your new culinary skills, work on also sharpening your food photography skills. Photograph a recipe and send it to a friend, photograph your meal as if it were being served at a five-star restaurant, or just photograph your food as a diary.

Exercise 4: Screenshots and Vernacular Photography

While not necessarily an exercise to strengthen your own technical photography skills, working with existing imagery can really help to hone your photographic mind and expand your relationship to images and how they function in the world. Typically, working with vernacular or found photos might require digging through photo archives at flea markets or other public places; in this at-home version I would suggest working with screenshots and cinema. Spend some time becoming more familiar with photography’s close relationship with cinematography and capture some screenshots from films you are watching or your favorite films from the past. Compile these screenshots, or stills, into an edit and start to view them as you would still photographs; learn from a cinematographer’s composing but apply your own context and timing to make something original.

Exercise 5: Portrait Studio

One of the genres of photography that thrives in indoor, controlled locations is portraiture, and what better time than now to practice it? For this exercise, I recommend making it as formal as possible, though, rather than candid. Make this an event. If you’re staying at home with others, and they’re willing subjects, then perfect. If you’re at home by yourself, then just add a “Self-” to the beginning of this exercise title. This is great for photographers who, if like me, shy away from the camera and aren’t naturally prone to photographing other people. Even if these are photographs you never want to show to anyone else, they can help develop skills relating to comfort behind the camera that will last forever.

Exercise 6: Portrait of a Home

What does your home look like? What does your home feel like? Can you make an accurate depiction of both in 10, or fewer, photographs? How could you do this so viewers get both a realistic visual but also an emotional connection to what it’s like to be there?

Exercise 7: A Game of Minutes

Riffing on the popular “Steps” or “Distance” exercises, where you make a new photograph after walking a predetermined number of steps or driving a predetermined distance, this somewhat more sedentary version requires you to make a new photograph every few minutes. You could choose every hour, you could choose every 15 minutes, or you could choose every 3-5 minutes for a more rapid-fire pace. Bonus points for trying different intervals and seeing how the change in time will affect the pictures you make.

Exercise 8: The Dutch Still Life

Similar to portraiture, still life is another genre of photography that thrives in indoor, controlled conditions. Feel free to make any kind of still life you want, but I’ll recommend taking a look at some of the Dutch still life paintings from the 1600s for inspiration, such as those by Vermeer, Claesz, and Heda. Study these painters’ works to get a sense of how subject, arrangement, and lighting can so dramatically affect how you look at preparing a meal, for instance.

Exercise 9: Nine Elements

Borrowing an exercise from Todd Vorenkamp, since it fits perfectly to use within the confines of your own home—Photograph these nine elements of a scene while in one location.

  • Light
  • Shadow
  • Line
  • Shape
  • Form
  • Texture
  • Color
  • Size
  • Depth

While being on the lookout for these elements, you can amplify the challenge by performing it in several rooms or doing it more than once in a single day. Use your static location as a benefit for studying how light and time of day really transform a subject.

Exercise 10: Photograph a Song or Piece of Music

Can you listen to a song or a piece of music and then go photograph it? I think you can. Make the images as literal or as abstract as needed; make your photographs as representational or as emotional as needed. The exercise is to use your intuition and creativity to transcribe another medium into your own. How can photography accomplish some of the same personal responses that music can?

Exercise 11: Build a Kluge

An exercise for the gear heads; see how weird and bizarre of a technical solution you can come up with for a problem that likely does not exist. Or, put more plainly: play with your toys. What can you photograph, in your house, with your longest telephoto lens? How many extension tubes is too many? Can you really make a 24-hour exposure if you stack all of those neutral density filters together? Try to overcome some of the stranger technical hurdles you can imagine and do it just for fun.

Exercise 12: Go Camera-Less

I just finished an article on Traditional Photography Processes at Home and want to propose another avenue of working with sun printing/cyanotype processes; work without a camera, and make photograms. Can you still use your camera-biased mind to make a captivating photograph without a camera? What can you push yourself to do beyond just laying some leaves on top of the paper? Take a look at Man Ray’s Rayographs or Wolfgang Tillman’s Lighter images if you need some inspiration.

Exercise 13: Shoot a Roll of Film

Todd’s original series of exercises asked you to Shoot a “Roll of Film.” I’m going to propose an exercise sans quotes and suggest you actually shoot a roll of film... for real. Feel free to do any of the above exercises in conjunction with film (especially the Find the Light one if you’re feeling daring) and then develop this roll of film at home. While digital is more efficient, you might find that your technical instincts will strengthen with a roll of film here and there, which rely on you to make firm decisions without the benefit of immediate feedback.

These are just a handful of jumping-off points for beginning to make some new photographs in your domestic surroundings. It’s a trying restriction to only work from home, but you might find that the challenges and limitations force you to become even more creative than before. Let us know if you have any other creative exercises for at-home photography, in the Comments section, below.

7 Comments

I have always played around with out of focus light.  Having colored light sources like traffic lights or holiday lights and set  your lens so the lights have various  degrees of out of focus so the light becomes abstract in of itself. Also best to have nothing in focus but soft abstract light. This is all easier to do with digital rather than fim because you can see the results right away.

I've been doing a fun thing to pass the time and work through my back catalog. I asked my friends on social media to pick a three-digit number; then I go into Lightroom and use a Collection to find all the images whose *filename* contains that 3-digit number (like "456" would return IMG_3456). Then of all the matches returned, I pick one or more that I like, post-process them, and post the results back to whomever picked the number! It's a great way to narrow your focus (haha) and force yourself to work with the options you get. (4-digit numbers are harder!)

Hello Michael - Thanks for the  input!

A fine article, inspiring, informative, pleasurable to read. Count me among your fans.

I would say shoot a roll of slide film (perhaps some Velvia 40) from a tripod using manual only.  Go spot meter only, metering a middle tone in the same light as your subject, bracket a third of a stop in either direction and see what beautiful images you can produce just walking around your neighborhood.  Although I shoot digital the vast majority of the time, I have to admit that the sound a film camera makes is way cooler than any digital I've seen.  Thanks for the nice article.

This was a really a great list and it was interesting to see how many of them I have already completed! My big activity was making the switch from Adobe to Capture One and thanks for the Tangent Wave2...amazing program and equipment. 

Mudei da Adobe para o Luminar 4. Nada a perder!

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