I’ll be the first to admit, I hated school. I hated the structure and the monotony. I would have much rather completed the work on my own time, preferably outside. In any case, I actually do miss school now. I’ve since learned, thanks to Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before, that I respond best to external accountability. I do need a certain structure and accountability partner to keep me on track, otherwise, I will easily fall off and walk away from the challenge. This is why I am constantly taking classes or reading books which layout assignments in photography.
One of the more fun resources I’ve found for this is Aperture Foundation’s The Photographer’s Playbook, which outlines 307 assignments and ideas from photographers around the world. Some are concrete, some are conceptual. But they all will make you think and look at a subject in a different way. I understand it is not new, but I often refer back to this book, either when I feel a lack of motivation, or just as a source of inspiration as I begin a new project. Below, I’ve outlined 5 of my favorite assignments, for those who have not had a chance to read the book or are simply looking for a fun project. I feel my photography has improved, I’d love to hear how the assignments work for you.
Photography Assignment #1: Take 1 Photo/Day for 7 Days
This assignment is based on Michael C. Brown’s assignment in The Photographer’s Playbook. He urges the student to take one photograph per day for 7 days in a row. The exercise will leave the student with not only a better understand of their week, but of themselves. They will learn what is truly important to them, and what they should be focusing on. In photography, we often take assignments that have us telling a story which is not our own. Here, the only story we tell is our own. Our own experiences of the past 7 days, and we can understand what stands out as important to us. Do this assignment, and see if another photographer can join you. After completing, get together and review the images. Offer critiques. You will learn a lot about the other photographer from these images.
Photography Assignment #2: Take A Trip
This assignment is based on Todd Hido’s assignment in The Photographer’s Playbook. He tells students to take a trip, somewhere new, whether close or far and just go. Don’t plan anything out, just buy the flights. See where the character and emotion of the city take you. Start to brainstorm story ideas as you spend time there. Don’t worry, the ideas will come to you. What do you notice? What draws your attention above all else? This is what truly interests you, and this is what you should explore, both on your trip and back home. Turn the photos into a story. Even better, add some writing to it, and you’ve just created your first travel piece. This can be submitted to local publications, and once picked up, you’ll have your first published writing and photography piece!
Photography Assignment #3: Find Your Passion
This assignment is based on Ed Kashi’s assignment in The Photographer’s Playbook. He urges the students to discover and explore subjects which they are passionate about. This means having a general interest and the willingness to spend hours, weeks, years with the subject. He spent eight years photographing aging in America, a subject which he felt passionate about, and which he’s maintained interest in, even after moving on to other projects. Your assignment is to find your passion and explore it deeply. This means to spend hours with the subject, asking questions and having a true interest. This will show through in the photograph, if the passion is not there, this will show as well. Be patient with this, as it will not come quick or easy. Over time, you will be able to find an interesting perspective which is yours alone. This is another element of a strong photographic story.
Photography Assignment #4: Get Close
This assignment is based on Alexis Lambrou’s assignment in The Photographer’s Playbook. She recalls a professor who was inspired by the famous Robert Capa quote “If your picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. He had them reach out in front of the camera and focus on their hand. Afterward, they had to tape in place the focus and walk around shooting. It would force them to get closer to their subject than they might previously get. This is such a great assignment and it really changes how you approach shooting, soon finding yourself getting more comfortable approaching a subject and getting in close.
Photography Assignment #5: Think Bigger
This assignment is based on Gus Powell’s assignment in The Photographer’s Playbook. He lays out six street photography assignments which will make you think twice next time you are on a photo walk.
- Wait at a bus stop and photograph the other people waiting. Don’t get on the bus, but stay and continue shooting. Move on to another bus stop if needed.
- Pick a color and focus all your shots on this color. Start big, like a blue sky, and work down to a very small subject like a piece of trash on the ground.
- Whenever you find something interesting, shoot the image but then turn completely around and take an image of what is directly behind you.
- Pick someone out of a crowd and follow them. Don’t shoot any images and don’t be a total creeper. But just see where they go and experience the journey of where they are taking you.
- Learn to visualize the way people move by trying to shoot two people walking past, right at the moment when they cross planes. Do this multiple times and then move on to shoot three, even four people in this way.
- Take some images which you think are bad, and print them out pocket-size. Carry them with you and reflect on them as you are out shooting. Notice what you like or don’t like and if that translates in any way to what you are currently shooting.
Gus’s assignments teach us a different way to see the subject, and to look out for things which can be easily overlooked. Pick one of the above, and try it out next time you are out with your camera.
These may not be innovative, life-changing assignments, and they may not even work for you. They were designed to force your perspective to adjust, slightly or drastically, and look at a subject in a different way. Doing this is essential to improving as a photographer, and even to just maintain skill level. You may not think these assignments have helped you in any way, but next time you stop to think about a shot or project idea, it may surprise you how these have altered your way of thinking. I urge you to purchase this book, look up similar assignments online or sign up for a class, online or in person. Continuing to challenge your thinking and skill set will be vital to your development as a photographer. There is always something new to learn.