Photo Workout: Flex Your Photographic Skills

It’s easy to get distracted by an interesting subject and miss what’s going on with the light. Workout #1 will help you focus your attention on the qualities of the light in your scene.

How do you become a better photographer? You can read articles in magazines like PCPhoto, study books and attend workshops. All of these pursuits will help you learn new and improved techniques for photography. Of course, the best thing that you can do is take pictures—lots of pictures! Yet, you could just keep taking the same old pictures as before, not improving your photography. One way to stretch as a photographer is to do self-assignments.

I’ll give you a series of exercises that you can start doing immediately, and I guarantee they’ll stretch you and your thought process as a photographer. One of the great things about digital photography is that there’s no cost to take pictures as there is with film. Therefore, you can try these exercises without worrying about wasting precious frames. Just go out and have fun exploring the possibilities of your camera and lenses.

Let me reemphasize that—have fun! These exercises can be a way to jump-start learning about new and better ways of taking pictures, but don’t let it get too serious. Keep it light with your gear, too! Don’t burden yourself with anything more than the recommended equipment for each exercise.

Workout 1: Light Awareness
Light is critical to photography. Without light, you can’t take pictures. One of the keys to becoming a better photographer is to “see” the light. Often, a photographer sees the subject, but not the light. Certainly, the subject is important, but if the subject overpowers your mind as you’re taking the picture, you might not see the light. The camera only sees the light and emphasizes that light, even if it’s not flattering for the subject. This exercise will help you learn to find interesting light.

Exercise: See The Light
What You Need: A camera and a zoom lens, preferably one that goes from wide to at least moderate telephoto. Do this exercise in any convenient setting, but be there at a time of day when the light is low.

What To Do: Get out and photograph light. Don’t look for a subject. Don’t look for interesting scenes. Find interesting light. Make a series of photographs, at least 20 to 30, where every picture is about the light. Look for spots of light, colored light, edge light, light contrasting with shadow, shadows (shadows are as much a part of light as the light itself)—anything that shows remarkable light.

Review: Look at the light and what it does in your photographs. See how the light can be interesting in and of itself. Look at how light and shadow are interacting throughout the image. Notice how your eye moves around the photograph, looking at the light and contrast.



Workout 2: Edge Mania
Composition is an important part of photography. You can study all sorts of things to help you make better compositions, including concepts like the rule of thirds and classic proportions. The key is to look for ways to use the entire picture area and get your subject out of the middle. There’s nothing wrong with having a subject in the middle of the photograph when appropriate, but most of the time, you want to get that subject in other places so your pictures have variety and added interest. Here’s an exercise to help you learn to use the entire visual area of your photograph.

Exercise: Work The Edges
What You Need: A camera and your favorite lens. Do this exercise in any convenient setting.

What To Do: Make a series of photographs, at least 20, where every picture keeps the subject out of the middle of the photograph. Don’t even use the rule of thirds. Take it so far as to make sure that there’s nothing important in the middle of the picture. Put your subject or important parts of your scene out along the edges of the photograph.

Review: Examine your photographs and look at what’s happening to them because important parts of the picture are out along the edges. Look at how visual relationships are occurring throughout the image. Notice how your eye moves around the photograph in an interesting way because there’s nothing in the middle to cause the eye to stop.

There’s a tendency for photographers to put the subject front and center in the frame, but this may not make the most exciting composition. In Workout #2, you’ll force yourself to compose shots with the most interesting parts of the scene near the edge of the frame.

Workout 3: Follow The Bouncing Focal Length Zoom lenses are the most common type of lens that photographers use today. There’s certainly good reason for that; the ability to change f
ocal length as needed makes it much easier to capture exactly what you want from a scene. You can get a wider view when the scene demands it, or you can zoom in to capture a detail as needed.

Focal lengths can do a lot more. They can change a perspective, alter the mood and expand your picture-taking possibilities beyond wide or narrow views of a scene. This exercise will push you to find new ways of working with your lenses.

Exercise: Zoom The Zoom Lens
What You Need: A camera and a zoom lens. Do this exercise in any convenient setting.

What To Do: For this exercise, you’re constantly moving your zoom from its widest to its most telephoto positions. Start out taking a picture with your zoom at its widest position. Find a compelling picture that seems to work with that wide setting. Keep it at the wide setting and move toward or away from your subject until you get the picture you want.

Next, zoom your lens all the way to its maximum focal length and find a new picture. Once again, change your position relative to the subject rather than changing your focal length. This can be interesting to try with the same subject that you shot with the wide zoom setting, or just look for something completely different that seems appropriate to the zoomed-in focal length.

Continue to shoot at least 20 to 30 photographs where you alternate from wide-angle to telephoto perspectives for each photograph. Your picture sequence will be wide, telephoto, wide, telephoto and so on.

Typically, we’ll use our zoom lens to make compositional refinements, without paying much attention to the other effects of changing focal length. In Workout #3, you’ll explore these effects and get a better understanding of how to use various focal lengths to your creative advantage.

Review: This is an amazing exercise. It’s challenging because it forces you to look more at photographs based on focal length, rather than simply using a zoom to frame a subject. Compare how the wide-angle settings change the look and feel of the photographs to the results of the more telephoto settings used when you zoomed in. You’ll learn a lot about how focal length can affect both a subject and a scene.

Workout 4: Color Becomes You
Color is an important part of photography because it’s such a big part of how we experience our world. Color is all around us, and it’s so much a part of our lives, that we often take it for granted. The result is that our color images also take color for granted.

Color itself can be a wonderful part of any photograph. How color appears in the foreground, the background and even the subject itself can greatly affect how we look at an image. When we consciously choose those colors, we can control how the photograph appears to a viewer. This exercise will encourage you to do just that.


When we think about color in photography, we’re usually thinking of a colorful subject—but what about color as the subject? Workout #4 will help you train your eye to see color as the centerpiece of your shot, and not merely as an element or ornament.

Exercise: Photograph Color
What You Need: A camera and a zoom lens or a selection of lenses. Wide-angle and telephoto focal lengths have a great effect on color, so it can be useful to have choices in focal length.

What To Do: Go out and look for color. This exercise is a lot like the one on photographing light. Once again, you’re not looking for a subject or a scene as you normally might do. Look for and photograph color and its effects. Set a goal to photograph at least 30 images in a row for this exercise.

It’s essential that you turn off all thoughts of capturing subjects or scenes. You’re just photographing interesting color. You need to be aware of how your camera is responding to the colors, so that they’re properly exposed. Your subject is color—single colors, color contrasts, saturated color, dull color and color patterns.

Review: Look at what’s happening in your photographs because of the color. See how color can make fascinating effects all by itself and completely change things like atmosphere and tone in an image. This exercise will teach you about how you use color in a photo.

Workout 5: Highs And Lows
I once heard it said that the only people who see things at eye level are photographers. Normally, we see the world from many positions—when we’re lying down, when we’re sitting, when we’re standing on something and so on. Photographs become more interesting when we get the camera in many of those positions, as well. Frankly, pictures start to look the same when they’re always shot from the same height. In this exercise, you’ll stretch your muscles getting the camera from low to high positions.

Exercise: Photograph High And Low
What You Need: A camera and a zoom lens. Do this exercise in any convenient setting.


Most of the time, we photograph standing up, from eye level. That leads to the same types of compositions, over and over and over. Use Workout #5 to see how changing your point of view can lead to much more interesting photographic arrangements.


What To Do: For this series of photographs, you’re alternating shots from low to high. Take your first picture with a camera positioned as low to the ground as possible. You don’t have to lie on the ground to do this. You simply can hold your camera down, take the picture and then check it on the LCD. If it isn’t quite right, try again. Next, go for a high angle. Try climbing onto something that has a little height, or you can hold your camera over your head as high as you can reach. For that reaching shot, you’ll also need to check your LCD to be sure you get the picture you want. For extreme height, you can put your camera on a tripod, set the self-timer and then hold the camera and tripod as high as possible when it goes off. Now alternate pictures for a good 20 to 30 shots, where you go from low to high to low to high.

Review: You’ll see some amazing differences in pictures as you look at the results from this exercise. It’s true that photographers often get stuck taking all their pictures at eye level. This exercise will show you that there are amazing images to be seen from other heights.

Zoom from wide-angle to telephoto range using a 28-300mm lens with close-up capability. Sigma 28-300mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DG Macro and Tamron AF28-300mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 XR Di VC LD Aspherical (IF) Macro are compact, all-in-one zooms that take great shots. List Price: $420 (Sigma), $599 (Tamron). Contact: Sigma, (800) 896-6858,; Tamron USA, (631) 858-8400,

Leave a Comment