Photographing with Limitations


As part of my photography workshops, I like to start off with a jarring but hopefully inspiring exercise. Because I know from personal experience how hard it can be to shake a photographer from old habits of seeing and shooting, I have come up with ways to shake things up. The result is not only something that helps my students, but that also helps me when I want to challenge myself in a new way.

With that in mind, I send students out with a shooting exercise which is meant to make them rethink not only how the see through the camera, but more importantly how carefully they choose a subject and compose their photographs.

Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published at The Candid Frame.

The Assignment

The goal is to produce photographs that contain one or more of these elements: color, contrast or pattern. The more of these exists in one the photographs, the better. However, there are some limitations that I impose, which are:

1. You only have twenty minutes
2. No chimping – You can’t review the image even for the purposes of checking your exposure
3. You can only shoot up to 7 images.

Those limits can be jarring and even uncomfortable, but that’s the point. We all have our way of shooting, some of which may include some really bad habits. Working with limitations forces you to not only pay more attention to what you choose to photograph, but also challenges those “bad” behaviors such as being too preoccupied with what the camera is doing or not doing, being hyper critical while shooting and worst of all…rushing.

The exercise forces everyone to slow down and to really pay attention not only to the subjects they photograph, but also to observe their process and how they “feel” while shooting.

It is after demonstrating to them how I want them to respond and photograph that I am able to introduce them to the concept of looking for subjects based on observing the light, a subject I wrote about in my first book: Chasing the Light: Improving Your Photography Using Available Light. It is then that I can begin to reveal to them how the light can and does make a huge difference in their photography.


Seeing + Feeling

A big part of this is critiquing their 7 images and pointing out how they were already responding to the light. With many of their photographs, I can often see that they were often reacting to the light, though they aren’t always aware of it. With each image, I am able to tap into each of them is already seeing and help them to consider how to be more in-tune with that, especially when it comes to staying aware of the quality of the light.

With the freshness of their thought and feelings of having worked under those strict limitations and thoughtful observation of the work that was created, each photographer gets a complete understanding and appreciation for the full organic experience of being in the moment, seeing with an observant eye and then making the photograph.

As I emphasize the concept of “owning the frame”, being completely responsible for every single element they chose to include in the composition. This is important, because it not only eliminates distractions, but also allows them to build compositions that really take advantage of how they are seeing and responding to the light.


Working with Fresh Eyes

So, when they venture out for their second round of shooting, their images are not only better, but also more thoughtful. Where the earlier images felt unsure and tentative, these second round of images not only reflect a greater awareness of light, but more importantly, greater consistency.

It is particularly interesting to see photographers who revisited subject matter they had photographed in the morning. These new images often reveal the color, contrast and pattern of the subject or scene all informed by their observations of how the light shaped their perception. You could often feel and hear the difference as the students reacted to the new set of images that pop on the screen.

I can’t help but feel that working with the limitations of the first exercise really sets the foundation for images students produce in the afternoon. Though, they are freshly pollinated by the information I share about light, it is also a result of their own awareness of how they photograph and how they feel when they are doing so.

There is nothing better than being completely in the moment when photographing. You are observing, reacting and shooting, hopefully in a seamless and uninterrupted flow. Though there may always be a bit of self-consciousness in the mix, the images will often reflect a shift in perception and technique that is always gratifying to see.


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