A quick compilation of August 2012's shooting assignments
Assignment One: Bum Lens Bonanza
All this week's assignments will have something in common, which I'll discuss at the end of the week.
Here's your first shooting assignment: pick the absolutely worst lens you own and go out and take pictures using it. Not just any pictures, but the best possible pictures you can. Learn to use whatever liability that lens has to advantage.
Now, if you go out and do this with a lens that's got a cracked front element, expect a lot of folk to walk up to you and tell you that your equipment is damaged. Don't let that stop you. You'll find that, surprisingly, most such damage doesn't actually keep you from taking decent pictures, though it might reduce your contrast. Use a lens hood and do other things to keep from losing too much. That's one of the points of this exercise: figure out what your drawback is and optimize your shooting around it.
If you've only got one kit lens, then restrict yourself to the worst focal length(s) and aperture(s) of that lens (hint: it's not the middle range, it's one or both of the extremes).
Now don't cheat on this assignment. Don't bring any of your "good" lenses. Just your bad one (or ones). Lenses you avoid using for some reason. Let's smash through that avoidance and find out what you can really do with them. You might be surprised.
If you'd like to show your results, I've posted this article on my Google+ page so that we can get them all in one place. Don't expect me to do image critique, however. That's not the point of this week's assignments.
Assignment Two: Not a Poser
Now that you have your camera out, your next assignment is to take a picture of someone without them noticing and without posing them. In other words, a true candid. Now before you voyeurs get all excited and think I'm condoning your practice: the person you're taking a picture of has to be someone you know well and who won't object to you taking pictures of them.
Yeah, that last part is more difficult than it seems. If a man is taking a picture of a woman (wife, girlfriend, sister, mother, daughter), there's the default response of "you'd better delete that image" the minute they hear the shutter sound. So yes, this is one of those trick assignments that have sub-lessons in it. What those may be, you'll have to figure out on your own or wait for my end of the week comments.
Again, there's a method to my madness, and a common theme to this week's assignments. No "take a picture of a sunset" slam dunks this week, I'm afraid.
Assignment Three: Trains, Planes, and Automobiles
So here we are on the third assignment: take a shot from a moving vehicle or platform. I hope I don't need to say more than Don't Shoot and Drive. Really. This isn't worth risking your life on. So don't try this while driving. Don't even think about it.
You can be a passenger in a car (as long as you're not bothering the driver), taxi, bus, train, plane, subway, horse & buggy, tilt-a-whirl, anything that moves. Here's the kicker: you can't stop. Not sure how you'd even stop the train or tilt-a-whirl, and I told you not to bother the driver. You can go back, but you can't stop. This week's image was taken doing this assignment, by the way.
I thought about unfolding more assignments, but after seeing how better were responding (sluggishly--shooting on demand in the middle of the week doesn't work for most of you), I decided to just limit things to these three. They are enough to make my point.
Which is: the common denominator here is the thinking you have to do before the shot. Indeed, it's a common theme in my teaching. The more you do prior to the shot, the more likely you get the shot.
The common deceit is that pros are so good that they just go out and spontaneously take great pictures. For the most part we don't. I suppose photojournalism tends to be the most spontaneous, but even there you'll find the best practitioners trying to anticipate what's going to happen and where.
As images became more an more prevalent in our society, we also got more and more repetition and a commodity-like nature in many of them. Photography gets more and more difficult to do in a way that stands out over time because of this. We're really getting closer and closer to what I call the dichotomy, where only two types of photographs will succeed: (1) the truly spontaneous capture of something that's never been seen before (the luck shot); and (2) the carefully planned image that shows you something in a way you've never seen before.
The many thousands of photographers at the Olympics were mostly vying for both of those. Unfortunately, #1 isn't going to happen unless you're the only one in the venue pointing in the direction of the thing that hasn't been seen before, so is unlikely. These days, #2 is getting more difficult to do, too, as more and more of the larger photo groups are using robotic cameras in places where the pool photographers can't go.
Be that as it may, I can guarantee you that every one of those thousands of photographers at the Olympics was trying to figure out how to make their images stand out, and was doing so long before they arrived at London. It gets more and more difficult with each passing games, as positional access gets more restrictive and access to the full possible set of gear gets more available. It used to be that only one or two guys showed up with a diagonal fisheye. Now everyone has them and CPS and NPS members can borrow one from the temporary stations Canon and Nikon set up.
My assignments were similar in a broad way: I gave you some restrictions, and those restrictions forced you to start trying to think through how you were going to do the assignment long before you put a camera up to your face. In the Bum Lens challenge, I had you thinking about the lens itself, and what you could and couldn't do with it. That in turn probably set you off on possible photographic ideas. Once you were out shooting with the lens, the restriction to using just that lens kept you thinking. You looked around your environment trying to figure out how that particular piece of gear might be best utilized with the subject(s) you had available. In short, I made you think.
The second assignment was much more subtle in this respect. Let's say you decided to do a candid of your wife. First, you had to have a discussion with her (which may have set in place some other restrictions ;~). Second, you had to figure out when she would be in a situation that would be "candid." Now you're starting to have to think from your subject's viewpoint. If you were really on top of the game, you'd be assessing which of those potential candid moments actually might best produce a shot that communicating some truth about that person. But again, you're thinking before the shot.
In the final assignment, the thinking comes at a different point: just prior to the shot. You're looking ahead to where the vehicle is going and trying to see what potential shot is coming. In the from-the-plane shot that accompanied this week's stories, you would have found me positioning my head so that I could see as far forward as possible and if you could have gone into my head you would have found me trying to virtually position myself ahead to see what the patterns of the glaciers looked like from there. I've also looked at maps of the area along that map, so I have an idea of what's coming next, too. My mind is also thinking about the light and whether it will improve/degrade. In my mind, I'm working through possible shots, then taking them as they best occur outside the window.
You can't really shoot forward, down, up, or backwards through airplane windows, as optically they tend to distort if you use anything much different than a perpendicular position for the lens. I don't want to wait until something suddenly gets in that view frame to respond, as I might not have the right lens or camera settings, and the plane is in this case traveling 500 mph. I don't have time to be "spontaneous." I have to anticipate and be ready for when the situation is best.
Shooting as a passenger in a car is a little easier, as you can see out the front and sides, and you're not as optically restricted (you can always roll down the window, too). But still, you're closer to your subject and even 45 mph may seem like things are whizzing by you, so you need to look ahead, lock onto something and evaluate it, anticipate when it will be where you need it, and have the camera ready to take the picture. Again, lots of pre-planning.
Since we're in the height of vacation time at the moment, let's carry this lesson a bit further. How many of you actually plan the photos you'll take on vacation? Yeah, I thought so. Did you even ask your significant other (or whoever else is coming along) what photos they'd like to have when they get back? There's a difference between showing the actual places you were (especially if they're cliche) and the sense of the places you visited. Which are you going to try to do? You can't actually do the latter unless you start pre-planning now.
Some people think that I just go on safari in Africa, sit in a vehicle, and spontaneously photograph whatever appears alongside. I probably spend far more time prior to the trip trying to understand what is likely to be happening on the ground, and building my mind's eye in anticipation of that. What's the foliage like this time of year? When's the full moon? What are the animals likely to be doing, and where in the area would they likely be doing it? Have there been any unusual reports of activity lately? What animal young are present?
The last time I went to South Africa, for example, even before I hit the ground I'd decided I wanted to try to photograph the Baby Big Five (the Big Five are leopard, lion, elephant, rhino, and cape buffalo, and "baby" means just born to one year old in my mind). I'd decided that based upon some reports from the guide I use. But even just deciding that wasn't enough pre-planning. How do you shoot baby rhino? Heck, how big are they? As it turns out, they're smaller than I thought and you need to be really low to the ground to capture them the way I like, eye-to-eye. But I knew that going in, so could plan my shots.
Bottom line on assignments: think ahead. Plan. Anticipate. Get your mind ahead of the photographic reality on the ground.