Time required: 1–5 weeks
Difficulty level, on a scale of 1–5: 5
...Forgive me for this one. In the early part of my life I wanted to be a teacher, and I'm still a frustrated one at heart. I know a lot of you are more experienced photographers than I am, and might not think you need workshop-type exercises to hone your chops. I'm certain I could learn a thing or two about shooting from large swaths of my readership, just as I learn from your comments every day.
Then again, it's a fact that teaching can still be effective even when the students are more talented than the teacher. It's still the student carrying out the exercise and bringing his or her own talent and intelligence to bear on the assignment.
I've been feeling an interest lately in coming up with some practice exercises to help people see more effectively and understand their own work better. Not necessarily technical exercises, not necessarily about camera handling or settings, not necessarily problem-solving (much of the intellectual interest of professional and commercial photography, I'm convinced, resides not in visual thinking but in problem-solving). Some of these might even be things you could do without a camera.
I'm going to give one a try, and then maybe a few more at some point. There are some didactic difficulties with some of the ones I have in mind—for instance, if I create a visual exercise and then give an example or two of it, then people might tend to think that performing the exercise is related to mimicking my examples, even though my examples might not be very good. But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
The power of two project
So here's the first exercise. (It's pretty involved—some of the later exercises will be simpler.)
1. Find another photographer to work with.
2. Do this with a digital camera, even if you usually shoot film. Each of you shoot between 500 and 1,000 exposures on an identifiable theme of your choosing. Red, bushes, motion, lonliness, fire, skin, a certain place—doesn't matter what you choose, just something that provides a loose framework (but try not to be too rigid and limited—it needs to be something that can hold your interest over 500 to 1,000 shots) [UPDATE: See Ken's modification, below. —MJ]. It should all be new shooting, done over a shortish period of time, from a single day to perhaps no longer than a couple of weekends. This is an exercise, so don't sweat the shooting too much; just get the shots in the can.
Don't verbalize to your photo-friend what you had in mind. Don't review your own work yourself, past whatever occasional chimping you do as a part of your regular shooting habits.
3. Trade cards. You're each going to edit the other's work.
The first challenge will be for each of you to get a handle on what the other person is up to. What's the commonality in the shooting? Where's the consonance between the better pictures in the set? What the other person up to, or after?
Right there, you might find some surprises. Your shooting has to communicate what it is about, on its own, to the other person. It could well be interesting to see whether you manage to pull it off. And, if you don't, what the other person sees instead!
4. Each of you make a "first pass" edit on the other's work and come down to about 1/10th of the amount of the original shooting.
5. Share your first pass edit with the other photographer, and get the other person's opinion of his or her own work. Don't show the 90% you've rejected, just what you selected.
But when you take the other person's work back for your second pass edit, you're still in charge—you're the editor. You can be influenced by your friend's opinion of his or her own work, but the final decision is up to you, and you should still do with their work what you think is best.
6. Do a second-pass edit on the other person's work and cut the number in half. At this point, you have between 25 and 50 pictures in the selects, and you have, of course, two sets between you.
7. Duplicate the sets so that you each have both sets on your computers.
8. Each of you then edits from that second pass down to a final edit of between five and twenty pictures, in whichever way seems to make the strongest, most cohesive, and most coherent set. You each do this on both sets—both on your own work and on the other person's.
9. Hold two separate discussions in which you look at each pair of edits in turn. Talk about what each person came up with. Do this first with one person's work, then the other. Discuss it; argue it, if need be. Each of you can make your case as to why you made the final selections you did.
You can bring other people in at their stage to field their opinions as well.
10. Finally, the original photographer specifies his or her ideal final set, again working just from the chosen pictures, not going back to include previous rejects. You can pull from each person's final set. It might be the edit you already chose, or you might choose to go with your friend's edit, or you might combine the two in some way—use your edit but go with two or three pictures the other person liked, or use mostly the other person's edit but preserve a few of your own favorites.
The whole process could take 1–5 weeks to complete. Err on the short side.
I'm not going to try to tell you what you should get out of this exercise. The point is to learn about your own work from having someone else make the decisions about it, and to gain some experience editing work that you're not personally ego-involved in, at least not directly.
The first time through, though, I'd recommend not working too hard at it. Do this all reasonably quickly. Be careful and thoughtful, sure, but this is the sort of thing you'll get better at with repetition, not by being super-careful and overthinking when you do it the first time.
If you're lucky enough that you both get something out of the exercise, try it again. Or, if you enjoyed it but didn't think you worked particularly well with the friend you originally chose, try it with a different friend.
• • •
I have at least two more exercises in mind, but I have to shoot some examples for them. No promises, but I'll keep this line of inquiry in mind.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Kenneth Tanaka (partial comment): "Good exercise in trying to communicate with a lens. May I suggest that participants select non-objective subjects? Selecting 'Red,' for example, will be pretty...well. Selecting 'Isolation' would be a much better challenge for an andragogical exercise."
Mike replies: Good modification. So adopted.
RobinP: "Between 500 and 1,000 exposures—what!? Some of us just don't work that way. I 've had my latest camera just over three months and in 'heavy use' it has less than 1,000 exposures. Must be the legacy of considering the cost of every exposure with film, but if I don't get the shot I want within three exposures then I move on. The excercise you describe would probably occupy me for maybe 50 exposures max.
"I'd rather do the 'editing' while out with the camera than be faced with too much choice when back home looking at the PC screen."
Mike replies: Of course I'm not really the teacher, so any two friends who actually did this could modify the rules to suit.
But if I were the teacher, I'd assign you to go out and shoot 500 exposures in a day at least a couple of times. It's not that hard, and you'd learn something from the experience—even if you go right back to your usual way of working. Which you probably will.
Nick Cutler: "I really like the sound of this, but have one rather terminal problem: I don't know any other people interested in photography! I think that's the main reason for being interested in this project: I don't have a clue if any of my pictures are any good, or what I'm supposed to be doing in Lightroom, or anything, really. So is there anyone else in t'same boat so to speak, who might like to collaborate? Ideally in the UK perhaps?"
Mike replies: So you, like RobinP, have actually already found an avenue to learn something important from this exercise—in your case, it's that you need to find a few photo-friends. I'd make it a high priority if I were you. It's a big part of the attraction of this hobby, and a big part of the fun of it, too. Go forth and seek! You'll be glad you did.
John Krumm (partial comment): "I take it by edit you mean selecting?"
Mike replies: Yes.