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Chicago, 2013

 

If you’re like me– you deal with moments of “uninspiration”. There are days that you want to go out and shoot, but there is some sort of “resistance” which holds you back.

What is a good way to become re-inspired?

Well– I think photography assignments are a great way to get back on-track. They are also a good way to build up your confidence as a street photographer, work out your “eye muscles”, and to have some direction to your work.

Here are some suggestions for photography assignments:

1. The “5 Yes, 5 No” Assignment

This is one of the most popular assignments that I give in my introductory workshops to conquer your fear of shooting street photography.

The assignment goes like this: You approach a bunch of strangers on the streets and ask permission to take a portrait of them. You try to get 5 people to say “yes”, and also 5 people to say “no.”

What is the purpose of this assignment?

Essentially I think one of the best ways to overcome your fear of shooting street photography is to start off by asking for permission.

Why?

I know a lot of people who are afraid of upsetting other people if they photograph them candidly and without permission.

However if you ask for permission, you give your subject the opportunity to say “no”– therefore if they do say “no”, you haven’t really upset or hurt anybody.

Furthermore, if you do this assignment it re-wires your psychology a bit. How so? Well, I think one of the biggest fears that we have in street photography isn’t getting rejected, but the fear of getting rejected. The fear of rejection is often the biggest barrier. This is what prevents us from starting our own companies, asking that person out on a date, or trying something new and risky (once again, the fear of failure – rather than the fear itself). But like a child, sometimes you need to fall a few times in order to realize that falling itself isn’t that big of a deal.

In addition, this assignment will try to force you to get rejected. What do I mean by that?

Well, let’s say you do this assignment and you get 5 people to say “yes.” Good job! But you’re still failing your assignment– you need 5 people to also say “no.”

Therefore, you start going out looking for the 5 scariest mofo’s out there (or people who look angry, upset, or who you think would say “no”) and ask them for permission.

You will get a lot of “no’s” – but perhaps fewer “no’s” than you expect. In-fact, sometimes the people you expect to say “no” actually end up saying “yes”.

I have done this assignment myself and sometimes the scariest looking people are actually the friendliest. And vice-versa, sometimes the friendliest looking people are actually the biggest assholes.

2. The “10 no” assignment

This assignment is actually an off-shoot of the previous “5 yes, 5 no” assignment– but it really gets into the meat of the concept.

Pretty much you are going to do the same thing: ask people permission to take their portrait and you will try to purposefully get “10 no’s” as quickly as possible.

I actually think this is a better assignment than the “5 yes, 5 no” assignment because you will quickly jump into the deep-end of the pool, trying to get your “no’s” very quickly. And along the way– you will end up getting a bunch of “yes’s”.

Furthermore, when doing this assignment try to reword your phrasing to sound more creepy to purposefully get people to say “no.” Then based on how people react, then you can start changing your phrasing to get people to say “yes.”

3. “Clean background” assignment

One of the biggest mistakes I see a lot of street photographers make in their work is that their backgrounds tend to be too busy and too messy.

In art there is a concept called “figure-to-ground” (a fancy way to say “contrast”) in which you want to have your subject (figure) to be separated and have strong contrast with your background (ground).

So the assignment is this: try to shoot the entire day with having the simplest backgrounds as possible.

What is a “simple background”? Well a simple background can be just a plain-colored background (white, red, blue, etc). A simple background can also be the sky (if you crouch really low, and just photograph people against the sky).

You can achieve having simple backgrounds in your photographs by changing your position (moving to the left, right, crouching, or tippy-toeing) or by identifying a clean background, pre-framing your shot, and allowing your subject to step into your frame.

A big pro-tip: when you’re shooting, focus on the background (not your subject). Just stick your subject in the middle of the frame, and focus on the background and edges of your frame.

Why?

We generally tend to see in “tunnel-vision” in which we can only see around 20% of what is in the center of our vision. In-fact, that is how vision works– we can’t actually see the entirety of a scene, our brain just tends to fill in the gaps with our peripheral vision.

Therefore generally when we shoot street photography we do the following: we look for interesting subjects, stick them in the center of the frame, and then totally disregard (or don’t think about) the background. What ends up happening is that we have photographed an interesting subject, but the background is totally distracting (or doesn’t add to the image).

For good inspiration for photographers who have made an entire career of simple backgrounds, check out the work of Richard Avedon.

4. Subtract, subtract, subtract

This assignment is an off-shoot of the prior assignment: you want to create more minimalist photographs, to remove distractions from your frame.

Generally the idea is this: start off with a photographic scene you are interested in, and continue to subtract from the frame, until you (almost) have nothing left.

For example you see a guy drinking a cappuccino in a cafe and you want to take a street photo of him. The general photograph you might take is just a simple landscape (horizontal) shot of him, which might have clutter on the left and right of the frame.

You then subtract from the left and right of the frame by shooting a vertical (portrait) photograph.

Now you have a much simpler image: you have subtracted the clutter on the left and right of the frame.

Now you want to subtract more. But how?

You realize that you don’t need to include his legs in the frame. So you take a step closer, and you frame the scene horizontally. Now you only have a photograph of his waist to the top of his head.

Can you subtract more? You bet your ass you can.

What is really interesting about the scene? Well, the man has great texture in his hands, and the cappuccino has some nice latte-art inside of it, and has a nice shape. So you get even closer, and this time subtract everything else from the scene (except the coffee cup and the man’s hand). If your camera has a “macro” function– this works really well.

The point of the assignment is to try to figure out how much you can subtract from the scene and really capture the essence of the scene.

There is a lot of “noise” in photography (elements which don’t add to a scene). Rather, try to find the “signal” (the elements of the photograph which are truly interesting).

So when you’re shooting a street photograph, what do you really find interesting? Focus on the details.

Focus a close-up of the textures of an old woman’s face, focus on the weathered hands of a carpenter’s old hands, focus on the arm-gesture of a businessman slumped over his desk who looks depressed, focus on the “decisive moment” of a man jumping over a puddle (I know, cliche), or other details.

Generally this assignment involves getting closer to the action and your subjects.

As Robert Capa said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

By getting closer, you get more physically and emotionally intimate with your subjects, and you eliminate clutter.

5. Add, add, add

Haha now for this assignment, you will do the exact opposite of the previous assignment “subtract, subtract, subtract.”

So for this assignment when you are shooting a scene, every additional photograph you take, you will try to add another element (person, object, or compositional element).

This is a more “maximalist” approach in street photography– to create more complex images that have more layers, things going on– images that have more complexity. Generally this assignment should be more for intermediate/advanced street photographers, who have mastered the act of subtraction (assignment #4).

This is how street photographers like Alex Webb, Lee Friedlander, Joel Meyerowitz, and Jason Eskenazi work in their photography. They constantly add to the scene, and push their frames to the limit– to the point where chaos almost takes over, but there is still form and order.

When you’re doing this “add, add, add,” assignment– the key is to try to not have figures overlapping.

For example, if you’re going to photograph a scene, try to add negative-space in-between each subject. If you look at the work of Alex Webb, you can see that he generally doesn’t have people over-lapping in a scene, and there is some white-space in-between his subjects.

Furthermore if you look at the urban landscapes of Lee Friedlander, you can see how many compositional elements, lines, shapes, buildings, shadows, and forms he crams into his frame (without having them overlapping).

So for this assignment let’s say you see a guy smoking a cigarette on a street corner. Take that first photo of the guy smoking the cigarette.

Then wait a second, and see what you can add to the scene. Perhaps in the corner you see a kid playing with a ball, try to also include him in the frame.

What else can you add? Well, in the top-left corner you see a pigeon about to take flight. Wait a second, and maybe it will fly away? Then if you’re lucky, you catch the “decisive moment” of the pigeon flying away.

Now the pigeon is gone, what else can you add? You see some people in the sidewalk in front of you passing you. Try to get someone in the foreground to step into your frame, and try to get them out-of-focus in your frame (but still in your photograph).

You can continue to shoot this type of way until you try to fill-the-frame from corner-to-corner.

See how much you can add to your photograph before it falls apart. Push the limits.

6. “The 1-square block” assignment

A few years ago I was one of the curators (and participants) of the first “YOU ARE HERE” street photography assignment/show in Downtown LA at the ThinkTank Gallery. My buddies Jacob Patterson and Nima came up with a brilliant idea: they chose a square-block in the Fashion District in Downtown LA and you were only allowed to shoot that one square-block (both sides). For a month you were only allowed to photograph that one square-block, and they exhibited the best 3 photos from each photographer in that one square block.

At first it seemed like an impossible assignment. After all, how could you be creative in just one square block? There were so many other parts of the Fashion District that I wanted to photograph. I felt constrained to only shoot one square block.

But through the month (and perhaps walking around that block hundreds of times) I had a huge epiphany: constraints breed creativity.

By being committed to that one square block, it forced me to be creative. What could I do with the material and the people on the block to make interesting street photographs? It forced me to think “outside the box”– and for me to appreciate what material I had (rather than what I didn’t have).

Furthermore, I started to get to know that one square block really damn well. I got to also know the people who lived and worked on that street really well. Not only that, but the funny thing was this: every time I circled around the block, I discovered one small detail or thing that was new.

At the end of the day, all photographers ended up making 3 strong images each, and the show was a huge success.

So how can you apply this assignment to your own street photography?

Well, identify one square block in your own neighborhood or city (preferably near your home or work-place) and do a project on that one square-block. Do it for a month, and put together an edit of your 3 strongest images.

If you are really ambitious, perhaps you can even do it for a full year, and if you get 3 good photos every month, you can make an edit of 36 images for the entire year (a great size for a book).

This assignment will force you to be creative with the space and area that you have, and for you to get to know the area really really well. I think also as a photographer it is better to get to know one place really well (than constantly traveling and having a superficial understanding of many different places).

Not only that, but this assignment will teach you that the best photographs are in your own backyard, and don’t have to be far from home.

7. The “one camera, one lens” assignment

I don’t think this is so much of an “assignment” – rather it is more of a life (and photography) philosophy.

Once again, I think creativity best comes out through restrictions. Constraints are freedom.

As I have written in a past article about having “paralysis by analysis” in having too many cameras and lenses out there– I am trying to simplify the process.

So for this assignment you are only allowed to shoot with one camera and one lens for an entire year.

If you think that is too hardcore, start off smaller: do it for one week, or one month.

This is a great assignment to help you simplify your life as a photographer.

If you are reading this article, you are a part of the top 1% most affluent people in the world. We have enough disposable income to afford a camera, while millions around the world are dying of thirst, starvation, and lack of housing.

So we have a “first world problem” that we generally have too many cameras and lenses– that we face “choice anxiety.”

What is “choice anxiety”? It is the idea that we have too many options (let’s say cameras to shoot with) and we don’t know which camera is “optimal” to shoot with.

For example let’s say you own a DSLR (5D Mark III), a Fujifilm x100 camera, and a compact camera (Ricoh GR). They are all great for different circumstances: the DSLR is great for commercial work and uber-high ISO, the x100 is a good “all-around” camera, and the Ricoh GR is a great pocket camera.

But let’s say you have an entire weekend to go to the city to shoot. The dilemma arises: what camera do you bring with you?

You tell yourself, the trade-offs of each camera, each lens in your arsenal (in terms of weight, size, focal length), and each purpose each camera holds. You are so overwhelmed by the choices, you end up bringing them all.

And then of course, you have a heavy ass camera bag, end up shooting fewer photos (your shoulders hurt after walking with the heavy bag), and don’t enjoy your experience as much.

Even having 2 cameras with you on a shoot is a pain in the ass. You see an interesting scene, and you wonder (for a split second), what is the “ideal” camera to shoot the scene with? In that split second of thinking, you might end up missing “the decisive moment”.

Let’s also say you only have one camera, but you have 2–3 lenses in your bag. Then once again, you see an interesting street scene, but you hesitate for a half-second which lens to use. Perhaps the person is too far away for your 35mm, so you put on your 50mm. But while you are changing your lens, you lose capturing the scene. Or let’s say you have a 35mm on and suddenly you go into an alleyway which is really crowded, now you put on your 28mm. But you haven’t shot with your 28mm for a while, so you’re not sure how close you have to be to your subject to fill the frame (therefore the edges of your frame are really empty and sloppy).

So what are the ultimate benefits of shooting with “one camera, one lens”?

Well, by having fewer options in terms of what to shoot with– you have less stress. You know exactly what camera to shoot with everyday (because you only have one option).

Therefore if you own several cameras you can either lock them away (out of sight, out of mind), lend them to friends (extended loan), or simply sell them. Too many cameras and lenses are distractions.

Furthermore, by having one camera and one lens, you get to know the camera and focal length really well. Every different camera system has its pros and cons, and there is no “perfect” or “ideal” camera.

How do you know what that “perfect” camera is?

Well, there is no “perfect” camera– but I can guarantee you that there is a camera out there which fits about 80% of your street-photography needs. Ultimately that is a personal preference (what camera that is for you).

Generally for most street photographers, I think the Fujifilm x100T fits about 90%+ of your street photography needs. Small, compact, un-interchangeable 35mm lens, viewfinder, and unobtrusive. The Ricoh GR is also a great camera for about 80%+ of your needs (small, compact, always with you, doesn’t have viewfinder but isn’t really an issue). If you have the cash, also a digital Leica with a 35mm lens is an ideal setup. Or if you want to save money, you can always just shoot on your iPhone (or smartphone).

By choosing a camera which is “good enough” for our needs is called “satisficing”. A camera that fits 80%+ of your needs.

What a lot of us try to do with our cameras is try to find the “perfect” camera (that fits 100% of our needs). But that camera doesn’t exist. This is a “maximizing” approach (which leads to additional stress, frustration, and dissatisfaction).

So for a week, a month, or a year– just try to stick with one camera and one lens. Your compositions and framing will improve (you will get used to that one focal length really well), you will have less stress (you know what camera to shoot with all the time), and you will carry less weight with you.

In terms of a good focal length, I recommend 35mm for 95% of street photographers out there. If you prefer a 28mm or 50mm those are good options too though. But realize with a 28mm, you have to get really close to your subjects, and a 50mm might be too restrictive (especially if you live in a cramped city).

8. The “.7 meter” challenge (also called the “one-arm length” challenge)

I got this assignment from Satoki Nagata, a talented street photographer from Chicago (who in-turn, got it from his photography mentor).

The idea is this: for an entire day, week, month you are only allowed to shoot from .7 meters (minimum focusing distance for a Leica) which is around 1-arm length away.

What is the purpose of this assignment?

Well– if you have fear when it comes to shooting street photography, by getting super-close to your subjects, it will force you to build your confidence and become intimate with your subjects.

You might find that it is impossible to shoot from .7 meters without being noticed. So you can start off by asking for permission from your subjects.

What you can also do with this assignment (to ensure you don’t cheat) is pre-focus your lens to .7 meters (which is around 3 feet I believe) and tape your focusing ring there. If you have a lens without distance markings, just stick out your arm and touch a wall, then pre-focus on the wall, then tape your focusing ring shut.

Through this assignment, you will become much more comfortable shooting from a close distance. The problem I see a lot of street photographers have is this: they are afraid to get close to their subjects, and generally shoot too far away from their subjects.

9. The “1,000 photo challenge”

Another problem I see a lot of street photographers make is that when they see an interesting street photography scene, they only take one photograph. The problem is that a lot of us street photographers have this “myth of the decisive moment” stuck in our head– in which we think that the master street photographers (like Cartier-Bresson) only shot 1 photograph of a scene, and somehow “got it.”

But in reality, the best street photographers often take a lot of photos of a single scene.

If you look at the contact sheets of master street photographers, you can see they often “work the scene” when they see an interesting scene. You can see this by picking up “Magnum Contact Sheets”, or also by looking at Robert Frank’s contact sheets from “The Americans” from the book: “The Americans, Looking In”.

If you also get too nervous and hesitate a lot when you’re on the street (for example, you see an interesting scene, you want to shoot it, but you are nervous, and you end up not clicking because you over-analyze it) this assignment is going to be good for you.

So the assignment is this: in a single day you have to take at least 1,000 photos.

Now I’m not saying that as a photographer you always need to take 1,000 photos everyday. But if you find yourself hesitant to shoot in the streets (because you are nervous or too self-critical), if you only take 1–2 photos of a scene, and want to learn how to “work the scene” – this assignment will help you loosen up and grease your “trigger finger”.

10. “Extreme Depth” Challenge

For this assignment you are trying to create “extreme depth” – in the sense that you want to shoot a street photograph with the following: a subject really close to you in the foreground, someone in the middle-ground, and someone far away in the background.

You can do this assignment by doing the following: pre-focus your lens to 5–10 meters, find someone who isn’t moving around much in the middleground and background, and try to add an out-of-focus face in your extreme foreground.

This will help you create more depth in your photographs and more complexity.

11. “Don’t move” assignment

This is similar to the “one square block” challenge– but even more restrictive.

I got this idea from Joel Meyerowitz in which he said that he used to run around the streets all day, looking for “decisive moments” – but discovered that it was kind of a waste of time (and of energy).

So he started to do something different: he would just find interesting and busy street corners (in which people are walking towards him in all 4-directions) and just keep his feet planted and photograph that one street corner.

The benefit of this assignment is that when you are just standing still in one corner, people begin to ignore you. You become invisible. Not only that, but people are walking into your territory– your space. You own that street corner (as a street photographer).

Preferably you want to do this assignment for about 30-minutes to an hour. I also recommend doing this during “golden hour” (either sunrise or sunset when the light is very good and you have nice long shadows). Expose for the highlights (so your shadows are nice and black/dark).

This assignment will also teach you patience– and make you realize that you can let your subjects come to you, rather than always trying to chase down your subjects.

12. The “one roll a day” challenge

This is a good assignment for those of you guys who shoot film.

I think that one of the most difficult things as a photographer is to stay inspired and motivated.

I know some guys (including myself) who will take an entire month to even shoot a roll of film.

So if you want to stay inspired with your film photography, try shooting an entire roll of film (36 images) everyday for an entire month (30 days). Then at the end of the month, edit those images down to your 5 favorite images.

By having an assignment of having to shoot an entire roll a day, it will force you to go out and shot, and find things that are interesting. Don’t get me wrong– there are days you will definitely feel like not shooting.

This is similar to people who are writers– I don’t feel like writing everyday, but I try to make it a habit and force myself to do so. Today it is raining in Berkeley and I woke up feeling groggy and not in the mood to write. But I am trying to get in the habit of writing everyday, so I drove to the local cafe (Artis), had a double-shot of espresso, and wrote this little mini-book of assignments.

Similar to going to the gym and exercising: it is ideal to set a schedule to go to the gym everyday. Getting into the habit is a pain in the ass and difficult (we are so busy, we are tired, we don’t feel like it), but at the end of each workout, we are glad that we went.

So try to shoot a roll of film a day, and at the end of the month, you will be glad that you did.

If you shoot with a digital camera, perhaps you can also try to shoot 36 photos a day everyday.

13. Photograph gestures

This might be less of an assignment (a general good way to shoot street photography) – it is to capture emotions.

But how can you capture emotions in street photography?

Simple: start off by capturing gestures.

What is a gesture? It can be facial gestures: someone smiling, someone frowning, someone making a funny face.

It can be a hand-gesture (someone slumped over a table with his/her arm covering their face, someone pointing, someone with their hands on their knees, etc).

People often show emotions most through their body language and gestures.

So for an entire day try to only photograph gestures. Don’t photograph people just walking with their hands and stiff and by their sides.

And moving forward in your street photography– continue to try to photograph gestures and emotions. This is one of the key things that makes a great street photograph.

14. Photograph the rainbow

If you are interested in color street photography, this is a simple assignment you can do:

For an entire day, week, month, or a year try to photograph the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and pink. Make an ultimate selection of your 7 favorite photos (1 photograph per single color).

This is a bit of a simplistic exercise– but also quite fun. It will force you to challenge to purposefully look for colors. And it is like a little treasure hunt– and your eyes will become much more perceptive to colors.

15. Photograph triangles

I think one of my favorite compositional techniques is photographing triangles.

Generally photographs work best with odd-numbers of subjects to create balance and harmony in the frame (1, 3, 5, 7, etc). Having two subjects in a frame can also work as a strong juxtaposition (having a photograph of a fat person next to a skinny person, a young person next to an old person) or two people who look exactly identical.

But with triangles, try to get a person or element in each corner of the frame.

You can start off by having a subject in the bottom-left of a frame, then a subject in the bottom-right of a frame, and then trying to add a subject in the top of the frame.

For great examples of triangular compositions in street photography, see the work of Josef Koudelka (especially in his “Gypsies” project).

More photography assignments

If you are interested in more ideas for photography assignments, you can also read my article: “40 Street Photography Resolutions Ideas for 2014”.

In addition, I recommend picking up the book: “The Photographer’s Playbook: 307 Assignments and Ideas” for more inspiration.

What are some other photography assignments you have learned either from classes, workshops, or from friends which you have found useful? Share your ideas in the comments below!

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