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8 Ways to Unleash the Creative Photographer Inside You

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New Year's Eve has been and gone and we're already well into 2010. Did you make any New Year's resolutions? If you're like me, they've already been forgotten. But a New Year is a great reason for undertaking a new photography project. It's an opportunity to learn new skills and challenge yourself, and at the end of the year you can look back on what you've achieved with a sense of satisfaction.

One of my photographic goals this year is to go to a new country and photograph the people there. I'm already making plans for a trip to Romania in the summer and I'm looking forward to it. But sometimes the hardest thing about setting yourself a new challenge is coming up with the challenge itself. Here are eight ideas to get you going.

1. Read a Photography Book

Read some photography books to learn new skills or build up inspiration. Your local library and bookshops (not to mention Amazon) should have a good selection of technique and portfolio books. Books like these are a rich source of technical information and creative photography ideas. The photography book industry is booming and there is no shortage of quality material waiting to be read.

Don't fall into the trap of reading too many books. It's better to read one great book and then go and put into practice what you've learnt than read a dozen books and do nothing with the information.

This is my first idea: Find a photography book that inspires you, read it and go and put what you've learnt into practice. Here are my favourite photography books that I've read over the last year or so:

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    Within the Frame by David duChemin

    David's theme of 'Gear is good, vision is better' is repeated throughout this book. He emphasises developing your creative vision and technical expertise ahead of buying new gear. The book deals mostly with travel photography, his field of expertise, but the advice is applicable to any genre of photography.

    See the book's Amazon page

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    The Hot Shoe Diaries by Joe McNally

    If you want to learn how to use portable flash (called strobes in the United States) this is the book for you. Joe distils 30 years of professional photographic experience into a series of lessons that show you how to do amazing things with portable flashes.

    Visit the book's Amazon page

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    Black and White Photography in the Digital Age by Tony Worobiec and Ray Spence

    Two darkroom masters show you how to process your black and white digital photos in Photoshop. The book covers the basics plus more advanced techniques like toning and composites.

    Visit the book's Amazon page

2. Use a New Lens

Buy (or borrow) a new lens - then use it. Using a new lens is always exciting, it's like having a new toy. I like exploring the creative possibilities of new equipment. I'm a big fan of prime lenses, and I've taken a lot of photos over the last year with a 50mm f1.8 lens (Canon, Nikon). I've enjoyed using it at f1.8 and exploiting the narrow depth-of-field for creative effect. Other lenses that may open up new creative possibilities are extreme wide angles or lens babies.

A new lens doesn't have to be expensive. 50mm prime lenses are cheap, especially second hand. Depending on your camera system you may even be able to buy an adapter to fit old manual focus lenses onto your camera body. Some old lenses can be picked really cheaply on eBay.

This portrait was taken with a 50mm lens set to f1.8. The wide aperture gives an extremely narrow depth of field:

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3. Take a Photo Holiday

Go somewhere photogenic and dedicate the trip to taking photos. Even if it's just for the weekend - the important thing is to dedicate it to photography. Travel broadens the mind, but you don't have to go somewhere exotic. You can go somewhere new in your own country. But it should be somewhere that's visually exciting and full of creative potential. By putting photography first, you will be energised to spend all your time thinking about the photos that you want to take and making sure you're in the best locations at the right time to take advantage of the light.

I dedicated a trip to Venice last year to taking photos and didn't regret it. Here's a photo taken at night from a bridge. A slow shutter speed blurred the water and turned the lights from passing boats into light trails:

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4. Be More Critical

Look at your work through fresh eyes. What's good about it? How can you improve? Try editing your work ruthlessly, and coming up with your ten best photos. What do they say about your creative vision and your direction?

Imagine that you're looking at your work through the eyes of a magazine editor or art director. What would they say about your photography? The point of the exercise isn't to be too critical - but to have a look at your body of work so you can get a clear idea of your strengths and what skills you'd like to develop.

Once you've selected your best photos why not send them into a photography magazine to see if they will publish them? Seeing your photos in print is a fantastic feeling. Photography magazines need readers' photos every month to fill their gallery sections. If your photos are good enough there's no reason why that can't be you.

I did exactly that and had this photo published in Practical Photography magazine:

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5. Set a Photographic Project

Set a project, something you can come back to again and again through the year - like a photo essay or self-publishing a photo book through Blurb. A long term project gives you time to think up creative ideas and put them into practice. You'll need to get a good variety of shots for the project to work and this will push your creativity and skills.

If you fancy something really difficult, why not take on the '365 Challenge'? That is where you take a photo a day for an entire year. This is really tough as you have to think up a new idea every day.

You never know where this could lead. Lauren Randolph took 365 self-portraits and it was noticed by Photo Pro magazine who have just published a portfolio of her photos. She's now planning a career as a professional photographer.

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6. Try a New Genre

We all have a comfort zone of subjects that we like to photograph and techniques that we are familiar with. You can learn a lot by trying a new genre. Perhaps there's something that you've wanted to try for a while but haven't had the opportunity. Now's the time to think about it while you're planning what you're going to do for the year.

Maybe you've never taken photos of a model before. Give it a go and see what happens. There are plenty of websites where models and photographers can find each other (I like Model Mayhem). The whole experience of finding a model, planning the shoot and taking the photos will be incredibly educational.

Here are some genres you may not have thought of trying before: macro photography, action, seascapes, still lifes, night photography, fashion, black and white.

Shooting a new genre will teach you new skills. For example, if you've never used external flash before, visit a website like Strobist (or read Joe McNally's book) and practice what you learn. Portable flash was new for me last year - this is one of the photos that I took learning how to use it:

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7. Build a Photoblog or a Website

What do you do with your photos after you've taken them? If you've ever wanted your own photoblog or website, why not take the opportunity to learn how to build your own? It's not so difficult, anyone with an aptitude for computers can learn how to do it.

You could tie this project in with idea number four - being more critical of your work. Organise your best photos into portfolios for a website or photoblog, and then put them online. There are plenty of tutorials on the web that teach you how to build a website, including our own article The Beginner's Guide to Creating a Photoblog.

These are some of my favourite photoblogs. Use them for inspiration:

Exposed Planet - photos from around the world by adventurer and entrepreneur Harry Kikstra.

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From 10 to 300mm - some amazing landscape photography.

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Filling the Frame - Street and documentary photography from Argentina.

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Dawn Le Blanc - Beautiful photos of flowers.

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8. Make the Most of the Light

The best light for photography, especially landscapes and seascapes, is in the golden hour just after sunrise and just before sunset. Make sure you're taking advantage of the photogenic light at these times - or at least in the evenings if, like me, you're not a morning person.

You can extend this principle to all areas of photography. Develop the discipline to make the most out of the light. This takes some effort to make sure that you're in position when the light is at its best for your subject. A good example is portraiture. Taking portraits in the soft light of an overcast day or in the shade is a good idea. This type of light is very flattering. But once you've done this, why not try different types of light? Portraits can also look great in backlighting, especially when the sun is low in the sky. Find a spectacular location and put yourself there when the sun is rising or setting. Whatever you like to shoot, look for the best light.

This photo was taken at sunset. The light is always beautiful after a long sunny day at this time of the evening by the sea.

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