I’ve had great photography mentors. Took excellent online photography classes. Read thousands of tutorials. But the one thing that truly accelerated my photography skills? Taking pictures. Nothing quite taught me how to work in difficult lighting, how to come up with creative compositions or how to solve common issues like actually getting out there and shooting. But there’s only so much inspiration you can find walking around in your backyard, right? Practice strengthens photography skills, but practicing the same thing over and over again only strengthens that particular skill. If you want to improve your photography, you need to challenge your skill set. If improving your photography is on your list of goals this year, try these 52 photo challenges — one for each week of the year — from subjects to techniques.
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1. Low angles.
Most people shoot from eye-level. An instant way to mix up your composition is to shrink down from your maximum height. Sit. Kneel. Lay on your belly in the dirt. Experiment with getting down low and see how the unusual composition changes your images. Even small objects, when shot from below, look towering.
2. High Angles.
What would the world look like if you were nine feet tall? Get out a step stool or a ladder and head out and shoot from a giant’s perspective. Or, find ways to climb to a higher vantage point. Look for balconies or staircases, heck, you can even climb up in a tree. When you shoot from a taller perspective, everything tends to look smaller — that’s why selfie-snappers take shots with their arms above their head.
3. The Rule of Thirds.
The Rule of Thirds is probably one of photography’s most well known rules (Been there, done that? Look up the Golden Ratio and try that instead). If your frame is divided into three sections both horizontally and vertically, placing the subject on one of those intersecting lines tends to create a bigger impact. Most importantly, the Rule of Thirds gets you thinking about the subject and where it is in the frame, instead of automatically just centering and snapping away.
4. Find your center.
Now that centering a photo is no longer automatic, look for shots that look better with a centered composition. Yes, the Rule of Thirds suggests placing the subject off-center is best, and that works most of the time. But artistic rules are made for breaking. Centering the subject tends to emphasize pattern and symmetry. Or, go for the extreme rule-break and experiment with placing your subject on one of the extreme edges of the frame. Go ahead, get a little rebellious.
5. Look for lines.
Lines are amazing compositional tools — whether that’s an actual line like the paint on the road or an inferred line, like the actual road itself. Wherever the line is heading, the eye follows. Head out and look for shots with lines. A set of stairs. A road leading into the distance. The lines on the crosswalk. A fence. A row of trees. A dock jutting into the lake. Look for horizontal lines, then look for verticals and diagonals. Experiment with composition to find the best way to emphasize that line — or lines.
6. Vanishing points.
Find that line from last week. What happens when you stand in the middle of that line and stare straight down it? Try it with a sidewalk. The sidewalk appears to get smaller as it heads into the distance, right? That’s called the vanishing point. As objects get farther away, they appear to get smaller, but since our brains know that the sidewalk is the same width, our brains automatically detect distance. Adding a vanish point, a line or object that recedes into the distance, gives a photograph more depth. Sure, that photo is still 2D, but those lines fading into the distance gives our brains visual cues and that makes the image appear almost 3D.
Now, think beyond the line. Shapes in general can be powerful compositional tools. Take a walk with your camera and instead of looking at the entire scene, focus on the shapes that each object makes — then use that to inspire your composition. Amplify the shape of a coffee mug by shooting directly down on that drink, highlighting the curves of the rim. Watch how the shape of a car changes when you shoot parallel to the doors, then watch the entire shape change as you instead shoot parallel with the headlights.
Shapes, like lines, are pretty incredible tools in photography. But what’s even more incredible? A pattern. Look for patterns in a scene (or make them yourself) and use those patterns to drive your composition. Three kids on a swing. A perfectly symmetrical line of trees at the park. Want to be even more daring? Break that pattern. Shoot (a photo) of those three kids on a swing but include the fourth empty swing. Shoot that line of trees where the line ends or where a single tree was cut down from that pattern.
Numbers have power. Three is a strong number in photography because there’s a beginning, middle and end. Head out and look for groups of three, then use that number to inspire your composition.
With digital cameras in our pockets, we tend to take color for granted. Head out on another photo walk but instead of choosing your subject based on what interests you, look only at color. Find contrasting colors, like red and green, and pair them together in the same frame. Or, work with similar colors and frame several shades of blue all in the same image.
11. Black and white.
Removing the color from an image forces the viewer to look instead at shape and light. Turn your camera on black and white mode so that you can see how the image would look in black and white as you shoot, then look for images that are more powerful without color then with it. Scenes with high contrast, like shooting in the crappy light in the middle of a sunny day, tend to make good black and white shots.
Color creates contrast, but so does light. Look for shots that contain both bright areas and shadows. Experiment with capturing an image with both brights and darks in the same frame.
To really take creative control of your photography, learn how to use light and camera settings to make a scene look different in a photo than it does to your eyes. A silhouette is an excellent starting point. Head out late in the day or early in the morning when the sun is close to the horizon and shoot with the sun directly behind your subject. Use your camera’s settings (like manual mode or exposure compensation) to turn that subject into only a black silhouette.
14. Side Lighting.
Side lighting helps give subjects depth. Head out again with the sun low in the sky, but this time, shoot with the sun to one side and watch the magic happen.
Flash can be downright terrifying for new photographers, often because when done wrong (as it usually is) the flash is obvious in the photograph. Dig out your camera or hot shoe flash manual and learn how to turn the intensity of that flash down. Head out and practice — both during the day and at night — and see how you can balance the flash by manually adjusting the flash.
16. Window light.
You don’t have to have fancy studio equipment — a window is a perfectly beautiful light source. Try shooting a subject with only window light. Try moving the subject at different angles to the window, then try moving your position to see how changing the angle of the window light affects the look of the image.
Getting up close to tiny subjects opens up an entirely new world. Head out and practice macro photography and shoot tiny subjects this week — even if you never leave your backyard.
Do you have to know what the subject is in order for it to be a great photo? Not necessarily. Try capturing an abstract photo this week — getting in close is one method and creating a pattern with different objects is another.
19. Long exposure.
Blurring the motion with a long shutter speed is an incredibly powerful photography tool. Grab a tripod, head out at dusk (or grab neutral density filters if you have them) and find some motion. Use shutter priority mode and watch how different shutter speeds change the intensity of that blur.
Now that you’ve blurred the motion, can you freeze it? Shoot an active subject and practice your timing, focus settings and shutter speed to freeze time without blur.
Wait, is it really necessary to eliminate all blur when shooting action? Nope! Try panning. Use a slower shutter speed than you would to freeze the action, then move the camera with the motion. The subject will stay sharp, while the background will blur. Panning takes quite a bit of practice to get right, so head somewhere where there’s plenty of predictable action, like a race track or popular bike trail.
22. Zoom burst.
Take the concept of panning and apply it to a stationary subject. Instead of moving your camera while the shutter is open, zoom while the shutter is open for a cool starburst effect. (A tripod helps).
23. Time lapse.
Time lapses, like long exposures, capture motion, but instead of doing it in a single frame, time lapses put several images together into a movie. Check your camera for a time lapse mode — many new cameras have one — and choose a subject with gradual motion or change. Set up on a tripod, choose how often the camera should take a picture and have fun!
Cameras can only capture a certain range of light in a single frame. For high contrast scenes, taking several pictures and merging them together results in more detail. Choose a scene with very bright areas and very dark areas. Then, take at least three pictures — one properly exposed, one exposing for the lighter areas, and one exposing for the darker areas. Then, merge those photos in a photo editor such as Photoshop.
25. Narrow depth of field.
Using a narrow depth of field means that very little of your photograph is actually in focus. Use the widest aperture you have available inside aperture priority mode and head out to shoot a soft, defocused background. Putting more distance between the subject and the background and moving in closer to the subject also helps.
26. Wide depth of field.
A wide depth of field, on the other hand, keeps all those details sharply intact. Still using aperture priority mode, use a narrower aperture. Try for f/11 or narrower — which means you’ll likely have to shoot when there’s plenty of light, or bring a tripod along.
27. Bulb mode.
In bulb mode, the camera doesn’t stop recording the picture until you press the shutter release a second time. This is a good mode for photographing fireworks, and if you live in the U.S. this week also happens to be Independence Day.
Portraits are often tough for beginners to tackle — now’s the time to practice. Use aperture priority mode with a wide aperture and focus on the subject’s eyes. Try to make them feel comfortable and try different poses to see how the feel of the image changes.
Four-legged friends are often hard to capture — at least the active ones anyways! Use shutter priority mode with a fast shutter speed to photograph a game of catch. Or, when your pet is a bit sleepy, experiment with different compositions and lighting effects, especially if you can get that nap to happen somewhere near a window.
30. Street photography.
The sights of the streets make great photographs. Since you can’t adjust your subjects, look for neat lighting and interesting subjects. Street photography is a great place to experiment with composition as well.
31. Still life.
Shooting still subjects offers excellent practice for staging and setting up a shot to get it just right. Grab a few objects around the house, find a simple background and start shooting. Experiment with different lights sources and angles — and don’t forget to try out different angles of composition too.
This still life category is worth a challenge all its own. Make your favorite dish, get out your best dishes and set up by a window. Try using a reflector, or a white piece of poster board, to bounce some of that window light back on the food to fill in those shadows.
Wild animals can be challenging to shoot — but are often well worth the effort. Put on your longest lens and take a quiet walk in a nature park, set up a cozy spot in the woods or sit out by a bird feeder. Patience pays off here — and high shutter speeds too.
Stunning views make stunning photographs. Scout out a scenic location and plan the best time of day to shoot. Just after sunrise and just before sunset offers beautiful soft light, but mid-day creates the strongest reflections. If you have a polarizing filter or graduated neutral density filter, be sure to bring it along.
The horizon in that landscape? It’s another line to use to strengthen your composition. Head back out for a few landscapes, but this time, experiment with placing the horizon on different portions of the composition — ideally, using the Rule of Thirds.
36. Golden Hour and Blue Hour.
Photographs change drastically with the quality of the light. Golden hour, about an hour before the sun sets, is a favorite among photographers because of the soft light and subtle orange glow. Blue hour is just after sunset, when the landscape has a blue hue before darkness completely sets in. Pick one — or try them both — but make sure to bring a tripod for blue hour.
37. Night sky.
The night sky makes some incredible images — but it’s also incredibly tough to do. Pick a night free of clouds and head to an area with little light pollution. Set up a tripod and start experimenting! Reading up on star trails and how to photograph the moon will help too.
The buildings around us can be an artistic statement in themselves — why not capture that in a photo? Head to a building you admire and start shooting. To keep the walls looking straight, shoot from about waist level. To make the building look tall and intimidating, shoot from a low angle.
39. Challenge the familiar.
In a creative rut? Head out to a place that’s incredibly familiar to you (or don’t even head out at all and shoot in your own home) and brainstorm new ways to shoot the familiar scene. Often, we can’t see the beauty in places we see every day until we look for it — and the camera is an excellent way to do just that.
40. Wide angle.
This week, head out with your widest lens. Wide angles capture more of the scene — how can you use that to your advantage?
This week, head out with your longest lens — and only your longest lens — and experiment with the composition of telephoto lenses.
Sometimes, the beauty of a scene is wider than even your lenses can capture. This week, head out and try a panorama. Use your camera’s built-in panorama mode, or shoot and stitch manually.
43. Fixed lens.
How does having only one focal length change your photography? It could inspire you to zoom with your feet and find creative angles, or even help you frame subjects a bit differently. If you have a fixed focus lens, use it, if not shoot with your zoom lens stuck in one position.
44. Pretend film.
Digital cameras are great because you can see your shots right away and you can shoot until your card fills up — but sometimes that limits your creative thinking. Close your LCD screen, turn it off or block it off, then set out and start shooting. But, pretend your are really shooting film — limit yourself to only 24 shots, the entire shoot. Silly? Maybe, but limiting your shot helps you put more thought into each one.
45. High key.
Shots with a similar range of color — or lack thereof — can be incredible powerful. This week, try high key, or a bright shot with lots of whites.
46. Low key.
Intentional underexposure can actually be pretty neat. This week, shoot a low key photo, or a dark shot with dark subjects.
You don’t need Photoshop to see double — play around with reflections. Use a mirror or a body of water — even a small puddle — and see what creative shots you can get with a reflection. If you have a polarizing filter, be sure to use it.
48. Photo story.
Some subjects need more than a single image. This week, shoot a photo story — a series of shots centered on the same subject. Find a similar theme and use a similar style throughout.
Out-of-focus backgrounds are great, but add some bokeh and they’re stunning. Christmas lights, city lights — any light source that is out of focus will become a nice soft halo in the background. Head out and make some bokeh!
Looking for good backgrounds is important, but many beginners don’t even realize there’s such a thing as a foreground. Head out and shoot and put something out of focus in front of your subject, like greenery or other elements from the scene. Foregrounds can be great for leading the eye and adding extra details about the environment.
51. Find frames.
Frames aren’t just for hanging pictures. Use a frame within your photo to draw attention to your subject. You don’t have to use an actual frame — look for elements in your surroundings that can be used to frame a subject like a door, a window or even shooting through the leaves of some trees.
What’s your least favorite photo from all these photo challenges? Identify what you hate about it, then go back and try it again.
Congratulations — you did it! The more you photograph, the more you learn — but there’s never really a point where you know everything there is to know about photography — so keep on shooting.