You don't have to have your camera in hand to look at the world in a different way. (Photo: Robert Bejil [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
The camera is the tool with which you capture your vision of the world, but it's your vision of the world that makes your photographs something special. So, practicing photography without your camera is just as important as practicing with it. This way, you're exercising your skills at spotting photographs in the first place, and without the added pressure of capturing the scene, you're free to let your imagination hit full speed. Here are eight ways to improve your photography without your camera.
Compose images in mundane places
Photo: Matt MacGillivray/Flickr
This might be difficult to practice not because the strategy itself is hard, but because remembering that even this moment is potentially photographable can be tough. We're talking really boring moments, when picking up a camera would be the last thing on your mind.
For example, when you're in line at the DMV, notice facial expressions from dull to exasperated, the push and pull for personal space in a confined area, the lifeless interior design of the office itself, people testing for licenses and other interactions that could make this unfortunate chore interesting in a photograph.
Other possible places include bus stops, repair shops, parking lots, grocery stores, waiting rooms, bathrooms, trains, airports ... anywhere that life seems to be stalled in the in-between moments dividing one event and the next. Make it photographable by thinking about where you would place the camera, who or what you would isolate as a subject, would it be best in black and white or color, what settings you might use, what lens, how might you compose a scene.
Go on walks at sunrise and sunset
Photo: 11x16 Design Studio/Flickr
We know this is the best time to get gorgeous lighting for photographs. However, it's also a difficult time for most of us to get outside — it's right when we're getting ready for work or commuting home, or making dinner for our families. It's also here and gone so fast, you normally have to know what it is you're trying to photograph in that lighting well before the lighting arrives.
Knowing this lighting — its quirks, the speed with which it arrives and disappears, its different qualities during different seasons — will help you to capture images in not only this lighting, but many other lighting situations.
So, make it a point to go on walks during blue hours and golden hours. Watch how the colors change as the day goes from dark to light and light to dark, how shadows change, how artificial lighting works with or against the natural lighting, even notice how people change behavior as day comes on or disappears. Get very familiar with these most important hours to photographers.
Photo: Minoru Nitta [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr
Being mindful means being aware of what is happening in the moment, noticing sounds, sights, smells, thoughts and everything happening as it happens. You're not thinking about the past or the future, you're just present in the moment.
Mindfulness is a useful tool to hone anyway, but it can be quite useful for your photography as well because it teaches you to really see, really acknowledge what is happening around you. And when you're especially aware of your surroundings in that moment, you are more likely to notice photographable moments — the tilt of a person's head as they listen to someone, the color of refracted light off of a piece of glass, the composition of pedestrians on a street corner.
Mindfulness might be one of the most powerful photographic tools to have with you, besides your camera itself.
Start conversations with strangers
Photo: Tanel Teemuskv [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr
Photographers are comfortable behind the lens, but how about our comfort level with interacting without the camera held to our faces? There are two reasons to get comfortable starting conversations with strangers.
First, it will improve your images of people. When listening to some of the best photographers discuss the story behind a particular image of a person or people, they'll talk about how they took time to get to know their subjects, to have conversations with them without the camera anywhere near, to let the subject get comfortable with them as a person so that they could be comfortable with them as a photographer. Having a camera aimed at one's face is intimidating — it can call up an number of fears or insecurities — and rushing to get an image of a person is a surefire way to ruin a potentially wonderful, candid image. So, practice the art of conversation first, and better images will follow.
But that's not the only reason to get comfortable chatting it up with strangers. The second reason is that we all need to be comfortable networking. Networking with others is how we meet inspirational people who can teach us new techniques, or how we learn about projects we want to be part of, or places we never heard of that would make for a wonderful photo journey. Sure, networking is how we get our name out there and sell images, but it is also how we learn about all the amazing things other people are doing, which keeps us inspired, active, and our photography fresh. Getting good at sparking up conversations with anyone will likely lead you to wonderful new projects for you and your camera.
Photo: Martin Howard [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr
You might have taken up photography because it is easier or more interesting than drawing a scene with a pencil and paper, but going back and learning this more basic form of art could help you to hone your vision when it comes to looking through the lens.
When you sit down to sketch, you are required to look at, and copy, highlights and shadows, shading and textures, bold and light lines and other elements of an image that provide necessary detail for a recognizable subject to appear to the viewer. You become more aware of how shape and proportion matter, or how little elements of composition or lighting help add oomph.
It might be difficult, and you might not create the next masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre, but you will more than likely come away with a greater appreciation for detail, which will come alive in your photography from composing a scene to your post-processing techniques.
Watch movies with one finger on the pause button
There have been dozens of times when I am watching a beautifully filmed movie and the main thing I notice is how every scene could easily be made into a still and hung as a photograph. Well-crafted movies are truly a series of beautiful photographs that come to life — they are just as painstakingly composed and lit as any single image taken with a camera. As such, movies can be a great source of inspiration and training for your eye.
Grab a stack of movies you enjoy, a big bowl of popcorn, and the remote control. Every time you notice a scene that sparks your artistic side, hit the pause button and study it. Notice how people or objects are placed in relation to one another and what kind of silent dialogue that creates. Notice lighting and colors. Notice how the scene is framed — what is included, what is partially cropped out. Can the scene stand on its own as an image, or once you pause does the meaning or beauty disappear because it relies on the movement or story too much?
This is not only great practice for learning what makes a great photograph, but is also just a fun night in.
Study emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is something we all possess at varying degrees, but has only been recently acknowledged as an intelligence we can build. It is the ability to identify, assess, and control not only your own emotions but those of others. Think of it as social awareness, self awareness, empathy, and management skills all rolled into one. And yes, boosting your emotional intelligence can help your photography.
What makes an image great? It's the emotions invoked for the viewers. Powerful photographs are those that conjure up powerful feelings. It might be through shock, anger, sympathy, love, adoration, surprise, beauty, or any number of other avenues. But any photo that is worth looking at will bring an emotional response.
As a photographer you have to know what kind of responses your image is likely to bring up, or what emotional responses you wish to bring up and how to capture an image that will accomplish the goal. The more "intelligent" you are about emotions, the easier it will be for you to craft images that elicit particular emotions, and it will also be easier for you to identify photographable moments because of the emotional weight they carry.
Take an ecology class
Photo: Johannes Viloria [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr
Yep...a class. There are amazing photographs all around us every time we step outside, whether it is into our backyard, our "garden" on our fire escape, a walk in the park or a backpacking trip in the wild spaces of the world. But if you don't know what to look for, or when to look for it, you might miss some of nature's (highly photographable) miracles.
If you're unfamiliar with nature (and don't worry, too many of us have grow distant from even the most basic aspects of how ecosystems function and local flora and fauna), then I recommend enrolling in an ecology course. Learning about the basics can give you better insight into what to pay attention to when you're out photographing wildlife — from interesting animal behaviors to where the coolest insects like to hang out to when to expect interesting changes in plants and flowers.
Great nature photos do more than point out the pretty. They get at the heart of an environment or species, they highlight what is unique and amazing about the subject. A class in ecology could help you "see" more easily and get truly outstanding nature photos.