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Musicians regularly play scales to keep their fingers sharp. What do photographers do to keep their eyes in focus?

Here are two exercises for a rainy day, when you might otherwise be hanging around the studio wondering what to do with yourself. Every photographer has them. Days when you’ve cleaned everything, answered all your phone calls, and generally wrapped up your business day. Or maybe it’s just one of those days when you haven’t picked up your camera and done something just for yourself, just for fun. Remember way back when to a time when photography was just for fun? Take a moment out of your busy day, or your slow day, and do something for yourself as a photographer, as an artist, to reconnect to days when making photographs didn’t entail anything more than exploration. Here are two simple exercises that can be a lot of fun and don’t actually require you to make great photos; there’s no pressure, just two assignments that have no strings attached, both designed to make you slow down and really look around you at things you may have been blind to all along.

The One Hour Photo

This exercise is all about simplicity: take your camera anywhere and start from one spot. The parameters of this exercise are simple: put your camera on automatic exposure so you don’t have to mess around with f-stops or shutter speeds. Put the file size on its lowest setting jpg available (no cheating here). Even a digital point-and-shoot can be used for this. Make a single photo of anything that you happen to be standing in front of. Then start moving in any direction. Do not move with purpose. That means don’t start looking for things. Move sixty seconds in any direction. The less intention you have about this exercise the better. Once sixty seconds have elapsed, stop and make a second photo. It doesn’t matter in the least where you go. You have five seconds to make your picture before you have to move on again; sixty more seconds and another exposure. Keep moving in any direction, the more arbitrary the better. If you could close your eyes and walk for sixty seconds that would be ideal, but it also might be dangerous. So keep at least one eye open while you do this.

The point is to make sixty exposures in sixty minutes, and the real point of the exercise is to allow yourself to free associate, to let your mind wander and let your eyes make the pictures without any purposes whatsoever. Then sometime later in the day, or better yet, the next day, take a look at what you’ve done. Create a slide show and scroll through the photos. Five seconds should be ideal. And just look. Watch the frames roll by without thinking about them. There may be potential subject matter or perspective you may want to explore or follow up on down the road. Maybe and maybe not. What you may discover is a way of looking at things that will alter your perspective for your “real” work. If you are a part-time photographer, take your camera to your day job or to school and walk off sixty frames at lunch. You’ll come back completely refreshed in a way that you’ve never experienced before. It will open your mind. Don’t do it just once: make a regular habit of it and the world will begin to open up in unexpected ways.

Get Closer

The second exercise has only two qualifications. The first is to set your lens to its minimum focusing distance, then don’t touch the focus. With your camera set at twenty or thirty inches, move on to the second qualification: photograph people; only people. Move in close to them until the camera is in focus without your adjusting the focusing ring on the lens. No cheating. Don’t touch the barrel of the lens. Get as close to people as you need to make a sharp, in-focus photo. Two of the rules for The One Hour Photo apply to this exercise as well: use automatic exposure (no messing with shutter and aperture) and lowest possible jpg-sized files. It’s easier to do this exercise with family and friends if you’re shy. For the more adventurous, go out and about and talk to and photograph people – preferably strangers. Explain the nature of your project. You must, however, photograph people, ONLY PEOPLE. The reason for this is simple. You will be forced to get as close to them as you possibly can, a proposition that is challenging for most photographers, especially those who like to “hide” behind the camera. This exercise is designed to break barriers, and force you out of your comfort zone. Getting this close to people can be a breathtaking leap for many photographers and once you’ve sat down and reviewed the frames (all sixty of them), you’ll be amazed at all the fun you’ve had. If you did this with family and friends first, take yourself on the road the next time and photograph strangers. Most every one you meet will be happy to participate and you never know whom you’re going to meet. Your world will get significantly larger and it will break down any barriers you may be experiencing in photographing people.

Both exercises are designed primarily to get you past technique, to get you out from behind your camera, and farther into your own eyes and deeper into your subjects as well. The Get Closer assignment will change you for the better in so many ways that you will have to actually do the exercise in order to discover those surprises. It will be a discovery of self – your self as an artist. 


James Schuck

James Schuck is a writer and photographer working in Southern California. He is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has photographed everything from Architecture to Auto Parts to Cookies to Portraits and Weddings.

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