Try Some Experiments

By Roger (28 August 2014)

Last week, I talked about my trip to make a few train photographs, but it was just a part of a much bigger theme I think is important to improving your photography – you need to experiment. I brushed across it when I said I needed to make some photos of a subject other than people; however, I thought it needed a little bit more discussion.

It really doesn't matter where you are on the continuum of photography experience, you should take the time, every now and then, to stretch yourself to try new things. If you want to improve your photography and keep it from becoming boring task, you need the variety.

A beginning photographer, can use experiments to better understand the workings of his camera and post-processing techniques he wants to master. Experiments can help you learn what happens when you move your camera out of Program mode to Aperture or Manual. Or how different lenses affect the way your camera records the same subject. Here are some example photos I used to show the difference in fields of view in different focal lengths.

Wide field of view with a 35mm focal length.

Wide field of view with a 35mm focal length.

Similar framing and subject size, but different field of view from 200mm focal length.

Similar framing and subject size, but different field of view from 200mm focal length.

I think beginners should concentrate their experiments on camera and lighting techniques, until they feel they are comfortable with the capabilities and limitations of their equipment. If you can learn the basics of photography – understand how your camera interprets what you point it at – you'll be further along than most people who just pick up the camera and aim it at something. You can learn this through experiments.

Pick and choose your time for experiments. Your child's wedding probably isn't the best time to try some radical experiment. You don't want to try something new and unfamiliar when your subject matter is something important, in case your experiment fails.

And some of your experiments will be a disappointment to you. Things won't work the way you envisioned them. When this happens – and it will – your job is to figure out why it didn't work or what you need to do differently to get what you are looking for. As we've said before there are often several different ways to accomplish the same thing.

As you gain experience, I encourage you to continue to experiment. Your experiments will be in areas you decide to work on to advance your skills. Just because you can work the camera doesn't mean you should stop learning. It may be more complex subjects; post-processing techniques; or things you need to practice with. This is what I was doing when I shot the trains.

I'm a people photographer, so my experiments usually take the form of other subjects. And, besides the trains, I was trying to find interesting light in scenes I found while I was walking near the depot. And, although you may be experienced, if you're pushing into new territory, you'll still find some disappointments.

That's what experiments are for. You don't have to show people those disappointments. They're for your benefit, a way for you to learn.

Here are a couple of my results from last week's “interesting light” experiments.

Abstract or disappointment?

Abstract or disappointment?

This is an abstract of light in nature, filtered through the green vines and nourishing the plants, juxtaposed against the dirty, man-made structure (window) that has been neglected. Beauty in ruin, as it were. ;-) Ok, yeah, I laughed typing that. It might just be an experiment in interesting light that didn't work. At least, I thought it was interesting when I saw it, in person.

So, how would I fix it? I'm not really sure it is worth the effort. But, if I was to do it again, I would probably try focus stacking to get more plant in focus. Maybe, do some HDR for the exposure problems. I'd probably look for a cleaner window with similar vines, so I didn't have the spider webs and bug bodies distracting me.

I did make another photo of interesting light that I do like. The subject isn't as interesting as the light, but it isn't as hideous as the window was. As I was walking through the woods, I saw this beam of light coming through the trees and spot-lighting another tree trunk. Since it was a warm, early morning light, it was a pleasing site. The light fall-off created a natural vignette. (It would have made a nice background for a portrait.) This photo won't find its way into any portfolio, but I found what I was looking for – interesting light.

I like the light on this tree

I like the light on this tree

Set up your own experiments, and learn to see better to improve your photography. I promise you'll advance your skills and have a fun time learning.

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Don't forget to sign up for the 11 October Worldwide Photowalk here. You can join Mark and I, in Harpers Ferry, WV, at 0930, beginning at the Amtrak station. You can sign up for our walk here. We hope to see you there.