We all find ourselves in creative slumps from time to time for a variety of reasons. When I’ve considered putting together an article on ideas of how to keep improving one’s photography skills even while in a rut, I never imagined that a potential reason for that rut would be a global pandemic.
But, that’s where we find ourselves today.
We’ve all been touched by this pandemic in one way or another. Most of us are required to stay at home to isolate, to take care of family members, to work remotely, or perhaps we’ve even lost our jobs. Schools, events, and establishments have been canceled for weeks, which could turn into months.
Whatever your circumstances are, making photographs or improving your skills as a photographer may seem like a distant thought.
However, doing something creative or something that moves the needle forward in your skills as a photographer can greatly help to reduce stress and anxiety.
Here are 14 ideas for how you can keep working on your photography during this (or any) difficult time. If you think anyone else would benefit from these ideas, please share this with them!
Some of the links mentioned below are affiliate links, which means that if you choose to make a purchase from the link, I will earn a small commission. This commission comes at no additional cost to you, and it helps support this website. Thanks!
1. Document Your Family’s Experience of COVID-19
How has your family been impacted by COVID-19? How has your community been impacted? Are your kids home from school? Are you working remotely? Are you short on food or supplies?
Think of how can you can capture your experiences and the emotions around all of the changes. What would you photograph? Who knows, perhaps the images could become an exhibit someday. If you need some inspiration, check out this photo series from Ashley Gilbertson of the New York Times.
2. Can’t Sleep? Try Night Sky Photography.
This is actually how I learned photography. I was working a high-stress job with ridiculous hours and the only time I had to learn photography was at night. I wasn’t sleeping anyway, and I found that being under the stars was so calming and centering that getting a decent image was only part of the joy.
I don’t recommend losing sleep if you don’t have to, but if you are not sleeping anyway, this is a great way to spend the hours awake.
If you are new to night sky photography, then be sure to check out my video series on How to Photograph the Milky Way. Part 1 is linked below and you can find the other two videos in the series on the OPS Videos page. In the northern hemisphere, we are just entering into Milky Way season (mid-March), so it is a good time to start learning.
3. Build a Photography Website
If you have a growing library of images, then it may be time to showcase your work on a photography website. Go through your archive and select your favorite images for an online portfolio or gallery. The website can serve as a home for your images so you can share your art with others, or you can use it as a way of selling prints or acquiring clients.
Building a website has gotten quite simple these days with many platforms offering “drag and drop” user interfaces so that no coding is required. You’ve likely heard of many of these, such as Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly. There are photography specific platforms as well, such as SmugMug, Zenfolio, and Photoshelter.
If you do want to sell prints and would like to have the process streamlined, then I recommend building a site using SmugMug. That is the platform that I use for my online portfolio. What I like about SmugMug is that you can integrate your shop with a professional printer, who fulfills the orders for you.
Secondly, SmugMug integrates with Adobe Lightroom, and so you can upload your images directly from Lightroom to your portfolio on SmugMug. Lastly, your images are protected and every plan has unlimited storage.Click here to start your free SmugMug 14-day trial today, and save 15% on a new account.
4. Backup Your Data
Do you have a solid plan for backing up your images? If not, then this is a great time to finally get one in place. The best way to make sure you don’t lose your image files is to build redundancy into your system make sure that they exist in multiple locations.
A simple yet effective way to secure your images to use the 3-2-1 Backup Strategy. To use this strategy you must have at least three copies of each image file. Two of these copies are kept locally but exist on two different platforms, and one copy exists offsite either with a cloud backup provider or a hard drive that you keep elsewhere (like at a friend’s house).
Here’s my version of the 3-2-1 Strategy: I have two external hard drives (from different manufacturers) connected to my editing computer. One is my “active” drive and the other is my “backup” drive. I use Carbon Copy Cloner (Mac only) to replicate my active drive to my backup drive once a week (or more frequently as needed). These are my two local copies. If I lose one hard drive, I have the other with the data.
For my third offsite copy, I use Backblaze, which is a cloud backup provider that backs up everything attached to my computer, including both my active drive and my backup drive. The backup runs continually in the background and doesn’t slow down my system at all.
I highly recommend Backblaze as your cloud backup option, and you can sign up for a 15-day free trial to give it a whirl.
If you are confused by the differences between cloud sync, cloud backup, and cloud storage, then I encourage you to check out this article by Backblaze that breaks it all down.
5. Re-edit Images From a Year or Two Ago
Sometimes it’s good to look back at older images because it reminds us of how far we’ve come in improving our skills as photographers. Sometimes, you can even breathe new life into those images!
Realize it or not, you’ve likely improved your post-processing techniques in the last year or two, and those drab images might be actually worth re-working. Maybe try switching to black and white or applying a preset. You never know what sort of treasure you may find!
6. Find the “Sweet Spot” of Your Lenses
You’ve likely heard that lenses have a sweet spot, which is the aperture that yields the best resolving power of a given lens. When possible, it’s a good idea to use the sweet spot of your lens when the exposure requirements and depth of field allow for it. It’s not always possible to shoot at the sweet spot aperture, and that’s ok.
It’s a good idea to know what your lens sweet spot is, however, so that you can make an educated decision when determining your camera settings.
You can actually find your lens’ sweet spot yourself quite simply. It will take about an hour if you follow the steps below.
1. Find a subject with a contrasting pattern (like upholstery, carpet, or even a print).
2. Put your camera on a tripod.
3. Set your camera to aperture priority mode.
4. Start at the widest aperture of your lens, set the focus point on the pattern, focus, and take the shot.
5. Then select the next aperture and without changing the focus point, refocus, and take the shot.
6. Repeat this until you’ve taken images at every aperture of your lens.
7. Import the images to your photo editing software.
8. View the images at 1:1 and compare sharpness between the images to find the aperture with the best sharpness at the point you set the focus point.
Note: the depth of field will change throughout the series of images, so it is important to compare sharpness at the same focal point.
7. Give Yourself a Photography Project
One way that I boost my own creativity is to give myself rules or restrictions to follow for a short period of time to see what I can create under those conditions. Another way of thinking about it is to pick a theme to follow for a week or two. Either way, the process gently forces you to look for compositions that you wouldn’t likely see otherwise.
Here are 10 photo projects to try for a week or two:
- Photograph only one subject (could be your cat, a tree, anything around your house, etc.)
- Photograph only one color
- Pick your least used lens and only use that
- Shoot black & white if you normally shoot in color (and vice versa)
- Photograph reflections (puddles, mirrors, beverages, glass, lakes, ponds, etc.)
- Stand in one location (could be a room in your house) for an hour and find 15 compositions
- Only photograph using one type of light (front light, back light, side light, etc.) or at one time of day (perhaps when you normally would be commuting?)
- Focus on finding textures or patterns
- Pick a depth of field that you don’t normally work with and only use that
- Use long or short shutter speeds to blur or freeze motion, respectively
8. Study Other People’s Work You Admire
Being stuck at home with access to the digital world is a great opportunity to study other people’s work you admire and try to reverse-engineer why you admire it.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when trying to figure out what about the image appeals to you.
- Is it the subject matter? Such as the story, emotion or mood evoked in you – or the actual elements of the subject (mountains, moving water, the sky, etc.).
- Is it the composition? Did the photographer follow compositional “rules” or not? Think about how the subject was framed, the use of negative space, the viewpoint, etc.
- Is it the technique? What can you derive from the image about the exposure (over or under-exposed, HDR, etc.), the focal length, depth of field, how the image was post-processed, etc.
- Is it aesthetics? Use of color theory, black & white, tonal contrast, light, texture, patterns, etc.
Once you’ve identified a few things that you feel make the image “work”, choose one aspect and try to apply it to your compositions.
Then, ask yourself – where are you falling short? How could it be improved? This exercise continues to be very helpful to me in improving my own photography.
9. Try a Different Genre of Photography
As outdoor photographers, we may not spend a whole lot of time doing portraiture or macrophotography, but if you now find yourself stuck at home with your family and pets, you’ll have more opportunities to practice portraits and seeing and using light.
Don’t worry if you don’t have flash or a fancy studio lighting setup. Find ways to use natural light. Practicing portraits has helped me understand how light behaves better than some other forms of photography.
Macrophotography is a perfect genre to practice because you can do it in the comfort of your home with pretty much anything you already have. If you don’t have a lens that can do macro work, why not rent one? I plan to! I personally have been wanting to explore macrophotography more.
Interested in renting photography equipment? I use BorrowLenses for my photography rentals and highly recommend them. They recently issued a statement that they are taking extra precautions and equipment cleaning measures in light of our current situation.
10. Learn how to clean your camera’s sensor
Do you know how to clean your camera’s sensor? It’s really not that difficult, although it is something that gives many photographers anxiety. Knowing how to do it is a good skill to have so that you don’t have to send your camera in for professional cleaning and be without it.
Every time we change lenses, we introduce the possibility of dust getting into the camera body and sticking to the sensor. After a while, these dust spots can become apparent in our images and we have to spend time cloning them out, which can be a huge timesink and also can leave minor blemishes if not done properly.
If you want to learn how to clean your sensor, I recommend checking out Nigel Danson’s video on YouTube. The process is similar to the one I use.
Here are the supplies you need to get started:
- Rocket blower
- Sensor cleaning solution
- Sensor cleaning swabs (pick the right size for your sensor)
- Sensor cleaning brush
- Camera sensor magnifier (optional – this is a cheap version but works fine)
11. Take an Online Photography Course
Photography classes and workshops are either postponed or canceled at this point. Thankfully, we have access to platforms like YouTube that offers tons of free educational opportunities. If you are subscribed to the Outdoor Photography School channel – thank you!
Sometimes, however, it’s valuable to invest a little more into our photo education and participate in an online course. While it’s an investment of time and money, courses often elevate your learning experience more than searching for videos on YouTube.
I have enjoyed several courses at CreativeLive and highly recommend you check them out. They often run sales and promotions where you can get access to tons of content at a low cost. Learning a new post-processing technique or style of shooting is likely a better use of time than binge-watching favorite shows on Netflix. 😉
12. Do a Photo Project with Your Kids (or elderly relatives)
If the pandemic has forced you to stay home with your kids or elderly parents, then think of a photo project that you can do together.
For example, many schools have transitioned to online teaching for their students. How can you supplement your kids’ learning experience with a photo project? Can you learn about birds, botany, space, seasonal changes, climate change, etc., through the lens of your camera? Your kids might love the extra time with you.
If you have elderly relatives that you need to care for, can you interview them? Record their stories, take images of them recalling memories, or of their hands, faces, favorite keepsakes, etc. It might be something you look back on fondly after they are gone.
13. Read Inspiration Books or Listen to Photography Podcasts
I know a lot of people who have a list of books or podcasts that they wished they had the time to read or catch up on. Now might be that time! No more commuting, no more after school activities, no more events or socializing.
As difficult as our current situation is, for some it is a great excuse to curl up with a good book or take a walk with your favorite podcast. If you need a little inspiration, check out my recommendations on the OPS Resources page.
14. Stretch, Train, Prepare Your Body
Last but not least! If you are fortunate enough to be healthy during this pandemic, then be sure to stay on top of your fitness and wellness.
As outdoor photographers, we often carry heavy bags of camera gear on the trail, in a canoe, or what-have-you, and we can do simple exercises to help keep our joints in shape and happy. Instead of treating this time as unforeseen downtime, use it as get-back-in-shape time.
As I get older, I definitely have come to appreciate that doing a little “preventative maintenance” each day can make a huge difference to my comfort in the field with my gear.
And no, you don’t need a gym membership! If you haven’t yet checked out my recent article on Hiking With Camera Gear, it lists a bunch of different exercises that you can do from the comfort of your home.
What are you doing to stay positive and keep your creative juices flowing? Please share with all of us in the comments below. Be well, my friends. We are in this together!