Photography challenges are a great way to get better at photography for one simple reason: they require you to think differently about how you work as a photographer. Here are some of my favorite photo challenge ideas, divided into easy, medium, and hard difficulty.
The easy challenges focus on thinking of subject matter, composition, and lighting in new ways. The medium challenges are meant to get you to think more about how you use your camera and how you capture your images. Finally, the hard challenges are focused on how you develop and process your photographs and using advanced editing techniques to create unique images.
Easy Photography Challenges
Challenge #1: Keep it Simple
Many times, we create photos that look good, but that have lots of distracting elements. The Keep it Simple photo challenge is all about creating compositions with as few visual elements as possible. For this challenge, try and find (or create) arrangements that are made up of a single shape or line, or a single color or tone, for example.
Hint: For landscape/architecture photographs, a flat blue sky can be helpful here. For street photography, look for solid colored buildings, walls, and staircases. For product/macro photography, try and set up a simple composition playing with monotone backgrounds that contrast with the subject to really make it pop.
Challenge #2: Product Placement
Many of us got into photography to take pictures of our family or the places we visit on vacation. But there is so much more to photography. One of my favorite types of photography is product photography, and it is also one of the genres that many people overlook.
For the Product Placement challenge, you have one goal: take a picture of an object and make it look so good the viewer can't help but want to buy it. The point here is to think about creating a scene that draws attention to the subject and gives context to why the viewer needs the ‘product.'
Hint: Look for an object around your house and try to think of what made you buy it. Find additional elements that can be placed in the scene that add additional emotional value to the image. If the ‘product' is a coffee mug, you could set it next to a morning newspaper, some coffee beans, or get creative and stick it on the bathroom counter with some toothbrushes in it.
Challenge #3: Street Lights
Professional photographers spend tons of money on devices and gadgets to get the lighting just right for their photographs. They have flashes and sensors and reflectors and diffusers…and the images they create look amazing.
But what about when you can't set up a whole studio lighting system to get the image you want?
That's precisely where the Street Lights photo challenge comes in. Many cities, especially at night, are full of harsh neon lighting and signage, traffic lights, and street lamps that are all different colors (and color temperatures) that can make it difficult to capture good images. In this challenge, we must use these strange lighting conditions to our advantage.
Hint: Think of how you can use the lights to create high-contrast portraits bathing your subject in colors, or how you can use reflections on puddles to create interesting architecture shots. Of course, this challenge isn't only for night-owls, either. For daytime shooters, look for stained glass or vehicle headlights and taillights, for example.
Medium Photography Challenges
Challenge #4: Less is More
I like to be prepared for any situation, especially when it comes to photography. I typically go out with a bazillion lenses, flashes, batteries, and gadgets for any possible situation and have a pair of 128GB cards in my camera at all times (plus a whole lot of backup cards just in case).
This can be a problem for two reasons: First, my bag weighs as much as a fully-loaded minivan, which my chiropractor probably isn't too happy about, and second, I never have to think creatively about how to use each piece of gear. I just swap this lens for that, trade one tripod for another, and put on this filter or that.
The Less is More challenge is about dumping all of that equipment and going out to take photos with only the bare essentials.
Hint: Do you usually go out with three lenses? This time only take one and think about how you can use a zoom lens for street photography or how to use a wide-angle for portraits. Do you usually use a high-capacity SD card? Try shooting with a cheap 4GB card and try to think about taking the perfect shot every time rather than 50 photos at a time and picking the good one later on your computer.
Challenge #5: Un-Familiar Faces
We often think that being a good photographer is all about controlling the camera and knowing all of the settings forwards and backward, but that is only half of the equation. We also have to understand how to manage the subject matter of the image as well, especially when we are working on photography genres that involve people, such as portraiture and street photography.
For this challenge, you're going to need to really work on your people skills. Try and find someone who isn't a family or close friend and ask them to let you take their picture. Then practice ‘coaching' them during the photoshoot. Try to find multiple people or to take a series of photos (especially if its only one person) so that you can really practice working with unfamiliar people.
Hint: Many beginner street photographers have amazing images, but all of the people are turned away from the camera…there isn't anything inherently wrong with taking a photo of someone's back, but working on your ability to initiate conversations with strangers on the street and get them involved in the photography process can help up your game.
Challenge #6: Slow it Down
To many people, the point of photography is to capture a moment frozen in time. But if we take the time to Slow it Down, we can capture an image that shows motion and gives the photo a dynamic aspect.
For this challenge, you are going to need a tripod (or other stable place for your camera) and a bit of patience. If you have an ND filter, even better!
Try to take photographs with extremely long shutter speed. I'm talking 15 seconds, 30 seconds, or however long you can with the equipment and lighting you have. Try to play with the movement of the clouds, the lights of car headlights and taillights, or with people moving within the image. Experiment with what you can do with super long shutter speeds, and you might be surprised with what you can get out of it!
Hint: Bump that aperture number up to let in less light (some lenses can have issues at the smallest apertures, so try a few different settings here to find that sweet spot), Lower your ISO down as low as possible, and throw on a neutral density filter if you have one. Also, you may want to add a timer to your shutter or use a wireless shutter release to avoid unwanted vibration in your camera.
Hard Photography Challenges
Challenge #7: Disappearing Act
Now we are getting into some of the more advanced challenges. For these you are going to need to do some editing, but don't worry if you don't have one of the pro-level editing software, there are some great free, open-source photo editing tools out there.
The first of these photo editing challenges is the Disappearing Act. The point of this is to find a composition that you really like…but that has something annoying that ruins the shot. This can either be a new photo that you take for this challenge or an old image that you have from before.
Try to use the editing software to remove the unwanted element. I'm not talking about a small defect, either. I'm looking for a travel photo with tons of people in the background or a perfect outdoor portrait that was taken just as a car sped by behind the subject.
Hint: Try to use as many of the brushes and tools as you can so you can learn what each one does. Think creatively about how you can copy elements from the picture that you do like (such as those pretty green trees) to cover up things you don't (like those darned people in the background).
Challenge #8: Over and Under and Just Right
Have you ever been on vacation and taken what you thought was a wonderful photo of a beautiful building or majestic mountains only to look at the picture later and realize that the exposure is perfect for the subject, but the sky is completely blown out?
The Over and Under and Just Right challenge is here to help. Photographers often use a technique known as bracketing to create images that solve this problem, and now it's your turn.
The goal of this challenge is to create a single image with a higher dynamic range than your camera would generally allow by combining multiple images of the same subject taken at varying exposures.
You're likely going to need a tripod, and this technique works best for subjects that don't move.
Hint: Start by taking an image that is set to the proper exposure for the darker areas, next take an image that is set to the appropriate exposure for the highlights. For extra flexibility, take an additional photo that is somewhere in between. Use your favorite photo editing software to combine the images in layers, showing the proper exposure for each portion of the picture.
Challenge #9: Surreal Composition
Here we are at the most difficult of the photo challenges, the Surreal Composition challenge. This is going to require you to use everything you know about photography and push your limits even further.
For this challenge, you need to take multiple visual elements and combine them into a single surreal, abstract, or fanciful composition.
Perhaps you can take a photo of a friend or loved one and turn them into a superhero, maybe you want to create an image that shows what your dreams look like, or perhaps you just want to take after Dali and create something completely abstract. The only limit is your imagination for this one.
Hint: You can use photos, patterns, or other graphics for this challenge. You will need to use many of the advanced tools in your editing software, such as masks and layers, blends and fills, and filters and custom brushes.
These challenges are meant to be fun and exciting activities to get you to think of photography in different ways and to use techniques and tools you might not yet be proficient in. Don't feel overwhelmed if the challenges seem too complicated or don't fit into your personal photography style.
Try to use these challenges as a way to explore new areas of photography, and hopefully, you can learn about new and exciting ways to see the world through photography.