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3 Deceptively Simple Challenges to Level Up Your Photography Skills

Do you find yourself taking the same types of shots over and over again? Are you looking for ways to improve your fundamental photography skills? Here are some things you can do to break old habits, discover new perspectives, and level up your photography along the way. (Edited by studio9)

Tree from unique angle

The low angle of this shot creates a mysterious atmosphere. I shot this without help from the viewfinder or Live View display, which trains your visualisation skills.


Self-imposed limitations: A great way to force yourself to get creative

Cameras nowadays have lots of convenient features. The more sophisticated the camera, the more it can do for us. And it always helps to have a quicker, more efficient way to achieve the shots that we want. 

But there is a downside to the convenience: Sometimes, we leave so much to the camera that it feels like it is the camera that takes the shots, not us. That's one reason why our shots start looking the same: We let our imaginations be determined by camera features and functions. 

It’s a fact that we use our imagination more when we have to work around limitations to achieve our goal. This is the concept behind the three challenges that we share in this article. Each challenge places restrictions on one different convenient shooting feature, and if you successfully tackle it, you will have mastered at least one important photography skill.

Ready? Let’s bring it on!


Challenge 1: Limit your focal lengths

This is perhaps the easiest task to start with, and will help you to acquire a sense of distance.


If you mainly use zoom lenses: Restrict yourself from using the zoom

Use the lens as you would a prime lens. I recommend limiting yourself to the three full-frame equivalent focal lengths of 35mm, 50mm, and 70mm. These are the typical focal lengths of wide-angle, standard, and medium telephoto lenses

If you are using an APS-C camera, you can get similar angles-of-view by shooting at approximately 22mm, 31mm and 44mm respectively.


Tape up your zoom ring

While it might be sufficient to promise yourself not to use the zoom, to prevent yourself from giving in to temptation, tape up your zoom ring. If you shoot with the determination not to remove the tape for the entire day, you just might discover something new.

Zoom ring taped down

The lens in the above image has been taped down at the 50mm position. Use tape that leaves as little residue as possible. I recommend using Permacel tape, which is a paper tape that sticks well with minimal residue. Masking tape or paper surgical tape also work well.


If you are already using prime lenses: Limit yourself to telephoto or ultra-wide-angle

The typical focal lengths used for street photography are in the range of 35mm, 50mm, and 70mm mentioned above. Some photographers also use focal lengths of 24mm and 100mm. However, if you are daring enough to try street photography with a lens that shoots more telephoto or wide-angle than that, it could get really interesting.

You will need a telephoto lens or ultra-wide-angle lens for this. It’s a great opportunity to finally break out the telephoto zoom lens in your double zoom kit that has been lying unused all this while.

It might feel very restrictive to shoot at only 200mm, or only 16mm, but your brain will get a really good workout thinking of how to make the framing work! 

Click here for some composition techniques to try with different types of lenses


Challenge 2: Compose your shots without the viewfinder (or Live View)

This will help you to gain a good sense of shooting angles and angles-of-view.


Do you really know how much of a scene you can capture with your lens?

Normally, when we compose our shots, we rely on the viewfinder or Live View display to help us adjust our framing. 

But if you didn’t look at either of them, would you be able to visualise what your lens will capture?

Being able to do so requires a good sense of what can be captured with a certain angle-of-view. And if you have that kind of sense, you would roughly know how to compose a shot even if you had only one glance at the scene.


You will also “see” unique angles more easily

Sometimes, we don’t think about shooting from certain angles simply because it’s not what we usually see when we look through the viewfinder or at our Live View display. When we force ourselves to compose without such aids, we become more aware of such unique points of view. This is true even if you use a camera with a Vari-angle LCD screen.

This “viewfinder restriction” encourages you to actively look for new perspectives all the time, instead of only when you trial-and-error with your screen. It will certainly change your perception of things, which affects the shots that you take.

Tokyo Tower shot from ground level

People tend to photograph Tokyo Tower looking upward from eye level, but here, I shot it from ground level instead. The road and other buildings are also captured, resulting in a composition that differs from the norm.


Autumn leaves on pond surface

I took shot by stretching my arms out just above the surface of the water in a pond. Can't see viewfinder? No problem at all.


- The longer the focal length, the harder it gets
Start with a wide-angle. 35mm at full-frame equivalent is good.

- You won’t be able to release the shutter if the camera is out of focus
Try using either:
i) An AF method that automatically detects and selects the AF point/zone when you half-press the shutter button; or
ii) Manual Focus (MF) mode.


Challenge 3: Shoot without exposure simulation/image review

In the film camera era, we weren't able to check the result of our shoots until after the photos were developed. It was certainly necessary to put serious effort into reading the light for each and every shot.

But with modern digital conveniences such as on-the-spot playback and Live View/EVF exposure simulation, we no longer have to think as much about the light before we click the shutter. In fact, we take it for granted that the camera will help us find the correct exposure.

Restricting your use of these functions will not only help you truly understand exposure, but also appreciate how far digital cameras have come! 


Step 1: Turn off the image review

You should be able to find this somewhere on the SHOOT menu.

Image review menu screen

When "Image review – Off" is set, the photo will not be displayed after the shot unless the Play button is pressed.


Step 2: Disable exposure simulation

Find “Expo. simulation” on the SHOOT menu and select "Disable". Any changes to your exposure settings, including exposure compensation, won’t be reflected in the Live View and EVF previews.

Exposure simulation menu screen

Note: Some older DSLR camera models do not have this feature. In this case, you might want to resort to Step 3.


Step 3: Cover your LCD monitor with black paper

This is a very drastic measure, but possibly the most effective: You won’t be able to see the Live View preview or image review at all. You could also use black Permacel tape for this. Just be careful that you don't accidentally peel off your screen protector when you remove the tape. 

Note: You still want to be able to see your exposure settings. If your camera has an OVF or EVF, you should be safe. More advanced cameras will also show basic shooting information on the top LCD panel.
Otherwise, stick with Steps 1 and 2 and channel all your discipline.



- You will have an easier time in M mode

Not being able to check photos on the spot means that you have to depend on the camera's light meter to determine the correct exposure. When shooting in Av mode, for certain subjects, you will need to think carefully about how much exposure compensation to apply. That is why it might be somewhat easier to shoot in Manual exposure (M) mode.

- In M mode, use spot metering
I recommend this over evaluative metering, which is the default. In spot metering, only the centre section of the image is metered. (Find out more in Camera Basics #7: Metering)

From there, the brightness of your shot should not become too far off the mark if you follow the following steps:

  1. Point your camera at the subject that you want to base the brightness on.
  2. Adjust the aperture, shutter speed and ISO speed so that the exposure level indicator is close to ±0.
  3. Recompose the image if necessary (remember to press the AE lock button first).
  4. Release the shutter.

While you could also buy a separate exposure meter to read the light for practice, it is a rather expensive piece of equipment. If you only need to measure ambient light, there are smartphone apps that can turn your phone into a light meter.



Imposing all three of the restrictions in this article at once might be a bit overboard, so you might like to try them one at a time in sequence, starting from the top. If you need more of a challenge, you can try more than one together.

Obviously, there is no need to continuously impose such restrictions on yourself. The key is to try this when you have some spare time and are not feeling rushed. That way, you can slowly explore and get creative. So why not try them out on your next off day?

For more things you can do to improve your photography skills, check out:
Achieve Better Photos with These 3 Simple Tips!
5 Ways to Practise Your Wildlife Photography


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A photography website established in Japan in 2011. With the slogan “Bringing photography closer to you”, the site provides content that is useful for everyone who enjoys photography. Besides web content, studio9 also conducts seminars and workshops.