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Give Yourself Assignments and Watch Your Photography Improve

There are learners who don’t need teachers.

These are the remarkable people who learn even when there is no one to demand task performance from them. Usually they are internally motivated, and learned how to learn and have feedback systems of their own, from a young age.

No matter what age, we can learn how to teach ourselves. The key to this is to find out motivation, develop a feedback system, and structure our learning so that it is clear and easy to follow through. It’s easy to do these using assignments.

Assignments are useful because they lend themselves to structure. By structure I mean some kind of order imposed on the person performing the assignment. If you want to give yourself an assignment to add structure to your learning, there are a few things you can do.

low light photography by Aloha Lavina. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Found this beam of light hitting a plastic oil drum. Yum. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Make a list

You can make a shotlist for the assignment. A shotlist is like a shopping list for the images you might be able to make at a particular place. When I went to Perak State in Malaysia yesterday, my good friend and host Ker told me that Perak’s biggest export to the world was its charcoal made from the abundant mangrove trees in the state.

So when she asked me to go to the charcoal factory, I had a shotlist I wanted. Grungy, moody shots. Lots of texture. Light seeping in through windows and wall cracks to contrast the dark surfaces. Smoke from the charcoal ovens. Patterns….my shotlist was a good size, and I enjoyed making my way through the list.

Perak, Malaysia charcoal factory low light photography copyright Aloha Lavina

Giant oven for making charcoal. I used a a high ISO. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

You can also make a list of techniques you might try out with a particular assignment. The technique I most used shooting the charcoal factory was making sure my exposure gave me a reasonably wide dynamic range—meaning the pictures I made had to hold on to as much detail as possible in the highlights, midtones and shadows. Other times, I made subjective exposures, or exposures based on how I felt the scene should look. Mostly I liked underexposure for the mood and mystery it gave.

Keep it simple

It’s important to keep it simple. Simplicity means you can easily remember your list, and don’t need to interrupt your image making with frequent glances at written instructions. Keeping it simple also means you break down the assignment into manageable chunks, so you don’t get overwhelmed from what you need to accomplish from the start. For instance, an assignment of “low light photography at a charcoal factory to practice exposure compensation” is a good assignment because it is really specific and you know right away what challenges face you when you begin.

low light photography charcoal factory in Perak, Malaysia. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

It felt like the set of Aliens 1, 2, or 3. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Get a feedback system into your workflow

A feedback system allows you to see and understand that what you have done in a task is ‘right’ in light of your goals. Since you’re learning on your own, you need to see that you are on the right track.

With photography, it’s fairly easy to learn a feedback system and incorporate it into your workflow, or what you do while shooting. For examples, you can: look at the LCD display to see your shot, look at histograms, or look at the values in the exposure you made.

The LCD is nifty because it helps us see what shot we made. But often it is so small that you can’t see some things that might be vital for the shot to work, such as sharpness, what highlights are blown out, detail captured, and the like. So yes, love your LCD, but learn another way to tell yourself how you did.

The histogram is also good, and there is a sort of ‘recipe’ that people have been talking about for years. This recipe is “expose to the right” which means basically that the histogram looks like a lump skewed toward the right—telling you that it’s basically brighter than darker. But if you make subjective exposures, the histogram will not be that useful. For example, if you underexpose for mood, the histogram will show a skew to the left. That’s against the recipe. But it is not necessarily wrong. This is a decision you have to make as a creative person.

The values of your exposure triangle are good to know as part of your feedback system. While you’re learning, if you note down your values, such as what ISO you used, what aperture and shutter speed, you learn what works best for the look you want. The more you shoot, the better able you will be at gauging what exposure values work for the type of shots you want to make.

men making charcoal in Perak, Malaysia copyright Aloha Lavina

I really like how smoke makes light visible. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Why do you do this?

Motivation is key. With creativity, a vision is really the most important element, even much more than technique. Technique is something that you can learn from a blog, a video, from someone else.

But the reason you have for picking up your camera is what makes you pick it up again and again, even when you fail.

So motivation is the key to learning. And you have to find out for yourself why you are doing this. Try to be specific, because that’s what helps you learn and improve.

I was happy at the charcoal factory because I love low light photography and dramatic light. Dramatic light sends me into exclamations of delight and keeps me buoyant. I found this out early on: light distracts me quite easily. So I know that if I want to challenge myself or just enjoy my photography, I’ve got to do an assignment that involves light. It will make me get up early, and it will give me joy.

What assignment will you give yourself this week?

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About Aloha

I am a photographer and writer currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. My work has appeared in CNNGo, Canon's PhotoYou magazine, Seventeen magazine, The Korea Times, Thailand Tatler, and a few photography books including recently Blogging for Creatives, a book published in the UK. I believe there is nothing you cannot imagine that you cannot do.

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