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Shoot Outside Your Comfort Zone


One of my goals as a photographer is to always improve. Regardless of how well others may think my work is I am always trying to learn and grow as a creative.

There are several things you can do to fine tune and/or continue to grow—you can take a workshop, read a blog, or watch videos of how others do it—however, for me, nothing replaces actually getting out the gear and shooting something. Anything. I love reading blogs and watching YouTube videos as much as the next but I (like many) learn best by doing.

I’ve found that for me personally one of the best ways to spin up the creative juice is to shoot outside my norm. These exercises more often than not give me a different perspective on composition, light, or camera control that I either did not pay attention to previously or never needed to use shooting fashion and beauty.

One popular exercise (and a challenging one) is to shoot the same subject (any subject) in as many ways possible. This is a great exercise and love the way it forces you to find ways to make something that could probably be very boring into something interesting. In contrast, if you have an interesting subject the challenge then becomes keeping it interesting as many ways possible. I personally love to hate this exercise. Love the benefits but get bored of it very quickly.

Instead, my approach is to shoot outside my genre. Landscapes, product, fine art, etc. I shoot in conditions that are terrible outdoors and indoors will not use shop lights instead of strobes. I may not nail it every time but I learn a lot about my photography.

Here are a few examples of things I’ve done to keep the creative juices flowing.

Go Old School

I like to mix it up by not just shooting digital. Film forces me to slow down, focus, and get my zen moment on.

I deliberately try to get rolls of 24 to limit myself and force careful composition and lighting. I shoot black and white and color but prefer black and white because it forces me to see and meter the scene differently. I primarily use a Canon EOS-1 and a Pentax 645 when shooting film. My go to BW film still made is Tri-X 400.

If you don’t want to invest in a film body or have to deal with development you can still do this exercise by limiting yourself to ‘X’ number of frames per subject/location and forcing yourself to “get the shot” in that number of frames. Don’t cheat!

Go Really Old School

If just shooting film isn’t enough for you, find an antique store. The lighting will probably be terrible, you won’t be allowed to move the items, and many times they are small tight spaces where you’ll be getting in and out of someone’s way.

I did this a few months back with the EOS-1 and Tri-X. Make sure you get the owners permission, of course.

20 Aug 2016, Vintage Dolls, Country Antique Fair Mall, Santa Clarita, CA, Kodak Tr-X 400, Canon EOS-1, Developed (D-76) and Scanned by me.
20 Aug 2016, Vintage Dolls, Country Antique Fair Mall, Santa Clarita, CA, Kodak Tr-X 400, Canon EOS-1, Developed (D-76) and Scanned by me.

Make Me Want to Buy It

Product photography can get extremely complex. Regardless if you are shooting food or a T-Shirt, you have to pay close attention to the light and composition to create an intriguing image.

If you have a macro lens, jewelry can be a fun option to play with. Another idea (and what I opted to do) is to take an item that is eBay bound and instead of just snapping it with the iPhone take the time to set it up and shoot a proper product shot. This is another great learning experience and could make your item sell faster or for a higher price! Quality images “do” make a difference.

Jun 2016, Canon G12 I put on eBay, Sony NEX-7 – (c) 2016 Steven Starr

Use the Force

One night a few months back I got bored and started shooting around with a few of the boy’s action figures. I thought one came out pretty cool so I printed it. They boys saw it and before I knew it I had a list of Star Wars stuff waiting for me to shoot.

I played a bit with black on black, white on white, and used shop lights from home depot with LED bulbs as my light setup. I modified the light with foam core and a single reflector. Since I was shooting film I also played a bit with multiple exposures. If you are used to shooting people switching to a smaller subject can be a bit of a trick at first but the more you experiment the easier it becomes and the more fun you can have with it.

Jun 2016, Stormtrooper, Canon EOS-1, Tri-X – (c) Steven Starr
Jun 2016, Stormtrooper (mulitple exposure), Canon EOS-1, Tri-X – (c) Steven Starr

Bring Me to Life

Fashion (Editorial) photography’s focus can often be more about the lifestyle (or fantasy of a lifestyle) than the actual garment. Make no mistake, the idea is to sell the product… but you do so by making readers feel the lifestyle is something they need and this garment is the way to get there. This coupled with a targeted demographic, art direction, hair, make-up, and post-production you create a world that is more often than not more of a fantasy than reality.

Lifestyle, in contrast, is “supposed” to be or relate to what we do or see on a day to day basis. It’s not a fantasy as much as it is a “real-life”. You could be photographing a camper, surfer, hiker, or a myriad of subjects doing “real-life” events.

This is not to say that lifestyle photography is not creative. It is actually quite challenging to tell someone’s story with stills if you are used to creating or staging your shots vs watching and trying to just capture that right moment. Take your kids camping, your girlfriend surfing, or get a friend and go hiking. You might be surprised at how hard it is to get the shot when you aren’t setting the stage.

Lifestyle can be staged too. My example here certainly was. This was shot for stock and not too far out of my wheelhouse but was different none-the-less.

Sep 2016, Model Jessica Burns, Shot for stock, Pentax 645, Kodak Portra – (c) 2016 Steven Starr

Make Me Wanna Go There

I love to travel! I grew up an Army brat. I lived in Germany and Okinawa, Japan. Even to this day, I get the urge to move every three years. I had great opportunities growing up and, as an adult, I’ve been all over the United States. While I have not been overseas recently (other than BC and Mexico) it won’t be long before I am venturing again.

You don’t, however, have to go to new lands to do travel photography. There are so many great opportunities in your own back yard that I’m sure many of us ignore on a regular basis.

In the last year, I have become a huge fan of Bob Holmes (National Geographic Photographer, you can find his IG here). His work makes you need to be where he is. He captures the essence, hardships, beauty, and adventure of a location and its people. You can imagine smells, weather, and the rigors of the terrain. His work, along with others, inspired me to take more image on my travels regardless of where I am going.

I live in Southern California and the potential destinations are endless. Bob and others always talk about early mornings and late nights when trying to get good travel images. That is not always going to happen. Challenge yourself to shoot (or find a shot) at “any” time of day. Make it work. You aren’t in the studio. You don’t control the light, subject, or weather. Be creative and find ways to make a great photo.

Oct 2016, White Sands National Monument, Sony a6300 – (c) 2016 Steven Starr

Include Your Family

When I first started in photography I was told by “many” that it wasn’t possible for me. Why? Because I was married and had kids.

15 years later, I guess that wasn’t really the best use of their time (trying to convince me to give up). My wife is my biggest supporter and my kids not only understand what I do, but love photography as well. It does take me away from them but when I am with them I don’t quit shooting. I shoot with them. We find interesting places and bring the cameras with us.

Is it harder to practice with the kids? Duh! They get bored quickly, tired, hungry, gotta pee, etc. All the while I am either teaching them, enjoying my time with them, or looking for my next shot. It is without a doubt the most distracting way to take photos but that in itself is the challenge.

Aug 2016, My wife off of Route 66 in CA, Sony NEX-7 – (c) 2016 Steven Starr

Don’t be Afraid to Fail

There are probably only a handful of photographers “ever” that can nail every single frame. It is okay to take a bad shot. I tell my boys all the time, “It’s okay to fail from time to time. If you aren’t failing you aren’t learning anything knew.”

Knowledge is the key to not only photography but life in general. Give yourself a break and allow yourself to make mistakes. For many this is not an easy task (I know I am my own worst critic) but you can take these mistakes/failures and turn them into learning opportunities.

About the author: Steven Starr is a fashion, beauty, and editorial fashion photographer based in Los Angeles, CA. You can find more of his work on his website. This article also appeared here.