Whether you’re a seasoned snapper stuck in a rut or a newbie in need of focus, trying something different can do wonders for your photography.
From desktop experiments and inventive techniques to novel subjects and inspirational themes, the constraints and challenges of photography projects can shape the way you shoot, pushing you to be more creative, understand your camera and reconsider what you’re capable of capturing.
With that in mind, we’ve assembled this list of 52 imaginative photographic ideas – one for each week of 2020 – that will have you using your camera in new ways in the new year. To help you decide where to begin, they’re divided into easy experiments you can start at home right now, fresh ideas to try outdoors at the weekend and a series of longer projects that you can pursue for the whole year.
Home photography projects
1. Water drop art
The basic idea with this project is to suspend a container of liquid and let drops fall through a small hole, then capture the resulting splash. Timing the shutter as the splash is created is everything. We achieved good results using two flashguns set to their lowest power (1/128th), an aperture of f/22 and water mixed with Xanthan gum to make a more viscous solution. We also used a SplashArt water drop kit from PhotoTrigger, which helped to regulate the size and frequency of the drops.
2. Indoor splash shots
For this project you’ll need a flashgun that you can fire remotely, a container with clear sides for your water, a coloured background and a tripod. Set up the container and backdrop, then position the flash over the container. With the camera on a tripod and set to manual focus and exposure – f/8, ISO200 and the fastest shutter speed that will work with your flash – drop the object into the water and fire the shutter as it hits.
3. Create smoke art
Smoke trails are a firm favourite among still-life photographers. But how about taking it to the next level and using the shapes in a creative Photoshop project. Once you’ve taken a few good smoke art photos, make a blank document in Photoshop, then copy and paste one of the smoke images into it. Set the blending mode to Screen and use Warp Transform to reshape it. Continue the process to combine a range of smoke shots into a new image.
4. Try cross-polarisation
This fun project exploits the effect that polarised light has on some plastics. You’ll need two polarising filters – ideally one of these should be a sheet of polarising film. You can pick up an A4 sheet of Lee 239 polarising film for £50 (try www.robertwhite.co.uk or www.pnta.com). The sheet of film should be placed on a lightbox or in front of the only light source. An iPad screen and most computer screens have a polarising filter built in, so if you don’t have a sheet of polarising film you can always experiment by creating a white document to fill the screen. Simply attach the circular polariser to the camera lens and rotate it to make the colours appear in clear plastic items
5. Food landscapes
Spice up your food photography! All you need is a set of model figures – Hornby 00 gauge figures are perfect, as they’re available in a wide range of poses. Preiser has a great range too. The most important aspect is to establish a sense of narrative. Here you can see that there’s a conversation between the characters, with the mountaineer on the ‘mash face’ being helped by his colleagues on the ground.
6. Fine-art food
Try turning your dinner ingredients into photo art using just a lightbox and a very sharp knife. Slice fruit and vegetables as thinly and evenly as possible, then place them on the lightbox. With the camera positioned directly above, use Live View to focus manually on the details. Set an aperture of f/8 to give adequate depth of field, and dial in some exposure compensation of +1 to +3 stops as the bright light can fool the camera’s meter into underexposure.
7. Flowers in ice
A relatively inexpensive way of taking ‘kitchen sink’ close-ups that look great blown up as wall art. Freeze flowers in plastic containers of distilled or de-ionised water (available through your local auto or hardware store). The flowers will float, so try to weigh them down or fasten them in place so that they freeze under the water. Place the block of ice on top of a clear bowl or glass in a white sink or plate, so that the light can bounce through from below. Position a flashgun off to one side, angled down towards it, and shoot from the opposite side.
8. Abstracts in oil
Oil floating on the surface of water is a great way to make striking abstracts. This table-top photo project exploits the refractive quality of oil and bubbles to accentuate and distort colours. All you need to do is place a few drops of cooking oil on the surface of water in a glass dish. Make sure the dish is supported about 25cm about the table top, then place coloured paper under it and use an anglepoise lamp or flashgun to light the paper.
9. Oily reflections
This project follows a similar theme to the previous one, but here the patterns are created by a cover over the light rather than a coloured background. First, make a cover for an anglepoise lamp using acetate, card and tape. Use masking tape to attach it, but make sure it isn’t touching the bulb, and keep the light off when you’re not shooting. Place a full bucket of water in front of the lamp, add a few drops of cooking oil. Stir up the oil, get in close and shoot.
10. Camera tossing
Chucking your precious photographic equipment into the air might sound like something designed to void the warranty, but – provided you’re not too clumsy – camera tossing can deliver some truly spectacular results. Try it in a dark room with a single light source. Set a shutter speed of around one second (roughly the length of time it’ll be in the air) and, as the timer hits zero, launch it upwards. Catching it is the important part, but once you’re comfortable with the technique you can experiment with multiple light sources, different colors and even spinning your camera as you release it.
11. Psychedelic soap film
This is a wonderful project that makes for vibrant desktop wallpaper or abstract wall art. You’ll need liquid soap mixed with glycerine for long-lasting soap film, plus a wire loop, a black cloth background and a macro lens of at least 100mm. The colours created by soap film only appear when hit by light from a certain angle, so set up near a north-facing window and shoot from around 45 degrees.
12. Refractive art
Light bends when it passes through water, causing the objects behind to change appearance. This is called refraction, and you’ll make use of this phenomenon in this arty photo project. All you need is a few glasses, a flashgun, a tripod and a black-and-white pattern print. Simply place the pattern in the background with the glasses in front. Fill them with different levels of water and move the pattern backwards or forwards to fine-tune the effect.
13. Kitchen close-ups
Your kitchen is an ideal location for shooting a macro project. Its reflective surfaces can be used to create interesting backgrounds for your shots, and a shallow depth of field can transform the most mundane of objects you’ll find there. Creating a triptych of images can result in a piece of fantastic wall art for your kitchen too, although it’s important to think about how they’re going to work together before you start shooting. Here, 3 objects – a fork, a bowl of cereal and coffee granules – were all shot from a similar angle, with the impression of height linking the sequence.
14. Still-life bokeh
Something as simple as a crumpled piece of foil can be the basis for a creative photo project. Position a still-life subject on a sheet of glass with a piece of dark material underneath it. Scrunch up the kitchen foil then smooth it back out and place it in the background. Shine a table lamp or torch on the foil and, with a tripod mounted camera, dial in the lens’s widest aperture to create some beautiful ‘bokeh’. During the exposure, shine a flashlight onto the subject.
15. Bokeh bubbles
Small highlights often create nice bokeh, so fairy lights are perfect for this project. Position them far enough away so that they will be out of focus at a wide aperture. Position your subject, in this case a glass, close to the camera and focus on it. Tweak the position of the fairy lights until it looks like cool coloured bubbles are floating out of the glass. This technique can also be used to create bokeh ‘steam’ from mugs of hot drinks.
16. Still life light trails
Light trails can be used in all kinds of photography, but they’re perfect for a creative still life project. You can use a regular Maglite torch, but try removing the end to reveal the bulb and make the light more direct. Use some electrical tape to attach a coloured sweet wrapper, which you can use as a makeshift ‘gel’. Set the canera’s shutter speed to around 30 secs with an aperture of around f/8, then start moving the torch within the frame before pressing the shutter. Continue the movement throughout the exposure. Here, we suspended the torch from a piece of string and made a gentle circular movement to create a spiral around the bottle.
17. Light spirals
You’ll need to attach a torch, suspended by string, to an open area of ceiling. Fit the widest lens you have on your camera, and mount it on a tripod pointing straight up. With the light turned on, autofocus on the tip of the torch and set the lens to manual focus to lock the setting in. With an aperture of f/11 or f/16 dialled in, use Bulb mode and a remote release to keep the shutter open for a minute or so as you send the torch spinning in the dark…
- Best camera flash: dedicated flashguns for Canon and Nikon DSLR
- Best macro lens 2018: close-up lenses for Canon and Nikon DSLRs
- Macro lenses: how to choose one, and how to use it