Food for Thought: 95 Imaginative Ways to Take Your Next Photograph

I recently found a sheet full of awesome photo ideas inside my old college camera bag. The 5-paged document was handed out by my own college professor but they were written by Ray Spicer, a photography professor from the University of Wisconsin. His ideas were very unique and as his title, “Food For Thought” suggests – it’s a fun and different way for aspiring new photographers to think about how to get those interesting photos. Although his tips were conceived  before the advancements we have with digital cameras, all the ideas here are still relevant for anyone who loves taking photographs. I hope this will guide you in your own pursuit in capturing that next awesome shot!

Be honest. Photograph your way. Photograph the way you really want to photography. Push it, have fun with it and let it develop. Don’t make photographs you think you should make. Don’t make photographs based on other’s expectations. Make them for yourself. Enlightened viewers will understand and appreciate images made for the right reasons. Honest images are ultimately the best images. We all have influences. Just don’t be pushed around by your influences. Let them synthesize within you so that what you express is a true extension of you. Make photographs you (from the heart) want to make. Be honest.

  1. Make and ordinary object unrecognizable
  2. Give an ordinary object sensual or emotional qualities because of the lighting and the way it is printed.
  3. Design a photograph ahead of time – maybe sketch it out–then make the photograph.
  4. Photograph yourself in as many ways as you can.
  5. Make a night photograph indoors leaving the shutter open with a cable release using small light source like a flashlight, candle, electronic flash, sparklers etc.
  6. Do a night photograph outdoors.
  7. Passionately express your love in a photograph.
  8. Make a photograph with “meaning”.
  9. Life and Death (Symbolism)
  10. As an exercise, shoot part or all of a roll ignoring subject matter and thinking only about composition.
  11. Use light as the subject.
  12. Give space or atmosphere importance in a photograph
  13. Elevate the ordinary object to a religious symbol or give it great importance.
  14. The wind.
  15. Skin.
  16. Alter the “reality” of what is in front of the lens.
  17. Photograph something the way you want it to be, not the way it is.
  18. Combine the human figure and the landscape.
  19. Make a photograph no one else could possibly make.
  20. Make a photograph using your bathroom as an environment.
  21. Make a series of photographs within 30 feet from your bed.
  22. Record a love relationship so that the viewer will understand.
  23. Go to a boring, uninteresting place and make interesting photographs.
  24. Ask a stranger if you can make a photograph of them.
  25. Go to a new place and record not things, but your impression of things.
  26. Shoot randomly (from the hip, etc.). Then crop later. Find compositions that work.
  27. Photograph parts of your body (remember, composition is critical).
  28. Make a photograph based in some way on another work of art (sculpture, painting, etc.).
  29. Make a photograph that depends more on the subtlety of the lighting and print quality than the subject matter.
  30. Try to make the very best negative and print you can make, as a technical exercise.
  31. Make something three dimensional and photograph it in such a way that the photograph is the work of art, not a documentation of another work of art.
  32. Photograph one of your parents in a non-traditional way.
  33. Do a small series of photographs with relate to one another in some way.
  34. When you see a great sunset, turn around (180 degrees); that’s the nice light (almost always).
  35. Photograph the same object or composition at different times of the day as an exercise in understanding light.
  36. Make an angry photograph.
  37. Make a photograph in such a way that the composition or design of the image is so unique and so personal that the compositions itself becomes the statement or meaning of the image.
  38. Make a portrait of someone you care about or are attracted to in such a way that the viewer will understand to some extent how you feel about that person.
  39. Take a chance. Make a photograph which reveals something very personal or private about yourself or a friend. Some of the very best photographic images come from taking risks.
  40. Make photographs using a nude model, possibly yourself. The challenge here is to do it in a personal, unique way. Artists have used nude models for thousands of years, so uniqueness, though quite possible, is difficult.
  41. Make a political statement which is also beautiful.
  42. Photograph your dreams.
  43. Photograph your depression or ecstasy.
  44. Paint or draw on your photograph.
  45. Combine small photographs to make a larger one.
  46. Invent a new photographic technique
  47. Read about a “Fine Art Photographer’s” work and make a photograph in the “spirit” of that photographer, but add something that makes it “yours.”
  48. To “free” yourself, make a photograph different from any  you have ever seen.
  49. Think of the camera as a tool and photography as a medium for creative expression. Insist on controlling the medium. Don’t take photographs – make photographs.
  50. Don’t give in to the obvious.
  51. Be free, have fun, don’t stifle your instincts.
  52. Regarding your ideas, beware of societal norms – avoid the strait jacket.
  53. Make the photograph you are afraid to make.
  54. Combine photographs with another creative medium.
  55. Photograph your own home.
  56. Create order from disorder.
  57. Explore the “erotic”.
  58. Deal with your deepest feelings – be vulnerable.
  59. Photograph in such a way that the images must be printed very small to be successful.
  60. Moved by a good book or an emotional experience? Make photographs before you lose the feeling.
  61. Include your own creative writing with a photograph or series of photographs.
  62. Keep a small notebook of ideas. Some ideas will escape if you don’t write them down. I speak from experience.
  63. Try not to be detached from your photographs.
  64. Respect your photographs. Take charge and control every detail.
  65. Photograph the places of your childhood.
  66. Being overly influenced by mass thinking, the trendy, or the fashionable can weaken your work.
  67. Shoot lots photographs on one idea. Look at it–think about it and do it again. Let the idea penetrate your psyche.
  68. Satisfied with your work most of the time? This is most worrisome.
  69. Frustrated? Wish you were getting better faster? Spending a lot of time researching for better ideas? Trying with only moderate success to perfect your technique? Hungry, but unsure of yourself? Vibrate with excitement when you succeed? Celebrate! You’re GROWING!!
  70. Investigate things a little closer.
  71. Get intimately involved with something meaningful to you.
  72. Reveal something–open your eyes.
  73. Offended by racism or sexism? Make a creative statement about it (through photography).
  74. Take the viewer and yourself somewhere neither has been.
  75. While very carefully considering the consequences, break some rules, technical and otherwise.
  76. These suggestions will mean something different in two years–again in five years.
  77. Photograph things you take for granted.
  78. Use your imagination more. Think more. Stretch the possibilities.
  79. Fine are photography takes work, dedication, and passion, but the rewards are immeasurable.
  80. Worry less about what you will photograph and more about how you will photograph your subjects.
  81. Work with several vastly different subjects and treat them photographically in a similar way so that they “hold together” as a series.
  82. Write a statement about your work. Imagine that you are having a solo exhibition and that this statement will appear with your photographs. In other words, think about what your work means.
  83. Insist on BEAUTIFUL light. Never settle for less. Wait for it. Create it. Recognize it. Treasure it. Understand it. If it’s just no there, walk away.
  84. There are many ways to approach photography as there are ways to think, see, and feel.
  85. Regarding the value of good technique versus good creative ideas: the two cannot be separated. Good ideas are diluted without good technique. Good technique without good ideas is vacuous and empty.
  86. Try to establish an attitude about your subject matter before making photographs. Don’t let your subject matter control you. Take charge. Have a plan. As you are photographing, think about the final print and ways that you can get that to print.
  87. Art is a tangible manifestation of pure creativity. Do not allow anyone to limit your possibilities. Do not let traditions and theories control you. Beware the limiters.
  88. Photograph with a friend.
  89. Go on an afternoon/evening road trip with the sun to your back. Stop and photograph along the way. This approach has worked well for me lately.
  90. Stay humble. None of us can conceive of what we have yet to learn. Growth is stifled by inflated egos. On the other hand, enjoy your successes!
  91. Collaborate with someone on a photographic project.
  92. When you are photographing, think all the way to the final print. Anticipating technical decisions down the road will help you during the actual photographing.
  93. Shoot the same roll of film twice. This work best if dark backgrounds are used either the first or second time through.
  94. Sun light isn’t always the best light. Your subjects need what they need.
  95. Allow an unexpected image on a contact sheet to generate a series of photographs.
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  3. Today is 9-9-15, and I just now saw this page. Yes this is my suggestions list that I used for quite a few years at UW-Oshkosh. I’m not sure which version of the list is…I would have to refer to some old notes. The first time I used the list it had only 10 or so items on it, and then it just grew each semester. I’m not sure how helpful the list was for my students, but I suspect it helped some, since sometimes it is helpful to just have some ideas to ponder as one’s on projects are gradually generated. I must say I am curious as to the name of the professor who used this list for the former student who posted it here. I don’t really have any copyright notions about the list, and I’m glad it lives on. Best to all, Ray Spicer, author of the Suggestions List

  4. Here is the final updated version of the List which I used for the last time in the Fall of 2004:

    Suggestions and food for thought for fine art photography students.
    April 22, 2011 at 9:34pm

    ~SUGGESTIONS AND FOOD FOR THOUGHT~

    The following are not assignments. They are seeds of ideas and, and thoughts to consider.

    Happy Art Making. Ray Spicer, 2003

    Imagine that you intend to publish a book of your creative works such as a monograph of your art works, photographs or another medium, or possibly a poetry book. Create a photograph for the cover of your book that expresses the essence, feeling, and quality of the contents of the book.

    Make an ordinary object unrecognizable.

    Give an ordinary object sensual or emotional qualities because of the lighting and the way it is printed.

    Design a photograph ahead of time—maybe sketch it out—then make the photograph.

    Photograph yourself in as many ways as you can—shoot six or seven rolls if necessary.

    Make an abstract or metaphorical photograph that expresses your emotional state of mind.

    Make a night photograph indoors using a small aperture like f22 and leaving the shutter open (B setting) with a cable release using a small light source like a flashlight, glow stick, portable spot light, electronic flash, Christmas lights, etc.

    Do a night photograph outdoors (ask me how).

    While doing a night time exposure, re-focus the camera on a different object during the exposure using the distance scale on the lens and continue.

    Passionately express your love in a photograph.

    Make photographs that do more than recording something interesting. Make a statement.

    As an exercise, shoot part or all of a roll essentially ignoring subject matter and thinking only about composition.

    Use “light” as the subject. Do a little series which might appropriately be called “Light”.

    Give space or atmosphere importance in a photograph.

    Elevate an ordinary object to a religious symbol or give it great importance.

    Do a “portrait” of an object.

    Wind.

    Skin.

    Alter the “reality” of what is in front of the lens.

    Photograph something the way you want it to be, not the way it is.

    Force and compel us to feel the power of your image.

    If you find yourself getting swept away in a moment, take us back to that moment through your photograph. Take us back to your state of mind when the exposure was made.

    Combine the human figure and the landscape.

    Make a photograph no one else could possibly make.

    Make a photograph using your bathroom as an environment.

    Make a series of photographs within 30 feet from your house.

    (I borrowed this idea from legendary photographer, Ruth Bernhard. According to Ruth, if you can’t do this, you’re not a Photographer)

    Record a loving relationship so that the viewer will understand.

    Go to a boring, uninteresting place and make interesting photographs.

    Ask a stranger if you can make a photograph of them.

    Toss a dart into a map, and go there and photograph the first guy you meet named “Steve”.

    Photograph all the Jessica’s who live in Fond du Lac.

    Run an ad in a local paper saying you will give people a print if they will “model” for you.

    Photograph the “fast food strip” in 20 towns, so that all the photographs look essentially alike.

    Take a walk and make a photograph every 5 minutes, no matter what.

    (no cheating)

    Photograph the “water” (no shore) of the Mississippi, and the “water” (no shore) of the Fox. Exhibit the photographs together, and entitle them, “Two Rivers”.

    Photograph people photographing.

    Go to a new place and record not things, but your impressions of things.

    Make a direct, sincere, honest photograph.

    Shoot a roll randomly (from the hip, etc.) Then crop later to find interesting compositions that work.

    Photograph parts of your body. (pay particular attention to composition)

    Make a photograph based, in concept, on another work of visual art.

    Make a photograph that depends more on the subtlety of the lighting and print quality than the subject.

    Try to make the very best negative and print you can make, as a technical exercise.

    Make something three-dimensional and photograph it in such a way that the photograph is the work of art, not a documentation of another work of art.

    Photograph one of your parents in a non-traditional way.

    Do a small series of photographs which relate to one another in some way.

    When you see a great sunset, turn around. That’s the nice light (almost always).

    Make an angry or rebellious photograph.

    Make a photograph in such a way that the composition or design of the image is so unique and so personal that the composition itself becomes the statement or meaning of the image.

    Photograph the same object or composition at different times of the day as an exercise in understanding light.

    Take a chance. Make a photograph, which reveals something very personal or private about yourself or a friend. Some of the very best photographic images come from taking risks.

    Make photographs using a nude model, possibly yourself. The challenge here is to do it in a personal, unique way. Artists have used nude models for thousands of years, so uniqueness, though infinitely possible, is difficult.

    If you want to do a photograph and are embarrassed to do it (any kind of photograph), do it anyway, even though you don’t show it to anyone.

    Make a political or social statement which is also beautiful.

    Show the beauty that others find ugly.

    Show the “ugly” in what some see as beautiful.

    Express your opinion in a photograph.

    Pay attention to the subtle. We take so much for granted.

    Photograph your dreams (the day and the night kind).

    Photograph your depression or ecstasy.

    Paint, draw, or write on your photograph, or include text with your photograph.

    Combine small photographs to make a larger one.

    Invent a new photographic technique.

    Read about a “Fine Art Photographer’s work and make a photograph in the “spirit” of that photographer, but add something that makes it “yours”.

    To free yourself, make a photograph different from any you have ever seen.

    Make a photograph uncharacteristic of your style, something out of character for you.

    Regarding your ideas, beware of societal norms – avoid the straitjacket.

    Do the unexpected.

    Make the photograph you are afraid to make.

    Combine photographs with another creative medium.

    Photograph your hometown.

    Create order from disorder.

    Explore the “erotic”.

    Deal with your deepest feelings – be vulnerable.

    Photograph in such a way that the images must be printed very small to be successful. More is not necessarily “More”, nor bigger necessarily better.

    Moved by a good book or meaningful or emotional experience? Make photographs before you lose the feeling.

    Carry your camera almost all the time.

    Include your own creative writing with a photograph or a series of photographs.

    Keep a small notebook of ideas. Some ideas will escape if you don’t write them down immediately.

    Try not to be detached from your photographs.

    Respect your photographs. Take charge and control every detail. It pays off.

    Photograph the places of your childhood.

    Being overly influenced by mass thinking, the trendy, or the fashionable can weaken your work.

    Shoot lots of film on one idea. Look at it—think about it and do it again. Repeat. (like the instructions on shampoo) Let the idea penetrate your psyche.

    Satisfied with your work most of the time? This is most worrisome. On the other hand, celebrate your successes!!

    Frustrated? Wish you were getting better faster? Spending a lot of time searching for better ideas? Trying with only moderate success to perfect your technique? Eager, but unsure of yourself? Do you vibrate with excitement when you succeed? Celebrate! You’re Growing!!

    So you stumble onto something interesting…? Take a bunch of photographs; not just one. Investigate things a little closer.

    Get intimately involved with something meaningful to you….ponder it deep.

    Reveal something—open our eyes.

    Offended by racism or sexism? Make a photograph about it.

    Take the viewer and yourself somewhere neither has been.

    While very carefully considering the consequences, break some rules, technical and otherwise. (third semester and beyond only – it will take at least two semeters to gain enough understanding of the consequences.) It’s good to loosen up sometimes.

    Let your technique follow your ideas. Let them grow together.

    These suggestions will mean something different in two years—again in five years.

    Photograph the things you take for granted.

    Use your imagination more. Think more. Stretch the possibilities.

    Worry less about what you will photograph and more about how you will photograph. The treatment of your subject, in the context of your design or composition is what matters most.

    Work with several vastly different subjects and treat them photographically in a similar way so that they “hold together” as a series.

    Write a statement about your work. Imagine that you are having a solo exhibition and that this statement will appear with your photographs. In other words, think about what your work means. How would you express it in words?

    Insist on BEAUTIFUL light. Never settle for less. Wait for it. Go back again and again to find it. Create it. Recognize it. Treasure it. Understand it. If it’s just not there, walk away.

    There are as many ways to approach photography, as there are ways to think, see, and feel.

    Regarding the value of good technique versus good creative ideas: the two cannot be separated. Good ideas are diluted without good technique. Good technique without good ideas is vacuous and empty.

    Try to establish an attitude about your subject matter before making photographs. Don’t let your subject matter control you. Take charge. Have a plan. As you are photographing, think about the final print and ways that you can get to that print.

    On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for casual photographing to stimulate ideas.

    Art is a tangible manifestation of pure creativity. Do not allow anyone to limit your possibilities. Do not let traditions and theories control you. Beware of the limiters!

    Photograph with a friend; possibly collaborate on a project.

    Go on an afternoon/evening road trip with the sun to your back. Stop and photograph along the way taking advantage of the light.

    Go on an extended photographing trip (a few days or more), as opposed to a trip for a different purpose where you happen to bring along your camera.

    Stay humble. None of us can conceive of what we have yet to learn. Growth is stifled by inflated egos. Have fun and keep an open mind.

    When you are photographing, think all the way to the final print. Anticipating technical decisions down the road will help you during the actual photographing: (Will that piece of sky have to be burned in? How contrasty will the final print be?..Will you crop much in the darkroom and how will that affect the original composition, etc., etc.).

    Artists tend to be Project oriented since an idea is often a springboard for several images. If you find yourself working on a project, don’t be afraid to let it spin off in a different direction. That is actually desirable. In my experience the best work comes out of that kind of evolution. The spin off can be subtle or not so subtle. What is most important is to understand that as you see this happening not to stifle it, but to just let it flow.

    Shoot the same roll of film twice or more. This works best if dark backgrounds are used either the first or second time through.

    Sun light isn’t always the best light. Your subjects need what they need. Just don’t “settle”.

    Allow an unexpected image on a contact sheet to generate a series of photographs.

    Be honest. Photograph your way. Photograph the way you really want to photograph, push it, have fun with it, and let it develop. Don’t make photographs you think you should make. Don’t make photographs based on others expectations. Make them for yourself. Enlightened viewers will understand and appreciate good work on it’s own merits. Honest images are ultimately the best images. We all have influences. Just don’t be pushed around by your influences. Let them synthesize within you so that what you express is a true extension of you. Make photographs from the head and heart; from the inside out. Be honest.

    Portray the beauty within the ugly.

    Make the “photograph” more important than the subject.

    It has been said that Edward Weston “made love to his subjects” through photography. Much has been written about his intimate involvement with his subjects, whether they be rocks, shells, peppers or nudes.

    At one time I wanted to be famous; to not only be a great artist, but to be recognized as such. I don’t feel that way any more. Now my focus is to continue to do my work with passion and honesty and make it the best it can be. Ironically, those are the things that can lead to greatness. In other words, hold on to your personal integrity. It can bring you a great deal of personal a professional satisfaction.

    Avoid the obvious.

    Think deeper

    Don’t sell out! This familiar statement deserves an explanation. Artists, or “Fine Artists” as they are sometimes referred to, are those who conceive of an idea (on their own); an idea that somehow wells up from within, and from that idea, through their own “hands on” efforts, create a tangible manifestation of that idea. This wonderful mysterious process can happen in infinite ways. An idea might be triggered by a momentary spontaneous experience, a poetic thought based on past experience, your current state of mind, a profound shocking experience, a simple personal reaction to perceived beauty, the documentation of memory, an emotional experience, a desire to creatively express an opinion; the reasons go on and on and on. “Selling out” is when one lets factors outside one’s true, honest creative instincts contribute to the final product (the Artwork). Examples: If you were to add something to the work (outside of your honest creative instincts) so it would be more likely to sell. I once knew a guy who almost always included some “red” in his photographs. He said he did it because the ones with “red” would sell better. Some “sellouts” try to copy what is trendy, the new wave, or what is popular in the Art world. Some try to fit into the current “ism”. Examples in the near and distant past might be; Postmodernism, Modernism, Impressionism; and now, whatever the current “ism” is. From my observations, the most common form of “sellout” is where a so-called “Artist” creates work with the express purpose of pleasing a particular audience, for the sake of the audience instead of making an honest creative expression from within. To clarify, the audience is pleased while the Artist compromises her/his integrity. Another way to say it is; the Artist creates work that is presented/exhibited as an honest expression from within, when in fact, it is dishonest contrived work that tries to fit someone else’s expectations. Ironically, true, honest work originating from within is often pleasing to an audience. Real artists are generally happy when that happens. Some couldn’t care less. Some artists don’t even know they are artists. They just make creative things for fun. Later someone might come along and say, “nice piece of Art”, whereupon the person might express “surprise” or just “shrug”. Generally real Art is creatively stronger than “sell out art” because it takes risks, often has a playful honesty, is brave in it’s approach, and is a true expression of one unique individual.

    Make photographs “about” Photography. For example; photograph someone else making a photograph, or make a photograph, and then place the photograph in the scene originally photographed, and make another photograph of scene, including the first photograph you made. Use your imagination and think of other possibilities.

    Read The Day Books of Edward Weston.

    Read The History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum.

    After shooting a roll of film, with a felt tip pen write the appropriate development time on the film roll or cassette. Resist the temptation to wait until later and try to remember what kind of contrast you were dealing with. Deciding on the development time is a visual decision, even though it takes a lot of experience and practice.

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