Improve your photography: Shoot in circles

Pile of old circles at the Stowe Antique Auto Show. 1/160th f8, ISO200 Nikkor 50mm

Pile of old circles at the Stowe Antique Auto Show. 1/160th f8, Nikkor 50mm


Feel like you’re running in circles with your shots? Want to improve your photography? Embrace the circle. Start shooting in circles. In short order, you’ll start seeing in new ways, and your images will become stronger.

First and foremost, I’m not a teacher, or an expert photographer by any means, so take away from this what you will. However, I can absolutely say that the method I’ll talk about here will result in you making better photographs over time. Why? Because this approach to learning photography will help you train your eye, plain and simple. And when you train your eye, you will improve your photography.

So what am I talking about with this “shoot in circles” business, anyway? Well, the short and sweet of it is to spend some time, say a week or two, photographing circles that you see about your travels. Now, I chose circles, but really, you can choose anything — rectangles, line, the color red, whatever, doesn’t matter. In fact, after you finish shooting one subject, you’ll move on to the next, and so on and so forth for the next year or so. Doing this will teach you to see the world differently. It will teach you to see your subject differently. And eventually, it will help you to make stronger compositions, and therefore, better photographs, no matter what you shoot.

Let me backtrack a bit here. Years ago I spent time shooting specific subjects for defined periods of time to better understand composition and how my cameras worked. I shot shadows for awhile. I shot fire escapes for a while. Circles. Triangles. Colors. Blah blah blah. I made a lot of terrifically awful photographs, a handful of good ones, and maybe one or two that I was super proud of. But looking back, this was a great experience and one that really helped me to start improving my photography.

Fast-forward to last week. I was reading through questions posted on photographer Zack Arias‘ Tumbler, “Ask Me Anything About Photography” regarding how to improve one’s eye. — this, btw, is one of the greatest sites I’ve come across recently and now read it daily. Zack’s answer — how cool is that that he actually answers just about every question asked so far as I can tell — was to start shooting subjects in this manner. He’s a teacher, and this is one of the methods he uses to help photographers develop their eye. This is fundamental stuff, and you’ll improve your photography through it, as Arias points out:

Do this for three or four months and you’ll start to see red lines reflecting in a blue window with a circle around them. It’s totally wax on, wax off Karate kid stuff.”

Arias certainly isn’t the only person to promote this technique. Spend enough time searching the web and you’ll find dozens of folks saying the same thing. Pick up some books on photography and you’ll see it there as well. A few years back I read Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos, and wouldn’t you know, he also talks about this along with lots of other good techniques for improving the way you see to make better photographs.

After reading Arias’ answer, I realized something else, though — this type of exercise is good to revisit, even if you’ve been shooting for years. For me, it’s easy to get in a slump when it comes to personal shooting. Living in rural Central Vermont means I spend a lot of time in the car watching life pass by at 50+ miles per hour. And while I love looking at good nature and landscape photography, that’s not what I love to shoot, which is unfortunate because those are the opportunities that are most abundant in my immediate area. Nonetheless, when I thought about the idea of revisiting shooting circles, it made me realize that I can and should be making conscious efforts to watch for specific subjects as I go about my daily life because this will improve my eye and help me to see the photographs I want to make when the opportunities do arise. That being the case, I had to return some movies up in Hardwick the other day and I figured, why not look for circles on the 10 mile drive and while walking over to the video store? A day later, Daphne and I went over to the Stowe Antique Auto Show and I thought, lots of great cars and people to shoot! And circles!

Coffee cups through the Buffalo Mountain Co-op window in Hardwick. 1/100th f2 ISO200 Nikkor 50mm

Coffee cups through the Buffalo Mountain Co-op window in Hardwick. 1/100th f2 ISO200 Nikkor 50mm

The great thing about this technique is that while it might seem kind of limiting, it’s really not, because often times you’ll start seeing your chosen subject in the images that you were going to make anyway, but now you might decide to frame the shot differently to bring out the circle, or rectangle, or color red. You’ll also start seeing photos where you wouldn’t have seen them before. Take these coffee cups in the window of the Buffalo Mountain Co-op. By no means a fantastic image, but I like it nonethess. I like the bokeh happening deep inside the store. I like the milk-y-ness that covers the whole scene caused by shooting through a wet window. I like the vibrancy of the colors of the mugs. And, I like the circles. The thing is, had I not been forced to rethink the benefits of revisiting this process, I would have walked right by that shot.

Circles in symmetry on the door of of Woodbury-Calais Church, Woodbury, VT. 1/125th f8 ISO200 Nikkor 50mm

Circles in symmetry on the door of of Woodbury-Calais Church, Woodbury, VT. 1/125th f8 ISO200 Nikkor 50mm

And for a beginner, it’s not a limiting exercise either, because there’s really no reason why you can’t, and shouldn’t for that matter, be improving your photography on multiple levels at once. Say you’re attempting to get a better handle on depth of field by fiddling about with your aperture. Great. Do that. Do it over and over again. But do it while focusing on your chosen, specific subject. Trust me on this, you’ll get a much better handle on how your aperture affects the look and feel of your image when you remove the pressure of trying to find a great shot randomly. By confining yourself before heading out to shooting circles, you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for, you’ll find lots of opportunities to make photographs, and you can remain mindful of your other learning objective, aperature control. Ditto that for whatever else you’re trying to learn, i.e. shutter speed, exposure, flash, whatever.

Moreover, you’re going to start picking up on other compositional strategies while tracking down your circles. On my trip up to Hardwick, I spotted these two wreathes on a church door and thought, circles! I pulled over, hopped out, and then noticed that the wreathes, the doors, the flower baskets, the flood lights, and the railings, all make for a great example of symmetry. Would I have gotten this shot if I weren’t looking for circles? Nope, probably not. Am I glad I did? Yep, because I just made a photograph I enjoy looking at from a scene I blow by in the car at least twice a week simply because I chose to focus on circles for a bit.

All that being said, good luck shooting whatever it is you choose to shoot. As for me, I’m going out looking for circles.

Additional circles from the past few days

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