I’m sick. Super sick. So sick, in fact, that I can’t even think of a funny simile for just how sick I am. And for me, that’s sick. And though I’ve not been tested for COVID-19, the global pandemic coronavirus that’s currently dominating the news cycle, I’ve decided to follow the unofficial protocol and “self-quarantine” in my home anyway. This could present a boring proposition. But being a photographer, I’ve got plenty to keep me occupied.
It looks like more and more of us are going to be “quarantined” in the coming months, voluntarily for now, who knows in the future. If you’re a photo geek and you’re panicked about being trapped inside with nothing to do, these suggested photo activities may help you fend off cabin fever (we can’t do anything about that real fever). Here are five photo projects we can all tackle without ever leaving the house.
[For the record, I didn’t rush out and panic buy the gloves and N95 mask used in the article’s lead image. I have these from a former life – the day job that I quit to run my camera business. Don’t judge.]
Try to Make a Good Self Portrait
Photographers love self portraits. How many of us shoot a bathroom mirror selfie with every new camera we buy? Most of us, I’d guess. But making a really excellent self portrait? That’s a lot harder.
Harder, but not impossible. There exist a number of excellent self portraits in the history of the craft. Just look at the self portrait works of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Vivian Maier, Diane Arbus, and Andy Warhol. Cindy Sherman made a life-long career out of self portraits, with one example Untitled #96, selling for $3.89 million in 2011. These works of art are a far cry from the snapshots we’re making in the bathroom, and even if we’ll never reach the rarified heights of the masters, we can at least try to inch our photos further from “selfie” and closer to “self portrait” on the quality spectrum.
Unlike selfies, self portraits are more than just a snapshot with the camera aimed back at the shooter. Self portraits often dive deep into the headspace of the one taking the photo, or offer commentary on society, or explore the photographer’s internal emotions. Self portraits can be made to share, or kept private; a product for consumption, or a personal reflection. Being stuck at home is a great opportunity to think deeply about what you can say with a self portrait, and then work on making it. There are no rules to making a self portrait, except that you must be taking a photo of yourself. You can use any camera, any props, any lighting, any perspective, as long as you’re the subject.
I recently made a self-portrait at home for use in an article that I wrote on photographic burnout. The idea was to demonstrate that my whole world is made of cameras, and that that can sometimes be exhausting. I’m obsessed with cameras. They surround me and press upon me. I love them, but I can’t escape them even when I want to. That photo is included above. It’s nothing special, but it did require some work. I arranged the prop cameras, set my camera and lens above me using a tripod and boom, then laid down on top of the cameras in the dark with a soft light blazing to my left, tried really hard to look like I wasn’t laying down painfully on a rack of cameras, and remotely triggered the shutter with a cable release. The result may not be art, but it took some effort and it’s at least closer to “self-portrait” than it is to “selfie.” That’s a good first step.
Macro Photography In and Around the Home
Macro photography is great for many reasons, but there are two reasons that it’s particularly well-suited for photographers who are stuck in and around their home. The first, is that the look and feel of macro photos can vary wildly over a span of mere feet. It’s easy to find countless subjects, vastly different light, and hundreds of unique images within the space of a small home.
The second reason that macro photography is a great pursuit when we’re stuck in and around the home is that it’s incredibly easy to get lost for hours shooting macro photos. Tweaking the aperture to get the right depth of field, shuffling around for that perfect point of focus, and taking hundreds of shots in the pursuit of that one dynamic macro photo takes time. Lots of time. This is especially true when the subject is a living creature. I once spent an hour lying on my back in a flower bed with my lens pointed upward, bees careening through the air around me, hoping to get a single photo of a bee in flight with the sun blazing through its translucent wings. I never got the shot that I’d envisioned, and I still want to get it. But I did get a great photo of my daughter’s eye yesterday.
If you already own a macro lens, mount that thing and get shooting. If you don’t have a macro lens, don’t worry. They’re not totally necessary to make great macro photos, as I demonstrated in this article on close-up filters. Grab a cheap set of close-up filters from Amazon (or from our online shop here) and you’ll be shooting macro photos as soon as the postman cometh.
Experiment with Alternative Processes
Bored with regular old digital and film photography? Use the time stuck in your home to experiment with alternative processes. We’ve written articles on “Souping Film,” the process of treating your film with chemicals or organic solvents prior to shooting and developing. These pre-treatments add unpredictability and wild visual elements into the final images made on film. Various types of tea, wine, beer, household cleaners, and plenty of other soup recipes have been used to make some wild film photos, and you can see some of these recipes and the images that they make in our article on the subject.
Last year, Charlotte wrote a piece on free-lensing, an alternative shooting process that’s easy to learn, hard to master. Free-lensing is the act of shooting your camera with the lens detached and held at angles to the film or sensor plane. This creates selective focus, lens flares, light leaks, and other optical aberrations which can be embraced or used in a deliberate way to create a unique image.
Alternative processes don’t necessarily need to be lofty and ambitious. This could be as simple as choosing to shoot a film type, camera type, or lens focal length that you don’t normally shoot. An example – one of our writers, Corey, recently used a pinhole camera to shoot a still life triptych of a flower over the course of two weeks; one photo before it bloomed, one at the height of its bloom, and one after it had wilted. The point here is that we’ve got time to kill. Why not do something with it that you don’t normally do?
Stuck inside for days and tired of looking at the people you live with? Go outside and look at the sky, and then take pictures of it! Astrophotography is easy to get into it, so don’t be intimidated. The shot above was my first ever attempt at astro photography, made with a 15mm Voigtlander lens and a Sony a7.
You won’t need much in the way of specialized gear to make a decent astro photo. You’ll want a digital camera, and your best lens will be a wide angle lens with a fast aperture (the faster the better), and you’ll also want a solid tripod. But that’s all you’ll need to get started.
Point your camera at the sky, set it to manual, and start shooting. You’ll need specific settings for ISO, shutter speed, and aperture in order to get a good photo with bright pinprick stars. A successful astro photo depends heavily on variables that we can’t possibly anticipate for each of you while writing this article. You’ll just need to get out there and experiment. And this isn’t a bad thing, since we’re supposed to be socially distancing (there’s nothing more solitary than standing silently outside at midnight, staring at the stars).
For a closer look at what it takes to make a great astro photo, please visit my pal Abdul Dremali’s website. He’s made some of the best astro photos I’ve ever seen, and his helpful blog post for astro beginners will get you started on the path to doing the same.
Learn to Develop Film at Home
This is a perfect use of quarantine time. Time that might otherwise be wasted is now repurposed to learn a new skill, one that will last a lifetime. That’s great! Developing black and white film at home is simple, takes about twenty minutes per dev cycle, requires just a few specialized tools, will save you money on lab processing, and allows greater control over our work. That’s a lot of positives!
If you’ve never developed film at home, don’t worry. We wrote a pretty useful guide to getting started that you can reference here. It’ll tell you everything you’ll need to buy, where to buy it (online), and how to develop your first rolls of film. We also wrote an article on Ilford’s Simplicity developing starter packs. Check that out and see if it’s an option that works for you.
There’s a lot more that we can do with this time. Practice product photography. Take a great photo of a banana. Try time-lapse photography. Clean your cameras and lenses. Set up a strobe, a glass of water, a backdrop, a soft light, and try to catch the exact moment that a drop of water splashes into a cup of water (I’ll be doing this tomorrow). Catch up on the hundreds of camera and lens reviews we’ve published. Use a window light to make portraits of your family or pets, or your favorite gear. Shoot an entire day at home on film. Document Your Life, as Matt Day says. There’s so much that we can do at home, photographically.
Or, hey, just do what I’ll be doing and watch Frozen 2 for the tenth, twentieth, and fiftieth times. Love that Olaf. Let us know what you do photographically during the doldrums of life in the comments below.
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