Train Your Brain


Last year we launched this column featuring Kathy Lillis’s win in the Oregon Humane Society (OHS) Photography contest.  Kathy won using a point-and-shoot camera, and had no formal training other than my photography class at OHS.  She proved you don’t need fancy equipment to create powerful images.  What you do need is a passion for your subject — which is easy when it comes to animals!  I hope her success and story has inspired you.

Since this year’s contest is just a couple of months away, I thought you might like to start flexing those creative muscles and getting in shape for the competition.  Even if you aren’t planning to enter, the same exercises we discuss here will “improve your game.”

Here we’ll discuss some general training tips, moving into more specifics next month.  I’ve had the fun challenge of judging a few photo contests, so I’ll be passing along some inside tips I hope you’ll find helpful.

The first step in getting your eye in shape is to study lots of other peoples’ work.  Check out previous winning photographs — both from contests you might enter, and from others.  I don’t recommend trying to emulate the photos you see, especially from last year, as many are wont to do.  You want to stand out from the crowd, and your chances are better with a unique look that distinguishes itself from the competition.

Also, you’re most likely to win with photos that come from your heart and eye.  So look for ideas that fit into and enhance your own vision.  Besides studying winning photos, study photos from magazines, books, and even movie scenes that speak to you.  Those are going to be closest to your style, and thus likely the most similar to the image you’ll win with. 

DC-April photo-Mele.jpg

Also, strive to discern just what works in the images you connect with and consider how you can accomplish something similar.  This will lead you to new techniques and ideas to try.  And it will fill your brain with ideas that will come back to you as you photograph.

Study your own work, too.  Similar to learning from other photographers, studying your own work will load your brain up with ideas based on both successes and opportunities to do something different.  Your own work will reveal your unique way of seeing the world, and the more familiar and comfortable with that you become, the greater the possibilities. 

The Photographer Vik Orenstein has had a successful children’s portrait studio since 1988.  Before that though, in 1984, her passion for travel photography took her to Thailand.  When she returned she discovered that over 75% of her photos were of children.  This was a key “Aha!” moment that led her to great success. 

Look for patterns in the photos that speak to you.  See if you can find common elements — styles, aesthetics, subjects — that you are drawn to.  Then consider what a winning “{insert your name here}” photo might look like.  That doesn’t mean you need to pursue that image — you’re just loading up on ideas here.  The goal is to have so many ideas in our brains that while we’re busy photographing, our brains become little directors on our shoulders saying, “Hey, this is like that photo you loved so much!” or “Wow, the light is just like the scene from that movie.”  Watch:  this will greatly expand your creative potential.

This month’s assignment

is to submit a photo that fits into your own vision.  This can be a new photo or one you made long ago.  And then I’d love to hear about which elements you most connect with — whether emotional elements (the way a gesture or a look makes you feel), technical elements (how the light interacts with your subject), or whatever else speaks to you. 

I’m excited about these next couple of columns.  I hope the “get in shape to compete” vibe inspires you and I look forward to seeing the world as you do!

Class Recap

  • Try the exercise
  • Send your photos from the assignment to: Please put “Spot Photo Class” in the subject line
  • Go to Photography 101 on Spot's website to see your photos and those of your fellow students
  • Share your great work with your friends!
  • Check out David’s tips and comments
  • Meet David here in May for your next session!
Trick of the Trade beach dog.jpg

David Childs is a professional photographer, photo journalist, instructor, and animal advocate. You can see his work or contact him at

Study with David live! His pet photography classes are offered at Oregon Humane Society. See his website for details.

David ChildsComment