Alex Huff is a studio portrait photographer and lighting instructor in San Francisco. She maintains a constant presence in the photography industry as a Marketing Associate for and as support staff for Get more photography tips on her blog.

Inspiration is fickle but skill blesses those who practice. Here are 7 creative exercises for portrait photographers who need to shoot but are lacking motivation or new ideas. Finishing just 1 of these ideas will help rekindle the flame of a lost muse, which is something every artist goes through.

The best part is that you don’t have to have elaborate sets or exotic locations to do any of these 7 portrait challenges.

1. Create a Portrait Based on Children’s Art

We look to our peers for inspiration but basing new work on a child’s creation challenges your perspective and gives you permission to break the rules. For extra points don’t ask the child to explain their drawing before you shoot. Only after I shot my portrait did I learn that the child had actually drawn a jar and not a person! This exercise will remind you how differently everyone interprets art.

2. Limit Yourself to Household Items as Costuming

This exercise forces you to eliminate excuses to not shoot. Even if you don’t have the budget for a costume you can still create a whimsical portrait. Work with your hands by reshaping materials like aluminum foil, netting, or construction paper ­ a worthy creative break from the everyday photography you’re used to doing.

3. Create a Portrait of a Haiku

Haikus, poems, songs, and other non­visual arts allow you to imagine characters. If you want to take a portrait but have no idea where to start thematically, this is a great exercise. Do not feel like you have to reveal the source of your inspiration (I did here for the purpose of this list). Haikus and poems are merely a device to help get you started on new, original work.

4. Represent Someone Else’s Interests Creatively

Get outside yourself and celebrate someone else’s favorite thing through photography. My subject is a landscape architect and a succulent lover so we experimented in this portrait of her with a succulent crown. Alternatively, photograph somebody in their favorite environment.

5. Invent an Event

Don’t wait for the opportunity to shoot something specific. If you want to get into bridal portraits but don’t know any brides, there is no law saying your model has to be really getting married. Your roommate doesn’t have to really be in a band for you to take a musician portrait and kids don’t have to really be siblings for you to take a “family portrait”.

Some props and a few friends are all it takes to play this game and then you’ll be prepared when the real thing comes around.

6. Swap Styles with a Fellow Photographer

Caption: Top image taken by Alex Huff in the style of Sohail Mamdani. Bottom image taken by Sohail Mamdani in the style of Alex Huff.

This is the most challenging exercise of the bunch because it forces you to get outside of your comfort zone. Shoot in a style that isn’t yours and you’ll better recognize your own style plus you get to see how your work is interpreted by somebody else. I tend to shoot low key work in color while my colleague, Sohail Mamdani, shoots almost exactly the opposite. By swapping styles we challenge ourselves.

7. Let Your Subject Direct

If you know somebody who is a little outgoing this is a great way to humble yourself by admitting that you don’t always know what’s best for a shoot. I originally planned to have this subject pose with a nice sweater and a smile but decided to let him choose the wardrobe and tone of the shoot. What resulted is a kid portrait that is more fun and personal. Letting someone else drive gives you the opportunity to enjoy the journey.

Credits and Gear

Portrait artists depend on people for their work. The following are the people who helped me create this list of tips for you.

Models, in order of appearance:

Tristan Cunningham
Christopher Lee
Destiny Ekwueme
Liana Ramos
Andrea Anda­-Arce
Alyssa Reyes
Xela Gaerlan
Jack McGhee


Most of my work is shot on a Nikon D810 with a 58mm f/1.4 lens and lit with Profoto. Special thanks to makeup artist Rebecca Rosales and stylist Katherine Nowacki. See more of my work on 500px.