I’m a strong believer that setting yourself photo projects is the best way to improve your photography skills. Projects give you focus and help you build a cohesive body of work. A photo project can last for years, and set a theme that helps you find new people and subjects to photograph.
Of course, you may be wondering what sort of project you could set yourself that would achieve these aims. A project can be simple, like photographing flowers in your back yard, or it can be more complex, such as travelling to a foreign country and photographing the people you find there.
Getting ideas for a photo project
You’ll find lots of inspiration at websites like Feature Shoot that regularly publish photo projects.
I’m going to give you some advice on tackling a project by giving you some examples from a project that I undertook to photograph artists and craftspeople. I have learned a number of things from this project.
Here are some of the most important:
- Meeting new people and learning about their crafts is interesting. I like meeting and talking to new people and learning about their lives. The brief window I have during the shoot is a chance to connect and talk about art and creativity, as well as the work of the artist or craftsperson. Some of those people have become friends. This project has rewarded me on a personal level as well as on a photographic one.
- It helps me find something interesting to photograph. For example, 18 months ago I spent three days in Raglan, a small town on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Before I went, I contacted two local craftspeople and asked if I could drop by and take some photos. Both said yes – and I made my most interesting photos on the trip during those two shoots.
- The project grows by itself. I send photos to the people I photograph, then ask them if they know of anybody else who may be interested. These personal introductions and recommendations help me find new artists and craftspeople to photograph.
- My portraiture skills have improved. Practice makes perfect, and every shoot means I get a little better at this documentary style of portraiture.
Here’s a portrait I made of artist Chris Meek, one of the artists I photographed in Raglan. We had a great conversation about art, creativity, and life. I’d never have had this experience if I hadn’t embarked on the project.
So, once you’ve decided on a project, how do you make it a success? These ideas will help.
1. Shoot a variety of images
This is important because it adds interest and variety to the photos you get from the shoot. But I’d like to add a proviso, because I think in general there are two ways to approach a project shoot.
Firstly, is to concentrate all your resources on getting one great photo. The second is to create a set of varied photos that collectively give a better interpretation and tell a story.
My suggestion is to combine these two approaches. Aim to create a variety of photos, but give each photo your best effort. In other words, when you see the possibility of an image, give it your full attention and make it as good as you can before you move on to the next.
How do you create variety? Here are two ways:
1. Vary your viewpoint. Get closer to your subject, or farther away. Take photos from below, or from above. Of course, the best viewpoint depends a lot on the subject of your project, the light, and the lenses you are using. But the key is to always be thinking about how you can add variety by moving around and taking photos from different angles.
2. Take scene setting shots and close-ups. You could start with a scene-setting photo that captures everything, then move on and create a variety of photos from closer viewpoints showing details.
This works well for projects like mine, where you can take a photo of the artist or craftsperson at work in their studio, along with a series of tighter images and close-ups that show them at work. In this example, you can also take photos of the product the craftsperson makes as well as photos of the craftsperson themselves.
These two photos show Todd, a flute maker, working in his garage. Both were taken with the same lens, but I got a lot closer to make the second image.
This also applies to more static subjects like landscapes. If you have a landscape related project, you can create variety with photos that show the entire scene, mixed with some that show close-ups of details that you noticed within the scene.
2. Tell a story
It’s often hard to a story with a single image, but it’s much easier with a sequence of photos because you can show different aspects of the same story in each one.
For example, with my photos of craftsmen I like to show images taken at different stages of the creation process. Put together they show how a certain item was made. That’s the story. These three photos show different stages in the creation of an artwork by Chris Meek.
You can also tell a story by paying attention to detail. While taking photos of Eoin, a glass blower, I noticed that his hands gave away a lot about his profession. So I made sure that I took photos like this, that shows the dirt on his hands and the tattoo on his thumb.
3. Find commonalities that link the photos
While photo stories need variety amongst the images to create interest, it is helpful if the photos are also linked in some way. For example, you could process all the photos from a shoot in black and white. Or they could be processed in a similar style, perhaps by using the same Lightroom Develop Preset as the basis for the processing.
Or, if you have a project that involves portraits, you could use light to link the photos. Using the same lighting setup for each portrait is one way to to do that.
These photos of Jasmin, a weaver who makes hats, are linked by the lighting and the processing. Each is lit by natural light coming through a window in her home, and given the same color treatment in Lightroom.
4. Show genuine interest in people
If your project involves people it is important to be genuinely interested in them and what they are doing. Let’s say, for example, you undertake a project taking portraits of surfers. You’ll get the best results if you are genuinely interested in surfing and enjoy talking with surfers.
It’s all about authenticity. If you’re genuinely interested in people, you will have plenty in common and find it easy to talk with them. But, if you’re not, then you won’t make the connection that is essential for good portraiture.
5. Give it time
Give your projects time to evolve and mature. For example, if you have a project photographing your local landscape, giving it time lets you create a series of photos that show the variation created by weather and seasons. Showing the changes that happen over a period of time is also another way of telling a story.
6. Compare and evolve
The reason why projects are such a good learning experience is because they give you the opportunity to compare your current work with your earlier photos. You will see how your ideas and techniques have evolved over time. You’ll also benefit by building a body of work and learning to edit a portfolio by selecting the strong images that work together.
Have you undertaken any photography projects? Did they help you become a better photographer? Please share your thoughts and project in the comments below.
The Creative Image
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