How To Design And Shoot A Long Term Photography Project

How To Design And Shoot A Long Term Photography Project


Waiting Taxis In Ireland

Personal photography projects are the spice of life between the humdrum of every day life and shooting. As a professional, there are subjects I shoot because I’m paid to (portraits, weddings, products, etc…) and there are subjects that interest me personally (mountains, goofy road signs, milk jugs, etc…). I’ve learned to mix the two and let work assignments pay for personal projects by keeping a list of what I want to shoot as I travel internationally as well as around my town.

You may not have thought of starting a long term project. Most of us don’t because our photographic interests change over time, more quickly as we start to dabble in photography and learn new techniques. We are all familiar with the Project 365, where the idea is to take a photo a day for a year. Think of this as a Project 365, but spread out of 5, 10, 40 years. Your goal is not to shoot regularly, but to shoot your given subject over and over and over, then compile the images tell a story.

Pick a subject(s)

Waiting Taxis in Bhutan

Start with a mental list of subjects that are interesting to you and especially ones that you find in multiple locations. As with most personal photography projects, the key is to make it interesting to you so it’s always at the tip of your mind. Creating a long term project based on what your friends want, from my experience, doesn’t work as well because interest in the subject tends to wane.  This project has to be for you. If others click with your subject and like it as well, all the better.

You can pick a subject that is in one location and shoot it in different light, over the course of time. This works well for structure or landscape photos. Picking an area near the urban environment will show change over time. You can also shoot in different seasons or weather conditions and this works if the subject is close to where you live so you can visit it often if particular light is found on a given day.

You can pick a subject that is the same in multiple locations.  While traveling from continent to continent, I started to notice eggs are packaged in nearly identical containers no matter where I went (except the USA, so far). Peru, Nepal, Australia, Morocco….different eggs, same container and quantity. Some shots I took were quick snaps. Some were more thought out.  Some other subjects to help with your creative process include:

  • Cars
  • Bridges
  • Clocks
  • Money
  • Cats and Dogs
  • Signs
  • Markets
  • Religious Structures
  • Numbers
  • Your Favorite Hobby (besides photography)

The list goes on and I’m sure you can make your own. The idea is to find something you like and look for it when you travel down your local roads or across the world. Remember, the idea here is long term. You’ll be collecting these images for decades so you don’t have to find them all this coming week.

Map it out

Waiting Taxis In Peru

If you’re the planning type, map out where you can find your subject(s) and keep it around. Maybe you picked cathedrals. Find local examples, if there are any, and then create a map with the location of some prize structures you really would like to see. I believe in both having a plan and in letting chance play a part. The map will let you know where you would like to go but you should also be open to driving past a cathedral where you weren’t aware any existed.

Finding your subject(s) and over time, you can make plans to acquire the photos you are looking for. It’s also a good visual reminder if you happen to unexpectedly be heading to, say, New York on a business trip or for a friend’s wedding that only 30 minutes from your hotel are some of your prize photos waiting to be added to a collection.

Write it down

There are studies showing how much more effective people are at obtaining goals by performing the simple act of writing them down. Use a computer, a piece of paper or the back of a napkin. Use what works for you and write down your subjects. Review the list often when you are waiting for a plane, sitting at the dentist office or have an extra moment while the police officer writes you a speeding ticket. In order to review the list regularly, you will need to…

Keep the list with you

This is where paper works better than computers, although you can certainly do both. A scrap of paper will fit in any billfold or purse and will travel with you. When you are feeling rudderless and not sure what to shoot, that list, when kept with you, can kick start some creativity. Maybe the subject isn’t right at hand, but reviewing it will get you thinking in the right direction. Make multiple copies of your list and keep one in your camera bag, top drawer at work and taped to your bathroom mirror at home.

Just start

“The journey of a thousand photos begins with one click.” – Probably Not Confucius

Create a folder on your computer. Right now. It’s not hard, I’ll wait while you do it.

Wait….are you at work? Maybe you should wait until you get home and create the folder. I think you know what to do with it; label that sucker with your subject. Create a folder for each subject and as you snap images along the path of life, drop them into the folder. Make sure to give the files some sensible name, like the location of the subject. You can also stuff the IPTC data of your image with other information, such as how you found the subject, weather conditions or anything else you want to tag on.

Even if you don’t have a photo of your subject worth of dropping in the folder, create the folder and keep it visible. Put it in your Favorites on a PC or the Places (In Finder) on your MAC. Keep them there in front of you.

Realize you’ll likely delete your first attempts by the end

Have you ever gone back and checked out photos you shot maybe 20 or 30 years ago? Or if you’re starting out, maybe just last year? We all go through the, “I thought THAT was a good shot?” blues at times so don’t sweat it. It’s part of the evolutionary process of art and just being alive. As you add images to the folder, don’t worry too much if they are good enough for the future. You’ll know when you get to the future and can simply move them out of the folder. Cut yourself some slack, this is supposed to be a fun project just for you.

Allow for change

Along with deleting your first attempts, allow your subject matter to change over time. Maybe you will create nested folder inside your first folders and ‘Cathedrals’ will contain ‘Crosses’ and ‘Architecture’. Or maybe it will spin off the other direction as you take interest in other religious buildings and instead nest ‘Cathedrals’ inside of ‘Places Of Worship’ and add other folders for ‘Mosques’ and ‘Temples’ and so forth. Let your interest grow. Harddrives will only be getting bigger, you’ll have plenty of space.

Let it be known

Ah, social media. It can be a boon for those of us looking for information from reliable sources who care about us; friends and family. Lean on them and let them know what you’re up to. A simply post such as, “I’m starting a photo collection and I want to shoot all the alpaca farms in the tri-state area. Do you know of any?” Easy. 115 characters. It’ll even fit on Twitter.

One of the best uses of DPS is the ability to connect with like-minded photographers. I’d encourage you to use the forums section here on DPS which can be a wealth of information in a more interactive format. Ask about ideas you have or request some input on where to shoot. Or just search for your intended topic(s) and see what others have said.


Long term personal photography projects can be a lot of fun when looked back upon decades from now. But you have to start today in order to build the inventory and memories to share down the road. I’m pretty sure the real Confucius would agree.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • White Petal Wedding Photography January 11, 2012 05:20 am

    I like the concept, maybe I'll put a list on my Smart Phone, then it'll go with me everywhere.

  • Jill Jennings January 7, 2012 03:26 am

    Thanks for the great article. I think these types of projects of indispensable to those desiring to improve their photo skills. I did a year-long photo project back in 2010 called "Project 30." I posted a photo a day for 30 days based on a specific theme. At the beginning of each new month I'd start the process all over again with a new theme. I took a year off in 2011, but I'm back at it for 2012. You can check it out here:

  • HOOP December 24, 2011 12:28 am

    In my classes, I call this sort of shooting "creating portfolios" and I also find that the subject many times finds me instead of the other way around. For a long time I was finding chairs in the oddest places and such a variety of types and places that I started taking shots of them and just thought of the photos as my "chair shots". Then as time went on (I won't say how many years/decades), I started taking shots of the shadows that chairs created, etc, etc. And now I refer to this whole collection as my "Where Asses Have Been" portfolio.

    And I have another one called "Men at Work" which are shots of many different types of working groups usually with one person actually working (shoveling, using a pickaxe, etc) with multiple other workers standing around watching this one fellow. It does happen with shots of ladies as well, but when I show the powerpoint and call it by its chosen name, I get more knowing laughs than if I call it "People at Work".

    So, thinking of this type of shooting as creating different portfolios works best for me.

  • Sri Ram December 24, 2011 12:17 am

    Great. This article, not only inspired me, but has given a sense of Direction. Before, Port-Fo-Lio meant I was all over the place; now its uneqivocally Portfolio!

  • Cassio December 23, 2011 09:46 am

    This article came at the right time for me. I just started a 365 project and after this article I started others and organised some ideas for even more. In fact I loved all the articles of this week's newsletter!! :D I love this website!! :D

  • B December 21, 2011 07:23 am

    I think a lot of people could benefit from working a (or multiple) "long-term" projects. But "long-term" itself is a bit of a constraint; there are fascinating projects that span decades, but there's no reason a project couldn't be finished in a few months or weeks depending on the focus. Instead of thinking in "long-terms", think of a specific focus and let let the work itself determine how long the term is.

    Also, putting "pick the subject" first is backwards. I've talked to many photographers and other artists who have worked or are working on interesting, fulfilling projects, and in almost every case they say that their subject became obvious after they had already started the work. Sounds counterintuitive but all it means is that your subject will find you. This typological approach (picking a noun and making as many photos of it as possible) is of course not uncommon, but the way it's described in this article is little more than a chore or, at best, a scavenger hunt. This is good for exercise or a personal challenge, but a shopping list is not a novel. If the project is to have any meaning, the subject has to be something of meaning to the artist.

  • Allie December 20, 2011 08:54 am

    I've been doing religious buildings for a while now and focus particularly on shooting all the basilicas in the US. Blogging about it has been a great way for to remember all the places I've visited, and in some cases, it's been a useful resource for those who are searching about little known buildings.

  • Carolyn December 20, 2011 08:24 am

    I just finished my Project 365. Planning on what's next. A 52 week theme is one. A texture every Tuesday.

    My page

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer December 20, 2011 06:03 am

    I have an ongoing personal photography series dating back to May 2010, which is to photograph Snell Isle, the historic neighborhood I live in in St. Petersburg, Florida:

    I think it is great to have one's own long term photo series. Besides the above, I am also working on two others. Since they are all long term projects, I can go a few months without adding to the series, which fits in nicely in between my full-time photography work.

  • Alan December 20, 2011 04:05 am

    I started a project about 6 years ago taking a photo of each of my children about every 3 to 4 weeks - same spot in front of the garage - similar to marking their heights on a door jam but photographic in nature. They started about 1 and 3 years old. I'm planning to compile all those shots into a sort of time lapse when they graduate from High School. Might continue beyond 18 years, but that's the plan...

  • Winsen December 19, 2011 05:16 pm

    thats exactly what i need for 2012! thanks!

  • raghavendra December 19, 2011 04:29 pm

    This articles gives a dilemma to me.
    As it started the goal is for the long term,
    as i was reading it came around for the beginners
    also speaks about the objects and things in daily life.

  • Mridula December 19, 2011 03:49 pm

    Never thought of anything like this. Sounds quite interesting.

  • Jocelyn Harrold December 19, 2011 02:14 pm

    Started a folder called "Follow the Rails" A montage of Rail Car Art. Thank you for validating my weird ideas.

  • Nathan Szwerdszarf December 19, 2011 01:15 pm

    I traveled to Bolivia not that long ago and did and prepared myself in a very similar way. Thanks for sharing these tips, it will help me for my next projects. Please feel free to check my Bolivia photo project out here:

  • Larry Lourcey December 19, 2011 11:27 am

    Great tips. The hardest part is starting the project. If you can make yourself start, things will fall into place!

  • Scottc December 19, 2011 09:23 am

    Also took a lot of stained glass photos, along with the churches mentioned in the earlier post.

  • Scottc December 19, 2011 09:21 am

    I sort of did this without realizing it, photographing churches and cathedrals over 3 years in Europe.

    Never thought of it in an intentional way, but could have if I'd seen this article 3 years ago!

  • Erik Kerstenbeck December 19, 2011 08:53 am


    Love the post and suggestions! We started an entire series on Studio Portrait and Boudoir Lighting just recently. To have a Focus is the key! Check it out if this is where you want to go - some insightful tips and Behnid The Scene lighting images!

    Cheers, Erik

  • Trudy December 19, 2011 07:38 am

    Great post, a great start for thinking about photography projects. At the end of September, I released an eBook, Photography Projects For Practice and Portfolios that goes into detail, including workflow and actual photography project ideas for photographers to consider.

    I think photography projects are awesome. Some of my best work was born through them.

  • Shannon December 19, 2011 06:39 am

    Great article especially for those photographers just starting out. I recently attended a lecture that Michael Kenna gave and he talked about his photography projects - many of them having gone on for 10 years or more. There are always places I go back to photograph (Ireland, Paris) as well as 'things' (whatever that means to you), and the unexpected discoveries in between.