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How To Design And Shoot A Long Term Photography Project

Image: Waiting Taxis In Ireland

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)

Image: Waiting Taxis in Bhutan

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

Image: Waiting Taxis In Peru

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.

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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

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.

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