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Your development as a photographer can be seen as progressing through three stages: initial interest in taking photographs, development of skill, and mastery of the medium. As part of the third stage, photographic projects build your portfolio because they make you think in bigger terms. They force you to create images that flesh out a concept or theme in a way that creates a collection and a body of work.
These types of projects move you from making standalone images to creating a series of images that complete a broader vision.
Once you have moved on from taking pictures of your pets, flowers, and kids, you will likely want to learn how to improve your technique in order to capture and produce better images. Developmental projects can propel you forward. There are lots of this type of project (52-week challenges, 365-day challenges, or an A-Z project) that help you improve your skill by stretching as a photographer.
While developmental projects will hone your skills, the result can often be a series of images that are technically and aesthetically pleasing, but disjointed because of the diversity of individual challenges. Once you have mastered the mechanics of taking images, and you are looking to up your game, you need to also take your image collection up to the next level.
Most photographers who are just starting out work hard to get a consistent set of good images together and master control of their equipment. The subject matter can vary greatly because just getting practice at your craft can be a challenge.
Henri Cartier-Bresson famously stated that “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”.
While this really wasn’t a reference to perfecting your technique, it was more a reflection of honing your craft and your photographic style. It is also important to recognize that this statement was also made in reference to film photography, which was a much slower and more expensive process.
Because it’s common to take lots of great images without an overriding concept, this often means that looking at your images in hindsight shows that you have produced either:
A photographic project is where you decide upon a theme or concept and then deliberately capture images that fit that idea. The objective is to create a body of work rather than to improve a particular skill. You create images with a unifying theme, thereby producing a collection.
This is common approach for artists hoping to have an exhibition of their works.
If you want to have your images exhibited or to get hired for a particular type of work, you need examples that demonstrate your ability in the specific area. For instance, if you want to get hired to take product photography, your portfolio should feature a collection of product photos.
Getting your images exhibited will usually require the approval of a curator who will look for a concept or theme to unify the images. Without a theme, you simply have a bunch of pretty pictures. With a theme, those images become powerful expressions of the overarching concept you are working on.
A theme can be anything, but the best themes create vitality and interest in your images. Outstanding photos elicit an emotional response and drive you to stare at them again and again. In addition, using the concept to guide you, you can create a set of images that can be described. It shows that your images were not taken by lucky happenstance but deliberately.
A couple of years ago, I did a series of fallen leaves that took me a long way in my development as an artist. I kind of fell into the project because as I was testing out a small prime lens I became fascinated with the incredible detail and sharpness I was seeing. I had taken a picture of a colorful leaf and loved the textures, and repeated the approach on other leaves. The resulting images were similar in color interest, texture, and subject matter.
These were images of leaves resting on a wood surface, I then mounted the prints on wood as well, creating an interesting verisimilitude. My images were well received and I used the collection for a couple of exhibitions. I also had help curating my images and dealing with the curators of the gallery. I learned a great deal in the process about how to view my images more broadly.
As part of the process, I came up with a title for the collection and an artist’s description. I am not suggesting you should take photographs of leaves, but that project jumpstarted my development as an artist and worked for me.
Okay, so now you are convinced that a photography project is a good idea for you, but what should your theme be? This is where you get to be creative. Ideally, don’t copy someone exactly but come up with your own theme, possibly based on something else you have seen.
Sometimes the best approach is to find a favorite image and figure out what you like about it and use that as a theme. You can also go to aggregation sites like 500px or EyeEm to see images that might inspire you. Some of these sites also present collections that show similar types of images or images from multiple photographers on a particular theme.
Sometimes your themes will work, sometimes they won’t, but if you don’t try to develop one, you will just have a collection of pretty but unrelated images. Developing a project will stretch you as an artist, create a unified body of work, and provide greater clarity to your work because you will be capturing your images deliberately, rather than by chance. Go out and pursue your vision: you won’t be disappointed.