A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I packed up and moved to Banff, Alberta. We are incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to live in this beautiful mountain town so close to the fantastic scenes and places that I love to spend my time. It’s been a tremendous transition so far and has reinvigorated my photography and my enjoyment of it. One of the things this transition has helped me realize is the importance of having a purpose and a project to work on with your photography.
For the last few months in Calgary, I felt like my work was becoming a bit stale. It was hard to find the drive and motivation to get out and shoot all the time. It felt like I had started reproducing the same photos over and over again.
But now, I’ve moved to Banff, and I’ve found a new motivation with my photography. The organization I work for here constantly needs new assets of the area, the big attractions, and the tiny moments. So, when I’m out in the evenings, I have a purpose for taking photographs. Something to look at and create while out exploring. And this feels great because I have a reason to be behind the camera.
This brings me to what we’re talking about here today, and that’s how important it is to have a project with your photography. Because without one, without a driver, you can start feeling lost and unmotivated to get out and create.
So, let’s talk about photography projects and how you can pick one to help get you out shooting, motivate you to create, and improve your photography.
Firstly, what is a photography project?
A photography project can be anything as long as it relates to you creating images. It could be as simple as you taking a selfie every day. OR as arduous as documenting the peaks of the tallest mountains on every continent. Just make sure it speaks to you and encourages you to stretch your creative limits. Don’t make this something safe and easy. Think deeply about a project that will mean something to you. And if the idea of creating it scares you just a little, all the better. Then you are heading in the right direction.
Some projects are personal explorations of the world around you. Some are documenting things happening in the world. Others are explorations of creative limits. And even others are exploring the absurd. Whatever calls to you, whatever seems like a project that will encourage you to get out shooting, that’s the photography project you should work on.
Photo projects can be a massive commitment and intimidating to get started, but they don’t have to be. They can be straightforward. So, how do you come up with an idea for a project? Keep it simple off the bat if things don’t just pop into your head. Start by going for a walk through your community, sans camera and look for things that interest you. Maybe there is a photo project about all the local shop owners. Or, maybe there’s something around the gentrification of the area. Don’t stress about it, though; this isn’t a stressful project. This is a reflective and thoughtful one. Just focus and think throughout the walking exercise.
You could also turn to other great photo projects for inspiration. Try picking up photo books that speak to you. Look at all different kinds; this provides your brain with creative fodder to start piecing together what your photo project could be. After all of this, sit and reflect. Find somewhere quiet and peaceful that will give you time to think by yourself and actively focus on the project. Let yourself piece pieces together and formulate an idea. A project may come to you instantly, or you may have to spend some time exploring to find the one that speaks to you.
But, and here is the crux, don’t use the exploration phase as an excuse not to get out shooting or exploring. It’s important to reflect, but don’t procrastinate. No photo project is perfect. And, if it’s not working, you can always walk away. The important thing here is to start.
Alright, once you’ve got an idea. The hard work begins. But it’s the fun work. So, let’s get on bringing your photo project to life!
One of the best ways you can bring a photo project to life is to think about restrictions on your art. Sometimes, having the option to choose between everything can limit your creativity. Instead, focus on how you want to document this project and put purposeful limitations on how you will do it.
Will you shoot everything with a single fixed 35mm prime, akin to classic street photography? Or a fixed 50mm?
Maybe being digital is giving you too much latitude. So how about finding an old silver-plate camera and creating your project this way. You could choose only to use classic film lenses on your digital camera. Or only shoot during one time period. Or only in one location. Or whatever feels suitable for this project. Just don’t start cheating once you’ve put a restriction in place. Stick to it, even when it gets hard.
Here is the key to restrictions. They can’t be chosen randomly. They need to fit the project and the feeling you are going for. 35mm portraits are great, but they have a certain flair and aesthetic to them, and does that aesthetic fit what you are trying to get across in this project?
If you are looking to document all the birds in your area, you’re probably going to need a long telephoto lens as that 8mm fisheye isn’t going to cut it here. Once again, this comes down to the critical thinking phase. And you will need to experiment for a bit to understand what feels right with this specific project.
For example, Banff adventure photographer Paul Zizka just released a photo book full of aerials of the Canadian Rockies called Aloft. Two restrictions are featured prominently here. All of the images are in the Canadian Rockies, and they are all aerials (which in the mountains typically means helicopters and some small planes). He created this photo project with a pretty straightforward set of restrictions. But it makes for a much more compelling and exciting collection than a bunch of random aerial shots from the world over. The limitation added a reason to the shoot, which is very important for your project.
So, you’ve thought through what would make an exciting project. You’ve added restrictions. Now, all that’s left is to head out and get shooting! This is the fun part but also the daunting part. Don’t get intimidated and set yourself incremental goals that will show you the progress you are making on the project.
But wait, why would you bother doing this? How is a photo project actually going to make a difference in your photography?
Well, firstly, the obvious. You’ll get out shooting and using your camera. And practice will incrementally make you better. But, beyond that, it gives you a purpose and a drive. Shooting randomly can be fun for a while, but it quickly loses interest because you don’t have a focus. With a photo project, you are given a reason, and a reason is a powerful thing. It keeps people alive, it drives the human race and it engages our creativity. Your photo project should drive you to pick up that camera and get out shooting.
And there you go—the why and how of starting up a photo project in really basic and simple terms. Photo projects are just collections of images about one specific subject, art style, technique, or area. Photo projects can be about anything that engages your creativity and gets you out of your comfort zone. So go, think, and create a project. Or, do you have something that has constantly nibbled away at the back of your mind, and you’ve never put the work into making it come to reality. Now is the time! Get out there and make it happen!
You can follow along with Robert’s adventures on Instagram @RobertMasseyPhotography.