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A Step-by-Step Guide on Planning and Completing a Personal Photography Project

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Do you ever feel like you're at a point with your photographic work where you've run out of ideas? Sometimes it can be difficult to keep thinking of fresh ideas without going around in circles, but one of the best ways to make progress with your photography is to undertake a personal project. Here are a few simple tips and inspirational ideas to set you on your way with undertaking your project.


Determine if you have the time and will for a project

A personal project is the perfect way to develop your work. Professional photographers are usually working to a brief, maybe set by an editor or an agency. But they they have a clear focus as to what each photographic project should involve, so why should your work be any different?

Giving yourself a strong conceptual focus will increase your artistic drive and help you keep motivated, and you'll be able to observe the development of your work as you undertake the project.

Your project could take a few days, weeks, months or even years. It's totally up to you, but ensure that you set yourself a guideline at the start for the amount of time to spend on the project so you've got a clear idea of how long you have to achieve your targets.

Photo by Simon Bray


Choose a good subject

It's vital to choose a subject that you are interested in, as you'll be far more willing to invest time and energy into the project if you are enjoying yourself! Consider what you have enjoyed photographing in the past and write down ideas based on those subjects. What aspects could you explore further? Are there new locations which you could explore based on that theme?

Think about whether there are any particular causes or events that you'd like to cover, or whether you want your images to have a particular purpose. It's much easier to work if you have a strong conceptual idea of what you want the images to portray or represent, so picking an engaging theme is important for both you and the viewers.

For example, Ukrainian Boris Mikhailov shot a series titled "Red Serie” consisting of images of Ukrainian nationals living and working within Ukraine, but within each image was something red that signified the influence of Soviet Russia's control over the country. Obviously this has a very strong political and cultural element and will connect with a lot of people affected by that situation.

Photo by Simon Bray

People

A specific group of people makes for an extremely strong focal point for a project, even if you've constructed the theme by which they are all connected, for example, people who work in agriculture. They may not know each other, but for the purposes of the project that have a common trait that you can exploit to demonstrate the people involved and how they work.

If you're nervous about getting started, then practice portraits with friends and family before approaching others. Most people love to take photos of their kids, so maybe you could develop a project in which you photograph your children in the same spot every month over a period of years, so you can capture their growing up. Another very popular personal project is to take self portraits, which doesn't take any demands on other peoples time and space, and gives you the freedom to try out different scenarios and locations, although a remote shutter release is advised!

Areas of beauty

Another option is to find a particular geographical area to work within. Being in Manchester UK, I am surrounded by breathtaking scenery with the Peak District to the East and the Lake District to the North, either of which would be ideal for a landscape photo project. The beauty of this type of project is that the scenery evolves through the year, so you can capture the changing scenery as the seasons pass from crisp frosty winter months through the flourishing springtime, the glorious summer months and then into the autumnal reds, yellows and browns of the fall.

Abstract ideas

Don't feel bound by conventional project ideas, take time to think about potential project ideas, possibly something that you don't think has been done before or a point of personal interest that isn't often covered photographically.

There really isn't a limit upon project ideas, so as you engage with the world around you, consider ways in which you could represent certain elements of it as photographs and look for themes or points of cohesion that could tie it all together.

Photo by Simon Bray


Do your research on that subject

It's important to research your subject in depth in books, magazines and online. Read up on any history or coverage that the subject matter may have received so you know what you're talking about when it comes to meeting people. It will also make it so you have the correct perspective and understanding of the subject when working. It's also essential that you have permission to photograph the subject matter concerned, particularly if people (especially children) are involved.


Create a timeline of things you need to cover

When undertaking a large project, it pays to be organized. Lists are your friends. Make lists of potential subject matter, places you want to go, people you want to contact or meet, what you want to achieve and anything else you can think of to clarify your thoughts. Make sure you refer to these lists as you plan shoots, it will you help you quantify the progress that you're making with the project and check off avenues that you've explored so you're not going around in circles.

It's also a great idea to set targets for yourself. Depending on your personality, it might be required to make a long list of achievable aims to help you feel like you are completing what you set out to do. For others, it will be more helpful to set targets that you can only dream of achieving, which will act as a catalyst for working hard to push beyond what your perceived capabilities are.

Photo by Simon Bray


Determine the most important shots you need

At this point in the project, it can feel slightly overwhelming as you will have set out a lot of work in front of you and there's pressure to get the all the shots needed to make the project work. This is when it's important to prioritize which shots are the most important and ensure that you set out to get those first.

Not only will having these shots taken make you feel like you're progressing with the project, but they'll act as a framework for the continuation of the project. Remember you basic storytelling skills. Set the scene. Establish your characters. Show visual variety by shooting wide, tight, up-close and far away.


Double check your equipment

You don't need any specific equipment to start a photo project. Any camera that you own will suffice, unless your subject matter demands specific technical requirements. Think about the work that you're undertaking and consider whether there's any extra equipment such as lighting, filters, reflectors or a tripod that will benefit your project.

If you're working with people, then you'll probably want to travel light in order work discreetly amongst your subjects, but if it's a portrait project that you're undertaking, then there may be the requirement for a lighting rig to ensure continuity throughout the collection of shots by ensuring that each shot you take has a similar lighting set up.

So take care to think about the equipment that you're going to use and if it's relevant. Aim to maintain a similar set up throughout the project in order to maintain a coherent feel to the photographs.

Photo by Simon Bray


Get to know you subject

If you've done adequate research, it will be far easier to equate yourself with the subject matter, however, in reality, it still takes time to appreciate what you're working with. Spending time with your subject is vital, the familiarity that you gain will be invaluable in truly understanding the intricacies and details of the subject and that insight will undoubtedly influence how you take the photographs.

If working within a certain geographical area, study maps, speak to the locals, go exploring and soak in the atmosphere of the place. If you're working with people, don't just take their photo. Talk to them, ask them questions about their life and you'll be able to reflect that within your shots. Invest yourself in the subjects, don't work at a distance. Get involved and you'll be in a far better position to tell the story you set out to tell.


Start shooting

As you begin working, you'll find yourself naturally drawn to certain aspects of the subject, which isn't an issue in itself, as it shows an interest in particular elements, but it's important that you are able to capture all the elements of the subject. In order to give your project a complete feel, you'll need a variety of shots. Establishing shots set the scene, giving the viewer the context within which the subject matter is set. Detail shots focus in upon one particular aspect of the subject at a time to showcase textures, colors and the materials involved.

Photo by Simon Bray


Determine what the objective is given your specific situation

You may well have set yourself specific objectives when planning the project, but as you begin shooting, it'll soon become clear as to what your primary objective should be, whether you've already set one or not. This may be determined by the environment you find yourself working in, how well you feel you are able to engage with certain aspects of the project or the subject matter itself. It's important to get to a point where you decide upon a specific direction for the project based upon those circumstances.

If you're doing documentary photography or photojournalism, it's important that you go into each project with an open mind. You should be unbias. It will take awhile (sometimes more than half of your time) determining what direction you need to go. So be prepared to nail down your objective at some point.

Photo by Simon Bray


Focus your shooting on that objective

Having decided your objective, it's essential that you then put it into action and center your decisions, both whilst taking the shots and otherwise, around your primary objective. You may need to re-assess your list of the most important shots that you want to take and re-align it to match your objectives for the project.

Ensure that you are clear with yourself about the direction in which you are heading and this will influence the in camera decisions such as composition and exposure and will ultimately affect how you represent the subject matter and the project as a whole.


Be flexible and willing to shift direction

At the beginning I said that it was important to detail the time scale and details of the project that you were undertaking, and I meant it, as it's an extremely valuable way of constructing your ideas and laying out how you want to progress with the project.

However, it's also very important to be flexible. This might sound like a contradiction, but as you carry out the project, you'll find that opportunities change and develop. You'd be foolish to disregard these chances because you wanted to stick to the plan you made a few months ago.

It's important that you maintain control of the project, but don't let it be guided solely by your plan. There may be an element of particular interest within the project that you find may actually work better as the focal point than your original idea. An opportunity might arise to photograph a group of people or location that you hadn't dreamed of having access to which will take you down a different route.

Photo by Simon Bray


Begin to think about the exact narrative

As you take your shots, it's important to remember that the project that you're putting together will eventually be used to construct a collection of images that should aim to portray the subject matter in the way you perceive it.

Depending on the focal point of the project, it's often a good idea to try and develop a narrative through your photos to tell the story of those involved. This may require you to take a variety of shots in order to tell the complete story, for example, establishing wide angle shots to set the scene, portraits to portray those involved and detail shots that pick out any interesting elements that the viewer may not have otherwise been able to appreciate.

Start laying out your photos before you finish shooting. This will allow you to identify gaps. You'll be able to see what you're missing. The next time you're out shooting, you'll know to concentrate on getting that shot.

Photo by Simon Bray


Get your work out there

So you've completed your project (or completed as much as you can in your time frame), congratulations! Now it's time to show the world what you've achieved. This aspect of the project is vital, don't think that because you've finished taking the photographs that your work is done, take pride in what you've accomplished in order to find the best outlet for it.

It's essential to be focused, it's no good just contacting everyone and anyone you know. You need to contact the relevant parties who may be able to support the work you've done. For example, if your work is about a specific group of people, ensure that they know about the work. If it's about a certain geographical area, make sure the governing body that looks after the land knows about the work. They may want to use the images for promotional purposes, either online or in print.

Contact local galleries, photographic institutions and institutions connected to the subject matter. Explain clearly the work you've undertaken and offer to show them the work. If you are fortunate enough to land an exhibition, regardless of how small it is, make sure you spread the word and get support for the event from all those involved, the subjects, those who look after the subject matter, friends, family, fellow photographers and if relevant, local press.

This will show those investing in your work that there is significant interest in what you are doing and will give you a great chance of gaining more support in the future.

Photo by Simon Bray


The rewards

So now it's over to you. Take time to consider what type of project you want to undertake and write down ideas to give it a structure and a clear vision. Do your research and build up a list of contacts to get in touch with about the photographing your subject matter. Be confident with your ideas and express clearly what you want to achieve in order to explore all the possible avenues for the project.

There have been few experiences in my life more rewarding than the long-term photography projects I've completed. If you're looking into photography as a career, have a complete project that has impact in your portfolio is invaluable. I could go into all the reason why following through on any idea or project is rewarding, but when talking about photography we can keep it simple. Your photography has the opportunity to help you, your subject and your community. I think that's a pretty great reward.

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