Well, when I became more serious about photography but was still holding down a full-time job as a web developer, raising a daughter and trying to slowly work through rebuilding an old farm house, finding time to make photographs was a challenge. When I did have the time, I wound up doing the same thing I did when learning, I just shot random pictures. I returned time and again to personal projects to help give me direction and to set out a course for improving my photography further. I'd spend time during work hours, or while working on a house project, just thinking about topics that interested me. I'd finally hit on something that really got me jazzed, and I'd begin to think through the process of making this into a project. Some ideas I found online, others I just came up with. What it did was provide a framework to stay within when I had the time to shoot.
Now, as a full-time photographer, you'd think I wouldn't need to pursue personal projects any longer. However, as any number of pros will tell you, often times the work we're being paid to shoot isn't always what we'd love to be shooting. I shoot weddings, events and portraits, but live in a market where there's not always a lot of work. Those jobs are great, because I love making photographs of people. But this type of work doesn't always allow me to explore the other areas of photography that I enjoy or give me the creative freedom to try new things. And there's also down time in between the paid gigs. Again, enter the personal project.
What's the process
As I mentioned, this starts with thinking about what you'd like to shoot or finding an idea online. Easy enough. But wait, don't stop there. It's not really enough to say to yourself I want to shoot landscapes or I want to make photographs of people. To truly benefit from the personal project, you need to spend some time defining the concept and scope of the work.
For example, let's say you decide to tackle a pretty common project: the self portrait over time. What is it you're wanting to capture? The physical changes in yourself? Your varying emotional state? Symbolic representations of yourself? Those are three very different sets of photographs and would require much different approaches to making them. If you're wanting to document the physical changes in yourself, a day to day series probably won't get you there. However, maybe a shot taken on the first day of every month over the course of the year would. Emotional states, well, that could be approached as a photo a day over the course of a month.
Maybe you're wanting to hone your eye. Great, choose a general subject, such as circles, or shadows, or reflections, and commit to looking for and shooting only that subject for a month. This doesn't mean you'll have to pass up that amazing shot because your subject isn't in the frame, because as you get more familiar with your chosen subject, you'll recognize that you can probably work it into any shot you want to take, and in doing so, you'll be actively thinking about composition.
Another technique I've used successfully is to piggy-back projects. As I've written about recently, I'm a big fan of spending significant amounts of time shooting with a single lens, in my case, a Nikkor 50mm/1.8D. This is a great project for improving your eye and getting a better handle on what a lens has to offer. But how about making it a bit more challenging?
How about deciding to spend one month taking a photo a day of reflections using only this lens, and each photograph has to tell something about that month. Now your project becomes "50 Reflections on October." You've got a subject -- reflections -- a concept -- symbolic of the month -- you've got scope - one month, one a day -- and you've got some boundaries to work within -- only reflections shot with a 50mm lens.
I've also found it helpful to double or triple up on projects when time permits. At any given moment I usually have a few different projects floating around in my head and in the works. This allows me some flexibility on any given day but still gives me some focus to know what I'm looking for or what to shoot. Currently, I'm actively working on a project involving life on my street, a series of self portraits, and a series on lighting concepts. Those are the broad topics, but I've spent time working through what I'm trying to achieve with each project, and I work on them as I have the time and when the situation is suitable to work on each.
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