Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to be given the opportunity to speak with quite a few successful (and some semi-famous) professional photographers. When given these opportunities I’m always careful to try to gain some insight or advice from them, find out what they wish they had known or done sooner, what tips they have for up and coming photographers.
One of the most common pieces of advice that I’ve been given is to do many personal projects. A personal project is a photographic project that is birthed out of your own idea (or your own take on someone elses idea) then organised, self-funded and directed until completion. Basically it’s work that you set out to do on your own, not being commissioned by anyone else. It might be a new series or style of image, an exploration of an unfamiliar technique or equipment.
I’ve often wondered why personal projects are so important, why do all these successful photographers do their own projects outside of their regular commercial or creative work. It turns out there are many reasons and benefits to producing your own projects. Here are just a couple.
1 – To develop a portfolio in an area that interests you. One of the hardest parts about going professional with your photography, is getting the initial clients and projects. It is hard to convince a paying client to take a risk on you if you have no work to show them, nothing to demonstrate that you are capable of doing the job and doing it well.
If you have a particular area of photography that you would like to get into, then you need to work on some personal projects around that area. For example if food photography really interests you, put together some dishes, find a friend who is a great cook or find a chef who is starting out as well and put together a project. Experiment with the lighting, different techniques and develop a portfolio of images that you can then present to potential clients. If it’s car photography, find someone with a nice vehicle, hire a vehicle or speak with a local wedding vehicle venue and offer to trade your skills in exchange for some time with their vehicles. This is not working for free, this is having a fair exchange of services, it’s also an investment into your own skills, portfolio and business.
2 – To stimulate creativity. Often when you are constantly working on client shoots, you have little opportunity to really explore a subject creatively, to experiment with lighting and composition. If you are a wedding photographer, the wedding day is not the time to be doing a huge amount of experimental work. Instead hire some models, or see if you can do time for prints (or digital files) with some new models, take them to a park or into the city and experiment with different lighting, reflectors and composition. Then when you are comfortable with the technique, you can introduce that into your wedding photography. Personal projects give you the chance to really push yourself creatively, to keep your work and portfolio fresh without the pressure of being on a commissioned job.
3 – To bring focus and drive. If you aren’t doing all that much commissioned work, or if you are just starting out, rather than wander around with no goals or focus, develop a new project. This can drag you out of a creative rut that you may be stuck in as well. Give your project a deadline and approach it as if it was a commissioned job. Have an end goal as to what you would like to do with the final images as well. For example, you could shoot a series of images and then hold an exhibition of them in a cafe or other venue at the end. This has the added bonus of lifting your profile and gives you the opportunity to network with people who are interested in your work.
A personal project doesn’t have to be a huge ordeal, it can be as simple as limiting yourself to a specific lens or genre for a few days or a week, trying a style that you are unfamiliar with or documenting a particular area, person or group of people. It also doesn’t have to lead to commissioned work if that isn’t your end goal.
At the moment I have 1 on-going personal project. It is called “Untouched”, which is a series of images that look heavily textured and processed, but using only my camera, no Photoshop. The only processing I allow myself is some *very* minor (+ or – 5) contrast adjustments from Camera RAW to jpeg or tiff. The point of the series is to challenge myself to really know my camera and to really push the boundaries of what I can do with it. I’m aiming at 1 or 2 pieces per month, the end goal with these is to put together a small book with some tutorials on how the images were created.
Another personal project that I’ve recently completed was a couple of aerial photography trips. I’ve always had an interest in aerial photography, but I’ve never had the chance to do any, so I worked out a deal with a local helicopter company. They received some images and other photographic services in exchange for some air time, I was able to photograph quite a few areas close to my city. Now I have quite a few decent images to show potential clients when approaching them about aerial photography projects.
What ideas do you have for personal projects? Let us know in the comments below!
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