Once called the “Jay-Z of documentary photography,” Martin Parr is known throughout the world for his absurd, colorful, yet tongue-in-cheek photographs of modern life. But if you asked him about his favorite shots, he wouldn’t mention individual photographs, instead he’d point you to photography projects.
And if you want to improve your photo-taking skills, starting a project you love is a great way to do it.
If you find an original subject matter and engage with this with passion and stamina, there is a good chance that you will come up with a good set of photos. Although photography is very competitive, there will always be opportunities for good new talent. – Martin Parr
A personal photo project can also:
- Teach you to see “deeper”: By photographing the same subject over and over again, you’ll see more than you would at first glance.
- Motivate you: Instead of wondering, “Hmmm… what will I shoot today?” now, you’ll have focus.
- Improve your portfolio: Not only could you get higher-quality images, but having a project in your portfolio makes it stronger.
- Share your passion: Maybe you are the only one who sees it, and you can change the world.
But a photography project is challenging. Some days the thought of taking a photograph will feel like “work.” Plus, who wants to be the guy telling all his friends about your cool project, only to bail on it in a few weeks (been there :)?
That’s why choosing a project you love is so important. Sure, it won’t guarantee success, fame or limitless fun, but it will help you stick to it. And if you bring a consistent commitment, in a few months you might be blown away by your photos.
To start a photo project, all you need to do is:
- Choose a subject: What will you photograph?
- Set your limits: How many photographs will you take? In what style? How long will you continue the project for? Are there any other limitations or rules to add?
But it’s easy to get inspired by grand ideas in your head, only to create a project that’s almost impossible to complete in the real world. But with the tips below, you’ll be sure to get started on the right foot.
1. Define What You Want
Why are you considering a photo project?
Do you want to work on a specific photography skill? Improve your portfolio? Grow your photography business? Share your passion? Or maybe a blend of these or for another reason?
Your goals will influence the project you choose, so before we dive in, be clear about your intentions. For example, if you want to build your photography business, select a project where you meet a lot of people. Or if you’re super-busy with work, choose a project you can do in just a few minutes at home.
No matter what your goals are, though, successful, beginner photo projects are often:
- Fascinating (at least to you)
2. Gather Inspiration
Time to collect ideas and make a list of potential projects. Let other photographers influence you. In fact, I’d say stealing ideas is better than putting pressure on yourself to create the most original project ever.
Here are some places to get inspired:
A. Do A Common Photography Project:
- 365 Days: Take a photograph every day for a year
- 52 Weeks: Take a photograph every week for a year.
- A to Z: Shoot a subject inspired by each letter of the alphabet.
- 100 Strangers: Shoot 100 strangers on the street.
- One Object: Choose an object you love, hate or anything you can get your hands on; then shoot it in a variety of settings.
B. Discover Innovative Projects:
Head over to Kickstarter or Indiegogo, and browse the photography projects. Look at the successes and the failures.
C. Look At Your World:
When you’re finished reading this, close your computer and look around. Is there something you would love to photograph? What’s beautiful (or hideous) in your home, family or city?
Then, look through your photographs. What do you photograph, anyways? Are you a foodie with gazillions of lunch Instagrams? Do you have scores of pictures of your dog, kid or girlfriend? Do you keep thinking about a subject, but haven’t photographed it yet? What type of photographs would you love to have?
Ask yourself: What fascinates you? Give yourself some permission to dream, and later we’ll bring you back to reality.
3. Experiment With Subjects
Before you commit to a project, test it out. Narrow down your choices to the three subjects that are simple, clear and fascinating. Then, over the course of a week or two, photograph each one. Which one is the most fun? Which one is the most doable?
When you’re done, select a project that moves you and is one you can complete.
4. Choose Your Limits
How long can you commit to?
Will this be a yearlong project? Or just for a few months? Here’s where self-awareness helps. For me, I’m a three-month-project kinda guy. That’s enough to start getting high-quality images, but not too much that I feel locked in (maybe that’s my commitment phobia talking though ;). Plus, at the end of three months, if I love it, I can extend it for another three months.
Maybe three months will work for you, too, or maybe you’re already the committed type and could do six months or a year. If so, great… go for it. If the challenge excites you, this will help you be successful.
What other limits will you set?
Depending on your project and personality, set the limits and flexibility. Maybe you’ll only be shooting with your iPhone? Or only using objects in your home? Or maybe you need more flexibility, such as shooting 52 self-portraits in a year, but you’ll shoot them whenever you want, not every week.
5. How Will You Share?
Sharing is one of the most rewarding parts of a photo project, but there are a lot of options.
Who will you share it with?
- Is this just a private personal project?
- For family and friends?
- For Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, 500px or Instagram?
- Will you set up a free photography website or blog on Tumblr or WordPress?
- Will add to your online portfolio?
- Will you hire someone to create a professional website specifically for the project?
- Will you publish a book or approach galleries?
When will you share?
- Will you share every hour, day, week or month?
- Will you wait until the project is finished?
To answer these questions, consider:
- Will constant feedback help or mess with your head?
- Do you only want to share the highest quality images or show the progression and failures?
- Will you build a community around your project or keep it private?
Depending on your goals and personality, your answers will differ. If you aren’t sure yet and just want to start, that’s cool, too. You can always come back and answer these questions later.
6. Start Shooting
Congratulations! Now that you’ve put in the time to create a strong foundation, you’re rewarded with a photography project you’ll love and images you might never forget. Maybe this can even jump-start your photography career, and in 20 years, we’ll be saying, “Martin Parr… who?” ;)
Either way, if you’ve chosen a project you’re excited about, we’d love to hear about it. Please take a minute, and share in the comments below. Or if you have a question, feel free to ask, and we’ll try to get back to your personally.