It really is quite satisfying to make a truly emotive photograph. You know the kind I’m speaking of, that ‘greatest hits’ image that gets matted, framed, and hung on the wall. But working on photographic projects carries a different sort of appeal. A project affords the opportunity to explore and interpret a subject in great depth.
This member-only article has been prepared for you by Howard Grill, one of FRAMES regular columnists.
Once you have made the ‘easy’ and obvious photographs for the project, the creative endeavor truly begins. With those images out of the way, you must really work to understand how else you can see, portray, and transmit the feel of your subject. As Minor White once remarked, you need to think about photographing ‘what else it is’. The search for ‘what else it is’ is the source of the joy (and admittedly, at times, a bit of frustration) to be found in project based photography.
A project can be built around almost anything – places, inanimate objects, living things, people, ideas, colors, weather, feelings, and, well, almost any subject or idea that catches your fancy. In fact, it’s quite possible that you already have a project completely photographed in your Lightroom (or whatever other processing software you use) library, though you may not even realize it.
The challenge is to have a clear idea about what the project is about so that you can draw associations between images, thereby allowing them to work together as a single topic. In order to transmit emotion with your images, the project should be about something that you have more than just a passing interest in. As is frequently said, ‘shoot what you love’, because if you don’t you likely won’t come up with an interesting, emotive, and cohesive body of work that will hold people’s interest. It can most definitely be difficult to ‘keep going’ when the subject doesn’t move you.
Defining, working on, and completing (completing is definitely the operative word here) a project isn’t necessarily easy. I enjoy working in project format but, while I start many of them, the fact is that I often either don’t complete them or they go on for… well, let’s just say, quite some time. Of all the things that tend to inhibit a project, I believe that fear is one of the most potent! Fear that the work isn’t ‘good enough’ or that ‘it’s been done already’ or that ‘people will think it’s dumb’ are thoughts that go through many an artist’s mind. It’s easy to say ‘just ignore that feeling’ or that ‘nobody will do it just the way you’re doing it’ but that’s logic, and fear, as we all know, isn’t necessarily logical. But it is easier to put fear aside when you have a well thought out plan.
Over the years, I’ve thought about strategies to help assure my projects reach completion and have come up with several that have been quite helpful in allowing me to achieve that goal. I suspect that I’m not the only photographer who struggles with these issues, so I thought that there might be some interest in reading about what has helped me.
1) Define the size of the project from the start.
How many images do you think will be needed to complete the project? This offers a goal to work towards, though it is one that can certainly be revisited. If I start by planning for a project consisting of ten final images and get there rapidly and easily (we should all be so lucky) and find myself wanting to extend the project, then the goal can easily be expanded. If I get to the initial goal and feel like I have said most of what I want to or am able to say, then I have a completed project. If I get stuck after three images and find that I just can’t make more, well, then maybe it isn’t a topic or idea that I have enough interest in. Move on. There is absolutely nothing wrong with recognizing that the interest just isn’t there. Who knows, maybe the project will be revisited one day.
2) Decide how the completed project will be presented.
Is it planned as a wall display or a magazine submission? Perhaps it should be presented as a PDF, a folio of small prints, or a web page? Could it work in more than one of these formats? Defining what the end result of the completed project will be allows you to know what you are working towards and elicits a sense of purpose. It also helps in defining the size of the project, as a folio presentation will be much smaller than, for example, a book. These endpoints can always be re-examined and revised depending on how the project proceeds.
3) It is wise not to consider a processed image ‘completely finished’ before moving on to the next one in the project.
For a project to be cohesive there needs to be a stylistic consistency. When I reach my goal in terms of the number of images, I review them, see which ones work together, and finish processing the images as a group to ensure there is some type of visual consistency and flow between them.
4) When the images are completed, processed, and edited in terms of which ones will be included in the project, assemble them into whatever the plan was for their final presentation.
It’s all too easy to finalize the images and then not put in that last effort to put together the presentation. The final stages always take more work than expected, be it printing, posting, learning to make a PDF etc., but if it’s a project worth doing then it’s worth putting it into a self-contained format. I don’t consider the project complete until the planned presentation is ready for distribution or submission.
5) Make a deadline.
This seems incredibly simple, but it can also be extremely effective. Having a self-imposed deadline to reach that initial number of images ensures that the project doesn’t drag on. Don’t get me wrong, if things are going well and revisiting the project size leads to a desire to make more images, that’s a good thing. Just give yourself a new deadline for the expansion. There are some projects that are short term and some that may take longer periods of time.
As an example, the images in this article are from a personal project I undertook just after my mother passed away. She had two Asian statuettes that were her prized physical possessions, and I decided to put together a project photographing them. Given the limitations of the subject, I knew that this would be a relatively small project and that I wanted it to be presented in PDF format along with some introductory text.
Do you ever work in projects? How do you decide what might make an interesting one? Do you have any strategies that motivate you to complete them? If so, please do share them in the comments as I suspect we would all appreciate knowing more about them.
If you have an interest in seeing the completed project that the article photos are derived from, my PDF entitled “A Mother’s Treasure” can be downloaded for free by following this link. The download instructions are on the link page.
Three more completed web-based projects can be viewed here: