Photographic Projects

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.

From the project “A Mother’s Treasure” © Howard Grill

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.

From the project “A Mother’s Treasure” © Howard Grill

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.

From the project “A Mother’s Treasure” © Howard Grill

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:

The Empathy Project
The Carrie Furnace
Cathy

Howard Grill
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Comments (16):

  1. Nigel Walker

    November 5, 2020 at 14:37

    So agree. I work on lots of projects, often at the same time and some with lengthy timescales. One motivation for me is to find a gallery to show them and work to a deadline. Most galleries work two or three years ahead so it usually gives you a decent lead in and time to make adjustments as you go. You also know the size of the space, the sort of atmosphere you may be showing in and the way in which you are expected to present it. It really helps. Thanks for the tips 🙂

    Reply
  2. Howard Grill

    November 5, 2020 at 15:35

    Thanks Nigel! I also often work on several projects at a time. It gives me a break and also let’s me pursue more than one avenue. It’s a way of working that I enjoy.

    That’s fantastic that you are able to locate galleries that will show your work prescheduled in advance as the project moves forward. That’s what I call a source of motivation!

    Reply
  3. Shona Paget

    November 5, 2020 at 18:40

    This is very well thought out, and written, Howard. I’ve never done a photography project but I ran my own business for several years and had plenty of work and client-related projects. Perhaps it’s time to think about a new kind of project. Thank you for the great article.

    Reply
  4. Howard Grill

    November 5, 2020 at 19:03

    Thank you for those kind words Shona! I appreciate it. I really enjoy working in projects as it’s different than looking for that ‘great shot’ And while working on a project you can also still keep looking for those great shots. They can do double duty by standing alone and fitting into a project if the image happens to fit there as well.

    You should definitely give it a try. If you do, why not post them in the FB group with a notation in the post that it’s from a project. I’d love to see what you come up with if you give it a whirl.

    Reply
  5. Debbie

    November 7, 2020 at 06:24

    I have always been addicted to photography but only this year have fully embraced the idea of projects. I think the extra free time of being at home more has allowed me to embrace photography like I have never been able to before. So far, it looks like the seasons will be my motivation to finish a project. This summer I had a “Hummingbird’ project in which I went from being a complete hummingbird novice to taking thousands of photos, posted the best to social media and then culminated the project by making and selling a Hummingbird calendar. I knew I had a deadline of when the tiny birds would be leaving so it was extra motivation to finish the project. Now, being a Minnesotan and a true winter lover, my next project is “Snowflakes”. I dove head-first into ultra-macro photography and this next winter season will be my project motivation. I am already so in love with the macro process and learning something new.

    Reply
  6. Howard Grill

    November 7, 2020 at 07:14

    Hi Debbie. Those sound like great projects plus they have built in deadlines which is great. Of course, if you really love the topics you could do more hummingbirds next season and turn the calendar into a Blurb book. There are so many possibilities, which is one reason I really like working in projects.

    By the way, if you about to entertain snowflake macro photography you should look into the work of Don Komarechka….perhaps you have already.

    I hope you will post some to the FB group. Would love to see them.

    Reply
  7. Debbie

    November 7, 2020 at 07:36

    It sure is in the back of my mind to take more hummingbird pics next season, but it was very time intensive so I will see if I am at home as much. And as far as Don Komarechka goes…he is my snowflake GOD and I have watched every YouTube video he has and I have his Sky Crystals book (which I had to pay a pretty penny for a used copy because it is out of print). Let the flakes fly!

    Reply
  8. Howard Grill

    November 7, 2020 at 07:40

    He is a snowflake God! I’m looking forward to seeing some of yours posted. By the way do you have a website or Instagram where you’ve posted the hummingbird photos?

    Reply
  9. Debbie

    November 7, 2020 at 08:42

    Yes I do have the best hummingbird photos on my website at http://www.heyhartmann.com and I do believe my instagram account is #heyhartmann , I am still kind of old school so am still getting used to the hashtag thing.

    Reply
  10. Howard Grill

    November 7, 2020 at 15:44

    Wow…they really are quite lovely. I like the high key look to them and how the wings have motion in so many of them. And I see that you have started the snowflake practice. Sure looks like you’ve gotten the ‘project bug’!!

    Reply
  11. Debbie

    November 7, 2020 at 17:38

    Thanks Howard! All I need now is more snow! 🙂

    Reply
    • Howard Grill

      November 7, 2020 at 23:07

      If it were up to me we’d skip the snow and fast forward to spring 😊

      Reply
  12. Mike

    November 12, 2020 at 12:57

    Great read
    thanks

    Reply
  13. bharat

    November 12, 2020 at 16:43

    Thank you for sharing. It is refreshing to learn that we all go through the same emotions when it comes to putting together a project. I often find that there is often the potential for smaller projects within a bigger one! Seeing your small project ‘A mother’s treasure’ gave me the inspiration to do one of my own on statues of Budha having visit Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, so I have plenty of material for it! How to go about it is the next phase. 🙂

    Reply
  14. Howard Grill

    November 12, 2020 at 19:46

    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I agree totally that there are often smaller projects contained within larger ones. You made my day knowing that the article inspired you to start a project. And regarding the emotions that artists have regarding their work….that’s my next article topic!

    Reply

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