Personal work is where it’s at. It’s where I go to have fun. It gives me a chance to take a chance and try something new. Maybe I’ll fail, but maybe I’ll learn something, too. It’s where I go to conquer a fear or try to find my way out of a funk. Whether you’re a seasoned professional or a newbie to photography, I believe that you should always have a personal project going.
Where Do I Start?
The best personal projects are the ones that are meaningful to you. What do you want to get better at doing as a photographer? What are you afraid of doing? What do you like to do? Do you have a problem that you need to solve? Is there a technique or genre that you’ve always wanted to try? These are great starting points to begin a personal project. Personal work should be something that lights you up inside, not an assignment. It should also be something different from what you usually do, something that gets you to stretch your creative muscle. I can give you a list of ideas as starting points, but you’ll find your personal project so much more fulfilling if you design it yourself.
My first personal project was shooting film. I learned photography with a digital SLR, but I was getting tired of spending so much time at my computer. I’d always wanted to try film, so I bought a cheap SLR and a roll of film and gave it a try. That project started a whole new photography journey for me. I currently have three on-going personal projects, and they all began a little bit by accident. But once I recognized that there was potential for a project, I set up some parameters for each one. Why? Because limitations force us to be more creative. While a free-for-all attitude sounds more creative, it is actually paralyzing to your creative muscle. Plus, knowing exactly what you’re working toward is much more motivating than wondering what to do next.
What Kind of Parameters Should I Set?
That all depends on your project. Here are some starting points and some things to think about:
- limit the camera or lens that you will use
- set a deadline or time limit
- only shoot certain people or in certain locations
- use natural light only or studio light only
- limit your aperture or shutter speed
- require certain shots (i.e., a double exposure, a silhouette, or a reflection) each time
Your parameters are completely up to you, but don’t skip this part of your project! You need guidance.
How Personal Projects Have Worked for Me
Each of the three projects I am working on currently have their own parameters and have benefited me in different ways. The first project I began, The Natural Beauty Project, has three parameters: I only photograph teen girls on film (no Photoshop) in vintage or thrifted dresses, minimally styled with all natural hair and makeup products in natural settings. My goals for this project are to let the girls see that it isn’t their clothes or makeup or even Photoshop that make them beautiful. They are naturally beautiful. Not only has this been a fulfilling project for the girls in front of the camera, it has been fulfilling and inspiring to me. I’ve become a better portrait photographer, and it has even led to some paid work.
My Roaming Rollei Project began on a trip to Florida when I brought my Rolleiflex camera with me for the first time. My Rolleiflex camera is a vintage film camera that always gets people talking to me. People notice it because it is unusual to them or because they remember it from their past. They always ask me if it’s a real camera or if I can still get film for it. I’ve always wanted to improve my street photography and portraits of strangers, so I decided that whenever people approached me and asked me about my Rollei, I’d ask them for a portrait. Over time, I expanded the parameters of the project to actually photographing people on the street. And now, when I roam with my Rollei, I try to get three types of images: a stranger, a selfie, and a “through the viewfinder” image on my iPhone of one of the actual shots I’ve taken. I’ve become much more comfortable photographing strangers. I’ve even begun to approach them myself. And finding ways and places where I can take a selfie is always a fun challenge.
My third project–One Kid, One Roll, Once a Month–came about because I thought I had a problem with one of my film cameras. I need to test each of the two film inserts I had. I decided to use my own kids as models, and I shot one roll of film in each insert of each kid. Fortunately, my camera was fine, but I loved the images. I’d photographed the boys just a few weeks earlier, and I couldn’t believe how much they’d changed in just eight weeks. I decided to photograph them each with one roll of film every month for a year just to document their changes. My other parameters for the project include using the same camera, lens, film, and lighting every month. I’ve learned to work with reluctant subjects and use light and posing to show their personalities. Even better, other photographers have embraced this project and joined me in a blog circle, so I’m learning from and being inspired by them, too!
A Few Ideas to Get You Started
I really hope that this has inspired you to take on a personal project this summer. But if you still need a little inspiration, here are some ideas to get you started.
- Do a 365 project. You don’t have to start on January 1. These are especially fun if you’re part of a community. Check out my_365 or 365gifts on Instagram.
- Photograph you pet or children in a way unique to them. Does your cat sleep in weird positions? Does your daughter like to dress herself in a style all her own? Document it!
- Play tourist in your hometown.
- Are you a fantastic cook? Photograph your food!
- Create a project using that new piece of gear you bought but haven’t really used yet.
If you begin a personal project or and currently working on one, I’d love to hear about it! Send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me how it’s going!
Jen Golay is a Midwest mom of two boys–ages 14 and 10–who constantly amaze her with their creativity and cleverness. She is married to her best friend who willingly indulges her love of film photography and never rolls his eyes or complains when she brings another film camera into the house. Learning is Jen’s real passion, and she is always willing to share whatever knowledge she has collected. If she’s not hiding behind a camera, she’s probably hiding behind a book. You can find Jen’s photography on her blog Daily Life Photography and Instagram where she shares film images from her every day life and work. She loves comments and questions and promises to reply!
She is married to her best friend who willingly indulges her love of film photography and never rolls his eyes or complains when she brings another film camera into the house. Learning is Jen’s real passion, and she is always willing to share whatever knowledge she has collected. If she’s not hiding behind a camera, she’s probably hiding behind a book.
You can find Jen’s photography on her blog Daily Life Photography and Instagram, where she shares film images from her everyday life and work. She loves comments and questions and promises to reply!