The World’s Greatest Tip for Photographers: The Photographic Project

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Photo by lolymoune
Photo by lolymoune

Being a photographer is a lot like being a writer; you have good days, and you have bad days. Some of those not-so-great days can bring a whole multitude of different annoyances: the weather, dead batteries, the models don’t turn up. But nothing is more frustrating than the dreaded creative block.

From my natural color zero HDR series. This is a little back street called Kelly Street in London a few blocks from where I live and this image is part of a larger series.
From my natural color zero HDR series. This is a little back street called Kelly Street in London a few blocks from where I live, and this image is part of a larger series.

Thanks to the internet, as photographers, we have access to pretty much every single, inspiring photograph ever taken. Long gone are those days when, in order to get inspired, you had to venture to the nearest art show or gallery opening. The world wide web brings the work of all the greats directly to you, enabling you to truly stand on the shoulders of giants! But even with this vast abundance of genius a simple Google search away, photographers including myself find it hard to be inspired to produce anything original, as so many of the photographers appear to have done everything already!

This is from my winter statue series
This is from my winter-statue series.

Nevertheless, there is one way to produce original content. It’s a secret tool, heavily guarded among the elite professionals and perhaps the world’s greatest tip you’ll find for fueling and working that creative muscle. It is the photographic project!

Any one photographic image has the power to inspire you, for instance this one could perhaps make you want to recreate some of your favourite movie scenes using toys?
Any one photographic image has the power to inspire you. For instance, this one could perhaps make you want to recreate some of your favorite movie scenes using toys?

Photography projects not only improve your skills as a photographer, but they’re also a great source for individual, final portfolio shots, as often one or two shots can rather unexpectedly offer you an excellent portfolio-worthy image.

Sunsets projects are perhaps the most done to death of photography projects, so try mixing it up a bit, why not do a series that involves silhouettes instead?
Sunsets projects are perhaps the most done-to-death of photography projects, so try mixing it up a bit! Why not do a series that involves silhouettes instead?

There are endless projects that you as a photographer can plan and execute. Some can be a little more cliché than others, but all are a lot of fun!

The Subject/Narrative

The style of your work will (should) always impact on any photograph you ever take. Further, you should also only really consider sticking to your own preferred type of photography, i.e fashion, portraiture, documentary etc. That way, any photographs from your project can be added to your portfolio and not look out of place.

Self portraits are often chosen, however try mixing this up by doing something different, like reflections of yourself in unusual places
Self-portraits are often chosen. However, try mixing this up by doing something different, like reflections of yourself in unusual places.

The last thing you want is for your documentary-style reportage to be ruined by a series of sunsets…sounds obvious, but trust me: When I’ve been interviewing for assistants in the past, many of them present portfolios as if they just crammed in as many photographs as they could. It looks careless and cheap, so don’t do it!

A project that follows a story or pattern for a viewer’s perspective is amazing to look at. The more obscure your idea, the better chance you have of people falling in love, not just with the photographs, but also with the idea.

The Idea

Unlike every single post you’ll find on the Internet about this subject, I am not going to tell you what to go and photograph. I am sure you are also fed up of looking at photographs on the Internet of the exact same stuff, which just gets copied and copied and copied, over and over again.

There are people that take photos of things, and then there are photographers.

Projects are almost always about subjects, objects or concepts that mean something. They’re about enriching narratives that move you or make you feel truly inspired! Passion is another great, emotional tool that you can use to get your ideas. Just to give you a push in the right direction below, I provide a few ideas that employ these creative principles:

One of the best series’ I ever saw was that of a guy who, when he went traveling recently, took a jumper with him that his dead grandmother knitted. Every country he visited, he asked people whom he saw doing kind and fun things with others to put on the big, bright, red jumper and asked if he could take their picture. His photographs were beautiful and recently displayed here in London at the National Portrait Gallery.

Think outside the box.. to the point of paradox!
Think outside the box…to the point of paradox!

A friend of mine once stole his neighbors’ garden gnomes. He then took them with him on his around-the-world tour, sending the neighbors back photographs printed on postcards, pretending that the gnomes had written them. With pictures of the gnomes stood famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall of China!

As a reporter, a journalist friend of mine traveled around the country following the animal-rights activists at all of their rallies. She did this for a while and wasn’t too impressed with her pictures. Then one day in a few of the photographs and at the rallies themselves, she noticed a cute, young girl around the age of 5 at each of the rallies. She decided to follow her and take pictures of her at each rally. She did this for many years and ended up creating a series of pictures that chronicled this girl’s evolution.

The Structure of a Project

Once you have your idea in place, it’s time to plan the project.

Like any shoot, choose your models and locations wisely. Friends often make the best models. However, you might be able to call up some would-be, potential models looking to expand their portfolio. A great way to do this is to contact your local model agency and explain that you’re willing to do a contra deal with one or two of their models. You get the model; they get the photos. Everybody wins!!

Write out a brief for each model, and storyboard you ideas. That way, you and the models are not at a loss on what comes next.

Once the shoot is completed, think of all the imaginative ways that you can present the project. Most people will do a series of pictures with each leading on from the other, telling a story. This chronological approach makes the most sense and will certainly be the easiest method for holding a viewer’s attention. But then, a highly imaginative idea deserves an imaginative presentation!

You could create a project that features one, central element, so that, when you display your photographs, a single image of this object could sit alone in the center, with all of the other images that relate to it orbiting around the outside of the image.

Photography shouldn’t be done to impress people or make money. Working with your own ideas, with images that you love to look at or mean something to you, as a photographer is perhaps the most rewarding of feelings you’ll ever get from the craft. If you happen to have any photography-project ideas you’d like to share or perhaps would like to discuss your ideas with me, please do feel free to leave them in the comments below.

By Robert Bradley

Robert is a surrealist visual artist, photographer and journalist. Many of his photographs are exhibited throughout the world in private and corporate collections.


      1. Yes, I agree. I use to shoot my hat and eyeglasses in the places where I go, mostly with some friend of mine 🙂

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