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Working on projects

I find that a lot of attendees on my workshops are constantly in search of the photographic equivalent of a musical Top Ten hit in the hope that over time they’ll produce a portfolio of images of iconic subjects taken in absolutely stunning light. And who can blame them for wanting to pursue those one off photographs where the viewer’s reaction is ‘wow – what an amazing image!’.

There is no denying, it is good to have those high impact photographs in our collection. And in the 21st century the internet encourages the ‘instant hit’ approach to photography as social media and photo sharing sites like Flickr, Facebook & Instagram reward images with recognition from our ‘friends’ and followers. But the number of photographs posted on the internet each day requires them to be judged quickly and either ‘liked’ or passed over as a result of a cursory glance.

This is hardly a reliable barometer of the true value of any image and particularly those photographs that require study, consideration and reflection.

 

If all we aim for is to maximise our ‘likes’ and to produce a compilation of hit singles then we are limiting our photographic endeavours and denying the full potential of photography as a means of communication.

Why?

Firstly, the result is likely to be a collection of possibly excellent but almost certainly unconnected, disparate images.

Secondly, the search only for ‘greatest hits’ can lead to frustration & disappointment because by definition they are not that commonplace. It was Ansel Adams who said ”twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”.

And thirdly, photography is more than simply the pursuit of a Top Ten hit. For example it’s an incredible medium for story telling where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. To continue the musical analogy, instead of a 3 minute pop song think of a concept album or classical symphony.

 

That is why I am a great advocate of the photographic project.

The in depth exploration of a theme, idea or concept to produce a body of work that has integrity, coherence and potentially a longer term impact than a single, one-off photograph.

Working on a project can encourage us to look beyond the obvious images to explore our subject more fully and to think laterally & creatively about how we can photograph it in different and unique ways. I can say from personal experience that this process also aids our development as photographic artists.

It helps us to develop our own style and vision. For a sustainable project should ideally be based on our interests, our passions – the things that excite us – and as a result we are more likely to shoot from the heart. Furthermore by exploring our personal ideas about a subject or theme in depth we are more likely to produce photographs that reflect our unique view of the world. The first shots we take maybe replicas of others we have seen but to pursue a project fully to completion will usually require us to explore beyond that – like peeling off the layers of an onion to reach the core of our chosen subject.

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A technique that helps with this process (and one I regularly suggest to my workshop participants) is to come up with 1, 2 or 3 words that sum up their response to a subject (it could be a location for example) and then to consider the various ways they can represent those words visually via a photograph. This can form the basis of a project. It’s an approach that I use when I’m visiting a much-photographed location for it helps me to produce my personal response to it rather than fall into the trap of repeating the iconic but all too familiar images. Sometimes this leads to long term projects that I revisit over a period of years; other times they last only for the duration of a single trip.

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For example on my first visit to Copenhagen I was struck by how colourful a city it is. I decided that would be my project for the few days I was there. I just concentrated on producing colorful, abstract images that captured my response to that place at that point in time. I was only there for a long weekend but produced a set of 12 photographs that I was very satisfied with and as a series they will always represent Copenhagen to me.

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In contrast I have been working on a long-term project for a few years now photographing just sea and sky. It originated from thoughts I was having about minimalist photography and I challenged myself to see how much I could remove from an image and for it still to work.

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The images in this project only have the two elements – no beaches, no foreground rocks, no ships etc – and the only common factor in the photographs in the series is the horizon line – hence the title ‘180°’.

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So you can see, the projects that we choose don’t have to be focussed on deep, meaningful, life changing topics. Even relatively simple subjects can form the basis of a project. The important thing is that they interest us enough to give up our time to and that they encourage us to constantly practice our art & our techniques. Through practice & experimentation we can refine our skills and develop our photographic voice.

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A project can also provide us with much needed motivation.

We all find ourselves in an artistic rut from time to time – it’s an inevitable part of the creative process. Working on a project can provide the impetus to keep photographing, to develop fresh approaches and re-energise & rejuvenate our photography.

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Working on projects offers a more contemplative and thoughtful approach to photography when compared to the frenetic hunt for a ‘greatest hit’. Whilst these are always satisfying to produce, it tends to be the project based images that I take that give me most pleasure and resonate with me over a longer period of time.

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5 Top Tips

 

Be disciplined

Working on a project requires commitment and discipline. It’s easy to get distracted and to go off at a tangent to the main goal of a project. Also set aside physical time and mental space to dedicate to a project and protect them vigorously.

Working on a project requires commitment and discipline. It’s easy to get distracted and to go off at a tangent to the main goal of a project. Also set aside physical time and mental space to dedicate to a project and protect them vigorously.

 

Don’t aim for perfection

Remember that the pursuit of perfection is only valuable if it doesn’t stop you from doing something. Taking a less than perfect photograph is better than taking none at all. Sometimes ‘inferior’ images can be the source of valuable learning.

 

Go public

Commit yourself to your chosen project. Announce your intentions to your family & friends or via the internet using your website, Facebook, Twitter etc. The externalisation of your intentions can help you stick at it when energy levels fall or when work & family pressures have a detrimental effect on the pursuit of your project. And the feedback you receive from others might provide the incentive & encouragement to help drive your project forward.

 

Challenge yourself (but not too much!)

Strive for a balance between setting yourself a project that is challenging but not so difficult that you become demoralised and disenchanted. If you pick a project that is too easy you will run the risk of getting bored with it; but over extend yourself and it won’t get finished.

 

Learn from your projects

aAroject shouldn’t end with the taking of the last photograph. It’s important to evaluate what worked, what didn’t and most importantly why. Then try to extrapolate the lessons learned to the rest of your photographic endeavours.

Steve GoslingOther articles by author

Steve is a professional photographer who specialises in producing creative & contemporary landscape and travel images. His photographs have been published internationally illustrating posters, cards, books, magazines, newspapers & calendars. His fine art prints have been widely exhibited and have also appeared on sets for both theatre & film productions.

His work has also won many awards - for example, his landscape images have been successful in the UK’s ‘Black & White Photographer of the Year’ competition and for the last 3 years he has had images shortlisted in the prestigious international 'B&W Spider Awards', achieving an Honourable Mention in 2016.

He enjoys writing & teaching about photography and frequently gives talks on landscape photography to photographic groups in the UK and abroad. He is also a regular contributor to many of the major photography magazines in the UK as well as a growing number of overseas titles. He has run a successful workshop programme for several years in locations across the world from Iceland to Antarctica, encouraging and inspiring photographers of all levels.

As well as working closely with Phase One (for whom he is a Fieldwork Professor) and Lee Filters Steve is an Ambassador for Olympus, Manfrotto/Gitzo tripods & Permajet inkjet papers.