By Josh Austin
If you stop challenging yourself your photos will, sooner or later, become boring. Taking on a really interesting photography project can be a brilliant way to counter this.
The 5 photography project ideas I’ve described below are amongst my personal favourites. They might seem demanding at first, but I promise that once you apply yourself to them the ideas will begin flowing, and your motivation will go through the roof!
1. The Invisible Self-Portrait
Shoot a collection of items that represent you. Ok, so technically this is ‘still life’ photography! But thematically it helps to think of it as self-portraiture, and I love the way the two genres merge. This project is about both self-expression and the use of objects to convey a story.
Think hard about the items that really say something about you. You might like to choose things that are all closely connected to make a strong personal statement. Alternatively, it can be interesting to represent the more disparate elements of your life, through an eclectic mix of items.
Don’t be too safe. If your life is a bit of a mess at the moment, don’t create a perfectly ordered, neat arrangement! If you’ve just broken up with someone, maybe you could choose items that represent that person, and the fact that they’re no longer around. It’s catharsis!
I once put to together a still-life/self-portrait with just items belonging to close friends and family. It was an expression of how the people around me are a big part of my identity. In another image I used items that represent all the places I have lived. The centre-piece was a chair from the family home where I grew up.
It won’t take long before you’re brimming with ideas! This is such a great project for exploring the use of symbolism in photography, which will really help to improve all of your still life work.
2. Fire and Ice - Capturing The Seasons
Photograph the same location in summer and winter. It’s amazing how much the seasons transform the landscape, whether urban or rural. Everything from the light and the vegetation, to the presence of human life changes!
Think of the street you live on in mid-summer: Perhaps there are some trees in bloom; flower baskets hanging out of windows; blue sky and bright sun reflecting off the cars; people in shorts, skirts and shades strutting down the street; kids messing around etc.
Now how about in December: A sheet of white cloud covering the world; perhaps a layering of snow on the ground; one or two huddled figures wrapped up like Eskimos; Christmas lights zig-zagging down the street; the glow of street lamps etc.
It’s really cool to see the exact same location, shot from the same angle, in completely different conditions. If you live in the country, the contrast between all the natural colours of summer and the barren sights of winter is very striking. You should end up with a really interesting collection of shots.
3. The 7 Ages of Man
Shoot portraits of 7 people at different stages of their life, from youth to old age. This is one of my absolute favourites! Now, you don’t have to choose exactly 7 people; I’d say any number from 5 to 10 would be fine. The idea is to capture something telling about the age of each of your subjects.
This project clearly relies on a certain amount of continuity. What makes the finished results so interesting is the way they record the trajectory of life, not just physically, but in more subtle ways too.
So, obviously, stick with the same gender for each picture! It’s also best to choose subjects who belong to broadly the same social demographic. So don’t start with a schoolboy, move on to a young lawyer, then over to a market-seller, a middle-aged hobo, a policeman and wrap it up with a wealthy pensioner!
Try to capture an expression or a pose in each of your subjects that says something about who they are at that stage in their life. The youngest subjects are often completely uninhibited and natural. This sometimes merges into various affectations in early adulthood, and then perhaps ‘professional deformity’ later in life!
Overall, this is a fascinating photography project to have a go at, and one that I often re-visit.
Shoot lots of different subjects… in mid-air! Capturing a split-second of time, that would never otherwise be possible to scrutinize and observe in any depth, is one of the true pleasures of photography. So this project is a fun angle on this aspect of photography.
It might sound odd, but reaction speed is actually quite a big part of taking pictures. You have to be able to seize on an interesting moment as soon as it happens. You only get one chance – then it’s gone!
Capturing things in mid flight is a great way to practice. It can be anything: a bunch of flowers tossed in the air; a person jumping off a bus; an item that you’ve thrown up against the background of a blue sky; your dog/cat leaping from a height; a moment of sporting action etc.
Photos like these always have a dynamism about them that viewers just love. It’s a great way to begin exploring the ‘decisive moment’ in photography; that instant when something really expressive happens that just begs to be captured.
5. The Photo Essay
Tell the story of an event in 5-15 pictures. We often talk about getting that ‘killer photo’, and saying as much as possible in just one still image. That’s great, but it’s just not always possible to tell the full story in one shot. Building up a picture of something through a small collection of photographs is a really fun skill to master.
So, what to choose as a subject? Well, it needs to be something that you can represent through a variety of shots. Personally, I love creating photo essays of events like sports matches. There’s a clear chronology to it – starting with getting to the ground and finishing with the emotions of the winning/losing fans as they leave.
But it could be something really small too, like cooking a meal. You could begin with a few really nice close up shots of the ingredients – showing their textures and colours. Then perhaps move on to the cooking process, showing the ‘chef’ at work and maybe a picture through the oven door. Move on to the presentation of the food and the meal itself, with images of the happy diners talking and tucking in! Then perhaps finish off with a shot of an empty plate and a few contented faces.
Be sure to use a real mixture of images, with differing focal lengths, depths of field, angles of view, perspectives and so on. The idea is to build up a full picture using your 5-15 shots.
Best of luck with these projects – I really hope you enjoy them!
About the author:
Josh Austin is a photographer who runs the website Photography Art Café, a resource for helping beginner and intermediate photographers master the art of photography.