Self-devised projects may seem like a waste of time. But are they really?
For some, the task of setting a photographic project may seem like an onerous one, whereas for others, it's a breath of fresh air and a welcome break from their typical genre of photography. For myself, the projects I usually set up include the landscape in some form or another, and honestly, I always get something from them. Whether that is "nope, don't do that again" or "actually, here are some transferable skills I can apply to my other photography," I do usually find it a win-win scenario when doing them. Even if the win-win is don't do it again, at least I know.
Not all photographers would say this is a good thing as only practice makes perfect, so stick to what you want to achieve. But, for me, transferable practice in photography is a valuable asset to have. Yes, you will have your main genre, and perhaps this is your main income generator or perhaps you are relatively new to the world of photography and are unsure exactly what genre takes your fancy, so you need to try them all to find out what you are most passionate about. This is the crux of your photographic path, what direction you are going to take your passion.
If you really want to become a portrait photographer. Practice and study all you can, then eat, sleep, repeat at every opportunity. Don't let anyone tell you you can't do it. Don't gauge yourself by what you see in the magazines or online, be inspired by it, and push forward. Every one of those photographers was once where you are now, so learn from them. The same goes for any other genre in the photographic field.
Transferable skills come in when you set yourself a project, and these projects can be the simplest of tasks.
Say, for example, as a portrait photographer, you challenge yourself to change eye color in post over a series of images — I mean various eye colors over a series, not just one color. Very easy, some may say, but everything is easy once you know how to do it. How is this transferable? Basically, you have learned how to change the hue of something, in this case, something small. Now, think. Is this the same process for say, a dress, a t-shirt, a car? Suddenly, the eye color change has become a transferable skill. You will also learn and take away various shooting techniques from whatever project you set yourself — again, very useful when thinking about your own genre.
Some of my own projects have included:
Yes, the above diagram is basic notes in their simplest form to give an idea of what I mean. Please don't take "reflected light interacts with surfaces" too literally. I am aware that this is photography. I am merely suggesting that an automotive shoot with people, for example, carries a few variables when it comes to the surface light interactions with the subjects, so as a photographer, you are now aware of these variables and can adapt accordingly.
Should You Set Yourself a Project?
Now, I'm not going to suggest here that if you are a landscape photographer, go shoot some street or photojournalism, but hey, why not! You'll really know then whether you want to be around the hustle and bustle or whether you prefer the solitude of the countryside. If I may, what I am suggesting is that instead of opting to learn a certain technique, be it photographic or post-production work, is that you set yourself a project that encompasses new techniques for both or one that edges you out of your comfort zone. By doing this, you may come across variables that will advance your overall photographic practice.
If you are a landscape photographer, you are usually out looking for a composition that you can connect with. Sometimes, you find it, sometimes, you don't, and that's just the way it is. We accept this and just enjoy the journey. Projects, themes, or personal challenges, whatever you want to call them can, in my opinion, help focus and inspire, and I'll often set myself some during location shoots: only use one lens, has to be 1x1 format, a one-click edit, simple things like this. Now, that may not seem much as there are other more practical intense projects that you can set yourself. The above example allows me to focus on the compositional limitations depending on the lens choice and the focal distance limitations of said lens. Do they work? Sometimes. Do I learn from it? Every time.
What's the Point?
If you are a seasoned photographer, be it an enthusiast or professional, the above paragraphs will all make sense, seem banal in their explanation, and perhaps pointless, a waste of your time reading. But not everyone is where you are now. We all have to start somewhere, and not everyone intuitively connects the dots of the different aspects of photography where cumulatively, everything comes together and is transferable. It's being able to connect the dots and read and apply them throughout your practice that advances your photography. Yes, it's practice and practice makes perfect. I find projects enhance the journey and every now and again. Perhaps during a creative slump, they provide focus and purpose.
The example above is from quite a few years ago, and with a DSLR, I might add. The project/challenge was to create a consistent in-camera gradient for each shot and apply a background in post. The actual idea came from inconsistent flash sync speeds that some of the students were getting when in the studio. So, we turned this into a project/challenge where they had to, with a simple lighting setup, create an in-camera gradient by capturing the curtain in each shot. Takeaway: better understanding of flash sync speeds and how to use them creatively — lighting setups that would compliment the end result and the technique of replacing the background.
This example was a self-devised combination of post-processing and shooting, where I had to consider the direction of light and also the depth of field when photographing, as I didn't want to create a faux depth of field in post. This one was not so challenging in the fact that the terrain was rough, so post-production would be simplified. The challenge was if I could do it successfully and create a believable view. How many shots would I need to complete it? What height and angle would I have to shoot at to make it consistent? When would I shoot the individual parts throughout the day to maintain a believable light? Takeaway: extra purpose during a long hike, correlation of the scale of the parts when shooting, especially smaller details, the angle of view when shooting awareness of detail contrast in distance and foreground, various composite and blending techniques.
A breakdown of the individual pieces can be seen below.
Everything is linked throughout photographic practice in one way or another, and it is indeed being able to join the dots that will enable you to advance as a photographer. Ultimately, the experience of doing this will teach you something and will at some point be useful in the genre that you focus upon for yourself.
So, do you need a project to do this? Well no, but I do think that creating purpose by setting an end goal provides a sense of accomplishment. By doing this, you are learning all the time and gathering transferable skills along the way.