Gain Focus With Year Long Photo Projects


Year long photo projects, like Daily Photos (aka:  Photo 365) or weekly photos (aka: 52 week photos) can be a great asset to any emerging photographer if done well.  If done improperly, its possible that you may even hurt your photography.  Based on my own experiences, and through the observation of other projects, I have learned quite a bit about the topic over the past year.  I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned so that you may first make the best decision as to whether or not you would do such a project and second so that you go about it the right way.  I will wrap up the article with my plans for this coming year and I will explain what I will do differently.

Why a Year Long Photo Project?

Starting on January 1st, 2010, I embarked upon my journey to do a daily photo challenge throughout the year.  I was encouraged to do the same because of photographer, Jim Talkington – who had also done such a project – demonstrated to me that it was beneficial to shoot every day.  In many cases, it is.  I would say that the number one reason that hobbyist and amateur photographers don’t grow is because they don’t shoot enough.  They don’t carry around their cameras daily and when such opportunities arise, they are missed.  A year long photo project, be it a daily or a weekly project, is incentive for such best practices.  There are many photographers that have benefited from such a project. 

Sometime such a project can help you with one very specific goal.  Vikas Sandhu’s Project, for example, helped him to focus on composition.  Since the beginning of his project, growth is very apparent.  His compositions are tighter, his subject choices are much more refined.  Vikas is, in my opinion, a more mature photographer now.  His project will continue through until May, and I’ll be curious to see the whole year at once.

In other cases, the goal of the project is simply to shoot more or to work within the constraints of the project.  This is a challenge that appeals to many and many have grown significantly as a result.  Our very own David Clark started his project in January for the very same reason.  In a discussion I had with him at the end of last year, he lamented that he was nervous about maintaining the quality of his work while trying to adhere to such a rigorous schedule.  Somewhere in about March, I think he was able to fit into a groove.  I, at least, never had questions about whether the project would affect his quality of work.  But in David’s case, I think the project helped him to branch out more.  We saw some macro shots in there, we saw some portraiture and a number of other subjects that he wasn’t known for prior to starting the project.

Why Do Some Projects Fail?

No one knows better than I that some of these projects are bound to fall short.  My own project lasted only about 70 days.  For some, the rigorous schedule doesn’t fit into their lifestyle.  This is especially true of those of you who have career goals outside of the photography world.  In my case, I was very focused on my career as a Landscape Architect and my life with my family.  It became somewhat cumbersome to find time to shoot every day.  And like David, I also grew concerned of maintaining the quality in my work.  I never found the happy medium.  I snapped the shutter nearly 300 times for those 70 photos, the great majority of which ended up on the cutting room floor.  But therein was my problem:  I was not shooting with a plan.  There’s no reason I should have wasted that many frames.

On the other hand, I also felt that the project was taking me down a road that I didn’t want to travel.  With my many years of experience, I have grown quite happy shooting the subjects that appeal to me most:  Ugly and broken man-made things, beautiful landscapes and emotional candids.  My preferred subject matter is the result of planned excursions or chance occurrences.  The daily photo project was forcing me to shoot things that didn’t really appeal to my own interests.  With 20/20 hind sight, the daily photo project was probably not best for me.

Before you consider doing such a project, you should be aware of what it could do to your work.  Those of you who are more experienced may feel restricted and constrained.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, just that you need to have a game plan.

Why I’ll Be Doing It Again:

The concept of a year long project is a good one and I can’t deny that my 70 days on the project this past year helped me grow as a photographer.  Yes, I was headed down a path that I didn’t want when it came to subject matter.  But I did improve my abilities to think and compose quickly.  Up until this year, I would plan my excursions days (if not weeks) in advanced.  My trip to Philly in 2009 was the result of two months of planning.  I had everything mapped out from where I would start to where I would be at 10am to where I was eating lunch and so on.  The daily photo project forced me to think at a much quicker pace.  I feel it helped me to become looser as a photographer, and I do feel that it had its benefits.

My approach, however, was wrong.  My goal was to shoot a photo every day.  I had no other goal.  That was my weakest link, and that is why my project ultimately failed.  Perhaps shooting on a daily basis wasn’t beneficial to me either.  If I had done a weekly photo project, I might have been much less stressed about achieving a deadline.  I would have had seven days worth of photos that I could ultimately choose from.  I also would have had more time with my family.

My 2011 Project:  More Wisdom and More Refined

I will be doing another project this coming year.  I have learned from my mistakes and I have tempered this coming year’s project to fit my needs and my schedule.  In preparation for this coming year’s project, I have set out the following guidelines:

  • One Photo Weekly – I will post only one photo each week in direct correlation to the project.  This, I feel, will help me to maintain my own quality standards.  It will also help me to fit the project into my hectic daily life.  I will miss some days of shooting, but the weekly schedule won’t be seriously impacted by that.
  • Black & White Only – I came from the world of Black & White, and I feel that it has not been as common in my work since moving to digital.  So I am using this project as an opportunity to work more with Black & White – the medium that I truly love.  It may benefit you all as well, as I feel I have a lot to offer.  I just need to remind myself of the simplest of techniques, and I will have more Black & White articles moving forward.
  • SLR Only – I debated about permitting myself to use my new phone’s camera (which is actually fairly good, considering), but decided against.  I feel such a condition would only make me lazy in the long run.  So even if I take a great photo with my phone, it will not be allowed as part of my project. I do, however, occasionally shoot film still.  And if I do, I would consider allowing those photos.
  • Only My Subjects – I won’t sacrifice my own preferred subject material for the sake of meeting a deadline.  I want each and every one of my photos from this project to fit into my own style.  That’s not to say I won’t experiment, but such experiments will fall under more scrutiny

If you are interested in following my progress, I will be hosting it as part of my personal blog.

Your Turn…

If you’re considering such a project, I have a few resources (outside of our site) that I’d like to share with you.  Daniel McNamara (aka: Dawnstar Australis) wrote a list of inspirations, 365 Ideas, over a year ago.  It’s a good list and you may benefit from that.  Additionally, Daniel also wrote an article, Hints and Tips for Doing A 365 Day Photo Project, which is  targeted at a daily photo project, but the same could be applied to a weekly project or otherwise.

Update: Since this article was initially published, McNamara has issued yet another article, 11 More Random Hints & Tips For Doing A 365 Day Photo Project.

We of course want to hear from you about your own projects.  So if you’re doing such a project, please leave a comment below.  In the near future, we are planning on compiling a list of projects, so this would be a good opportunity to get your project out into the masses.  Note that I often tweet about my favorite photos from such projects as well (and sometimes we’ll mention it through the site’s official twitter account as well).  So tell us where we can find your projects…


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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