Working on a personal photography series or project provides a huge amount of enjoyment and satisfaction, whether you’re a beginner or a professional photographer.
As a professional advertising, lifestyle, and portrait photographer, I usually create one personal photography project every year, which involves quite a lot of planning time. My personal projects have taken me to the cities of Hanoi and Mumbai in the last few years.
Let me talk you through how to conceive and plan out your own photo series that might be good enough to be entered for (and to win!) multiple awards. My last photography series on the motorcyclists of Hanoi won a gold award at the prestigious Prix La Photographie Paris awards.
Whether your images are only ever seen by your family, or if it ends up on display in a gallery, doesn’t actually matter. As long as you’re happy with the results and enjoy the whole process then consider it a win.
Coming up with THE idea
You can get the glimmer of an idea from absolutely anywhere. It can come as you’re walking through your neighborhood, reading a newspaper, or listening to a radio show.
Not all ideas will justify ending up as a full photo series, so it’s really important to keep notes of potential ideas to explore again at some point. Of course, it has to be something that interests you because you might be working on this project for 3-4 months, or even more if it’s a photo series collated over time.
I created a photo series of musicians playing various instruments outdoors in parks and other outdoor spaces in London (see images above and below). This idea was first ignited when I took a walk through a local park and could hear someone playing the tuba. I followed the sound and as soon as I saw them, I instantly knew that concept would be a great photo series.
With the Bikes of Hanoi series, I saw some holiday photos my friend had taken in Vietnam, and one image of a delivery moped driver carrying a huge load of goods instantly sparked all sorts of ideas (see images below).
Once I’ve completed a photography series, I start looking for ideas for the next project everywhere, gauging people’s ideas, and bouncing ideas around with other people.
I find that my mind has to be switched on and looking for that one stand-out idea. The creative muscle is just like any other muscle and it needs to be used to increase its strength. So make an effort and work at that process.
Planning the concept
Once you’ve narrowed down your outline ideas into one whole concept that could work as a series, there are many questions to ask yourself.
- Will all the images be similar?
- How many will be in the set?
- Will they tell a story?
- Is anything missing from that story?
You can sketch or storyboard out the idea. You could even use a Pinterest board to pull together similar ideas, portraits, or styles that sum up the overall mood you want to capture or create. The images below are from the Candy Man series taken in Mumbai.
It’s also really important to get feedback on your idea.
I talk through my ideas with friends and family. I also have a group of other photographers that meet up regularly to chat and get feedback on anything we’re working on. Also, it’s important to remember that even though it has to be a topic that I find interesting, it’s also really important to me that other people find it interesting too.
Again, while you do want your photography project to fire up some passion within yourself, it’s important to look at what’s realistic within your own budget, your timeframe, and your experience level.
It is also really important to do some good research. I want my images to show something different that hasn’t been done before. And as you can imagine, this is not easy!
You can find a formula that works but the key is to then break that formula so things are fresh. Ultimately, the right idea will keep coming up in your thoughts time and time again. If you start to panic that someone else might think of the same idea and do it before you, then you know you’re probably onto something!
The first stage of planning
This is when you want to nail down all of the main details, but leave enough time to explore other aspects you’ve not planned. If you’re traveling abroad, you may want to tie it in with a holiday or a trip, or you may be committed to planning the whole trip around your photography and the project.
Make sure your plans provide enough flexibility so that if another opportunity presents itself, you can adjust and roll with it.
When I was a student, I set out to take some portraits of football (soccer to those of us in North America) fans in Sheffield, and unbeknownst to me, it turned into some of the worst football hooligan trouble in years. So instantly the project moved from portraits of football fans into a photo-journalism series about football violence.
You can see why it’s important to keep an open mind about what might happen. Life has a way of throwing up lucky gifts, especially if you’re ready to grab an opportunity when it presents itself to you.
Plan the actual photo session
If your photography series is set in your local vicinity, then it’s easy to get out and plan the photoshoot, with the right lighting at the right time of day. Take some practice images and tinker with them at home.
If you’re traveling further afield or going abroad even, then, it’s a little more difficult, but not impossible! Use Google Maps Street View so you have a good sense of where you are and what’s around you.
Very often my personal photography projects are set at night time, which gives me a bit more control over the lighting and the ability to mix sources. So I do like to play around with different lighting setups before I fly out to a location.
One to two days before you leave
Check that you have all of your equipment ready and check it again.
Do you have a plan A, B, and C? Do your backup plans have backups?
I always carry a backup camera, batteries, lenses, and various flashes and if the worst happens I have mentally already worked out another way of approaching it if a particular bit of gear were to go down.
Overall, make sure your project is fun. It can be stressful but the end result needs to be rewarding. As a professional, this is the fun part of the job, because I have the ultimate control over the whole creative process and the outcome rather than working to a client’s brief.
If you’re creating a photography series, even if you’re not a working photographer, it’s such an amazing way to flex those creative muscles and create something you can be proud of. Even if the series or images don’t turn out exactly as planned, there is still a lot of value in doing it. It’s all part of the learning process.
So, my hope is that you’ve been inspired by these ideas. Now get out there and go be creative!
You can see more of my photography series on my website.