If you ask any well-known and successful photographer what the most important thing you can do to grow your business is, they will almost all point towards shooting personal projects. Before the end of every day, I try to visualize at least one creative and interesting idea that might be worth photographing. Nine times out of ten, those ideas are complete garbage. Every now and then, I come up with a really great idea, but unfortunately, 90% of the time, I completely forget these great ideas and they never become a reality. Here is how I have solved this problem.
First, let me point back to the importance of personal projects. A personal project lies right between a test shoot (which is more or less an experimental learning experience) and a paid gig by a commercial client. In other words, test shoots are usually fruitful, but the final images may not hit your portfolio, while commercial shoots are usually not the work you are most proud of, but they are the ones that put dinner on the table. What I have found is that booking commercial shoots almost always results from a client being impressed with the personal projects you have included on your website. So in essence, your portfolio made up of your personal creative work is the vehicle by which large commercial clients wind up hiring you.
Personal projects are almost always quirky, unique, creative, thoroughly planned out, and executed to the highest level possible. Since you can act as the creative director and completely oversee every element of the shoot, photos coming out of your personal projects will become your most prized and valuable images in your entire portfolio. These images are the images that will help you make a name for yourself and ultimately make paying clients want to hire you over another photographer.
Exercise Your Creativity
Even though your brain isn't a muscle, in many ways, it behaves like one. The brain needs to be worked out and challenged in order for it to maximize its own potential. If you are in college, you will soon realize how well-conditioned your brain is right now because you have been constantly pushing it through your academics. However, once you graduate from school, you will quickly realize that your mental capacity will start to diminish if you do not continually feed it. For the photographer, the best way to keep your mind sharp is to spend some time visualizing and brainstorming fresh image ideas. Sometimes, these ideas might be based around a lighting setup or they might be based around a conceptual idea. For many of us, we enjoy the instant gratification we get when we see a cool new lighting effect on the back of our LCDs, but let me urge you to not overlook the conceptual side of your images.
To date, my most successful personal project has been the Stun Gun Photoshoot. The lighting in that photo series is pretty typical "edgy portrait lighting," but the lighting was not the initial inspiration for making the images. I wanted to do something fun and silly. I wanted to capture people with weird expressions. I wanted to make a series that was entertaining, but also had some sort of controversial social element to it as well. Like many of my personal projects, the Stun Gun Photoshoot sat on the back burner of my mind for over a year. I was constantly tweaking the concept and executing the shoot over and over in my head as I refined what the final images would look like. At the same time, I was also allowing my imagination to explore other completely unrelated projects (many of which were so funny, outrageous, and flat-out dumb that they will never see the light of day). By constantly pushing my mind to come up with creative ideas that are not restricted by any boundaries, I have been able to come up with a host of photographic ideas that range from pretty good to absolutely worth doing. As I do the mental gymnastics of creating fun personal project ideas, I have come to the realization that some of my greatest ideas have been lost forever. This is a major, major problem.
Preserving Your Ideas
Have you ever had a great idea for an invention, a cool domain name, or an interesting business idea, only to completely forget about it later when you wished to revisit it again? This happens to me all the time with personal project ideas. A great idea might come to me right before bed, while I'm in the shower, or after a few beers with my friends, but then I fail to write it down and poof, it's gone forever. Because this happens so often, I have come up with a pretty simple solution that not only lets me remember my shoot ideas, but also allows me to elaborate on them from both conceptually and stylistically.
The system is pretty simple: you just need to make folders on your computer and name them with the basic working title of the shoot. Some of your ideas might be as vague as "blue jeans," "snooted portraits," or "ties as belts". Other folders might be much more specific, like "helicopter telephoto cityscape in Dubai," "photos of wedding dress the morning after the wedding," or "Portraits shot at 800mm" (which we actually did). The title just needs to have enough information so that you can easily recall the creative idea. You could bury these folders inside larger folders to help organize them (/portraits/whatever or /weddings/whatever), but I actually prefer to have them all in one single folder so I can see the entire scope of my brainstorming.
You can also supplement this master folder system on your smart phone by having a second list on a mobile app like notepad. While you aren't able to usually make folders on your phone, you can at least save a running list of ideas that you can work on later when you get back to your office.
Expanding Your Ideas
Now that you have a bunch of folders named after your personal project ideas, you can use those folders to save images, notes, lighting diagrams, and other useful information. Once I have a good creative idea, I almost always research that idea on the web to see if anyone has done something like it previously. If another photographer has already shot something similar to my idea, I will often tweak my idea to make it even more unique. Sometimes, when researching an idea, I will find something really interesting related to my idea that hasn't been executed in a professional manner. Other times, I will find that my idea is completely fresh and no one has ever attempted this concept before. Either way, researching your idea through Google Images, microstock sites, and Youtube is a part of the brainstorming process that shouldn't be overlooked.
These folders are also great for saving sample images you find online that contain some element you would like to incorporate into your own shoot. Sometimes, these images are related to a lighting style; other times, I will save into a folder an image that has a cool post-production technique or maybe even a wardrobe styling that I think would be perfect for my shoot. From my experience, the more images you can save into your folders, the more complete and concise your idea will eventually become.
Finally, you can also save notes in these folders about very specific elements that you want to incorporate into each personal project. These notes might be related to times of the year for the correct sun placement, a list of specific local models that would be good subjects, a note about a news story that might make your series more socially impactful, or the name of a venue or location that would serve as the background plate for the image. Just like having a large collection of images to draw inspiration from, having a Word document inside this folder filled with specifics will help you recreate the best photograph that you see in your head.
Execute Your Ideas
Now that you have a bunch of creative ideas accumulating on your computer and you have a bunch of images and notes to help consolidate the theme, you ultimately need to tackle the project itself. For many people, this is the most exciting part of being a photographer, but it is also the most difficult to actually execute. Like many of you have already discovered, I have found it to be extremely easy to talk about doing a project, but much tougher to actually set time aside and complete the project itself. For the Stun Gun Shoot mentioned above, I had the idea for over 12 months, but it took my friend, Dylan Patrick, hounding me to complete the shoot for me to finally bite the bullet and knock out the portrait series.
I often find myself putting projects off because I think they need more planning, they need to be absolutely perfect, or because they would turn out better if only I had that new piece of photography gear. In reality, it is much better to tackle a personal project every month and build a collection of unique images now, rather than to keep putting it off over and over again. You can always revisit ideas if the results fail to meet your expectations and when you do fail at a particular shoot, you can revisit that idea again later with a pair of fresh eyes.
Conceptualizing and planning personal shoots is the best way to grow as a photographer. Some of the most well-known photoshoots you have ever seen all stemmed from personal projects (Jill Greenberg, Mike Kelley, Seth Casteel) and it is your personal projects that will help you find new clients in ways you never thought possible. If you have any good tips about how you organize your personal photoshoot ideas, leave them in the comments below and maybe we can all integrate them into our own creative workflow.