Hands up, who is doing a year-long photo project in 2017? I see. That's quite a few of you. Commendable. It's a big thing, to commit yourself to do something creative for a whole year. Heck, it's a big thing to commit yourself to doing most anything for a whole year. Imagine committing to eating chia seeds every day for a year, or biking to work, or giving up smoking, or giving up biking or chia seeds. I shudder to think. But you don't have to. It's fine not to. No, that doesn't mean you should slack off and do nothing. Here's the case for smaller, shorter, more concentrated projects. They're just as fulfilling, I promise.
A Tale of Two Year-Long Projects
I can see the appeal. That's why I did it. In 2015, I joined 52rolls.net, a year-long photography project. To up the ante, this would be entirely on film. I would shoot, process or have processed, scan, edit and post 52 rolls of film, averaging one a week. The parameters were purposely loose. Still, it was hard, and it took a lot of time. I finished. I completed working on the last few rolls, added text and tidied them up into blog posts at the end of January of 2016.
It was great, rewarding work, and I'm here to tell you that you don't have to do it. You don't have to feel bad if you don't make it through a 365. It's also perfectly fine never to attempt one, despite what all your photographer friends are promising to themselves and the world on Instagram and Twitter right now. My follow-up project, a somewhat hare-brained attempt to shoot all the pictures on a cartridge of Super 8 film (yup, that still exists) as still frames, because I thought it would look cool to play them all back in order, like flashes of the year just past, failed completely. I couldn't be bothered to pick up the camera. I took a few frames here and there, mostly out the window. I had no energy because I had no feedback, and I had no feedback because no one would see anything from that cartridge until a long way past the one-year mark. It was a non-starter.
What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
New Year's resolutions, science tells us, are hard. Whether you start a year-long project as part of a new year's resolution, or whether you're thinking of starting one at any other date – birthdays, wedding days, anniversaries of working professionally, Towel Day, or Pi Day – you will have trouble keeping it up. Say it is the new year, though, and you did make a resolution to improve in your art, to work more on certain things in your photography, or perhaps just to finally learn what that one button on your camera is for. You know, that one, the one you always wondered about. I mean, what does it do? It has to be there for a reason. I digress.
Instead of setting yourself up for failure with a 365 project that sounded good enough, listen to your heart, as the song goes: is the thing you are committing yourself to something that will keep you going, nurture your creative impulses, and sustain interest for a whole year? If so, do you have a solid, concrete strategy to keep yourself on track? Do you have a daily routine to make sure you get in a daily picture? Or a weekly appointment with yourself to make sure you're staying with the project? If you are going into a 365-day type of project, make sure you know exactly what you want to do, and what kind of system you have in place so you can do it. Be specific about what you want to achieve. If that doesn't sound attractive to you, you may want to try a shorter, much more concentrated project. You may want to commit to a three-month project instead.
The Three-Month Project
Whether you've ever considered a year-long project or not, you should absolutely plan out a three-month long project at some point in your career and/or pursuit of your hobby. There are several reasons why this will work, make you happier, and make you a better photographer.
First, three months is not that long. That's a bit on the nose, I'll admit, but sometimes the obvious deserves to be stated. Three months is the time of a season. If you want, you can align your project with an astronomical or meteorological season. "Spring" or "Summer" make for easy starter projects. "The City" may be another one, perhaps put in contrast with "The Countryside." If you're in school, making that your focus for three months will seem much less challenging than doing it for a year. Same with the workplace, or travel, or whatever it may be that you can think of being occupied with for around twelve or thirteen weeks.
Second, three months is long enough. Provided you keep up with it, you will most definitely have something to show for at the end of these three months. Something you can then share with others as a completed project. This can boost your confidence and will let you hear feedback – both valid criticism and happy encouragement – from others.
Third, three months is plannable. We live in a fast-changing world. Your plan for how life was going to look at the end of the year may need an overhaul during the year, perhaps several times. If you have iron will, you can soldier on and finish almost any project under almost any circumstances. But at what cost? There is such a thing as good effort after bad. In the end, it's not so much about how you got to achieving a great result, it is the result that matters. Unless, I suppose, you're making something like artisanal cheese, where the process matters to the result or else you won't be able to sell it as artisanal. In which case: this is a photography site, stop procrastinating over your cheese-making project and go to a cheese site instead!
Extending the Three-Month Project
In a grander, more frou-frou philosophical sense, your whole life is a project. Come to think of it, I wish I'd made that up as an inspirational poster: sunset over a sea in which a huge Moleskine daily planner swims. Or something. This concept obviously needs work. In a less holistic way, your photography body of work is a project of finding, refining, and changing a personal style and brand. And then there's thematic projects, small and large. You may want to photograph sunsets in all the national parks, but this may take years. And yes, sunsets, I'm still kind of thinking of that inspirational poster. Forgive me. You may want to take portraits of people who represent a certain group, idea, or concept. This, too, may take years. Putting a constraint like "365 days" on a project may hinder you in making it the best it can be, either because it is too short, or too long.
Some projects emerge only as you look back at them. Recognizing what works for you in hindsight is also something that a three-month project can help you with. You won't lock yourself in. You will be able to change direction at will. You can try several projects in a year, instead of setting out to do one and abandoning it halfway through, with only the tears of your shattered ambitions to show for. You can then even choose a project from among the several that you have completed that you would like to extend. Maybe, just maybe, it'll even go for exactly a year.
So why should you plan your photographic journey into the year as one of several three-month projects instead of one 365? Because it's easier to stick with. Because you'll reap a reward earlier, and that will boost your confidence. Then you can choose to abandon the completed project altogether (if it's gotten stale), or to extend it and deepen your engagement with it for another three months, as you see fit. Three-month projects give you the flexibility that year-long projects do not. So give one a shot. I won't tell anyone that's what you were doing if it surreptitiously becomes a 365 after all.