What can our families teach us about photography?

The park I
One way of viewing time is as an enemy, an adversary with whom you must do battle. Sometimes this is how I feel. Between work and the daily grind of life you can get stuck in a rut, feeling like there is no way of getting out. Creativity and doing the things you love can be an antidote to all of this. A panacea for the sole.

I was recently reading a blog post from the archive of the wonderful Eric Kim; 10 Things Magnum Photographer David Hurn Can Teach You About Street Photography. Not only has Eric’s post made me want to read David Hurn & Bill Jay’s book it has also made me think about how I approach my photography. In point 7 Eric talks about shooting with a project in mind. I have tried this in the past but with varied success, reading the blog post gave me a eureka moment. I have been doing it all wrong! I have been trying to make my life fit around a photography project when I should be making the photography project fit around my life.
The park II
I am great at coming up with ambitious projects which end up being a struggle to commit to. An idea which seems great in my head but ends up with me fighting against time and the vision instead of working with it. Many great photographers make their work fit to their lifestyle and constraints. I need to take a leaf out of their book and make time work for me.

So what better subject than my family!? I love them dearly and they certainly fall into the category of “shoot what you know”. Over time I have amassed a great number of images of my family but maybe I need to take a fresh look. Everyone has a family but nobody else has my family and nobody sees them the way I do. Other than genetics what is it that connects them to me? What do I see when I look in their eyes?

This doesn’t mean that I have to reduce my ambitions of course. If anything it means that I need to work harder and strive for more from my photography. I want to learn how to build a narrative, tell a my story. Sometimes you have to look without the camera in order to realise your vision when you are behind it.
The park III

Starting on the road to documentary photography

UrbanWildlife-1582.jpg

Since I picked up my camera again I have worked on a number of small projects that have helped me to improve my photography and given me something to work towards. For a while though I have wanted something bigger to get my teeth into. I have had a few ideas about what this project might be about but having recently just moved away from the city that I lived in for most of my life I wanted to use the project to find out a little more about the town that I have come to live in. I could potentially do this with a street photography project but I wanted to learn more about the people themselves and so I had the idea of starting a documentary project.

Documentary photography is a form of photography which was extremely popular in the mid 20th century and has experienced a lull more recently however a number of talented photographers have started a resurgence in the field and are producing some hugely interesting and inspiring work. Whilst I don’t feel like I have honed my skills enough to produce anything close to the work of any of these photographers I hope to learn a lot from the project both on a technical and personal level.

So where do I start on the road to documentary photography? In one of my previous posts I shared a photography project framework which I intend to follow for this project. With this in mind I went out and purchased myself a new notepad and made a start noting down my ideas. Personally having a small notepad that I carry around with me most of the time really worked. Whenever I had some time at home or in my lunch break at work I read through my notes and expanded on my idea. I also spoke to some of my friends about the project and this helped to make the project feel more real and lead me to even more ideas.

New notepad

Creating the mind map

Eventually I had quite a few notes and I was starting to feel like I wanted to move onto the next stage. Before I did that however I want to write my notes up as a mind map. I was hoping that this would help to give the lists of ideas some structure and build a picture of how a plan for the project might come together. I had previously found an online tool for creating mind maps but another search uncovered a different tool which I felt was a little easier to use: http://drichard.org/mindmaps/. You can see the mind map that I produced below and if you are interested then you can get a copy of the original JSON file here.

Documentary Photography Mind Map V1

Just as I thought I had finished putting my ideas together I found out that Huck magazines current issue was a documentary special. With this in mind I thought that this would be a great opportunity to expand my ideas further. Once I have done this I will be sure to write another post and share the updated mind map. If you have any comments or suggestions then please add the comments to this blog post.

What are the ingredients for motivating you to improve your photography?

Fragments of a city: Hold me

Like many things in life you will only become a better photographer if you practice, practice, practice. Whilst your ability to practice your photography is somewhat based on opportunity you also need to have some level of motivation. Some people are able to motivate themselves to improve by simply having their camera with them but personally I need something bigger to get my teeth into. In my experience having a project to work towards is a good way of driving motivation as it helps you to set goals and monitor your own progress.

When it comes to photography projects they can be as ambitious as you want them to be but my top piece of advice with any kind of project would be to set yourself realistic goals. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t push yourself but if you currently don’t set yourself any kind of project goals then start small and build up from there. Achieving an extremely ambitious goal can give you a massive boost in your confidence and motivation but consistently missing your goals will result in the complete opposite. Its all about setting a pace that you can consistently maintain.

In order to start a project you need to have several ingredients; an idea, a plan, a goal, a deadline and time to review. If you don’t want to define all of these things for yourself there are plenty of places where you can find some or all of these things. For example Black+White Photography magazine have a monthly photography project which they print in their magazine. Their projects  include some helpful ideas and tips on how to plan your project as well as some references and photographers for you to research. For something even simpler there are many places online where you can get involved with a group projects or competitions. Personally I have entered the monthly competitions of Birmingham Photography Meetup and I am currently contributing to the 2014 A-Z Project on Flickr.

I have enjoyed some of these simpler projects but I have recently found that I want to push myself a little further and wanted the creative direction of my photography to be more about my own ideas. For me this meant thinking about my photography projects in more detail and having a clearer plan. I already have some experience of running software projects from my professional career but some research in photography projects lead me to an interesting blog post by Ian Turpin which talks about his experience A level photography projects. Using the fantastic information in Ian’s blog and some of my own ideas  I have put together a project framework for photography projects:

The planning phase

The initial idea

Come up with some words & phrases which will form the initial idea. It is useful to keep the list with you and add to it when you are waiting for the bus of making a cup of tea. Sometimes inspiration comes from unlikely places.

Resources:

  • Initial ideas list
  • Project topics list

Strategies:

  • Mind map

Tools

Build on the idea

Take the idea further by looking at existing images and building a theme. Try putting together images from different places and times to see if they tell you a different story. Perhaps look at images which are different to your usual subjects or style.

Resources:

  • Mood board

Strategies:

  • Other peoples images
  • Famous photographers images
  • Images from the internet
  • Images from magazines
  • Your own images that you have previously discounted

Photographer research

Choose two or more famous or professional photographers to research. The internet can be a good resource here but don’t underestimate your local library. Photographs will always feel different in print than they will on the screen.

Resources:

  • Short essay about the photographers

Strategies:

  • Review their work
  • Critique
  • Relate their work to your theme
  • Compare the different approaches to similar themes or subjects

Statement of intent

Lay the groundwork for your project. This will be the final part of your plan where you will document exactly what you are going to do.

Resource:

  • Written statement of intent

Strategies:

  • What you plan to do
  • How you plan to do it
  • What equipment will you use or not use?
  • What techniques will you employ?
  • Which photographers will you use for reference?
  • Plan your shoots
  • Schedule your time
  • What is the deadline?
  • Will you work alone?
  • What will the final output of the project look like?

The execution phase

In this phase you should work in a cycle: Shoot – Review – Research – Shoot

Shoot

Each shoot should be an improvement on the last. Explore the idea at the beginning but try to build on the theme as you go learning from previous shoots.

Strategies:

  • 1 test shoot to explore ideas
  • 2  or more actual shoots
  • Improve on shots from previous shoots
  • Change composition, subject, viewpoint etc.
  • Limit the number of pictures you take
  • Have a separate shoot for new techniques
  • If you have used film then you should print your own work
  • You can document a shoot / technique using your camera phone
  • Use a notepad / smartphone to record your thoughts and feelings

Review

Build a portfolio of presentation worthy images. Document failure as well as success.

Resources:

  • Contact sheet

Strategies:

  • Compare the best
  • Critique the worst
  • Compare shots with famous or professional photographers
  • Aim to have 2-3 shots for a small project or 8 plus for a large project
  • If you are unsure about whether or not something worked document it and why you made your decision
  • Be prepared to be brutal, if its not up to scratch then don’t include it
  • Create an initial contact sheet and come back to it after a few days. Does the images still work together?

Research

This is where you will create / validate the plan for your next shoot

Strategies:

  • What went well?
  • What needs to improve?
  • What have you learned?
  • What is still puzzling you?
  • What will you do differently in your next shoot?
  • Which shots will you try to improve?
  • Review your statement of intent
  • Change your statement of intent if your ideas are changing but document what you changed and why
  • If you are struggling to think about new ideas then write about it

Project close phase

Review and conclude

Once you have your final images make sure that you close your project by reviewing them one last time and making some conclusions about your successes and failures.

Strategies:

  • Describe your final image selection
  • Explain your techniques
  • What went well?
  • What needs to improve?
  • What have you learned?
  • What is still puzzling you?
  • Where would you do differently if you started the project again?
  • What ideas does this project give you for future projects?

Hopefully this project framework will be useful to others. I have just started to use it myself on a upcoming project details of which I will share in future posts. As always please share any of your own techniques and ideas in the comments.

Thank you to Ian Turpin for his original blog post. Sorry to those who received a sneak preview of this blog post, its all too easy to hit publish when you meant to hit preview 🙂