I’m a project junkie. Personal projects, professional projects, it doesn’t really matter – give me a set task and an end goal and I’ll do everything in my power to complete it. I find that having specific projects throughout the year helps me shoot both purposefully and consistently. Sometimes they are big (like a 365) and other times they are smaller wins (like a morning in the life), but they always keep me on my toes and don’t allow me to become complacent with my skills (plus they tend to produce some of my favourite personal images – a big added bonus!).
One of the biggest side benefits that I’ve experienced from my personal projects is how they have helped with my client sessions. Sometimes you have to blend your personal and your professional world in order to reap the benefits of both. Forcing myself out of my comfort zone through personal projects has made me quicker on my feet, more comfortable with my settings, and has taught me that my weaknesses can quickly become strengths, which are all extremely helpful when shooting for clients.
Here are 6 ways that personal projects can help with photographing clients:
No.01Shoot quickly and move on
For the month of April, I worked on a project I titled “Our 5 O’Clock”. The premise was simple – one photo every day in April during the 5:00 pm hour.
5:00 is the witching hour in our house. The kids are tired, hungry, and often just exhausted from the day. I’m generally single parenting at that time, trying to get dinner on the table while entertaining kids and sometimes even bathing the little one and getting her to bed. The last thing I wanted to do was get my camera out.
I’ll be honest, sometimes it was get the shot in 20 seconds or risk completely burning dinner (and sometimes dinner did burn!). I kept my eyes peeled for a good scene to unfold (like kids playing nicely, or a nice shaft of light) and then quickly analyzed, composed, took the shot and moved on. It forced me to think about shots ahead of time and be ready to go when I needed to.
I always made sure my settings on my camera were close to where I’d need them, so that when the 5 pm hour rolled around and the shot presented itself, I wouldn’t need to be fiddling with settings. I had thought about all of the possible angles in the room ahead of time so that I wouldn’t have to step back and assess my options before taking the shot.
This can be invaluable in a client’s home.
You’ll become fast at walking into a room, quickly noting your possible shot angles, assessing the light and then being ready for the shot when it comes along. If you shoot documentary style, like I do, then asking the client to repeat a task or scene takes away from the integrity of the session, so you have to be ready to get the shot in one take.
No.02Build on a weakness
If you take a look back at your archives or a few of your client galleries, I’m sure you’d be able to pinpoint patterns. When I look at my galleries, it becomes glaringly obvious that I LOVE to shoot landscape (clearly my brain much prefers to compose horizontally). I know it’s a weakness of mine, and it often causes issues when I design albums or announcements as portrait orientation is needed to fill in spaces and even out all of the landscape shots.
To force myself to become comfortable with vertical composition, I dedicated myself to shooting a vertical image every day for a month. It was hard! I didn’t love every image, but after 30 days I am much faster at composing vertically and now actually remember to do a few during a client session. My July project was to work on video so that I’d feel more confident integrating it into client sessions. I shot a video at least once a day and had a great visual time capsule of our summer at the end of the month.
No.03Learn to shoot in less than ideal conditions
When I forced myself to shoot at 5 pm everyday for a month, I realized very quickly that the sun in my house is a bit crazy at that time. In the morning we tend to hang out in our living room, which has nice filtered light, and I’d generally choose to get my camera out at that time (because the light is nice, the kids are happy and the house is still clean!), but by 5 pm we were usually hanging out in the kitchen or playroom and the light was really harsh.
It’s no different than entering a client’s home and realizing that their version of nice light, is your version of harsh light and you have to change your game plan on a dime. You have to embrace the shadows and make them tell part of your story. Use the light to your advantage to hide clutter and to aid in framing your subject.
No.04Force yourself to make the mundane beautiful
I’m obsessed with making everyday mundane routines look beautiful. It’s a challenge for me – how many ways can I photograph my kids having a bath, brushing their teeth, eating breakfast or playing in the sink?
If you force yourself to shoot at the same time every day or every day for a year, you’ll soon realize that you tend to do the same tasks day after day at the same time. For us at 5 pm it was cooking dinner. I had to start thinking about layering, angles, exposure and the real story I wanted to tell in order to make each day look unique.
No.05Create an efficient workflow
Very quickly into my 365 project, I knew that I’d have to come up with an efficient workflow in order to stay on top of things. I dedicated time every night to download my pictures from the day, cull, edit and post to social media. If I let a few days pile up I would feel stressed out and not able to give the attention to each photo that I wanted to.
After working with my same system for a full year, I became so comfortable and speedy at it that it has become second nature. Also, having to choose only one photo for the day forced me to become ruthless at culling and to trust my gut instinct. I use the same method with my client work.
I always download my images the same day as the session and do an initial cull (I tend to have one more look before I finalize a gallery, but very rarely make changes to my initial selections). I have also refined my editing style and workflow enough through daily shooting that I’m able to edit a client session relatively quickly.
No.06Know what it feels like to be in front of the lens
I have a few ongoing personal projects that help force me to get in front of the camera each month. One is a 90 second project with my kids, where we set the timer up for 90 seconds and see what we get, and the other is a selfie every month (alone or with kids).
Both of these project serve 2 purposes. First, they show my kids that I was there and lived life with them – not just behind the camera. Second, they help me have a greater understanding of how my clients feel when they are in front of my lens.
When I edit a picture of myself I do tend to nitpick and want to smooth my skin and liquify certain areas, but I try to stay true to my more documentary style and maintain the reality of the scene (i.e. me, exactly as I am and exactly as my family sees me). I really do understand when clients ask me to work a little magic while editing (and I’ll even sometimes oblige) as I’ve been there and can relate to exactly how they are feeling. Being in front of the camera also helps me better understand the angles of a woman’s body and how to achieve flattering poses (even as little as I pose in my sessions, it still comes in handy when I’m composing my shots).
If I can spend an hour on my own when I’m 8 months pregnant figuring out how I look my best in a selfie, then I’ll be more equipped when I show up to a maternity session and will be able to explain my vision to my client.
Are you in need of a new personal project? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- 365. If you haven’t done one yet, I can’t recommend it enough. I dare you to tell me at the end of the year that you haven’t grown by leaps and bounds. If a 365 seems too daunting start with shooting everyday for a month.
- Take a picture every day (or one day a week for a year) at the same time of the day.
- Day in the life. Yes, your family might want to throw your camera out the window by dinner time, but hang in there and you’ll be so glad you did (and so will your family when they get to look back on the images years from now).
- A photo series taking place in one room. It could be a picture in the same room for a week or a month, or documenting an activity that always happens in that room (like cooking dinner).
- Documenting a special thing that your child likes to do and making it into a series (Soccer Saturdays, Art at the kitchen table, skateboarding in the driveway).
- Work on a skill (Macro, food photography, street photography, capturing supporting details)
- Get in the shot. On your own, with your kids, with one kid at a time…it’s up to you, just make sure to set a specific timeline (monthly, weekly, on your child’s birthday) or it becomes too easy to put it off.