Give Yourself a Photo Project

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Aloha Lavina is an Asia based photographer and writer whose photographs and writing have appeared in CNNTravel, Canon PhotoYou Magazine, Seventeen magazine, The Korea Times, and several books. You can see her work at her website and follow her on her blog.


We’ve all spent time browsing through a stunning collection of photographs and exclaimed, “Wow!” at each one. A lot of inspiration is so accessible online, and the range of affordable cameras has widened to the extent that in 2010 alone, people bought 21.7 million units of cameras with interchangeable lenses! Photography has grown into a global habit. We point, we shoot, we post.

In this age of content production, some basic human needs still apply when it comes to our hobbies. For those of us who own a camera, one of these is knowing how to do something new. Learning remains one of the most enjoyable things we can do, because learning how to do something different or new spikes the joy chemicals in our brains.

Giving yourself a photo project is one of the most effective ways to learn something new in your photography. A photo project can be a simple one to arrange that you can do at home or while going grocery shopping, or it can be technically challenging like shooting stunning landscapes. Whatever the topic of your project, it can help you learn a new set of skills that will add to your ability to create images that make us go “Wow!”


When a friend who’s an actor in Thailand approached me about shooting a comic book, I was delighted about the novelty of the creative problem: we had to shoot at night, and I had to light the scenes cinematically. At this point I had been lighting with portable strobes for over a year, but most of my portraits were editorial fashion types—soft lighting, often using a lot of light shaping tools. So the project forced me to rethink lighting that would fit the storyline of the graphic novel we were shooting.


I learned how lighting can create a narrative image. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

The project’s storyline was about a gangster type guy who was about to assassinate another gangster type for squealing on the ‘family.’ It was a simple story of friendship, betrayal, and conflict, but the lighting was not simple.


Rim light is a line of light around the subject, separating him from the shadows. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

I decided to use harsh light and a lot of rim light. This decision was from the creative goals of the project. If I wanted the actors to pop out of the night, I had to outline their dark figures and separate them from the shadows. Also, if I used harsh, undiffused light, every pore, every texture would be accentuated because that’s what direct light does. Illuminating every texture would add another layer of meaning to the images: the light would reveal the harshness of the conflict each of the characters were going through.


Harsh lighting reveals a lot of texture in people’s faces. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Finally, I didn’t leave the lighting to chance; there were 56 scenes in total, and later on we used more than 80 frames to produce the digital comic book. With this many scenes and with very specific lighting in mind, I had to sketch every single lighting set up, down to the intensity and the distances of each light from the subjects.


I had to simulate cinematic lighting in many scenes of this project. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

What I learned from this project is invaluable in what I usually do, which are assignments for editorial print ads. I learned how to think through a production, from concept to lighting to workflow and post-production. I learned how to mix light, make a simple image that narrates a story, and I had lots of fun.

Aloha Lavina is a Bangkok based photographer whose photographs have appeared in CNNGo (USA), UTATA Tribal Photography Magazine (USA), Seventeen magazine (USA), Estamos! (Ecuador), The Korea Times (South Korea), and several books. You can see her work at her website, read her articles on her blog or follow her on Twitter.

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