Give Yourself a Photo Project


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.

About Author

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.

Agree a project is a great idea to keep focused, practice and improve.
I am currently working through a “One object 365 days” project.

Hi Tropical Ties, a 365 is a great way to keep the creative juices going, because you have to think of something new every day.

I am currently working on a closeup portrait project “faces of diversity” which I will be printing in black and white, cyanotype and sepia tone. it is forcing me to think about lighting and focus. I am seriously considering a ringflash from photojojo because I usually shoot self portraits in daylight or in my home studio but these are photos taken on the fly where ever I meet people willing to be photographed. Nighttiime closeup face shots require a lot of lighting and my flash is not cutting it. We will see what the end of the project brings

Hi Julie, there’s a ton of resources, one of them I like is You can also get inspiration from almost anything. I like to ask questions, especially “What if…?” to get myself brainstorming about what to photograph next. Right now, I’m learning how to photograph landscapes. I also try to get lots of ideas through films and other media. Let us know when you find your project!

i agree with julie.
i like taking pistures of course and a project would be great to put my energy into but it’s hard to kno wwhat to do or think up something truely original

Hi Richard, I think with the loads of photogs out there, there isn’t something that is purely original; we all emulate one another and that’s good, it keeps us bonded and shows us the evolution of a vision. I find when my photos feel ‘blah’ and unoriginal that I go back to something I love–I photograph light.

I had never thought about giving myself a project, but that sounds like a wonderful idea and i am going to try it.

Hi Cynthia,
That’s great! Let us know when you post photos up, I’ll come visit. All the best in your project, glad we could help you jumpstart it.

Now that I’m not in school anymore, I give myself a weekly project to keep in practice. I started a blog so I’d have an incentive to keep going. Ideas are always tough, and I’d like some more myself. Ask yourself, what do I love?, what’s going on outside?, what do I have in my house? Choose a color, an object, a shape, a concept.

Yes, MyCameraMyFriend, absolutely. Projects don’t have to be complicated. It could be simple themes like shape or color. We just have to remember to make our interpretation as extraordinary as we can, through lighting or composition. Simplicity can be an inspiration for creative work.

Been planning one for a year now, actually a family vacation, based on a bucket list item. Yosemite, Frisco,
wine country, No. Cal coast, redwoods, Oregon coast. Alas only 2 weeks to cram it all in but it covers some of the most beautiful areas in the world. Can’t wait. Only problem is that I am still learning to use my D90.

Hi Ed, A trip is a great way to get to know your camera. You’ll have the freedom to delete stuff you don’t like. I would suggest bringing your camera manual…read it at night, then apply something different every day. You’ll learn the camera in no time! Good luck.

Thanks for sharing this great challenge. Your photographs are definitely inspiring and the lighting is something I would like to shoot for.

The last project I did was after classed one day. I just decided to photography the building we live in. It turned into photographing other buildings in our downtown area. Check some of the images out below.

I am not sure what my next project will be but I am certainly looking forward to it. Thanks again!

Hi Felicia, I really enjoyed the Laramie Project, especially the images of the lockers/mailboxes. The repetition and the texture really work in favor of your images. Congrats and let us know when your new stuff is up!

I am currently in day 400+ of my Project 365 that I started Jan of 2010. I will admit, there are days I am so tired of trying to find something new, I can barely stand it. But it forces me to look even harder to look at past objects in a new way or get off the beaten path a bit more.

Check it out at:

Hi Geoffrey, I hear ya. It’s hard to find new points of view for a theme. The best thing is, you can always shoot something else in the meantime, and find inspiration to fuel your creativity some more! All the best.

I keep thinking about starting a “365 days of sunsets” project, but 365 days is so intimidating. Last year I tried a “Project 365” and dropped out at # 301, I was very disappointed. Maybe I should start with a “30 days of sunsets” and go from there?

Hi Rayna, it’s true the 365 projects are quite intimidating, especially if your topic is narrow. Some folks opt to shoot a “52 Project,” just doing one photo for the project a week, does that sound a bit more manageable? Good luck and let us know when you find your inspiration.

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