Projects guide photographers to find their unique voice

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Glacier National Park
Photo by Dawn Hewitt

Having photography projects has endless benefits. They can motivate you, help you figure out what to do next and give you a clear way to see how your work improves over time. Projects are also how our audience understands who you are as a photographer. Whether an online gallery or a physical show, images are often presented as part of themed groups.

Projects take you off the beaten path and give your work focus. As I am writing this, my top picture on 500px and Instagram are shots of Wildwood Recreation Site, a patch of public land most people drive by on the way to Mt Hood. Those pictures are outperforming my shots of the Grand Canyon and Crater Lake.  

I’d never have stopped there if I hadn’t made it a project to explore the lesser known places people skip on the way to big attractions like Mt. Hood. I am an avid hiker and hadn’t heard of that place and some other trails I’ve found.

Boardwalk out over wetlands at Wildwood Recreation Site, the shot that was an unexpected hit. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Mt Hood against the sky is gorgeous. Many people take shots of the mountain or Timberline Lodge from the same viewpoints. Taking the same shot everyone else takes puts you in competition with hundreds of professionals and thousands of enthusiasts, not to mention professional level cameras and lenses. Finding other perspectives to shoot takes removes that competition and sets you on your own path. Lesser known views can be more interesting and show a knowledge of the area’s landscape or cityscape or whatever you shoot. Some of the public land and hiking trails that my project has lead me to aren’t even properly listed on Google Maps.   

Your project’s shooting list is the candy everybody wants. Most people want that lesser known shot that shows you really get an area or topic. Everyone wants to seem like they have a unique vision. This seems to be doubly true with the Instagram set.  On the local forums I hang out, people are always asking for the ‘insider’s list’ of where to shoot.  People want that and knowledgeable feel to their portfolio.   

Shooting abandoned buildings is a project I am actively working on. Some locations are well documented, some are closely guarded secrets. I was driving past this gas station when I instantly knew I needed this shot for my collection. No need to think about it, I had to stop. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

As you get more into your project, you will begin to have a more complex understanding of the topic. This understanding will shape your photography and help you develop a voice as a photographer. I have a lot of opinions on public land. You likely can’t figure out the finer points by staring at my pictures, but those feelings shape my compositions. My landscape shots all relate to each other more than if I didn’t have a lot of feelings.

Out of those feelings, I’ve been working on a project to shoot hiking trails looking as inviting as possible. I’ve been flat out told by other photographers to keep trails out of my photos to make the shots seem more mysterious, like it’s some secret place the viewer could never adventure to. I decided that making public land seem inviting and accessible was more interesting. I want people to look at my shots and feel like they could go there. Public Land is an important topic to me and I want people to care about it. The best way to get people to care is to get them out there, or at least feel like they could go someday. ‘Helicoptered in’ is a look some photographers go for in landscapes, even when in reality they are two steps from their car on the side of a highway. Those photographs can be amazing and inspiring, but I enjoy showing the journey whenever possible.   

This is my current best Inviting Forest Path shot. I took it hiking the Heart of the Forest Trail in Olympic National Forest. Including the trail increases the sense of wonder and makes it welcoming. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Another benefit to having projects is that it not only structures what you shoot but also what you don’t shoot. You don’t need to rely on inspiration for the next shot, your project acts as a guide when you need more subjects. When I am walking my neighborhood or hiking, part of my brain is always looking out for a shot. At home or in a restaurant, I stop looking for shots. That little camera in my brain shuts down and I can focus on other things. Having part of your brain always looking for a shot can be tiring and make you frazzled. This approach gives you space away from all that.   

My current projects are photographing public land on the way to Mt. Hood, inviting forest paths, no trespassing signs, broken bridges that I’ve crossed and neighborhood cats. I have a few too many, but the contrast between inviting nature shots and the less inviting ones amuses me.

The broken boards between my feet are floating on very deep mud. This walkway over wetlands in the Olympic National Park is the latest addition to dubious bridges I have crossed. Photo by Dawn Hewitt

Let us know about your projects and share your experiences in the comments! 

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