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Pro Photo Rental

Beginning a Personal Project
By Zac Henderson

Personal projects are an important exercise whether you’re a full time pro or an enthusiastic amateur. They help creatives sift through their own minds, cleaning out cobwebs, and produce an unadulterated piece of work devoid of outside influence. They encourage creativity for creativity’s sake, allowing technique to take a back seat, or at the very least, allow technique to follow vision rather than the other way around. 

Helpful and fun for amateurs while sometimes difficult to justify yet even more beneficial for pros, personal projects are a needed break from everyday commercial life. It can be easy to ignore the personal project and think of them as a waste of time. After all, it’s personal. No one is commissioning this work and therefore the work is not generating money on its own. Given the choice between being creative and making money, many of us would likely more often choose to make money. Indeed it's important to make a living, no one will argue that fact. However, through personal projects creatives can put to use the professional tools they’ve cultivated over time towards a self directed creative endeavor. Choosing to show this work alongside commissions can allow prospective clients to see how you might solve different kinds of problems while also getting a glimpse into your mind and thought process, which could lead to more work. 

If you’re thinking of starting a personal project but don’t know how to start, you’re in luck. Below we’ve provided some guidelines to help get started on your next personal project.

Look Within For Creative Inspiration

Starting a project from scratch can feel daunting. You may want to begin a project, but you may not yet have a direction. This is a difficult thing to overcome at times, like deciding how to conquer a blank page. In my experience looking within and being honest with what excites you and what stirs your emotions is an excellent place to start, and can work for anyone. We all have passions. We all have fears. We all have things that excite us. We all have things that we find interesting. Latching onto one of those stirring subjects can help you springboard into a deeply satisfying exploration or study, even if what you land on is drastically different than what you started with.

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Allow Yourself to Follow A Rabbit Hole

By definition a personal project has no set rules aside from being self directed. This over abundance of choice can cause issues all on its own, which is why it’s important to allow yourself to follow a rabbit hole. Like flowers? Allow yourself to be consumed by thoughts of flowers and let those thoughts take you wherever they may go. Do research. Read articles. Watch documentaries. Your love for flowers might lead you to a subject only slightly related, or maybe not related at all. For example, considering flowers might lead you along a train of thought that goes from flowers, to pedals, to pollination, to insects, to bees, to beekeeping, to insect collecting, to taxidermy, to hunting, to guns, to politics. Inevitably one thought will lead to another, so instead of punishing yourself for not staying on track, celebrate your mind’s tendency to wander. You might end up somewhere that is equal parts interesting and unexpected.

Draw Technical Inspiration from Others

Seeking inspiration is a road wrought with landmines. Looking for creative inspiration from others can sometimes lead to frustration. Creativity comes from within (see above), so trying to absorb creative inspiration from someone else can cause confusion. The concept this person arrived at came from them and their experiences, their interests. On the other hand, seeing a well executed technique can provide a jumpstart in problem solving. Seeing a technique someone else has used successfully could be employed or adapted for your own project, torn down to its basic functions, or built upon to suit your specific needs. In short, look within for creative inspiration, and look outward for technical inspiration.

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Technique Should Follow Vision

If you’ve been bitten with the GAS bug (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), it can be tempting to put that gear to use before having a reason to do so. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to use gear for gear’s sake, but for a truly successful personal project, vision should come first. What idea are you trying to communicate? How do you communicate that idea? If you’re excited about a new macro lens you’ll likely end up making a series of images depicting insects and/or flowers. That’s because those subjects are very well rendered with that kind of lens. The images might be cool looking, but a true personal project explores more than something interesting looking. It explores a concept or an idea. The equipment you use should do nothing except advance the concept in your mind. Have an idea for a portrait that requires direct overhead light? Great! How will you accomplish that, technically? Do you have the equipment you need, or do you need to rent it? Don’t let equipment dictate aesthetic. Use equipment to dictate your chosen aesthetic.

Experiment and Let Yourself Fail

Perhaps the most important point in this post is the suggestion to experiment and to allow yourself to fail. Looking within yourself, exploring your interests, following a rabbit hole, finding creative inspiration; these are all concepts without material analog. There is no right or wrong way to express these concepts except according to your own aesthetic and process. You might come up with an image that, for some reason, doesn’t work. It might be technically sound, but it might not advance your concept effectively. You should allow yourself to be ok with that. Ask yourself why it fails. Discover what element would allow it to be successful in your eyes. Try a technique. If it falls flat, allow it to fall flat. Move on. Don’t get beaten down by failure. Use it to make your work better. I posit that if a technique or concept hasn’t yet failed then you haven’t explored it enough.

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Break The Rules

As with essentially anything creative, putting together a successful personal project is all about problem solving. The beauty of a personal project is that the methods you can use to solve those problems are limitless. There’s nothing telling you to follow the rule of thirds, use adequate depth of field, or achieve perfectly correct color. The choices you make should be purposeful, unless you’re choosing to incorporate an element of unpredictability. Break the rules. Or don’t. Ignore everything above this line. Or don’t. Your personal project is exactly that, and no one can tell you how to bring it to life except you.

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