Projects Give Focus

Airplane taking off. A short project.

Sometimes when we feel burnt out or empty and aren’t finding anything exciting to shoot, setting ourselves a project to do can help to focus our creative energy and invigorate us. For some of us, the projects become the core of our work.


I tend to be an omnivore photographically. I look for interesting scenes, almost regardless of what the subject is. So, in other words, I shoot everything. Sometimes that leads to my attention being stretched too thin.

Temporarily selecting a particular subject for a project focuses my attention and energy down to a narrow point. Rather than finding any interesting subject I spend some time tuned up to only a certain subject.

I find that this period of focus can be refreshing. I would not want to permanently exclude a broader viewpoint. That would become boring and it is not my style. But doing it for a short time is a good creative exercise.

Creative channel

Creativity is an ephemeral thing. It seems to come and go. Once we have developed it, I don’t really believe it ever goes away, but I do see it get stronger and weaker at times. When we cannot feel the pull of our creativity, it is scary. We doubt ourselves. We fear that we are a fraud.

At these times taking on a project can often be a great refresher for me. Picking out something that interests us and is very narrow and specific presents a new challenge. Just the slight seeming reframing from “go be creative” to “find a creative approach to this subject” creates a very different exercise.

I’m fairly competitive and like solving problems. A project is a challenge and a problem solving opportunity.

For a short time I get to narrow my focus down to just the project subject. It fills my thoughts. My creativity has a clear goal. It becomes a problem to solve.

I find that good things come out of this.

Body of work

A lot is said about having a well curated body of work. Projects can add greatly to this. When done, the project may only be 10-20 carefully selected images. But hopefully, they have a theme, a consistent style, and they tell a story. This helps build your body of work.

Several projects in your portfolio are like boulders in a stream. They stand out as the rest of the collection flows around them. They are solid cores that the rest build on.

Ansel Adams famously said “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” I would say that, in the digital world, we shoot a lot more and probably our standards have relaxed from Ansel’s. Still, shooting projects increases our probability of good images. We have most of our creativity focused on a certain theme for a period of time. That has to help. These great images build our portfolio.

Doing good?

The process of selecting a project is subjective. Some people feel they can and should contribute to a cause. Whether that is wilderness preservation or global warming or human trafficking or any other large important cause, that can be great. You can feel like you are making a difference in the world. And maybe you are. I would not discourage you. Wanting to do good is a great human trait.

But a project does not have to be grand in scale or in impact. It only has to be focused in scope and interesting to you. Remember, first, the project is for your benefit. It can be as small or large, as local or global as you want. The purpose of the projects I am talking about is to energize you. To get you through a creative slump.

For instance, I am doing a project on speeding trains. Sounds dumb. Maybe it is. But I see something in these that inspires me to work it. I like what I am seeing so far. As a matter of fact, I dropped this blog for a few minutes to go out and capture one going by. I hope you don’t mind the interruption. 🙂

Only projects?

If projects are so good, why not only do that? A valid question. Some artists only do projects, like Brooke Shaden or Jennifer Thoreson. It works for them. It is aligned with their creativity and the way they see the world.

A project-only world doesn’t work for me. As I said before, my interests are wide ranging. I like to go out empty and be inspired by what I find. That is just me. I find that contrasting this with occasional projects gives me a good balance and it keeps me sharp and energized.

I will certainly not try to tell you you have to do it like me. Your mileage may vary.

Remember, we are discussing art, not brick laying. Art is a purely creative process. There is no one way or objective right or wrong. If anyone tells you it has to be done a certain way, run. Fast. Don’t look back.

Try assigning yourself projects occasionally. They do not have to be big or long or hugely involved. Pick something of interest that you would seldom work on. This gives yourself permission to spend time on it. Let your creativity focus on the project and see what you come up with. Hang your 10 best images from the project on your wall and consider them. It might become a habit.

Whose Art?

Extreme lens flare as art

Who do you make your art for? No, really. It’s a serious question. A recent post discussed Finding Beauty. I think it is important to follow that by asking who determines the beauty and worth of our art. Whose art are we making? Who for?

For the whole world

If you are making your art for everyone, time to rethink your plan. Not everybody is going to like what you make. Sorry, that is the truth. And if your “style” is determined by what gets likes on Instagram or Facebook you are just chasing popularity.

You have your own style and you should stick to it. You may not recognize your style or know how to express it yet, but you do have one if you are authentically trying to express your values.

I don’t care much for a lot of images I see. I won’t say they are not art, just that they do not appeal to me. My style and values are different. The same with you. What you make will resonate with some people and not with others. Even if you become very popular I guarantee not everybody will love them. Accept that. Not everyone gets a ribbon for participating.

Be honest and do the work that appeals to you. Be genuine. If you spend your time trying to make images that “everybody” likes, you are chasing a false and impossible goal. You are not doing your own work.

It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not. – Andre Gide

Why did you shoot that?

Why will I/did I shoot it? That is a question we all should consider and answer every time we take a picture. If it has meaning for us on a personal level it is probably worth taking the time to capture it and process it. If it is to duplicate something that got a lot of Facebook likes, forget it.

You have probably figured out I like to use quotes to reinforce ideas. And to let you know that greater minds than mine have expressed some of the same ideas before. Here are 2:

If you shoot for the love of it, you know why you shot it. Jay Maisel

There is no way to know what others want as well as we know what we want, so trying to please them instead of ourselves is a mistake.David Vestal

As usual, I am only talking about the realm loosely called “fine art”. I wish we had a better term. In order to create our own art, we first and foremost have to please ourselves. If this image doesn’t blow us away, why waste time on it? Whose art is it? It has to be our own. If we get to where we can make images that make us very happy we will find a core of other people who share the same viewpoint.

Your style

Is it your style? Are you developing a style? Is your style acceptable to your peers? How do you know your style?

These questions can cause a lot of angst for artists. I say stop worrying about it. Your style is a result of who you are, not a skill you develop or an affectation you present.

Someone said to go through your portfolio and pick out your 20 best images. Lay them all out and examine them. This defines your style right now. This is what appeals to you and how you make your images. It will show the types of subjects you prefer, the lighting you like, the composition you tend to use, how you like to post process them, etc. This is you. You are not what someone else wants you to be.

Can a style be consciously changed? Yes, some people are able to do it. I’m thinking of Picasso as he went through several distinct periods. Or Joel Grimes who has redefined his signature look at least a couple of times. This is unusual. But even for the rest of us, our style evolves with time. We change and adapt as we mature and get more knowledge and experience. I know that the images I make now are very different from the ones I made a few years ago.

The point is, we each have a style and it comes from within. Don’t worry about what is in vogue today or what you see on social media. Be you.

What critic do you listen to?

But I posted an image I liked on Instagram and it didn’t get many likes. Or the judges in my camera club competition told me my treatment of the subject was not going to win any awards. Or a gallery I applied to rejected me because my images did not fit their needs.

There are critics all around. That doesn’t mean they should dictate our values. To paraphrase the famous George Bernard Shaw quote “those who can, do; those who can’t, become critics”. It is a lot easier and safer to criticize from the sidelines than to be in the battle trying to do something no one else does.

No critic can define your values, your vision, your art. If you have done your job well so that your image is technically correct as far as you want and composed the way you want and pleasing to you then it is nobody else’s business to tell you it should be different. They will try, but don’t listen to them. Maybe they are an artist, too, and have some good suggestions. Fine. Listen to them, but take it in and process it through your own values and style. Keep what feels right to you and discard the rest. No one is qualified to tell you what you have to do artistically. Notice in my description above what kept coming through was “the way you want”.

Your inner critic

If you’re not your own severest critic, you are your own worst enemy. – Jay Maisel

The great Jay Maisel is right. You have to decide what is right for you. Only you can truly criticize your work. You owe it to yourself to be hard on yourself. Be brutally honest. Throw away most of what you do.

You might feel that you need to get a lot of images to fill out a portfolio. No. You need some great images for your portfolio. If 5 is what you have then that is what is in your portfolio. Anything that is not a stand-on-its-own, awesome image you would be proud to show to anyone detracts from the collection. Weed out everything that does not show your best work

Let me give an example. I recently went on a car trip. I allowed plenty of time for slow travel with side trips and stops for pictures whenever I wanted. This is how I like to travel. I shot over 300 images during the trip. My editing workflow is a multi-stage culling process for selecting images. Just in the first stage I eliminated all but about 45 to be further considered and processed. I am still in process, but I expect that maybe 4-6 will make it into my final select group.

That seems fairly severe. Less than 2% of the images I shot will make it. But actually it is probably not severe enough. Realistically 2-3 of these would actually add value to my portfolio. I’m still in love with some that should be cut. That hurts. But I have really come to understand that a single weak image can bring down the level of an entire portfolio.

The only critic

So the only critic you should listen closely to is yourself. Only you are fully qualified to judge your work. Look at a lot of images from a variety of artists with different styles and interests. Get feedback from other people. Take what you can learn from everyone but stay true to your own vision.

Whose art are you trying to make? I hope it is your own. Then you have earned the right to be very proud of your art.

Open to the Unexpected

Gorgeous thunderstorm almost unseen

When you go out to shoot do you know before you leave exactly what you want to find? Many people do. I feel sorry for them. I greatly prefer to “go out empty” as Jay Maisel would say and let the amazing world around me surprise and delight me. Learn to expect the unexpected.

This is absolutely my opinion and my photographic style. I am a fine art photographer who works primarily outdoors. The world outside is my canvas. If I were a portrait or commercial photographer I would have to do things differently. When there are crews and talent and art directors and contracts to fulfill, I recognize that the photographer has to plan and organize tightly. I am glad that that is not my world. I thrive on spontaneity.

Subjective vs. Objective

In a recent webcast by Chris Murray on Nature Photographer’s Network, he discussed the idea of objective vs. subjective photography. (Sorry but this is a fee site, but you can sign up for a free month.) It was a good talk. He spend a lot of time on his journey from objective to subjective.

He characterized objective images as ones that document a scene and subjective images as images that convey how the artist felt about or responded to the scene.

I think most of us start out objective. It happened naturally when we point our camera at a beautiful landmark and get a picture that makes us say “wow, that’s beautiful”. But if it has no more interpretation by us, it is not really different from the hundreds or thousands of other captures of that scene.

The thing I want to point out here, though, is that Chris said when shooting objective images he would research a location, decide the time of year and time of day that would be best for it, and go there and sit until the conditions were what he expected. He told about camping on a mountain for 3 days waiting for the image he visualized.

The image he got was a beautiful scene in the Adirondack Mountains. But my reaction to it was “meh…”. (Sorry Chris). To me it did not have any passion or depth. He got almost exactly the shot he planned, but my thought was “why?”.

What do you miss?

What did he miss while he was waiting 3 days on that mountain for the “right” time and conditions? Maybe nothing, but maybe a lot. To me that is too great a price to pay.

I have heard other photographers talk about fighting for a tripod spot at a grand, iconic spot, realizing that they were about to take the same shot that thousands of others take every year. Then they turn around and see a scene the other direction that is more meaningful to them. One that most of the other photographers failed to see because they were totally fixated on the iconic scene.

I try to be open and aware of what is around wherever I am. Same applies as much if I am walking a downtown street as if I am in a wilderness. Wonderful images can be discovered anywhere.

Avoid preconceptions

If you decide before you head out what you want to shoot, you put mental blinders on yourself. It is a fact that you only see what you expect to see.

This is called “selective attention”. A famous, effective, and short demonstration of this is in this video. Watch it! It is very enlightening. I won’t give a spoiler here, but this applies to any of us. If you are only looking for birds you will tend to only see birds.

Maybe that works OK for you. It’s not what I want for me. I want to be open to all the exciting things around me. And there are a lot of them. Many of my favorite images are things I would not have known to look for if I was making a list beforehand. I don’t want to miss out on the excitement of truly seeing and openly exploring what an area has to offer..


We all need to practice our skills and our visualization. Even the most famous and experienced photographers make themselves take time for personal projects to keep from getting stale and to grow in creative ways. Learning to avoid the trap of preconception can be part of that growth.

All artists need constant practice. Pablo Casals was possibly the greatest cellist.

The world’s foremost cellist, Pablo Casals, is 83. He was asked one day why he continued to practice four and five hours a day. Casals answered, “Because I think I am making progress.”
— Leonard Lyons

Repetition is one thing. I have advocated for that before. It is necessary. But there are other ways of learning to break your habit of preconception.

A great thing to do is to go minimalist. Go out for a day of shooting with one camera body and one lens. I can hear you sputtering now. ☺ “But I might need my fisheye; or I might need 400mm”. No, not if you don’t have it. Practice getting great shots with what you have.

An interesting thing happens when you let go and go with it. Let’s say you just take your 50mm prime. When you get into it, you will quickly start to see the world from the 50mm perspective. This is probably a type of selective attention, but it is forcing you in a different dimension. Instead of being selective on subjects, you are selecting your viewpoint on the world around you. It is a great exercise.

I did something similar on a larger scale. My natural vision is telephoto. My ideal lens is 70-200mm. Even longer is great for me sometimes. I like to crop in on details. But for over a year I have switched to mainly shooting with my wonderful 24-70mm. I think it has helped me grow in my creativity. I am surprised at some of the new things I see.

Let yourself be surprised!

For me, my art is a voyage of discovery. It is exciting because I never know what I will find. I like to be surprised!

When I can get into seeing the excitement and possibilities all around me there is sometimes so much to shoot that I have to just stop and take some deep breaths. Slow down. Decide how I feel about what I am seeing and what I want to say. Pace myself. It can be an embarrassment of riches. I am drowning in the imagery.

The image with this article is an example. I was head down by a lake shooting grass and reflections. That is all I was paying attention to. Eventually I noticed that things were changing and getting colorful. Looking up, I discovered this gorgeous thunderstorm was forming practically right by me. This became the picture. The other images I shot that day are forgotten.

It even applies to post processing. Sometimes I shoot frames just because my instinct tells me there is something there I am not consciously seeing. Sometimes whatever I was drawn to becomes apparent in post. As I work an image, something magical begins to emerge. It is like creating an image in front of me on the screen directly from light and the manipulations I am doing to coax out an elusive something. That is a joy, too. It is the kind of surprise that makes art worthwhile.

So I invite you to stop limiting yourself artificially. Don’t block your vision by deciding in advance what you only want to find. Let go. React. Be open to the unexpected. Go out empty, as Jay Maisel famously says. Enjoy discovering what there is instead of being frustrated by what you can’t find.

Seeking Boredom

Frosty high plains morning with a flock of birds

I actually create opportunities for boredom. I seek it at times. I enjoy it, in the right measure. It is necessary to my mental health and vital to my creative process.

Patricia Meyer Spacks argues that the contemporary concept of boredom did not exist until the 18th century. Up until then people were too busy surviving to think about the quality of their free time. You had to plant the crops, tend the animals, harvest the crops, weave your cloth, make your furniture, kill and cook your food – there was no time to reflect on whether or not you were entertained.

Our life today is much more indulged. We are never far from an endless stream of movies, tv shows and funny cat videos. In the same way that being “too busy” has become a badge of honor for many people, the idea has spread that life is not worth living unless you are entertained every free minute. Most of the people I know are completely at a loss if they are cut off from the internet. They are like a trapped animal ready to chew its leg off to escape.

So am I some sort of masochist bent on inflicting pain on myself by intentionally allowing boredom? Quite the opposite. I have discovered that I need time to process information. We need to “let our mind wander” to give our subconscious freedom to make associations and connect the dots as Steve Jobs put it. A major part of creativity is being open and receptive to ideas, to what if? questions, to seeing things in different ways. I believe it is nearly impossible to do this when we are immersed in the noise of modern life.

Being bored is a great motivator. It may force us to pick up a notebook and write, or pick up a camera and shoot aimlessly, or pick up a tool and start making something. Something will come of this. The product we are making right now may not be great, but it is exercising our brain, it is allowing our creativity to flow, it is giving us the space to connect the dots. It may lead us to a place we never anticipated.

One of the exercises I do that is totally mysterious to most people is to turn the audio off when I am driving. Try it and you will find yourself locked up with your own thoughts. The boredom crashes in on you. Try driving across eastern Colorado or western Kansas with the radio off. The thought of it would make most people ready to chew their leg off. But if you are lucky, you come to accept it and realize the benefits it can release.

Being alone in your own head, without someone else’s programmed video or audio track to lead you, you think random thoughts. Unanticipated ideas come. You look back on things and forward to things and think about who you really are, what you have done, what you want to do. And if you are driving you spend time really looking around, actually seeing things, wondering about them. You can think “hey, I’ve never been that way; I wonder where that road goes?”. And you might even check it out.

One of my early guides in photography, John Shaw, said: We are surrounded by beauty and live in a world of wonder, if only we take the time to see what is all around us and permit ourselves to feel deeply and genuinely. In the smallest detail we might discover tranquil harmony, and in the largest expanse elation and joy. Thoreau said Most men live lives of quiet desperation.

I believe a way to break out of that desperation, to feel deeply and genuinely, is to practice boredom and let that lead us to a new place. A place where we are directing our own lives and thinking our own thoughts.

The image attached to this article would never have been found had I not put myself in a very boring place – and gotten lucky. Actually, it’s not just luck, but that’s another story.