Tips for Creating Personal Work - Business Coach #6

I brought up the topic of personal work in my last Business Coach. Today, I'm going to provide some practical advice on how to pick a project and then make the most of it. Here's my list of tips for shooting personal work:

  1. Start with what you know. Don’t think you have to fly to Timbuktu or work with top models. Draw from your own experiences and keep in mind that what’s ordinary to you may well be exotic to someone else. 

  2. Be open to exploration. Don’t feel like you have to know which direction you’re going in or if the work is even good. The project you start with may well not be the project you end up with. Think of the process as though you’re walking down a new road or hiking a new trail that you’ve never been down before. Let the road take you to new places.

  3. Keep it honest. Don’t try to be someone or something you’re not. I recently saw the portfolio of a suburban woman (photography professor actually) who photographed war reenactments and then printed them on blankets. The photos were uninspired and her choice of printing medium was pointless. There was no connection between herself and the work - and it showed. 

  4. Dance like no one is watching. Seriously. Do what you want. Forget the judgment of others. Don’t worry about whether the work is marketable. You’re not trying to please anyone other than yourself.

  5. Push yourself to fail. This is another way of saying don’t play it safe. If you’re pushing yourself and doing work that you’ve never done before, you’re going to make missteps. Learn from them and move on. In fact, we tend to learn more from our mistakes than our successes. 

  6. Break away from your usual routine. If you shoot weddings, photographing a bride doing a trash the dress or other sort of session may be cathartic, but that's more business oriented than personally oriented. Keep in mind that you're doing this for you, not for any potential marketing or client use. 

  7. Don't use your usual third-party Lightroom presets and Photoshop actions. Not only is it important for you to explore new processing looks and styles, but when you use someone else's post-processing tools, you're still following someone else's lead and looking like just another one of the pack. The more simple your processing style, the more honest it's likely to be. Great work doesn't need much embellishment anyhow. 

  8. Think in terms of a story. Every story needs a beginning, middle and end. It needs the occasional climax mixed with opportunities to allow the story to play itself out. Thinking in terms of a story makes it easier to give your project shape, context and direction.

  9. How about a book? Every photographer should have at least one book project that they’re working on. Having a book as a goal gives the photographers something to shoot for. Now that there’s plenty of self-publishing options available, having an physical book in hand is definitely a reality.

  10. Allow the central themes of your life to play out in your work. Was their childhood trauma through death of a parent or abuse that you can talk about through your work? Were you heavily influenced by a moment or place? Can you express those feelings through your work? Photography can be healing just as much as it is expressive. 

  11. The more personal your work is, the more deeply your work will connect with an eventual audience. A pretty picture of a car will draw a few likes on Instagram. An emotional photographic journey dealing with your memories of your father working on old cars may well end up in a museum one day.

  12. Stick with it. You may try shooting for a day or two and then lose interest when you don’t see any results or other demands get in the way. Great projects - and insights - take time to develop. It’s okay to return to the same theme again and again. Don’t give up!

  13. Make time for the work. The best personal work is the work that you actually create. Merely thinking about it is not enough. In fact, personal work is just as important as your client work and other obligations. Schedule time for it. If you’re not creating personal work, you’re not growing as an artist. Growth is essential to thriving!

  14. Keep track of your ideas. Once you start shooting, one thing will lead to another. Different ideas for shoots will emerge. Keep track of them so that you when you’re ready to do something different, you’ve got your library of ideas to pull from.

My final suggestion is that you keep in mind that great work – work that people love and remember – is ultimately about connection. When clients hire us to shoot weddings, what they’re really hiring us for is our ability to create images that they can connect with on an emotional level. Images like of all their friends together for the first time since college, mom crying as the bride is walking down the alter, or the sheer joy of dancing together for the first time as man and wife. 

As you create your personal work, ask yourself, What inside me is this work connecting with? And, How will this work connect with others emotionally? More than anything else, all humans share the desire to connect with others and their environment on some emotional level. If your viewers find that connection in your work, stand back as your world will explode.

John Mireles

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