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01. Before you begin, visualize the ending

Starting a photo-a-day project is daunting, and maybe it even sounds impossible. But before you begin a long-term project, you first need to know how it might end.

Show Notes

Transcript

Hello and welcome to Photo 365, a podcast about how to be a photographer every day.

My name is Andrew Haworth, I’m a South Carolina-based media producer and occasional photography educator, and I’m here to offer guidance, inspiration, and maybe some advice -- take it with a grain of salt -- on how to start and work through your own photo-a-day or any long term photo project.

I don’t know about you, but for me, the hardest part of beginning anything is often simply taking that first step. Here’s a very literal example, maybe you’re a runner. Some days it can be a struggle to pry yourself off the couch, force yourself to put the smartphone down, or get off the video games, change clothes, lace up your shoes and take that first step onto the pavement. Once you’re up and moving and the blood is flowing, it can almost be hard to stop.

The same thing can happen to us as photographers. I shot quite a few weddings before I realized it wasn’t really my niche. And I always recall that feeling of dread on the day of a wedding job. You show up at a location, maybe you’ve spent a couple hours just travelling there, and as you unpack your gear, you think about the uncertainty of the day ahead of you: Six or more hours of running around looking for photo ops in a potentially stressful environment.

Just thinking about taking that first shot of the day can feel like a struggle, if not almost impossible. For me, getting that first photo out of the way, even if it was a throwaway shot, always kicked me into gear, and then I was on cruise control for the rest of the day.

The same phenomenon happens to us on projects for work and school, and even around the home. It’s natural to procrastinate and avoid work that seems difficult.

So today, we’re talking about taking that first step, that first shot, that first day of shooting, on the way to completing a photo a day for a year. But before we even entertain taking the first photo, we need to think why we’re doing it, and our ultimate goals.

A photo a day is a serious commitment, maybe it even seems impossible. But it’s not. Challenging? Absolutely, but I’m here to tell you -- and I know it sounds like an old cliche -- but if I can do it, anyone can.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me start at the beginning.

In the early months of 2017, I decided to purchase a Fuji X100 camera with the intent of using it for a trip to Cuba I was planning for later that year. It seemed like the perfect travel and street photography camera. If you’re not familiar with it, this is essentially a rangefinder camera with a fixed focal length lens that has a 35mm field of view.

When I started learning photography many years ago, the ultimate camera always seemed to be the Leica M rangefinder with a 35mm lens. It was used by the old masters, Henri Cartier Bresson, Gary Winnogrand, Walker Evans, Man Ray, Kertesz, and countless others.

This Fuji X100 seemed to be the modern equivalent of that. Small, lightweight, fast and discreet. Most of all, I found it an inspiring piece of gear to use, and unlike any camera I’ve owned before, I wanted to shoot with it all the time.

After a weekend photowalk, I was sharing images with a fellow photographer (Hi Stewart!) and he asked me if I’d ever considered doing a photo-a-day project.

I admitted I had not. I always found the concept a bit of a gimmick, and who has time to do something EVERY DAY? I initially dismissed the challenge, but something in the back of my mind kept nagging me. What if I DID shoot a photo every day. What would happen, if anything? Would I get better?

Would I finally unlock my personal style -- which is that constant quest I’d been on for more than 20 years at that point, and which was responsible for maybe all the insecurities I’ve had as a photographer. After all, how I could be a photographer and not understand what my own style is -- maybe this project could help me discover that.

What would it feel like at the end to look back and reflect on at least 365 images taken over a course of a year? What body of work would I end up with?

But how was I going to physically do it? How was I going to commit to doing this every day? The turning point was simply my realization that there ARE processes we carry out on a daily basis. We all eat, we sleep, we have to feed our pets. We get up and go to work, sometimes with long commutes. So yes, adding one more daily activity shouldn’t be a big deal!

So I decided to give it a shot. But first, I needed to establish some ground rules for myself.

One, I opted to shoot all my images with actual cameras. No smart phones. That meant I needed to carry a camera with me at all times. Not just in a case in the trunk of my car, but on the passenger seat next to me, on my desk, on the table at lunchtime in Subway. Everywhere. The small X100 was perfect for this.

Two, I was going to post at least one photo every day on my website, numbering each entry according to which day of the project I was on. For example, photo 23 of 365, and so on. That meant I was not only going to shoot each day, but process and post images that same day, unless I was out of town and didn’t have access to my computer (for example, that Cuba trip I mentioned).

Three, the project images couldn’t just be throwaway shots. They had to be something good enough I could submit to a publication, or print and hang on a wall, or use in a photo series. Essentially, they needed to have some artistic merit.

Four, it wasn’t enough to just POST a photo every day. My first day out, I came back with a dozen shots I loved, but they only counted for that first day! I couldn’t spread them out posting one every day for two weeks. No, I was going to create original images every day.

So, there are two takeaways I want to highlight in this episode, that I believe are key to starting, and ultimately ending a long-term project like a photo-a-day.

For starters, you have to visualize the ending before you can begin.

Before I’d taken a single shot, or laid out the rules for my project, I’d fantasized about how it would all end. In some ways, I deluded myself into thinking I’d achieve some high level of consciousness simply by completing the task. And I know that sounds ridiculous, but that unknown but lofty outcome was like dangling a carrot on a stick. It kept me pushing forward.

I recently read an article on Medium that articulated this concept really beautifully, and I quote, “This skill of picturing our future selves is fundamental for discipline -- but it’s also important for happiness.” And the writer goes on to note that we as humans, are actually terrible at picturing our future. Which is one reason why we are so bad at saving money or planning for retirement.

Rather than focus on that treacherous first step that we dread, focus on the outcome you anticipate. Someone recently told me this line of thinking is actually one of the principles in the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey.

Covey says, “Begin with the end in mind.” So, getting off the couch and going for a four mile walk sounds dull now, but you know that when you’re done, you’ll feel refreshed and exhilarated.

Thinking of your photography project, what are some of the outcomes you’d like to see? Just the satisfaction of knowing that you stuck with it to the end might be enough. But envision the depth of the body of work you’re going to produce. Think about how you’ll grow as a creator and artist.

Second takeaway: You have to establish rules for yourself. What camera will you use? Maybe you do the whole thing on a smartphone. Maybe you shoot film. What are you going to shoot? Do you have an overarching concept or theme that runs through your work? If not, consider a theme that is broad enough to sustain a year of shooting. Maybe your theme lasts for a week and you move on to another one the next week.

We’ll talk more about themes in a future episode, but start thinking about it now, as it will ultimately define the directions your project takes.

Also, how are you going to hold yourself accountable? With a website or a blog, or maybe a daily Instagram post?

If the thought of a photo every day is too intimidating, scale back. Maybe try a “photo 52” and focus on getting one great shot each week.

Setup rules for yourself and let them guide you, but don’t feel like you’re so bound to them that you can’t veer off from time to time. Remember, this is ultimately supposed to be fun, and bring you happiness. Don’t forget to set your start date, and use the time leading up to your first day of shooting to plan. Make a list of as many shots as you can think of. Trust me on this; you’ll need it later.

I officially began my photo-a-day project on the late afternoon of July 1, a sweltering summer day. The shots came easily, as I’d selected several locations in advance. I thought “hey, this isn’t so bad, this was a great idea!”

The euphoria lasted about 24 hours. The actual gravity of what I’d started would finally hit me about three days later when I found myself on the verge of a panic attack during lunch break, as I was desperately driving around looking for something, anything, worth shooting.

But that’s a story for the next episode.