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02. Themes, shot lists, luck and lifelines

Has your creative well has suddenly run dry? Hopefully, you have a lifeline!

Show Notes


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 bungled my way through a photo-a-day project a couple years ago, so I’ve decided to pass along some of my experiences to hopefully help or support other photographers who take on similar projects. Think of it as a “things I wish I knew” before I tried to take a photo every day for a year.

If you’re in the middle of a photo a day and starting to feel discouraged, reach out to me. I’d love to hear how it’s going for you. If you’re thinking of taking that first step, be sure to go back and listen to the first episode, where I talked about setting up your project rules and goals, and how to visualize seeing yourself at the end of your project, as a means to cope with the epic task of simply starting.

At the end of the last show I described the success and exhilaration I felt on the first few days of my own project. Shots came easily for me on the first few days because I had a handful of locations scouted and some concepts in the back of my mind. However, I didn’t plan far ENOUGH ahead, and under a week into my effort, I was having a panic attack when I couldn’t seem to come up with anything worth photographing.

We all experience creative energy in different ways: It can come easily in a sudden burst, and you can barely contain it, but there are times when that creative part of your brain just stalls and when that mental wall comes up, it can be like staring into a void.

Some days are just going to be like that. It can be difficult to turn creativity on when you need it, especially if you’re adding something to your daily routine. You’re likely already busy with your daily work, family and other commitments.

So, if we’re committed to shooting or creating art every day, what happens when we’re suddenly faced with the dreaded creative block? Well, you can try to push through using techniques like free writing or association. Maybe you practice some “free photography” until something clicks. No pun intended -- and this is actually an excellent exercise.

You may simply get lucky. Sometimes the universe hands you something amazing -- and that’s actually a concept I plan to explore in a future episode -- but relying on luck or incidental photo ops, isn’t a game I always want to play. Remember the old expression, we want to make photos, not just take them.

I mentioned this in the previous episode, and I doubt this will come as a surprise to anyone, but you need to plan, or pre-produce your project. If you know you want to shoot 365 images, then you need to make a list of at least half that long of potential photo ops.

You don’t have to commit to shooting all the items on your list. Maybe you don’t shoot any of them. Or maybe your style allows you to work exclusively from that list. We’re all different as photographers and creatives. Your vision for your project may demand that level of pre-production. Maybe you maintain a list of people you want to shoot portraits of.

Some of you may be thinking, “well, my style is street photography, I don’t need a list.” WRONG. You can still note things like locations, types of images you aspire to shoot, and compositional challenges. For instance, maybe you want to spend some days focusing on shadows, and another day, maybe you target a particular color for your images.

So what I’m driving at here is to maintain a list of ideas so you have something to fall back on in those moments of panic. I’m not a great planner, so I didn’t do that until later in my project, and as a result I created considerable stress for myself in the beginning.

So let me go back to that panic attack I was having. Thinking back on it, it sounds pretty silly, but at that moment, I REALLY didn’t want to fail and miss a day. As I recall the day had been really busy, and I had to work late that night, so I really didn’t have a lot of spare time for a photo shoot, except for an extended lunch break in the middle of the day.

I’d wasted a lot of the lunch period driving around looking for landscapes to shoot. I happened to be in a residential area trying to hunt down a pond or small lake. Or anything interesting. Just a quick side note, I’m not a landscape photographer, so I don’t recall why this was stuck in my mind that day. As it turned out, most of the water features in this particular neighborhood had been ruined as a result of a massive flood we’d had a few years prior in 2015.

Suddenly I had a theme, and it was so obvious: I would document damage caused by the 100-year flood.

I managed to find an abandoned and flood-damaged home in this particular neighborhood that was interesting enough to warrant a photographic investigation. Suddenly I had my images for the day, and lots of them.

But more importantly, I had a theme that I could fall back on. I would go on to shoot the effects of the 2015 flood in areas all around the city from that point on. From ruined churches and broken bridges, to emotional portraits of residents who lost their homes. The flood would inform a large portion of my photo-a-day, all the way to the end.

I admittedly got lucky with that sudden realization, so I did start developing a list from that point on.

I found my phone very helpful to maintain lists, and I’d often dictate notes into it while I was driving or out walking. Make use of your smartphone camera if you see something interesting you want to explore later. Since your smartphone can geotag images, you can easily find the location when you have time to go back and properly photograph it. Save your notes in the cloud so you can access them from anywhere.

So, make a shot list, or a list of themes you can explore. It’s not the most revolutionary concept, after all as photographers, we are used to a certain level of pre-production before a shoot: Location scouting, gear selection, lining up models, designing lighting and composition, etc. But the takeaway here is that you need to pre-produce and plan for a sustained period.

When you have an off day, you can open your list and see what inspires you, or what may be possible in the limited time you have to shoot your photo of the day. Your themes can be as broad or specific as you want.

For example, I spent a few weeks of my project photographing vintage-inspired storefronts of local businesses at night. That was pretty specific. Another theme I wore out were my lunchtime walks, which was a really broad concept that encompassed images of anything I encountered while walking around the city near my workplace.

Now, don’t be like me, and wait until you’ve already started your project to begin compiling your lists and themes. In fact, maybe compile your shot list well in advance of your start date to give yourself more time for pre-production, planning and figuring out the overall direction of your project.

Perhaps to get started, look at art that inspires you and figure out what you can borrow from it, and how to apply that to your own work.

You may even want to join a Facebook group or follow some daily photo theme Instagrammers for ideas. There are plenty of websites dedicated to the photo a day concept, but I’d approach them cautiously, as you don’t want the social media hivemind to start coloring your own unique personal process.

Again, don’t feel like you’re locked into your shot list. Some folks may use it as a lifeline for those days when the inspiration isn’t coming; while others will take a more rigid approach to their project and use the shot list like a daily plan. It all depends on those goals we talked about in the first episode, and the rules you have designed for yourself.

Now that you have your shot list and a handful of potential themes to explore, we need to talk about how to wake up your mind’s eye and actually take those photos. That’s coming up in the next episode of Photo 365.