Get Personal: Why Every Photographer Should Start a Personal Photo Project Now

There are so many people standing around at car shows that it’s hard to get a clean shot of a car, so I decided I’d eliminate onlookers by combining the car with the graffiti mural photo in post. All photos © Deborah Sandidge

Some photographers call it a personal project; others, a self-assignment. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about whether there’s a difference, and if there is, what it might be. Besides, I have my own mash-up of it: the personal assignment.

Actually, in my case, it’s not an “it,” it’s a “them.” I have several ongoing, long-term personal assignments, and they often overlap. Here they are:

Seascapes (whenever I get a chance); bicycles (always great to find anywhere); expressive cloud formations (often with docks and piers); silhouettes (every opportunity I can find); graffiti (always colorful, fun to capture); and a new one: putting myself in the shot (whenever that works well). Like most photographers, I’ve assigned myself subjects that are favorites: things I love and those I want to explore.

A sunset seascape with silhouettes of pelicans on the pilings on the west coast of Florida. Shooting into blue and gold colors always makes for a powerful color combination.

My personal assignments are interesting challenges because conditions are different every time, and I have to make decisions about creative interpretation. Often I’m trying to find ways to capture the familiar. Do I want to freeze action or show motion? What techniques and camera controls will I use to get the effect I want? It’s a challenge and a puzzle to add interpretation or abstraction, to find or create combinations.

The bike is the personal assignment subject, but this photo speaks to contrasts: old and new Havana, the freshness of the flowers against the worn wall.

What I’m after are creative images, not simply proof that I found another example of one of my favorite subjects or situations. The personal assignment is a creative exercise, not merely the collection of images.

Near and Far
These personal assignments don’t always involve a lot of travel. I live 30 minutes from Lake Monroe in Florida, and if it looks like approaching clouds are going to be putting on a show over the pier, I’m going to be in my car and on the way to take advantage of working that idea. That’s my basic concept of the personal assignment: wherever I am, I will have ideas to pursue.

This is a five-exposure HDR in Lucerne, Switzerland. If I’d waited for better light, there would have been fewer bikes as people were coming by to get them. You have to shoot when you can.

I’m not necessarily pursuing a subject, but my radar is always up and operating, and I’m not about to waste any opportunity. A scarred wall behind a bicycle in Cuba? Perfect. And the bike has baskets filled with fresh flowers that the owner is going to take to the flower market? Beyond perfect.

Several bicycles on a street in Lucerne, Switzerland? Great. And there are repeated patterns of windows, various shapes and tones, and leading lines toward a vanishing point? Greater still. Bicycles are one of my personal assignments, but those pictures are about so much more than just the bikes. Which ideally is how the personal assignment works.

I put myself into the picture because there was no one else around. Cloud formations and docks are personal assignment subjects, and now I’ve added selective self-portraits to the list.

In the case of the black-and-white photograph taken in Melbourne, Florida, I had clouds gathering over a dock, and I thought how cool it would be if there were someone there. But it was a gray, cold afternoon, and there wasn’t a soul in sight.

And then I thought, Oh, yeah, that’s right, there is someone, and I set up the camera for a self-timer shot and walked into the scene. I didn’t face the camera because I wanted the picture to be about the clouds, the dock, and the mood of the afternoon, but that sort of self-portrait gave me the idea for my newest personal assignment: get into the picture when it helps the picture express a feeling I want to capture.

A slow shutter speed seascape from Coral Cove Park, Florida, at 1/20 second with my 14-24mm zoom at 14mm. I’m not afraid of getting wet to get a photo—I carry a microfiber cloth for the lens and a little towel for me.

You’ll notice that for my personal assignments I’ve chosen subjects that offer the possibilities of great color, image flow, texture, and a variety of photogenic settings. If you’re going to take on the challenge, it makes sense to stack the deck in favor of opportunity.

I took this at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park in the late afternoon. The clouds were amazing, coming in from the south and west, forming up around the lighthouse as it was getting ready to storm. It was a 1/50-second shot on a tripod.

A selection of Deborah Sandidge’s world photography is at, along with cinemagraphs, photo tips, and a schedule of upcoming workshops, photo tours, and seminars. You’re sure to spot results of her personal assignment efforts as well.