Shooting For Yourself: Personal Projects Keep The Spark Alive

This is how it all started. I picked up some paints and began painting some backgrounds to match the flowers. All photos done by window light with a silver reflector.
Photos © 2000, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

This article is aimed mostly at professional photographers but if you don't count yourself among them, please continue reading anyway because I think you'll find some very useful information. Having said that, let's consider one of the most common yet amazing contradictions that exists among many professional photographers who are out there shooting daily to earn a buck. Listen to my story and see if it makes sense to you. People usually enter this profession because of their love for the art and craft of photography. They didn't pick up a book at an employment agency, write down a list of the best paying jobs and find photographer at the top of the list, or just under Wall Street tycoon. No, they got into photography because they had to, because any other way of making a living would not be true to their artistic soul. So they scraped together their assets, took out a second mortgage or married someone with a good income, bought the equipment they thought they needed, had a sign made, and went into business. You may find some variations to this story, but my experience in the portrait and wedding end of the business suggests that about 90 percent follow that route.

Then I started using the paint to paint not only the background but the flowers, too. I liked the results and started a series.

Then when they get in business, they have to focus so much on making a living that they devote all their time to just photographing what the client wants and paying attention to the bottom line. Photography for themselves? Who's got time for that?

Here is another rather interesting facet of this business: I find that the photographers who take time to shoot for themselves and constantly strive to better their work are also the most successful.

So now that you're Joe Pro and have all the equipment that you've always wanted, how about using it to soothe the soul instead of paying the bills? There are many good reasons to, including personal satisfaction, self-education, and probably the most important, preventing burnout. I know many photographers who have left this game because it became stale, and they kept doing the same repetitious thing day after day. Who's fault is that? I submit it is their own, for allowing their work to become nothing but cookie cutter photography and for not taking the time for personal growth. There's an old saying, "A rut's just a grave with the ends kicked out," and I think that really holds true in photography.

I wanted something very subtle but found this photo a little lacking in impact, so decided to see what a little time in Photoshop would do to it.

Let's say you agree with my statements. What's your next move? Well, now you're gonna have to put your thinking cap on and get some smoke coming out of that old noggin because I may be able to point the way but the path you travel is up to you. You need to have a little talk with yourself and decide what you would photograph if you could photograph anything in the world just for the sheer joy of it. Is it men? Women? Kids? Artists? Factory workers? Bikers? Couples? Brothers or sisters? Flowers? Dogs? Wildlife? Nature? Hummingbirds? You decide. It's your personal project, and the only one you have to answer to is you. Isn't that great? You can't fail because there is no such thing as failure, only the learning process. Wow! Why didn't you think of this before? Is this going to be fun or what?

Most of you will know right off what you want to shoot. However, if you need a little inspiration, here's an idea: Go to the biggest book or magazine store near you and head straight for the magazines. Start looking at the different sections to see what appeals to you. Let's say after you meander the covers on the car magazines that really appeal to you and you decide you'd really like to try your hand at photographing cars. You've now got direction, so you can start doing detective work like going to dealers, car clubs, and body shops to see who has the most pristine examples of cars you want to shoot. Do you think they'll refuse you if you give them a free print of their baby? Of course not!

This is the result of about 20 minutes worth of dodging and erasing in Photoshop. Then I plopped in a border and voila! I like this result better than the original.

If this is new to you, I suggest you choose a subject that is totally different from your everyday work. You really want to look forward to these shoots and I think it's a good idea if they don't remind you of "work." Once you get going, you may want to tackle an area closer to your field of work. For example, I do portraiture every day but I love to photograph interesting personalities. I did a series of people with tattoos a few years ago that was very satisfying and won me many print competition awards. They are still some of my favorite photos and perhaps I'll do an article on them in the future.

The photos accompanying this article are from a different series that I started earlier this year. I've been photographing flowers for years as a hobby. I started thinking about what I could do for unique backgrounds and eventually bought some paints and art paper and started painting my own backgrounds. As I kept experimenting, I decided to start painting some of the flowers, too, for an interesting look. Other photographers have given me very positive reviews of these, so much so that I'm thinking of expanding this series for possible sales outlets.

Rather interesting concept, isn't it? Getting paid for what we like to do. Isn't that where we started?