The word depth comes up more than once in photography. There's depth of field—the zone of sharpness within the photo. There's depth as in perspective—imparting a sense of distance or space into the image. Another is depth of treatment, which you get when you follow a theme or set yourself a project to photograph the same subject over a period of time.
Projects are an ideal way to deeply explore a subject. Whatever your preferred subject matter, it's possible to get into a routine of shooting a certain thing a certain way. A new project can help you break out of this routine and give you the impetus to move out of your comfort zone. It gives you something to do and a new subject to focus on. Coming back to the same subject challenges your creativity as you search for new ways to photograph it.
So, what sort of project can you take on? The question of what to photograph can be a difficult one, but your personal interests may be a good starting point. Perhaps you have another hobby or interest that you can combine with your photography. Alexandre Buisse is a good example; he combines his love of mountaineering with photography. If you're into something physical, like mountaineering or rock climbing, then a project as simple as making a set of portraits of your fellow mountaineers/rock climbers could be interesting and rewarding.
Projects should be driven by the type of photography that interests you. For example, if you like landscape photography, how about a project exploring the coastline or landscape near where you live? One popular technique is combining long exposures with black and white photography, and another is landscapes with minimalist composition. Either of these could make a worthwhile project.
If you prefer photographing people, how about a portrait project? Actors, dancers, surfers and firemen have all been subjects of successful projects. The thing is to find something that interests you, then photograph it over a period of time rather than superficially. That gives the project depth, and as a bonus, it also improves the creative side of your photography.
If you want to pursue something daily, a 365-day project may be for you. It can be challenging as it's difficult to find time to take a photo every day, let alone be creative and original at the same time. Some photographers concentrate on a single subject for their 365 project. Self-portraits are popular since there's always an available model.
Another unifying element in a project is the treatment. For example, if you're taking a series of portraits, how about taking them all with the same lens, or the same background, or all in black and white? This approach worked for Richard Avedon's series In the American West and it could work for you as well.
Projects can also arise over a number of years. I found myself in a long-term project after I made a series of trips to the Andes mountains in South America over a six-year period. Each time I visited a different region and took some more photos. I took the time to speak with some of the people that I met and to read about and understand the culture and issues of the region. This, combined with the time I spent there, added depth to the collection. Visiting a place for just a week or two can't achieve the same depth of coverage.
You don't have to go somewhere far away or exotic to undertake a long-term project. There may be somewhere relatively close that is just as interesting to you. Closer can be better since it's easier to visit on a regular basis.
Projects are a great way of developing your photography and editing skills—selecting the best photos and arranging them in a cohesive way that tells a story can be as much of a skill as creating the images in the first place. Instagram, Flickr, or 500px are good platforms to use to post your project. For a more personalized way to share (even if you know next to nothing about web design), it's easy to start your own photo blog using services such as Blogger, Wordpress, and Tumblr. These are all free to use and there's no need to buy your own domain name or hosting.
Another photo sharing website is the Behance Network. Behance is dedicated to creative projects of all descriptions, not just photography. It's a great place to look for inspiration and to see the work of other photographers and other visual artists, as well as upload and display the results of your own projects. It's well worth a look.
And don't think that you have to undertake projects by yourself; there's great value in collaboration. Working with another photographer has the potential to add interest and depth to a project, as another photographer will approach the same subject from a different perspective. They may have different skills or techniques that complement yours. They can also help when it comes to editing and displaying photos. It's always difficult to be objective about our own work, and the insight of another photographer can be invaluable.
Professional photographers use personal projects to expand the range of their portfolios and attract new business. There are plenty of photographers who made their name with a project that made people sit up and take notice (Richard Billingham's Ray's a laugh comes to mind). If your project is interesting enough and the photos are good enough, you never know where it will lead.
This article first appeared in Craft & Vision 1: 11 Ways to Improve Your Photography. If you liked this post, check out Andrew's eBook collection.
Andrew S. Gibson is a writer specializing in photography. He’s the technical writer for EOS magazine and he also writes articles for Smashing Magazine and Phototuts+. See more of Andrew's work and his photographic philosophies on his website.