In a Photography Rut? Project Workshop!

Tired with your photography? In a serious photography rut?  Do you find that you end up disappointed with the images that you are taking every now and again . . . . and again. Well, don't give up – what you need is a project. Something that you can get your teeth into,  that stretches your imagination and takes out of your comfort zone. Each of these projects will look at a type of photography – portrait, street photography, landscape, whatever – and give you some hints on how to prepare and how to approach the project. You may decide that one or two images will ‘kickstart' your photography or it may send you off in a direction that intrigues you so much that it becomes a lifetime's study!!

Where to Start?

So where shall we start? In the beginning, photography wasn't ‘point and shoot', it was more like ‘coat the plates, expose the image, develop the plate then make the print.' And the gear was so heavy you needed a cart to carry it around in — the first ‘production camera' weighed 120 pounds! As a result, the only possible subjects were things that didn't move like land, or things you could bring into the studio – mainly people. So we're going to start with portraits.

Masters of Portraits

In the early days of photography, most portraits were extremely formal. In fact, in some ways they had to be. The plates were not very sensitive and required long exposures. As a result, elaborate clamps and head rests were built to help the subjects to stay still. Julia Margaret Cameron was a late-starter, not taking photographs seriously until she was in her 50's, but she was extremely competent both as a landscape and as a portrait photographer in the traditional style of her time. However when it came to portraits, she had very strong ideas about breaking away from that tradition, as you can see if you compare these two images taken by her.

Charles Darwin portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron – wikipedi.org

This first image is a portrait of the great scientist Charles Darwin, captured in the formal traditional style of the time against an anonymous background. The image carries a ‘lot of weight' and you know this man is important, and that you are definitely meant to respect him. It is a classic portrait, but Cameron also wanted to take portraiture somewhere else – to create a different look and feel. Her aim was to record people, free from knowing who they actually were. For Cameron, her models were more like actors. She created that sense of theatre that makes us want to know more about these people, and what they are feeling.

“Sadness” by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1864 – wikipedia.org

The end results are remarkable. It's hard to believe that this beautiful image entitled ‘Sadness' was taken in 1864. It's wistful, subtle, and is more than a simple record of a person – it conveys an emotion, an emotion that is timeless. Portraits for Cameron were a way of capturing emotions, though interestingly not one of the women in her images look happy!

Technology has changed considerably since those early days.  We now have the huge advantage of recording hundreds of high quality images quickly, easily, and cheaply.  This can also be a disadvantage allowing us to ‘digitally machine-gun' our subjects and select those few shots we like while discarding the others! One of the things I want to encourage in this series is to help photographers to take their time when taking pictures. Cameron wasn't going to waste a single ‘plate' if she wasn't exactly sure of what she was shooting she wouldn't do it! How many of us could say that today?

So why not start by taking a look at some of the great portrait photographers. Here are a few suggestions?

Arnold Newman – His classic portrait of Stravinsky shows the principle subject being dwarfed by the grand piano which dominates the frame.

Yousuf Karsh – His portrait of Winston Churchill captures beautifully Churchill's determined expression – though the legend is that Churchill was at this point furious that Karsh should have taken his ‘trademark' cigar off him.

Phillippe Halsman – his portraits of Salvador Dali are priceless, the ideas matching perfectly the zaniness of his subject.  Such as photographing Dali with each one of the points of his moustache piercing a $10,000 bill. Another of Halsman's portraits of the great surrealist took five hours and twenty-six attempts to achieve the result he wanted. On the count of four, Dali leapt into the air, whilst his Halsman's assistants threw three cats and a bucket of water into the air and his wife held a chair in the air! Check it out!

It is also interesting to compare how different photographers capture different aspects of the same person such as say, Marilyn Monroe. Ernst Haas captured Monroe in a series of un posed shots where she makes no eye contact with the camera. Bob Willoughby's took a classic off-screen sequence on the set of her last film: ‘Let's make love.' and Eve Arnold‘s work highlighted the difference between the private and public faces of the star.

Plan a Formal Portrait Shoot

BUT you're probably wondering what all these glamorous people and famous personalities have to do with us ordinary folk? The point is that though they happen to be pictures of famous people, essentially they are still portraits. We take hundreds of portraits every day of our family and friends, but have you ever tried to record what a person is really about?

Find a Subject

Setting out to create some serious portraits doesn't mean just finding a nice background and shooting 4Gb of images.  Taking portraits is not simply about hiding behind a camera and shooting as many shots as possible. You need to establish some sort of relationship with that person and get to know them. That neighbor who you hear playing the guitar; the guy at the coffee shop always writing in his notebook; the woman across the road who is always making things; any one of them could be an ideal subject. So go and talk to them and explain to them what your idea is – how you'd like to photograph people and their passions, however you want to call it- it's your project – your ‘title'! They may, at first, be a little surprised and bit taken aback – though inside, they'll probably be quite flattered that you're interested.

This is where your portrait session actually starts, preparing the ground by making your subject feel at ease with the idea. Ask them about their passion/hobby and let them talk.  Pretty soon they'll want to show their workspace and point out some example of their work or an aspect of their passion that they are particularly proud of. After establishing a relationship with them, leave them with a good feeling and make a date to return to talk through the idea, preferably in the location you have suggested -the workshop or the place where they enjoy their passion.


Before you get there, do some research and have some ideas in your head of the image you want to create.  Take along a few examples of different images that you like. Then you can start to map out some ideas with them, but do it gently.  If you overwhelm them with your first suggestion, it may take you some time to regain the confidence that you have been trying to get.


Discuss the location and what they will wear and remember you need to explain everything. A cluttered workshop with a man in his worn overalls has character. You don't want to turn up to find a tidy workshop and the man in a suit! Discuss these ideas with the subject before you actually go to do the session.  Take a camera with you by all means to check, say, shot width – but don't take a lot of gear.

Be Prepared

When you have agreed what you are going to do, and set a date and time for the session, be well prepared. Make sure you have everything you need and nothing that you don't – the right leads, fully charged batteries, etc.. There is nothing so amateur as a photographer who spends time muttering about not having remembered to bring such-and-such, and complaining about the mess his equipment is in. You need to put people at their ease and that means being calm, efficient and professional.

Put Subject at Ease

When you are getting to the point of actually taking the photograph keep chatting with the subject, but avoid saying negative things.  Something like, ‘OK can we try a slightly different angle?' is better than ‘I don't like that.'  If you're not happy with your first set-up, shoot a few frames anyway – you've spent time establishing a relationship with the subject, don't blow it by giving the impression that something isn't right!

Post Processing

When it's all done, give yourself a realistic amount of time to do the initial editing.  Don't say ‘I'm going to go straight home and edit these' (even if you intend to). Give yourself enough time.  Better to say ‘I'm planning on editing the shots next weekend' and be ready sooner, rather than saying Tuesday and being late!

The first edit should be to eliminate the shots you positively don't like.  If you take along everything you shot, there is a good chance that the subject will like one that you don't like.  It may, for example, show an element of their skill that you wouldn't have noticed BUT these are your photographs and you would not want to give somebody a shot that you were not proud of.  Give them alternative versions and different angles, but ‘quality control' is your department!

Finally, when the project is complete, give the subject a framed version of their favorite shot with your signature on the matte. You just never know who else might see that shot . . . . . or where that might lead.

This article is the first in a series guest contributed by Rowland Jones

4 thoughts on “In a Photography Rut? Project Workshop!”

  1. I like the idea of getting out of my current rut. A portrait shoot — something I loathe — just might be what I need.

    A few challenges I foresee for me.

    I don’t hang out in coffee shops. None of your suggestions work for me. Most of the people I know — including my neighbors — are either in corporate IT or corporate business. I know every few “creatives”. All your examples are portrait session of creatives. Most examples I see around the web assume the same sort of subject.

    It seems the whole project will require several months to establish the relationship. After that it would require some knowledge of what’s possible within the constraints of the working environment. If for example, doing a portrait shoot of my a chef — my sister-in-law is a good example — there are considerations around lighting and how much equipment can be brought into the space.

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for your interest in the article.

    I know you say that you friends and neighbours ‘are not creatives’, but if you work in that ‘zone’ and have an interest in photography, then maybe other friends and neighbours also have interests that you may not know about. In the end, a portrait is about ‘that person’ and trying to capture the essence of them- whether it is creative in a visual art, innovative in a business sense, or awesome in an academic sense. What I’m trying to encourage is attempting to ‘portray’ that person.

    Certainly in the example you say about your sister-in-law, there are restrictions in terms of space, but that is all an essential part of the challenge – getting the image right despite the problems involved!

    Give it a try!



  3. As an amateur/aspiring photographer, I can definitely relate to the ruts and bumps; and everyone has moments where they wonder if they will ever be successful. I love this idea of regaining your enthusiasm by focusing on a project (it would make a really great workshop with an outside assignment), though portraits can present a real challenge to the inexperienced.
    My good friend just got back from Hawaii a few weeks ago, and he focused his photography on water while he was there. For weeks before he left, he was practicing with rivers and waterfalls in our local canyons, increasing his excitement for his project. To get out of a rut, do as he did and find something that thrills you.

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