Tips + Techniques

Pushing Your Creative Photography with Series and Challenges

January 3, 2020

By Chris Daniels

© Chris Daniels

Project 104, comprising all different kinds of portraits, is by far one of the most labor-intensive personal series that I’ve done. Each subject’s portrait it taken and they’re also interviewed. The questions I ask them is the link that binds them into a cohesive series, one that has challenged me to evolve my photography.

Last month, I wrote about the importance of balancing work and play in finding your creative voice. Through the practice of work and play, we learned how to discover and expand on that voice.

Here, we’ll dive deeper into play, and I’ll give you the tactics that I use most. These techniques have propelled me forward as an artist and freelancer more than all others. They’ve shown me that I can meet challenges that I didn’t think possible, and I’m sure they’ll do the same for you.

How a Photo Series or Challenge Can Push Your Work Forward

If I had to name one point in my journey that created the most impact and is responsible for the largest leaps forward in my work, it’s when I set off to create coherent bodies of work. This could manifest in you creating your own photo series, or you taking part in a community or self-assigned photo challenge.

Tactics like these are also known as studies. Pablo Picasso’s famous Blue Period was a study on the color and emotion of looking at blue. From 1901 to 1904, the prolific artist focused on this. Coherent bodies of work create stories for viewers.

The art and work that compels and moves us the most is wrapped up in story. A good story is the reason that we will buy a movie ticket, overpriced popcorn and soda, and sit in a dark room with strangers and a huge screen for two hours. If it’s good enough, we’ll squirm around in our seat the whole time rather than risk missing any of it by going to the bathroom.

Story is powerful, and if you can learn to harness or create it, your work will speak on its own. 

Using Constants & Variables to Create a Series with a Story

There are endless ways to approach a series of work. By far my favorite way is through using deliberate constants and variables.

I learned this from observing the musician Jack White, of all people. If you look at any project that he’s done, there are pretty clear “rules” for all of his projects. His band The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, his solo projects and more are all different, down to the color schemes. Each one of them also still sounds like Jack White, and I mean that in more than how he sings or plays. The sound in everything he does is his unique voice. The constants and variables in each project are formulaic ways of expanding on his voice and collaborating with others. Applying the same approach to visual art changed everything for me.

Body Spaces is one of my favorite series that I work on, and that’s because it is 100 percent for the fun of using constants and variables. I’m not trying to say anything or make a statement; I just set my constants and follow them.
They’re pretty simple in this case: I never show the subject’s face, and I never show the entire body. That’s it. To me, there’s a little bit of a lost narrative about them. I like that, and it’s enough of a reason for me to keep doing it.

Many find the idea of a photo series to be intimidating. It doesn’t have to be. It can be a lot of fun, even if it’s challenging! Using constants and variables has always accomplished both for me.

In practice, you can make this method as simple or complicated as you want, and it will work. All you’re doing is giving yourself a set of rules to follow. 

As an example, let’s say that you wanted to do a series about color. Here’s one way to set that up:

  • Select colors to use: yellow, red, blue
  • Constant: yellow
  • Variables: red, blue

You could take the information above and create a very cohesive body of work around it. With yellow as your constant, you would make sure that every image you create has yellow prominently featured within the subject matter. The colors red and blue should support the yellow, but they don’t always have to be present or together.

If you think of this example as a study, it would be a study on the color yellow and how red and blue support or contribute to the color. Because there is no further definition, the subject matter could be anything that you wish, as long as there is yellow. 

Each participant in Project 104 is asked the same three questions: What gets you out of bed in the morning? To date, what is the greatest lesson you’ve learned? What is love?

The way you set up your constants and variables doesn’t have to only lie in the physical realm either. I have a journalistic portrait series that is tied together by the questions asked of those participating in the project. The portraits all look very different, but I ask each person the same three questions. This ties the body of work together. The story is found in how similarly or differently people answer the questions.

In another portrait series, Body Spaces, the entire body or face of the subject is never shown. Another, WALKING, is a compilation of long-exposure portraits of houses, taken at night while walking.

The rules can be about anything as long as you stick to them.

These are shot on film during a walk at night. Many of the constants in the WALKING series are found in how the photos are created. The small rules that I stick to: I never shoot un-diffused light sources, any vehicles that are newer than about 1995, and in general, I try to keep the images as timeless as possible.

Don’t Forget—This is Play

Even if the project you create becomes very important to you, try not to make it too precious. Though it may serve you in many other ways, the reason to do it is to explore and have fun. It’s easy to feel like every work you create, especially personal projects, are your legacy or your magnum opus. You cannot hold that feeling. This is very important, so I’m going to say it again: You cannot treat your art as if it is the defining character of who you are or how you will be remembered. (Similarly, read up on the important reasons why you need to separate yourself from your brand.)

There are many reasons for this, but the reason in the context of play is that if you take yourself or your work too seriously, you will forget to play at all. Everything becomes too important and you operate in fear instead. Fear of failure. Fear of making mistakes. Or fear that you will never be creative again.

We often act as if creativity is a well, one that we have to pull from frantically because we just know it’s going to go dry out one day. This is not at all the case. 

Photographing Your Way Out of Creative Roadblocks

In an interview, Tom Waits described how his approach to art shifted from observing his children playing. He was amazed at the pure joy they had in dancing around, making up songs and stories that they would forget in the next 10 minutes. They weren’t trying to say something important or create a legacy; they were just having fun. As soon as the song or story ended, they would make up another one.

Here is the point: Don’t make things so damn complicated. Just enjoy it!

Chris Daniels is a fine-art and portrait photographer, as well as a writer based in Seattle.