Jul 25, 2017

Personal Projects for the (Literal) Win

As artists, having a routine creative practice is how we advance our work to the next level. One of the best ways to push yourself and the boundaries of your creativity is through personal projects. It’s one of the best ways to develop your voice as a photographer and to create portfolio work that is rich with intention and honesty. For many photographers, a secondary benefit is those personal projects turn into competition winning images.

We talked with some of our talented NAPCP members who have used their personal projects to win photography competitions, gain media attention, and get published. Here is a roundup of our conversations.

Beth Seliga photography competition winner / published photographer

Beth won second place and two honorable mentions in the 2016 and 2017 NAPCP International Image Competitions (Editor’s note: NAPCP’s Second Half 2017 International Image Competition is open for submissions now!), for senior photos she created as personal projects. Beth’s photos have also placed in the Shoot & Share competition, and have been featured in magazines and on blogs.

We asked Beth to share her process for creative senior photos.

“I am a non-stop annoying idea generator. I would say only 10 percent of them ever see the light of day. Some I attempt and can’t bring to life, and then others turn out better than I thought they would and surprise me.

My projects don’t require a lot of collaboration and can be easily implemented. Personal projects usually start with a spark. A song, a book, a movie, a flower, sometimes just life. My most recent winning image was just an idea that blossomed from a previous styled session. We see so many horses posed with girls in pretty dresses. I set out to create something a little more real and in the process, watched this beautiful love between Catie and Cricket.

I like to do my senior modeling differently than most other photographers. I don’t use ambassadors and I don’t require any selling. I don’t charge them to participate. The catch is they have to be open to exploring crazy ideas with me. Having a few models that I know and care about is really critical to my creative process, and after a few sessions they are more like muses than models. They feel safe coming up with crazy ideas and bouncing them off me. We can get together for a 20-minute sunset session or plan things that are more involved. There isn’t much “warming up” time at a session because we are cozy with each other. When I first work with a new model, I give them some basics, but we really get to know each other. Each session, I introduce another small facet of posing. It really is an investment on both our parts.”

Caitlin Domanico viral photography project / published book

Caitlin’s personal photography project, United We Feed, went viral in 2015. Her book, Photographing Motherhood, was published in April 2017.

After the unplanned C-section delivery of her first child, Caitlin was inspired to show the similarities between all mothers through a photography project on nursing babies. The project went viral. Using the momentum of her project, she parlayed her work into a book contract with Amherst Media.

“I decided to unite mothers and celebrate – to expand my popular nursing sessions and seek out mothers who were bottle-feeding, pumping, using donor milk, using sns devices, using tube-feeding, as well as those who are using several different methods.

The results were incredible. Inquires flooded in. I photographed women and heard their stories, and in turn shared them. The series went viral and it was clear that it struck a chord with so many women (and some daddies, too!). It was thrilling and healing for me and for so many others. I started the project in late April and by June it was running wild across the web. I had feature articles on Huffington Post, was featured on Cosmo, local newspapers, 6ABC news, WFMZ-TV, podcasts, and blogs across the world. What an experience!

The idea for pitching the Photographing Motherhood book came when the media inquiries slowed, and my world returned to normal. So many people told me, “You need to put together a book of these images”. I thought it sounded crazy but was really intrigued, so I began to research – how to write a book, how to pitch a book, going through a publisher versus self-publishing, and the list goes on.

I reached out to several publishers, but really connected with Craig from Amherst Media. He was very receptive to my idea of focusing on motherhood as a whole, and helped me shape my vision. We brought in Jade Beall as a co-author, and started to work with my editor, Beth, as well as the team at Amherst. We invited seven contributors into the fold, and from there, Photographing Motherhood was born.”

Barb Toyama photography competition winner / fine art gallery exhibition

Barb’s self portrait from her project 52 won first place for Maternity in a 2016 NAPCP International Image Competition. Her personal project of photos of the ocean were featured in a fine art gallery exhibition in Colorado in 2016.

“I’m a really messy artist. I may have a vague idea in my head but seeing or feeling something is what ultimately makes me click the shutter. So there’s no specific process I follow … I let my heart lead my eyes. Sometimes I envy those photographers that clearly envision their art and then go out and create it – but that’s not me.

Contrary to what I wrote above, I did actually pre-visualize this [maternity] image somewhat. There were a lot of variables that needed to come together. I knew what the light would do, it was just a matter of catching it at the right angle. Then there was the movement of my feet and placement of myself/belly. I shot a few dozen (or hundreds) of frames and in the end, some luck was involved too of course.

I did a project 52, which the following year turned into a 365, and I’m in my second year of 365 though I’m not as strict with it, and not shooting every single day. I’ve also done two 100 Days of Ten projects of free-lensing, and started a new 100 days project recently.

What’s separates personal projects from client work is there is no pressure or anyone else to be concerned with/responsible for in the water, which for me opens up more brainpower for creativity. I think when there are no client expectations to meet and no pressure to deliver, because money was exchanged, the brain has this freedom to allow for a different level of creativity to happen. I don’t perform great under pressure and am a pretty bad multi-tasker. For me, if the art itself simply for the sake of art is the only thing on my brain, creativity has more room to unfold.”

Kimberly Tank photography competition winner

Kim’s photo of her son won first place for Motion in the 2017 NAPCP Inspired print competition.

“It’s no secret that I’m a big proponent of personal projects and believer that they are one of the best ways to push yourself, improve your photography, and stretch your creativity. Don’t get me wrong, classes are great and I love those too, but if you don’t practice a newly learned skill and practice it often, you’re not getting as much out of that class as you could be.

A year after completing my second personal project and my first 100 Days of Ten project, 100 Days of Action Shots, I won first place in the NAPCP Inspired Gallery Event print competition, in the Motion category. My project changed the way I captured young children, who always seem to be in motion. I played with different ways of showing motion and not just freezing it. I no longer try to keep little ones still when I photograph them; I look to capture their motion and activity. That, to me, is what childhood is all about.

Before my project, I wasn’t confident in my ability to capture action and do it well. Completing this project not only improved and changed my photography, it pushed my creativity and led me to my recent win.

When I start a personal project I almost always have a goal in mind, whether it’s to improve a specific skill or to push myself out of my comfort zone. My goal could also be as simple as making sure I document my own life every day or just do something for the fun of it. With some projects, I eventually notice that I’m actually starting to like the images I’m taking more than at the beginning. There are always still days that are about getting it done, and they’re not my favorite, but I ‘let it go’ with those!”

Carolyn Ann Ryan photography competition winner

Carolyn won third place for Light at the 2017 NAPCP Inspired print competition, with a photo she challenged herself to take of her son.

After several years of entering photography competitions only to leave empty handed, Carolyn won merits in WPPI and PPA’s IPC. When she entered the WPPI print competition and got negative feedback, she decided to fight back. Here’s her story.

“With WPPI and IPCS merits under my belt, I decided to submit some of those images for WPPI’s print competition. But, one by one, as my images were judged, the feedback was eerily similar: my lighting was flat.

My heart broke. I was crushed once again and felt defeated for the next few days. Soon after, a friend and I were discussing the whole process and she challenged me. She challenged me to keep going, to not give up and continue learning and growing and improving, to achieve the goal of getting an award in a print competition. I went home with the personal mantra, “no to flat lighting”.

I started practicing with lighting setups and one evening brought my son downstairs to practice with a new backdrop. I quickly put together a little visual story simply by picking out his blue pajamas, blue stuffed animals, blue chair and a blue backdrop. I thought the goal was a few quick, happy photos with his stuffed animals. As I starting setting up my lights, my sweet boy’s mood went from happy and giggly to tired and slightly grumpy. I mentally switched gears and simply worked with what he was giving me. I made the lights a little more dramatic and took about 25 photos in total. I only edited one. I knew the image title as soon as I saw it in camera.

When I journeyed to the Inspired Gallery Event for NAPCP, I was hopeful, but I’m always hopeful until I see my scores. I never placed in NAPCP competitions, so I wasn’t expecting much. The photo taken of my reaction seeing a ribbon hanging from my print says it all.

The ultimate end result is that I improved. I took the feedback that initially crushed me and let it motivate me instead. It is a cycle, and I know I still have so much more to learn. I’m excited to keep going. “

Suzanne Taylor photography competition winner

Suzanne recently won an honorable mention and merits in the Black and White Child Photo Competition, the Shoot & Share Competition, and the Spider Awards, and has many previous winning images in NAPCP image competitions.

Suzanne’s work is inspiring in its technical proficiency and variety. We asked how she uses personal projects to keep her work fresh.

“Personal projects are very near and dear to my heart. They are the fuel to the fire that keeps my creativity flowing, and pushing my skills and abilities to grow rather than stagnate. Typically, the personal projects I do push the limits and are often not what my customer base comes to have photographed … the reality is that most people look to invest in happy family portraiture. Personal projects are how I express the moody, raw, and emotional images that I want to take.

My winning image “Flicka” was an image that was part of a fine art series I began as an attempt to satisfy my craving for images that were more than just a smiling face. I hate to think I would let the opportunity go by, as my triplets are still young enough to engage happily in photography. This series of images started in 2014 and will continue until they choose to no longer participate in them.

When I do a personal project like this my goal, always, is to create something that is A) not commonly seen, and B) something out of my comfort zone. I get bored flipping through social media and constantly seeing the same images over and over of kids in cute dresses, holding flowers, smelling flowers, smiling perfectly, etc. This is no dig [against other photographers]; I have many friends who create these images and they are beautiful and always well done. I crave more. I want to see, feel, even taste (figuratively) an image that is interesting, different, and exciting to my visual palate. I NEED to see more than happy, privileged children who are loved, taken care of and spoiled. I crave to see something else.

What I am working on now is returning to the realm I first began in – documentary. The idea that fine art can be created by just recording events as they unfold is very captivating to me. This also pushes me to stop my obsession with technical perfections. The right place at the right time is my goal for this summer, as well as photographing as much as I can in full sun, something I have avoided like the plague for years now, for no good reason except fear – which is silly.”

Jennifer Kapala – photography competition winner / photographer of the year

Jennifer’s personal project won third place for Joy in the 2017 NAPCP Inspired print competition. She also has multiple NAPCP International Image Competition winning images, was named the 2014 NAPCP Photographer of the Year, silver award winner at WPPI, and MPIO Highest Placing award (multiple years) for her personal work.

“I love personal projects for pushing yourself when you don’t feel like being pushed, and for opening your mind to see life differently. I have done a few 365s and a number of 100 Days of Ten projects. I just started my next 100 Days project, am working on two 52 week projects and am committed to Light Entwined, which is a collaborative project. I view Light Entwined as an ongoing conversation I am having with friends. It’s not as frantic a pace as the others, but it’s something I hope lasts years.

Lots of my winning images were from personal projects – the latest one, which placed third in the NAPCP Inspired print competition, was my take on a portrait. I was trying to push the definition of what portraits could be, and I really wanted something more dynamic and interesting than a typical, posed portrait. Something more reflective of being a kid!

My goal when doing a personal project is to finish it. Seriously, it’s hard to stay committed to something when life happens and it’s so much easier to say “tomorrow”; tomorrow won’t ever come if you don’t get off your ass and do something about it. I think back to my first project, and I think the biggest thing I learned (aside from how to take better pictures) was that I could do it. I could work past all the “Well, I don’t know if I can do that,” and prove to myself that it wasn’t a superhuman power reserved to others, but something within me. That’s a valuable lesson I applied to lots of things in my life.

I find myself reading and listening to music and getting lots of ideas, which I write down, and am now sketching out, too. I love visiting museums, art galleries, or the theatre. For my more complicated ideas, it turns into problem solving or things I have to teach myself to do. I have to work out as much of it as possible before I shoot it or edit. What I don’t do is look at others’ Instagram, Facebook, or portfolios for “inspiration”.

Yes, I do love ah-ha moments. Yeah, usually you get an awesome surge of energy when you realize you have had a breakthrough.

As to personal projects versus client work, at first there was a great divide between my personal and client work, but now I feel that gap is closing. I have had more and more clients hire me because they want something different, and so it becomes more about co-creating, sort of like Light Entwined. I would definitely say that if I hadn’t put out personal projects and learned to close that gap, that would never have happened.”


NAPCP members can get tips on starting your own personal project from our contributor Willy Wilson in the Marketing Monday video gallery. Not a member yet? Join here! (Use our summer special code, APPLY25, to waive your application fee!)


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