Planning a Photography Project

Working on a photography project is about the best way you can continue to grow and develop as a photographer. Having a particular topic or concept to focus on opens up the opportunity for you to become an expert on it. You can create a meaningful body of photographs to exhibit, compile them into a book or hang them on your living room wall.

Many photographers start out taking pictures of whatever they find attractive. When something catches their eye, they take a photo. An ongoing practice of photography in this manner will never amount to much. Random selection of subjects will result in a collection of unrelated photographs. These will be of no particular interest to anyone.

Concentrate your creative intentions and efforts to produce photographs based on a topic or concept. This then becomes a vehicle for your continued growth and development as a photographer. You will become an expert at whatever subject you commit to photographing over an extended period of time.

AKha woman portrait
I read a book by American photographer Irving Penn about his outdoor, natural light studio. It inspired me, and I began a photo project. I bought some fabric to use as backdrops for portraits in the villages I visit in the north of Thailand. This portrait was made with the fabric hanging from a tree in an Akha village in Doi Mae Salong. This was the beginning of my outdoor, natural light photography project. 2008.© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Here’s a short video about my outdoor, natural light studio.

What To Photograph for Your Project

No matter how long you’ve been enjoying photography, choosing what to photograph can be challenging if you are not yet engaged in a project. The best way I can help you make a choice is by encouraging you to start writing a list. 

Write Down Every Idea

Simply begin a list of things you enjoy. Write down anything and everything that comes to mind, regardless of if you think it will be suitable to photograph or not. The initial stage of this list writing exercise is to create a broad-ranging draft of ideas that you will whittle down. You want a lot of ideas written down. If your list only has three or four items, this exercise will likely be fruitless.

Don’t pressure yourself to build your list too quickly. Give yourself time to think about it and let it grow over a few days or a week. Spend time each day specifically thinking about what you enjoy, and add these to your list at least once a day. Write down every idea that comes to mind.

Akha woman in traditional clothes
In the beginning, my setup was very basic. Just a plain dark-colored backdrop set up, so my subjects were shaded from any direct sun. Sometimes people are a little shy to start with. 2008. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Edit Your Photography Project Ideas List

Not everything you’ve added to your list will be practical. But, once you have a good account of things you are interested in, you will begin to form other ideas based on this list.

Once you’re confident you have brainstormed enough, study your list. Look for similar topics or concepts. Think about how they relate to each other and why you have added them. What makes you curious about these things?

Now begin to think practically about what you can take photos of. As you study your list, begin to cross items off that are not practical. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is it visually appealing?
  2. Is it something I have access to so I can photograph it often?
  3. Do I know enough about this topic or can I research and learn more?
  4. Will it hold my curiosity for as long as my project will last?
  5. Will other people be interested in looking at the photos I take?

As you consider the items on your list, put a line through that topic if you answer no to any of these questions. Your photography project ideas must be practical to be most effective.

Once you have narrowed down your selection in this manner, it’s time to get more specific.

How broad are the photography project ideas on your list? Do you have any huge topics like ‘flowers’ or ‘cars’? You need to be more specific. Narrow ‘flowers’ down to something like ‘flowers in the local botanical gardens. Don’t aim to photograph all cars, but refine your ideas to something like ‘modified cars’, ‘red cars’, or ‘cars from the 1960s’. Keep in mind the five questions about how practical your topics are when you are editing them in this way.

Smiling Akha woman portrait
Because the fabric was narrow, I found it better to come in close. Mostly I have used my 86mm and 105mm lenses for these portraits. Once this young woman relaxed a little, I was able to make some lovely portraits of her. 2008. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Is it Visually Appealing?

Do you like what you see? Is it something that will look good in a series of photographs? 

During your project, you’ll want to exercise a variety of photography techniques. This will help you build a more diverse portfolio of images. Think about the style of photography you enjoy and whether this will suit your topics. 

Consider different ways you’ll be able to compose your subject. How many different composition rules can you apply? How does light affect your subject? Will you need to add flash or use a reflector? Will this be possible?

Is your subject more suited to being photographed in color or black and white? You don’t need to decide this before starting your project, but it is worth thinking about it during the list editing stage.

Any item on your list that is not visually appealing can be crossed off.

Karen woman smoking
This was a similar set-up with just a dark fabric background. This time in a Pwo Karen village. It was the first time I made a portrait of someone smoking and realized how interesting the smoke looked against the background. Pipes have become common props in my outdoor studio portraits. 2009 © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Can You Access Your Topic?

You need to be able to photograph your chosen topic often. How often depends on a few variables. Like how many photos you want for your final portfolio. How long you will it take to complete your photography project. Most importantly, you need easy access to what you want to photograph for your project. 

The easier it is to get to your subject, the more likely you are to spend time photographing it. Don’t choose to take pictures of icebergs or palm trees unless you have them in your neighborhood. 

Any subject that’s too difficult to access can be crossed off your list.

Karen woman smoking a pipe
By 2010 I had worked on the design of the outdoor studio. It now had a simple frame so I could choose where to set it up so the sun would be behind my subjects. It also had a piece of thin gray nylon fabric above the backdrop to filter the sunlight so that my subjects would have some soft backlighting. 2010. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

What Do I Know About It?

Do you have sufficient knowledge about the subject you want to photograph for your project? If not, can you learn more about it?

The more you know about what you are photographing while undertaking a project, the stronger your images can be. Having a good amount of knowledge provides you with a greater understanding. 

As wonderful as the internet is as a research tool, don’t make it your only source of information. Read books. Talk to people. Diversify your information gathering.

We often photograph Thai models in traditional costumes for our workshops. This is not for a photo project per se, but because we’ve done this often, it’s good to know more about what we are photographing. This way, we can also enhance our teaching. 

I’ll often ask my wife, who is Thai, to explain the meanings of the costumes and the stories behind them. Some are decorative, while others have stories with a deep traditional meaning behind them. Knowing even a little about these stories can help us create more interesting photos of them.

As we have produced the 365 Project and had some of these same models help us, we have also built deeper friendships with them. This also leads to more natural photos that are more relational as they have gotten to know us better.


If you don’t know enough about a topic you want to photograph, can you learn more? This can be as easy as searching the internet or buying a book. If your subject is very obscure and you don’t know much about it, you might want to delete it from your list.

Three Karen men
We got these guys to squeeze in tight together. The backdrop was still not really wide enough, but I really wanted this photo of three generations of Pwo Karen men. I had a German engineer with me on this trip, and he gave me some good ideas on how to improve the structure of my studio. 2010. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Am I Curious Enough About the Topic?

You have to sustain your interest, and better yet, have it grow more intense over the time you are working on your photography project.

Your interest in your subject must be genuine. If it’s not and you lose your passion before completing your project, you’ll not end up with a great series of photos. Take time to consider how much you truly enjoy your subject and whether this enjoyment will continue to grow.

As you engage in your project, you may find you get more attached to it and more enthusiastic about it. As you begin to take your photos and study more about your subject, you may well find you can’t get enough of it.

Consider the level of passion you have for each topic left on your list. If you don’t think you’ll last the distance and be able to build a strong body of photos of it, cross these items off your list.

portable outdoor natural light studio
The results of my upgrades were a wider and deeper backdrop, an improved shade, and a sturdier frame. 2011. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Will Other People Be Interested In My Photos?

Now that you only have items on your list that you know you are passionate about, you have to consider what others will think of them. Will other people be interested in what you love to photograph?

I often teach people that a good subject does not always make a good photo. A good photographer does. What you chose as the subject for your project should be interesting to others. 

People are drawn to pay attention to something they are interested in even before they see your photos of it. The greater the number of people who have an interest in your subject, the more people you’ll have looking at your pictures.

If you have any subjects left on your list that you think might be too obscure to hold anyone’s interest, cross them off.

Kayan girl portrait
The best times for using the studio is in the morning and later in the afternoon on sunny days. Having the sun behind and above the background means it reflects off the ground and back into the face of my subjects. The light-colored earth creates a nice warm reflection which looks great with Asian skin tones. 2014. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Other Considerations for Planning a Photo Project

Once you’ve narrowed down your list and chosen one or more topics for projects to work on, there are a few more things worth considering before you begin.

Who Is Your Target Audience?

Deciding early on who you would most like your target audience to be can help guide you while you work on your project. Having in mind who will view the photos can help you make choices as you are taking them.

You might only want to show them to your partner and immediate family. Maybe you’ll share them all on social media, a website, or with your photographer friends. Or you could aim to have a gallery show. The most important thing is that you have an audience for your photos.

Please don’t work hard on a project only to hide the photos away deep on a hard drive where no one else will get to enjoy them. Showing your photos to others is a great way to continue developing as a photographer.

Portrait of a Kayaw woman on a white background
In 2014 I expanded the studio and added a white backdrop alongside the black one. 2015. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

How Many Final Photos Will You Aim For?

Knowing who your target audience is and how you’ll share your photos will help you decide how many images to select for your final set.

If you intend to drip-feed your photos to the world via a social media account, or if you want to print a book of them, it is helpful to have some idea of a final number. Working on a long-term project may not be so practical. You can set yourself monthly goals for how many ‘keepers’ you want to produce each month. It might be one per day or one per week, depending on who much time you have to commit.

Karen woman sifting rice
A wider and deeper backdrop allows us to be a little more adventurous with what we get people doing. This day we did not have sunshine, and you can notice the difference in light quality. 2015. © Kevin Landwer-Johan
Photographer Kevin Landwer-Johan with his outdoor natural light studio
I use a large white ground cover whenever we have to set up on grass; otherwise, my subject has a green color cast reflecting onto their faces. © Pansa Landwer-Johan

How Long Will Your Project Take to Complete?

Some projects might last a week, and others could take a lifetime. When you start out, it’s good to have some idea of how long you’ll commit to working on your project. If you think you can cover your chosen topic well in a month, set yourself this deadline. If you reach the end of the month and are not finished, reassess and consider continuing. 

Will a short-term project do your subject justice? What impact will taking longer to produce your body of images have? Sometimes you’ll need to take photos in different seasons to show your subject at its best. 

Take your time. Don’t be in a rush or feel compelled to wrap up your project by a certain date. Set yourself a date to finish. When that day arrives, gather the best photos you’ve taken so far and self-critique them. Show them to a few friends and ask their opinions. They may offer some suggestions that will inspire you to continue. Or maybe they will see that your project is complete.

Photographers taking portraits during a workshop with the natural light studio
Outdoor studio sessions are a popular feature in some of our photography workshops. 2016 © Kevin Landwer-Johan
Lahu man smoking
Lahu man smoking. 2016. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Putting Your Photography Project Plan Into Action

Start now! Begin writing your list. Don’t rush it. Let it grow naturally, but not for too long. You want to make a start on taking your photos. As you build your list of potential topics, think about the other aspects of doing a photo project I have covered here.

Are you still needing some inspiration for that to take photos of for your project? There are a bunch of good ideas in this article: 13 Best Ideas for Personal Photography Projects.

Karen woman portrait using the outdoor natural light studio
Pwo Karen Woman Smoking. This session was the best for lighting. We started using a large reflector that helped create more depth. 2016. © Kevin Landwer-Johan
Older Karen couple
Sgaw Karen Couple. 2020. © Kevin Landwer-Johan


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