How to generate photographic ideas: A discussion



As photographers we can learn about how to use our cameras, how to process and how to print: but there is always an underlying question that we should be asking ourselves: “What do I want to say?” This is one of the challenges to being a photographer, and working towards the answer can help us improve our photography. These thoughts could be particularly relevant when contemplating a long-term photography project. A new project could involve new work and new challenges, or it could mean looking with fresh eyes at familiar subjects, or looking for connections and relationships between images in an existing body of work.
The question:
A few months ago Sheila posed the following question for the Hedda Discussion Group: I was musing that I would really love to peek inside the brains of members of the group to find out more about the creative processes you each use. For example, when Julie goes to India, what projects does she have in her mind? Is she working them out before she leaves or is she responding to what she sees once she is there? And if the latter, how does she work that into a body of work? I think the striking thing with the likes of Julie and Judy is that they have a very distinct style and body of work to which they keep adding. So when they go travelling, whether in Australia or abroad, how do they work out in their minds the move from mere travel photography to explicit body of work? And it may well not be at all be a clear strategy in their minds, but I am just really keen to learn more about their thinking processes around their photography.

The responses:

Julie –

Yes I definitely have an idea of what I want to photograph before I go. Often I will return to favourite places (in India, say) to revisit and concentrate more on a particular scene or group of people. I call my style of photography “candid street” but I have been working lately on posing the people I have been working with. For example, telling the boys to get out of the way so I can photograph the girls or asking people to sit or stand in a certain place. Then I go with the flow and photograph as much as possible. Then to create a body of work I look through all my photographs and start looking for connections. I have more ideas for projects than I can work on, and I find I often start something and then I am distracted so I find it hard to finish. I am working on a “personal project” with PhotoAccess and this is proving a challenge as I have to select a body of work for a joint exhibition. I am still deciding what to do. I was working with portraits in black and white using the tintype app to process them, but the group (the Hedda group) reckons I should try and work with colour as it is so much harder to get right and will push me more. They love some of the colour work I have already done. On 28 February 2014 I made a commitment to post a photo a day to instagram/facebook/google+ (see @juelles810). I wasn’t looking for any theme in particular, just what moved me on the day – maybe an old image, maybe a new one. This series has already grown into an exhibition at PhotoAccess. Lorna Sim liked it so much she asked me to exhibit in her restaurant, so I have now put up a selection of these images there. I am also applying to exhibit in Hobart and Melbourne. Just posting a photo a day has really grown into something bigger – a body of work. People like looking at all the different images and looking for connections that are sometimes not obvious. Printing the images and putting them on the wall adds something that is not there in an electronic series. It allows more connections to emerge.

Marion –

Recently in the USA when I was photographing many wonderful places, I became somewhat overwhelmed by the millions of other photographers also photographing significant beautiful world icons. Although I always try to take an object in another way – creative it is said – what is the point? Millions of photos are now taken annually of some icons and I think many objects or places are satiated. As I had previously thought I would concentrate on Australia and try to capture the singular essence of my own country to which I have access, I wondered what I was doing in the US and determined that when I got home I would return to my original beginnings of making my own photographs and looking for a ‘feminine’ point of view. Other aspects of photography that I enjoy are telling a story and looking for shots that will add to a set. And yes, I do try to determine beforehand subjects I will work on but very often I become diverted as other entrancing subjects enter my vision. I have been living in the north (Darwin) for the major part of each year and last year I concentrated on monsoon weather, storms, saturated countryside, rejuvenating effect of water etc. They will be the subject of my exhibition there in March. I have had to look for northern landscapes that will appeal to their localised view. The people of the tropical north are enthusiastic about shots they recognise as coming from within their world. Conversely I find that southern audiences do not respond enthusiastically to northern subjects as it is out of their terms of reference. This is all very nice and the experience is invaluable, but what about me and my singular artistic bent? Will I ever have an exhibition of things that move me…

Marion Miliken The Wet Higer Res


Andree –

When I am travelling I am easily overwhelmed and distracted by the novelty of exotic locations and the sheer excitement of being there, so I tend to rush things. I am learning, gradually, to slow down and observe before photographing, giving myself a chance to see the possibilities and decide what to include in the frame. The challenge is doing all this fast enough to catch the moment. Constant practice is the answer, I think, along with better preparation (location research, thinking about possible approaches, choosing the right camera/lens combinations for the situation etc.) I’m working on that!
I am currently doing a Personal Photography Project course at PhotoAccess, though I don’t yet have a clear idea of where I am going with that. It’s taking time to find the right project to focus on. Meanwhile I am experimenting, trying to photograph every day and challenging myself by shooting in black and white. It’s a real challenge because I love colour and it’s a long time since I did any black and white work. It’s amazing how different a scene looks when the colour is taken away – it’s all about shapes and tones, something colour tends to disguise, so learning to see that way will be well worth the effort. I’m also enjoying printing some black and white work, experimenting with papers and printing profiles, which make quite a difference to the finished work.

Helen –

I photograph whatever is around when I am travelling. I take gear specific for the situation – long lens and tripod/gimbal head or bean bags (if car bound) for wildlife; wide angle lenses and tripod for landscape. But when I am in the field I shoot as prolifically as I can thinking about the light and about how I will approach the image in post processing. I bracket shots (for both focus and exposure stacking) and take shots for panoramas to give me options later. I find the challenge and the skill is then looking for what is worth processing and what works together when I get back. When shooting I am also always thinking about series. “This should be great – how can I complement this shot with something else to build a series”. I have a few “topics” I keep in mind – “Bird’s eye view” (close-ups of eyes); “Women working;” so if I see an opportunity to build these series I take it. Recently I have been trying to post regularly to Instagram/Facebook and have found this a useful discipline. I am looking at a lot of my photos with fresh eyes and re-working them to work in monochrome and a square format. Some photos I have never worked up before but they call to me when I am looking for what to post next. I am also looking for images that will work as photogravure, which I want to get into in a more serious way. I used to do a lot of etching and did a couple of prints last year in a studio in Victoria. I like creating a print by hand and the tactile qualities of the hand-made print as well as the glorious range of blacks. I am like Marion in that sometimes I get saturated with travel photography and just want to photograph what I want – flowers and objects: hence the vase of roses in my instagram series (see @imagecapital and the Feb comp night). This image took me the whole day by the time I had picked and arranged the flowers and setting, captured and processed the image. I am happy with it but not sure what to do next. Always looking.

Judy –

I go out looking for specific things. For example, I looked for yellow things while shooting for my most recent “Urban yellow” series. However, I also photograph anything interesting that catches my eye on the way past. I have worked extensively with my collections of objects but not so much recently. I keep revisiting my old series and favourites (such as Lake George) looking for new connections and interpretations.



2 comments on “How to generate photographic ideas: A discussion

  1. Murray Foote says:

    For me, with live music, I’ve been doing it for so long I don’t need to think much about it in advance. With travelling, part of the process involves researching where I am going including history and ecology, sometimes looking at other people’s images. That helps give me an idea of what I might be looking for and I have different ideas to explore and different technical issues to consider with each trip.


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