In this month’s solo show Bart gives a detailed answer to a question friend of the show Antonio Rosario posed on episode 209 of the Shutter Time podcast — do you shoot photographic projects? The short answer is ‘yes’, but there’s much more to it than that!
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In Episode 209 of Shutter Time Antonio & Mac discussed shooting photos as part of series or larger project. At one point Antonio mused that judging by my Flickr stream I was probably an example of someone who did project work. Then he just straight up called me out and asked me if he was right. The very short answer is yes, but there’s more to it than that!
What is a Project?
My best attempt at a definition would be:
A planned collection of related images shot over an extended period of time designed to be more than the sum of its parts.
I don’t think you can project backwards and find a theme within your body of work and then call that a project. Projects involve a lot of preparation and planning, and knowing that an image is going to be a brick in a wall rather than a free-standing statue really changes how I approach a subject.
To me a project has the following distinct stages:
- editing (as in editorial, not as in photoshopping)
A project doesn’t always go through the stages linearly, you can go from planning to shooting to processing back to more planning and shooting and so on, but you can’t really plan without having done your research, you can’t really shoot without having done some planning, you obviously can’t process photos you haven’t shot yet, and you equally can’t pick and choose the best out of a collection of non-existent photos!
Types of Project
My definition of a project is very broad, it leaves room for many different kinds of projects. Some are very clearly defined like my changing of the seasons diptych. Others are completely open-ended like my on-going project to capture life along the Royal Canal.
Many of my projects are triggered by the fact that I have what I call a Pokémon personality, I gotta catch ’em all!
When I became interested in butterflies I spent hundreds of hours over multiple years trying to capture a male and a female of every kind of butterfly native to the east of Ireland.
Then I got interested in wild flowers so I spent hundreds of hours seeking out as many different habitats as I could find within cycling distance and visiting them at many different times of the year to try capture as wide a variety of wild flowers in bloom as I could.
The starting point is often my nerdy curiosity. I love trains, and always have. I love learning about how they were designed, how signalling works, how all the different types of loco differ, and so on. That passion inspired me to first try get a photo of every type of train in Ireland and Belgium, and then, to re-think and switch from trying to capture trains, to trying to capture railways, and and how they interact with the world around them. So, what started as a Pokémon-style collection project morphed into a much more philosophical project. That results in moving from simple documentary shots of trains like this one of an NMBS/SNCB class AM75 EMU, to what I call railway landscapes like this one where the train is just a few pixels tall.
My most recent passion project is aviation. It all started with a blog post by a 747 pilot about way points and the unique dialect of English spoken by commercial pilots all over the planet. That spiralled into my buying aviation maps and an air-band radio receiver, and of course, spending hours and hours in and around Dublin airport trying capture and then share my new-found love of flying machines! I think this shot of an Aer Lingus jet powering its way into the sky with massive jet blasts streaming out behind it and the iconic big green Dublin Airport sign in the background is my favourite so far.
Quite a few of my smaller projects have been inspired by a desire to master a technique. I spent hours along railway lines at nigh experimenting with light trails a few years back! I think my favourite from that project is probably Racing the Moon.
Similarly, I spent hours along the track-side trying to master the pan blur. Once I was able to grab shots like this one of an Irish Rail class 22000 DMU racing towards Dublin with an InterCity service I considered the project finished, and moved on. I now had another tool in my proverbial toolkit! the technique on auto-pilot I moved on, and I can bring it to bear in any other project where it adds something to the shots, like this shot of a Ryanair 737 about to touch down in Dublin.
Another unusual inspiration for me has been fear! As a kid I was always terrified of dragon flies — they’re bloody huge, their wings make scary noises as they fly, and they look like something that’s escaped from Jurassic park! Then one day as an adult I nearly crashed my bike when one buzzed me along the canal. I decided to do some reading and find out whether they were actually dangerous, or, if I was just being irrational. I was just being irrational, so I decided to set out to photograph as many different species of them as I could find along the Royal Canal. It turns out they are actually quite beautiful, and, bloody hard to photograph! I discovered that the one that nearly scared me into the canal was a Four-spotted Chaser like this one. Learning about dragon flies led me to discover damsel flies, cue a few hundred more hours chasing those around the canal and trying to see tiny little markings to figure out what species I was shooting. That hard work really paid off when mating season came around, who knew damselflies make lovely heart shapes as they … err … make love.
On a few occasions my inspiration has been simply life. The year before last I lost both of my grand fathers within a year, and it really made me stop and think about death. My default style is strong vibrant colours and particularly lots of lush Irish greens and blues. Instead I decided to shoot contrasty monochromes of ruined cemeteries for a year. It was a complete departure from my comfort zone, and it involved a lot of research and planning to find good places to shoot, and a lot of experimentation in Lightroom afterwards to find a monochrome look that resonated with me. Because this was such a personal project I’ve shared very few images from it publicly.
Projects Change Your Photography
Hero images designed to be printed big and to stand alone are very different creatures to the individual shots that make up a well rounded project. This point really hit home to me when I was working on my monochrome cemeteries project. Closeups of carvings on headstones are not very compelling on their own, but when combined with wider angle shots the resulting whole is so much more powerful than the sum of its parts. It’s very hard to capture both the big-picture feel of a place and the subtle details and textures in one shot, but when you know you’re not trying to shoot hero images you can take the time to work a place at different focal lengths, from different distances, and from different points of view. You can also re-visit the same place at different times of the year and in different weather and light.
Projects often force you to slow down and plan. One of my projects was to capture the International Space Station flying over Ireland. I wanted to contrast the ancient nature of the Irish landscape with this modern marvel. That involved finding locations with appropriate backdrops, getting accurate predictions of the times of various apparitions, and then watching the Irish weather very closely. All astrophotography involves some planning because you can’t move the stars to where you need them to be to get your shot, but ISS passes happen in a matter of just minutes, so you really need to plan the whole shoot with military precision.
There were many trial and error shots, but in the end that entire project was about capturing one image, and to this day it’s still one of my absolute favourites — The ISS passing over the ruins of Taghadoe Church.
Project have literally defined the gear and software I buy.
Why did I choose the Sigma super-zoom over the similarly priced Tamron one? Simple, the Sigma could focus in much closer so it could do better shots of butterflies, dragon flies, damselflies and wild flowers!
Why did I buy a wide angle lens at all when most people would almost never use them? Simple, I really wanted to capture expansive sky-scapes that show the large constellations and asterisms like the Summer Triangle.
Why did I buy the lens-correction software PTLens? Because when you point a wide-angle lens upwards you get horrible key-stoning that really needs correcting if you want to show the interaction of the sky and the land like this shot of the ISS flying over a ruined church.
Projects in all their forms, large and small, well defined and fuzzy, short-lived and open-ended, inspired by passions, by emotions, or just by a desire to master a technique, are the driving force behind my photography. If you’ve never thought to shoot projects before, I hope I’ve inspired you to at least consider it!