Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I'm currently working to finish my thesis, which is pretty all-consuming. I've made almost no photos of note in many weeks. This makes me sad.

To generalize, given the following constraints:

  • A very limited daily time budget for photography (say, 15 minutes on average including post-processing and publishing).
  • Restricted to familiar locations (e.g. home, work, commuting).
  • When out and about, in a hurry (for me, bike commuting) and at times of day with no-so-great lighting (10am, noon, 5-7pm - sunset is after 8:30).

What suggestions for staying photographically inspired and productive do you have? I realize that I'm obviously not going to have high output during this type of period, but I'd like for it to not be essentially zero.

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8 Answers 8

You could try building a portrait of the house / flat / apartment where you live. Imagine you are going to be leaving it at the end of the time you have to complete your thesis. Then build a portfolio of images you can publish in book form (Blurb or whatever) so you won't forget the character and charm (or otherwise!) of where you are staying now.

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Would it be possible to "save up" a couple of those 15 minutes slots and get a single one hour slot per week? I find it hard to get into the right mindset for photography in such a short period of time.

For me, the best way to get inspired is to put on my headphones and just walk around for an hour or so and take pictures. I usually listen to Sigur Ros because I find that music with lyrics that I can't understand helps me to focus, but obviously whatever you like is good. For the first 15 minutes or so the shots are usually pretty bad. But, then I start to mellow out and see things better. Clearly if you can do this when the light is good, that helps, but it's definitely not necessary.

After taking a couple of hundred shots in an hour, I process the ones that I like when I can find a spare few minutes throughout the week. Sometimes it's a good break from work or whatever else I have to get done.

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I would suggest creating a multi-day schedule of events that can be repeated for different subjects. I don't think 15 minutes per day is worth running around looking for something to shoot. You'd get much more value if you divided the process into segments (one segment = one day = 15m). Possibly something like this:

  • Segment 1 - Research a subject - Browse online photo galleries for interesting ways to shoot subjects found near home/work. (plants, pets, kids, cars, house, etc)
  • Segments 2-4 - Shoot the subject(s) trying to recreate or innovate on some of the interesting techniques you found during Segment 1.
  • Segment 5 - Post-process & publish. Do a gallery review for the subject and choose your favorite(s). Do a quick exposure & white balance adjustment (assuming RAW) and simple alterations like cropping and get your shots published so you can start getting feedback.
  • Segments 6-7 - Consume feedback on your published images. Compare/contrast to original research. Pick a new subject for next week.
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Maybe allow a little longer for your bike commute, so each day you can stop at one point, take a photo or three and then carry on. You could document the route by making the point you stop at a little further on each day until you have a photo essay of your commuting route.

And of course the old adage of just always carrying a camera with you.

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Due to your limited time budget, you probably don’t want to do shoots that have high setup time, like studio work or landscape (where so much depends on waiting for the right weather and right natural light). Perhaps you could use one of your activity as the content of your photograph, like a documentary of the people that you see on your commute, or houses in your neighborhood, or one of your family/friends. This would be kind of like what William Eggleston did, he turned the viewer’s eye to the beauty in ordinary subject matter.
When I was working in New York, I also had the same problem, then I start taking photos of the subway during my commute. After awhile, patterns in the demographics of the commuter at different stations start emerging. So I was able to show a bigger picture about the different areas of new York as reflected by the commuters without leaving the subway. I think the key is to keep your eyes open and be observant of your surroundings. Depends on your project, you might want to have one longer shoot and processing time, rather than shoot every day, so that you have sufficient time to context-switch and get into your subjects.

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Photographers often use different kinds of limitations to help their creativity. If your time is limited, you might be able to use that to your advantage.

You could for example decide that you have to take a picture within 60 seconds. Rush out and look for something to photograph (while trying not to look too demented ;), and if you can't find anything within the minute, just take a snap of anything.

Or perhaps stand still in one spot and take a picture within the minute. I have tried this (but without the time limit), and there are plenty of photos to be taken pretty much anywhere.

Maybe this will produce some usable photos, maybe not, but it should at least help you to get in the mood quickly.

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I'm in the middle of a 365 project and it can be tough to come up with something, anything, to keep it going. Fortunately, I never promised that the picture would be good, just that there would be one. That, I think, is the secret. If nothing else, point your camera in a direction and press the release and, from time to time, you will discover that you took a gem. You'd be surprised at what is interesting in the things around us that we take for granted.

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You may want to try different ways to get into the mood:

  • You can try taking a shot at the exact time everyday. This will force you to prepare for the shot wherever you are and will let you find new subjects without too much effort.

  • If you have regular habits, you can try taking a shot at the same location or of the same subject for many days on a row. This will force you to think creatively about the subject and discover its subtleties along the time you dedicate to it.

  • You could use the ROYGBIV rule for example and focus on a color at time. This will make you take notice on the "color of the day" and probably find nice subjects with it.

  • You may use a pre-defined sequence of themes like People-City-Colors-Abstract-Water-etc and dedicate each shot to one of these themes in order.

Notice that all these approaches intentionally take part of your freedom in order to make you get more focused on a specific aspect of the shot. When under such time constraints, too many options are not the best way to go.

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