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As your photography skills develop it’s good practice to start thinking of your photos as a body of work.
There are several ways this approach benefits you:
- It makes the presentation of your work, whether that’s on Instagram, a portfolio website or in a photo book, stronger when all the photos work together.
- It makes you look like a better, more accomplished photographer.
- Your work is more likely to get attention and, if that’s your goal, catch the eye of people who might like to use it.
- It helps inform your future photography by giving you ideas for future themes you can follow and projects you can engage in.
- You’ll find out what types of photography interest you the most and what you want to learn more about.
- Your research (for new projects or photography techniques) will get more specific as you figure out what you’d like to experiment with.
- You’ll discover the work of other photographers working in similar areas.
What is a body of work?
If you’re new to this way of thinking then it’s going to require a shift in the way that you think about your photography. It helps to think about the kind of things that you want to show when putting a body of work together. Here are some ideas.
A clear artist’s vision that other people can see. This is one of those things that’s often hard to define, but you know it when you see it. You can immediately tell the difference between say, a Steve McCurry photo and Michael Kenna photo because their artistic vision is so far apart.
That you’re capable of putting together a set of images linked by a theme or project that look like they belong together. This is about your editing skills (as in choosing which photos to include) as well as the technical and creative skills needed make the images and the visual aesthetic (see next point).
That you can create a set of photos with a similar visual aesthetic or treatment. This refers to things like composition techniques (for example, the way you use color or tonal contrast), the way you use light and your developing skills. It doesn’t matter which software you use, the important thing is that your photos look like they belong together.
That you can explore a subject and produce a set of photos showing variety and a good range of technical skills. This requires the discipline to try different things and techniques, and the skill to bring it all together in a cohesive way.
How to find bodies of work
That may sound daunting. But it’s easier than it sounds. Here are a couple of points to bear in mind as you start to look at your photos in this new way.
This isn’t about finding your best or favorite photos. This is about finding groups of photos that work together.
Don’t use broad terms like landscape, portrait or place names (i.e. photos made in the same location) to group your photos. Be more specific or think in terms of theme.
For example, instead of portraits, you might focus on a more specific theme like black and white portraits of people who live in your neighborhood.
Rather than landscapes, you might explore a theme like ruined buildings in the landscape. In both cases you’re exploring a tighter, more specific idea.
Patience and curiosity
Building a body of work requires both patience and curiosity. You need to think about your photography related goals (it might help to write them down) and make plans. This helps you act purposefully and gives you encouragement as you start to see the results.
A good approach is to make the effort to learn new skills and techniques, but do it gradually. Let your work evolve, rather than jumping around from one thing to another without direction.
Finding your voice
Another aspect of building a body of work is finding your voice.
- What is it you want your photos to say?
- What makes your work yours, not somebody else’s?
- What themes do your photos explore?
- How do you use color, light, tone and composition?
These are all aspects of finding your voice as a photographer.
Ultimately, a body of work helps define you as a photographer. Finding your voice is part of that process.
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Finding ideas and themes to explore
If you’re at the beginning of your journey it’s worth spending some time looking through older photos to see what ideas and themes emerge. It’s something I suggest you do at the end of the year, but you can do it at any time.
A good way to do it is to identify your ten favorite or best photos from each year. You’ll see the changes in your work and hopefully some kind of evolution.
You can also look back at those photos to see if you can spot patterns you weren’t aware of, interesting subjects you may have forgotten about, new ways to shoot familiar subjects, or something completely new that continues to explore an idea or theme that you’ve worked on before.
If you’re struggling to think of ideas to move forward with then how about setting yourself some creative assignments? Looking at the work of other photographers should spark some ideas. So will my ebook The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments.
Multiple bodies of work
Finally, it helps if you think of your photos as multiple bodies of work. If you’re anything like me then you’ve photographed a lot of things and jumped around from one subject to another. As a result I have thousands of unrelated images that don’t go together.
The easiest way to make sense of it is to break your photos down into the strongest themes and projects.
For example, recently I went back through my photos of craftspeople. It was an interesting exercise. I found photos that I’d previously overlooked as individual images but that belong to a considered body of work that tells a story.
I redeveloped the photos in a gritty black and white style to bring out the interesting textures and tones. It also means they work together as a whole. I’ve used those photos to illustrate this article.
If you find the ideas in this article interesting you can explore them further by reading the articles linked below.