Once you’ve thought of a good photography project idea it’s time to set yourself a brief.
A photography brief is helpful even if you’re just going out for the day making photos.
For example, a few months ago I spent a couple of hours walking around a residential neighborhood in Exeter, a city close to where I live. I used a short telephoto lens and set myself a specific photography brief:
- Work in black and white.
- Look for interesting architectural details.
- Include sun and shadow in the photos.
- Use the square format.
- Go for a simple, bold, graphic composition.
You can see some of the results below.
Briefs work because they give you a framework. They give you purpose – you know what you’re there to shoot and what your goals are.
The brief also helps you evaluate the results. Afterwards you can look at your photos and decide how well they meet the brief. You might even decide that the original idea wasn’t as good as you first thought, and refine the brief or tear it up altogether.
What is a photography brief?
Professional photographers work to briefs all the time.
A brief is a description of the photos that your client wants you to make and deliver.
For example, a magazine might ask a photographer to shoot a story about a new restaurant that’s opened in town. The person setting the brief knows that the editorial team has allocated six pages in the magazine to it. So the photographer might be asked to deliver 20 to 30 images.
They need to include photos of the exterior and the interior, the owner of the restaurant, the chefs and the food. The photographer works to the brief, makes and delivers the photos. The editorial team then selects five to 10 images to use.
One of the advantages that professional photographers have is that they work with clients who set them briefs. As hobbyists, we don’t have that. But we can create it by writing our own briefs.
How to set yourself a photography brief
Setting yourself a brief is another way of coming up with ideas for photography. You’ll find it much easier if you keep a swipe file.
What is a swipe file?
Let’s say you have a folder on your computer where you save any interesting photos that you find. This is known as a swipe file because you’re swiping other people’s photos (and ideas). You’re not going to copy those photos, but use them to inspire your own ideas.
What sort of things can you keep in your swipe file?
- You could save landscapes and other photos made in your local area.
- You could save interesting project ideas that other photographers have done.
- You could save photos made in places that you’d like to travel to.
You can also have a physical swipe file. For example, if you subscribe to a photography magazine you can cut out articles of interest and save them in your file. Or you might see an interesting photo story in another magazine, and keep that.
The idea of a swipe file is that it helps you remember things. Otherwise you end up forgetting the interesting photos that you’ve seen, and never get to use those ideas in your own photography.
Pinterest gives you another way of keeping a swipe file. It’s easy to use – just create a free account and install a bookmark in your browser that lets you pin photos to your boards.
When you find an interesting photo, click on the bookmark. A window pops up displaying thumbnails of the images used on that web page. Select the image you are interested in, and the board you want to pin it to.
Boards are pages within your Pinterest account that help you organize pinned photos. You can create as many boards as you want, and keep them secret so other people can’t see them.
One of the benefits of Pinterest is that it lets you organize inspirational photos in a single place that is easy to access.
In a similar way you can create collections in Instagram and save photos there.
Both Pinterest boards and Instagram collections are good ways of organizing photos that inspire you so that you can find them again.
Creating mood boards
A mood board is a collection of photos that express a certain mood or feel that you want to capture in your shoot. The name comes from the idea of physically pinning photos to a board. In the digital world it may take the form of a folder of screenshots, a Pinterest board or an Instagram collection.
It’s much easier to make a mood board if you have a swipe file of some sort.
Just like other sources of inspiration, the idea isn’t to copy somebody else’s photos, but to let them inspire you to create your own unique photos.
Write your brief
Now it’s time to write a brief. You can use your swipe file, Pinterest boards, Instagram collections and mood boards to get ideas and inspiration. Then you need to make a simple statement that summarizes what you want to achieve with your shoot.
I’ve already given you an example with the black and white photos I made in Exeter. Here’s another, simpler example. I recently made some landscape photos at a local beauty spot. Before I went, I gave myself a simple brief. I wanted to make photos that:
- Captured the beauty of the autumn colors.
- Included rocks and water.
- Used slow shutter speeds to blur the water.
Here’s the result.
Next year, I’m going to give myself a different brief, to try and make abstract photos using autumn colors to make photos more like this one (click the link to open in a new window).
Make a project statement
Let’s bring this idea back to photography projects.
Once you’ve defined a project you can make a project statement for it.
Think about what you want to do until you can come up with a simple explanation. Write a description of your aims in a single short, clear sentence. This is your project statement. A brief expands on that statement.
The project statement for my ongoing Makers project is to “make photos that show artisans at work”.
The brief is more specific. In every shoot I want to include:
- Wide photos of the artisan in their studio / workshop.
- Wide photos of the artisan at work.
- Close-ups of the artisan at work.
- Close-ups of the work the artisan is making.
- Close-ups of the artisan’s hands.
- Close-ups of the artisan’s tools.
Sticking to these six basic ideas for every artisan I photograph helps unify the project.