A photographer’s creativity, vision, and tenacity make one succeed while others struggle. And self-assigned projects are the perfect opportunity to develop and hone these qualities. Self-assigned projects also offer photographers the chance to explore and develop their skills in a specialty that they are looking to break into. This is even more relevant in the age of Instagram, which can be as important as a photographer’s portfolio website. Posting images from self-assigned projects can not only show a photographer’s skills but also let their personality shine through.

Table of Contents

This image is the result of a self-assigned project by Keith Fearnow that involved Keith setting up a giant trampoline in the desert.

Why Do Self-Assigned Projects?

No matter where you are on the career ladder, making time for self-assigned projects can help advance your career and keep your passion for the medium alive. Marianna Glasser, founder of the acclaimed BEATs agency says,

Salt Lake City-based adventure and fashion photographer, Keith Fearnow, agrees. He says,

This is another image from Keith Fearnow’s self-assigned project that directly landed him work from a new client.

But Keith’s latest self-assigned project also directly led to more work. He says,

Similarly, Lewisville, Texas-based commercial photographer Jami Clayman uses self-assigned projects to develop her signature style. She says,

Break Into New Fields with Self-Assigned Projects

Self-assigned projects allow you to gain experience and show what you can do. Brooklyn, New York-based portrait photographer Matt Carr, says,

What does a portrait photographer do during lockdown? Matt Carr embarked on an experiment, remotely art-directing portraits from home with stunning results, like this photo.

Keep Your Social Media Feed Fresh

Instagram increasingly serves as a portfolio and exhibition space, as well as a place to network, find clients, and sell photos. Self-assigned projects are perfect for reminding clients of your skills and creative vision. Showcasing your self-assigned projects on your social media feeds has many benefits. It offers a near-constant (and unrestricted) stream of content for your feed, helps build trust in your photography skills with potential clients, explores and develops your personal brand, and shows a personal side to your work that many people can connect with.

Expressing Your Passions and Growing as a Photographer

Doing self-assigned projects also helps develop and expand your skills and experience, ultimately making you a better photographer. But most photographers choose this career path because they just love photography. So they find themselves taking photos whenever they can. For example, when the lockdown happened, Matt decided to do a portrait project by art directing shoots via video call.

This is another shot from Matt’s lockdown portrait project, which allowed him to push his creative boundaries as well as develop his photoshop skills.

For his self-assigned lock-down project, which consisted of remotely directed portrait shoots, Matt instructed his sitters on what makes a striking photo as well as how to set up lights, via text messages and video calls

Raise Awareness About an Issue You’re Passionate About 

Marianna also notes that some photographers find great satisfaction in using their photography to make the world a better place.

In addition to being a tool for advocacy, photography can be a window into ways of life across different geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. It offers the public an opportunity to recognize different realities and reflect on them. London-based photographer Jon Enoch’s self-assigned projects frequently compel us to do so. Most recently, he photographed the cotton candy sellers of Mumbai after the pandemic restrictions were lifted. Despite a sweet appearance as its facade, the story had unsavory undertones. The country is grappling with a growing obesity and dental hygiene crisis, largely plaguing its impoverished communities. 

A cotton candy seller in Mumbai photographed by Jon Enoch as part of “The Candy Men.”

Finding a Self-Assigned Project Idea 

Photographers have the unique privilege that their professional training consists of doing something they feel passionate about. From bringing attention to environmental issues like Cyril Schirmbeck to pursuing creative ideas like Jami who uses self-assigned projects to develop her signature style. Jami says,

Jami Clayman set up this shot in her front garden with a cable as part of a self-assigned lock-down project.

Her advice?

Follow the Path of Curiosity

So, where do these “crazy ideas” come from? Usually, it’s a case of noticing what you’re most curious about and running with it. When Miami-based photographer Mary Beth Koeth got the idea for Off-Season Santas, she was simply scrolling through social media. 

A photo from Off-Season Santas, an ongoing series by Mary Beth Koeth exploring the lives of Santa Clauses outside the Christmas season.

Study Any Markets You Want to Break Into 

Do your research and see what’s new in that area and what other photographers and clients are doing. Try and spot trends and then set your own assignment to create a fresh portfolio. Put yourself in the shoes of a client. What would impress you?

Kindle Your Creativity with Self-Assigned Projects

It’s great if personal project ideas come to you easily, but if not, there are some tried and tested ways to get creative. Often it’s about creating some space, free of disruption, and being observant and open to the world around you. Julia Cameron pioneered the idea of an ‘Artist’s Date’ in her book “The Artist’s Way“. She suggests taking yourself on a creative date once a week. The date should be fun and, most crucially for it to work, you need to do it alone.

To find people for his self-assigned project, Matt Carr turned to his own contacts as well as to Instagram, which is turning into an increasingly important source of contact, inspiration as well as a platform for photographers.

Make the Most of Self-Assigned Projects

Many photographers have a section on their website for self-assigned projects, but to make the most of them, you need to go beyond your URL. Marianna says,

Make sure that your work is noticed. Whether that be on your website, on your social media, or, if you are a Wonderful Machine member photographer, on our Unpublished page.

Sell to a Publication

Do you think your work might be of interest to a magazine or newspaper supplement? Research publications that feature similar projects. Send a brief pitch, introducing your project and why you think it would work well in a certain section. It’s crucial that you are familiar with the publication and send an email to the relevant editor.

Mary Beth Koeth has had considerable success pitching her self-assigned projects. Off-Season Santas was picked up by websites like HuffPost before making the rounds on several other platforms. Porn Moms, about women in the adult industry balancing work and motherhood, received attention as well, starting with the British Journal of Photography. In both instances, her outreach efforts began with emails. After the first set of media coverage, the attention snowballed and more outlets came knocking. Mary Beth put it best herself. 

Mary Beth Koeth’s project “Porn Moms” was featured in several publications, including the British Journal of Photography and Refinery29.

In these instances, some publications will pay a fee to carry the story while others will not. Usually, those in print are more likely to pull out the wallet compared to their digital counterparts, but it’s worth considering the reach of those websites before discarding them as options. For Mary Beth, it was also critical that the publications respect the perspective and intentions of her photo essay.  

Jami Clayman uses self-assigned projects to develop and communicate her style to clients.

Enter Exhibits

This could be a museum, commercial gallery, or local community center. Seeing your pictures on the wall can be hugely satisfying and may get your work noticed.

Enter Photo Contests

Photo contests can also amplify your self-assigned project’s success. Jon garnered critical acclaim for his work on Bikes of Hanoi, documenting the city’s deliverymen who transport staggering quantities of goods on their tiny mopeds. He was shortlisted for several awards and received top honors at some as well, including the Smithsonian Grand Prize, the Lens Culture Portrait Award, and the Portraits of Humanity Award.

An image from Jon Enoch’s self-assigned project “Bikes of Hanoi.”

Winning an award or getting close to it generates a plethora of benefits. Some awards are accompanied by a financial prize, making them an additional revenue stream for your photography business – though it may not be as regular, consistent, or sizable. Secondly, the publicity alone can lead to your next commercial or editorial assignment, especially if a potential client finds your aesthetic suitable for their next project.

Boost Your Social Media Feed

More and more clients look to Instagram to find new talent and book photographers, so posting fresh content will remind existing clients of your work and help you get noticed. 

Selling Stock Photography or Prints

If you think your images have broad appeal, you could try and sell your stock to an established photo library, such as Getty or Shutterstock. Or go it alone and try and sell them as stock or prints through platforms such as 500pxTwenty20, or Foap.

Self-assigned projects are an opportunity for photographers to have fun and rekindle their love for photography, as well as get ahead, as Keith Fearnow did with this project when he invited three trail-running friends to do a photo shoot in the desert.

Self-assigned projects connect photographers with the passion for the medium that made them choose this challenging and exciting career. And to do that can be as easy as to “get out there and start photographing”, which is Matt’s advice.

Further Reading
Guide: Unpublished
Expert Advice: Transitioning From Retail to Commercial Photography
aPhotoEditor: Personal Projects

Interested in doing a self-portraiture project? Find out more here!


  • Wonderful Machine

    To bring a new voice, a valuable perspective, and great advice for all photographers, we have teamed up with the fine folks at Wonderful Machine. They share a lot of great content and offer amazing resources for professional photographers, and this blog post is only one of many!