The Personal Project: Why and How

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– by Cliff Lawson, M. Photog.Cr., CPP

Way back in 2003 I attended a Nikon School when it came to Denver. It was a good class with lots of good information, but one thing that really stuck with me was the instructor’s encouragement to have an ongoing personal project. Something that is always available to pursue.

Over the intervening years I thought about it, but I could never come up with a theme that really “spoke” to me. Nothing I knew would hold my interest over the long-haul.

So fast-forward 13 years. January of 2017. I went to a funeral. It changed everything.

Cliff Lawson Photography

I am a Vietnam veteran. I belong to two organizations composed of veterans. One is Vietnam Helicopter Pilots and the other is composed of both veteran and active duty military pilots. It was a member of the latter group whose funeral I attended.

His photo on the funeral program was…well… it was not great. Obviously cut from a larger image and we could see the arm of someone who was next to him and there was a lamp growing out of his shoulder. It was clear that when the family needed a relatively recent NICE image, they did not have one.

So I thought, I can fix this! That was the inspiration for my personal project. I was going to make professional-quality portraits of veterans. Whether WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq…did not matter.

Cliff Lawson Photography

At the subsequent monthly meetings of the groups, I made my “pitch.” The reception was mixed. Some seemed to like the idea and others—the majority—were somewhere between lukewarm and cool to the idea. The common reaction was, “Ah, who’d want a picture of an old guy like me?” Well…how about your family?

What turned them around was seeing the images from the first few brave souls who took a chance. They realized these were anything but run-of-the-mill snapshots. At this point—early 2019—I have photographed 50 veterans. They span service from 1942 up through the Iraq war and include all branches except the Coast Guard. I have been through most of the organizations to which I belong and now most of the vets come by way of referrals.

Cliff Lawson Photography

For their participation in the project, they get two 11×14 prints. In many cases they pick one standard portrait and one composite — a head and shoulder shot along with the aircraft they flew and their awards/ribbons. If they do want additional prints for family, I do charge a greatly reduced price to cover printing costs. I do not do this as a profit-making project, but I don’t want it to cost me more than the travel and studio rental costs required to produce the two free images.

So that is the story — the “why.” Let’s talk about the photography part. The part the geeks want to know!

The value of a personal project is that we are free to experiment with lighting techniques, lens use, background choices, posing options, post-processing techniques, and on and on. The whole purpose of a project is to be creative and not worry about having to please anyone but yourself. My subjects get free portraits, but they are the portraits that I decide they get. I get to PLAY. They get free stuff.

Over the two years that I have been doing this, I have kept the same GENERAL look, but I have changed lighting, backgrounds, retouching/processing, posing, etc. The images from the last 6 months have a definite different “feel” than those from the first 6 months even though one can tell all are part of the same theme.

Cliff Lawson Photography

My general setup is four strobes and a 4×6 reflector. Lately I have dropped #4 and used just three lights and the reflector. The one I dropped was a 4×6 used as an accent camera-left and also to put some light on the background. I have included a BTS image showing one setup. You will also see the current PPC president, Cory Zentner beside me as he has often been my assistant on these sessions. That photo by Phil Blighton, another assistant.

The main light is camera-left and is either a 3×4 softbox or a 60” Photek Softlighter. The hairlight is a 12×36 gridded strip. A kicker camera right and slightly behind the subject is another 12×36 gridded strip. Opposite the main light is a 4×6 Larsen silver or white reflector. I usually use the sliver side on men. When guys wear hats, I might put a white reflector below the face to fill in under the hat…or maybe just lower the light.

The strobes are Paul Buff Einsteins triggered by either the Buff triggers or the Einstein-specific Pocket Wizards so I can control each light from the camera. I do use a flash meter to set the output initially, and after that adjust by eyeball to suit the subject. I shoot tethered to my Macbook running Capture One. That software is a far more reliable and faster option than Lightroom. This allows me to see nuances in small lighting changes much better than the LCD on the camera.

Cliff Lawson Photography

The backgrounds now are all digital backgrounds I made by combining multiple textures. I extract the subjects from the background using either Photoshop™ or Topaz Remask™. I then drag one of my backgrounds in to the image and by varying the blend modes, opacity, and the HSL sliders, get the background I want for that image. As you can see by one of the samples, I made an abstract version of an American flag in Photoshop™ and will often blend that into the background.

The camera is either a Nikon D850 or D810 and lens is either the 70-200 f/2.8 or the 105mm f/1.4E. I meter to shoot at ISO of 100 or 200 and f/8.0.

So give some thought to developing a personal project of your own. Ideally it should be something you can pursue any time you wish. One problem with my project is finding subjects and the logistics of arranging time and place. (I usually rent a studio.) A project you can photograph any time you want would have advantages.

A personal project can help fire up your creativity, keep you engaged during a slow season for your business, encourage practice and experimentation, and will almost certainly improve your photography skills no matter what you usually photograph. Oh yeah…there is no pressure. Go play.

Cliff is a Master Photographer, Photographic Craftsman, Certified Professional Photographer, CPP Liaison and a PPA and PPC member. He has been in business since 2004 and is located in Parker. His main business is high school seniors, families, and corporate headshots.

See the feature of Cliff on 9News