The Mill on the Post
Getting a Rocket

How to Start a Photo Project

Social Distancing Project 02From The Distance Project 1. Note how the dog walker takes a wide berth from my subject. There's two metres between the main subject, and the left hand side of the frame. This could have been taken with almost any camera, but I used the K3 and 16-50mm zoom lens.

What to Do?

It’s been over three and a half months since I started The Distance Project, and it's going well. If you want to start on your own photo project, you need just two things: a camera, and a clear idea of what you want to do. Perhaps you want to document a year in the life of your garden, or of your grandparents.

Any camera at all can be used. What sort of camera it is might make a difference to what you can photograph, but the vast majority of pictures in this project could have been taken on almost anything.

So first I’ll talk about the idea.

The idea for the Distance Project is this: to photograph what people are doing differently, because of the lockdown.

That’s it. A simple, concise explanation, which I’ve told to many of my subjects when I’ve asked to take their picture. Few refuse.

Once I had decided to start the project, it took me a few days to come up with those words. But once I had them, not only was it clear in my own mind, but I could clearly explain it to other people.

I was ready to begin. Every photo I took from then on, I knew what I was trying to show. This meant I made decisions about the photo as I was taking it.

One very early shot, perhaps the second or third person I photographed, stood on the path and looked not at the camera, but past it. A woman with a dog came from behind him, and because he was there, changed course and walked by on the grass, on the furthest side of the path. 

I took the photo as the dog walker went by, because her actions were just what I was trying to show. If I hadn’t previously got that clear explanation in my mind, I might have waited until the runner had passed; a powerful photograph would have been missed.

Social Distancing Project 120From The Distance Project 13. These two boys insisted on having their photo taken with masks removed, so they could show me what they looked like when they pulled their funny faces. I used the Sony A6000; this shot was posed but most of my shots that day were candids. I could have used almost any camera for this photo.

How To Do It

What to photograph and how to photograph it had come to me at the same moment, when I had seen some very good studio shots taken in a horizontal format, with lots of space either side of the model.

Yes! I could photograph people out doing their officially sanctioned daily exercise, all keeping at least two metres apart (all we were allowed back then) and photograph them with a good two metres between them and the edge of the frame, each side.

And every shot would be taken in the horizontal, ‘landscape’ format, because it’s the horizontal distance that has been made so important in fighting against this disease.

So, what do you want to show, how are you going to show it? Once you have that clear in your mind, you are ready to begin.

What to Use?

As I said, you can use any camera. It doesn’t have to be the latest high definition wonder; you can use an old digital camera (some of the project shots were taken with a 2008 model) or a film camera. Many mobile phone cameras are good enough.

You could get an old box camera and use it for a family photo project; just what it was designed for. They do not take very detailed photos; it doesn’t matter

because a good photo doesn’t have to be pin sharp, it just has to be sharp enough. A photo might be pin sharp, but that doesn’t mean it is any good.

Don’t think that because you haven’t quite got the equipment you need, you shouldn’t begin your project. Use what you have, start now. If you don’t, things will change and you’ll have missed your chance.

Pentax K20D  77mm f:1.8This twelve year old K20D camera is showing its age, but still takes nice photos. I’ll sometimes use it as a second camera with the 77mm lens you see here, so I do not miss shots while changing lenses.

Another advantage of using what you’ve got is that you are used to it. You know how to work it, and what it can do.

This is why I don’t change cameras very often, but now I’ll tell about the cameras I’ve been using for this project, and how I got them.

Most of the photos were taken with a Pentax K3. I bought one of the last three in the shop when the K3 was replaced by the Mk ii version in early 2017. This is a good way to get a bargain, if you time it right.

A couple of years later, the Mk ii was replaced by the Pentax KP, still on sale. Pentax were due to bring out another camera this summer, but the pandemic put paid to that idea. Nobody outside Pentax knows when it will be on sale yet. We don’t yet know if it’s a replacement for the KP, or will be a higher spec model to run alongside it in the range.

(Edited September 2021)
The new Pentax K3 iii is indeed a higher spec model. It has better low light capability and autofocus, and a bigger, brighter viewfinder. Some say it's the best DSLR in this image size (APS-C) ever made.

The lens I used on the K3 is the Pentax 16-50mm f/2.8. It’s a big, heavy, but capable lens that I bought with my old Pentax K20D in 2008. Pentax are bringing out an all new version, but we don’t yet know when; it’s another item delayed by the pandemic.

Some of the photos were taken with my old, battered and abused K20D and the Pentax 77mm f/1.8 lens. This lens is a little piece of magic; it takes lovely portrait photos.

Pentax K3 and Sony A6000  both with 16-50mm lensesThe K3 and 16-50mm lens, with the Sony A6000 and 16-50mm lens. While the Sony is light, discreet, and compact, the Pentax, while not huge, triumphs in its handling and low light abilities.

When I needed to take discreet candid shots or was doing something other than photography but wanted to carry a camera anyway, I took my Sony A6000 camera with the lens it most often seems to be sold with, a 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom.

It’s the same zoom range as the big Pentax zoom but doesn’t have nearly such good light gathering power. But this set up is cheaper and it’s fairly light and compact.

The A6000 was announced in 2014, and was underpriced to sell. The price has stayed much the same ever since. I bought mine used but they are about £500 new; a bargain.

Pentax make an 18-50mm f/4-5.6, very similar to the Sony lens. Either this or the Sony lens could have been used for nearly all the photos that I used the big Pentax 16-50 for. It’s only the shots taken in very low light that would have been more difficult. But hey, I could hardly see what I was photographing, it was so dark…

Social Distancing Project 35From The Distance Project 3. Taken on VE Day evening, the residents of a cul-de-sac in Milton Keynes had gathered to sing Vera Lynn songs. By this time, the K3 and 16-50 lens were still taking photos when I couldn’t see the subject any more.

Going Used

If you haven’t got a suitable camera of any description, there’s always the secondhand market. I could have taken most of the project photos with my old 2007 Canon G9, which I picked up as a used bargain a year or so ago.

I really wish I hadn’t dropped and broken it.

There are a few used Canon G9s on Amazon and the ones on there now are on sale for £139. I took mine on holiday and it did all I asked of it. There are also plenty of used cameras on the internet from reputable shops like Ffordes, SRS, and MBP.

As you can see, you don’t need the latest and greatest, you just need to get out there taking photos.

Edited: I nearly forgot!

This Saturday, the 22nd of August, is Street Photography Day. The French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is perhaps our most famous street photographer, and the 22nd would have been his 112th birthday. Why don't you go out and take some photos in your local streets? Let me know how you get on!

And if you use a smartphone as your camera, you should be able to take candid photos quite easily, since who takes any notice of somebody with a phone?

Thanks To Mike Johnson for the heads up. There's more about Street Photography Day on his excellent blog, The Online Photographer.

Just to let you know, many of the links in this post take you to products on Amazon. It costs you nothing, but I earn a small percentage from every sale that came via this blog.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please leave a comment below.
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