The Way We Work


In the classroom, I encourage my students to become familiar with the way they work. Understanding our working methods and process makes it easier to navigate the ups and downs of that process. For instance, under what conditions do you work best? Do you work on multiple projects at once, or do you complete one at a time? When are you most motivated? When are you least motivated or inspired? How do you deal with hitting walls or roadblocks? Do you like to experiment, or do you prefer full control? Recognizing these repeating conditions—and how we react to them—makes us more efficient and adept at maneuvering the creative working process.

Headshot by Athena Photography.

I believe one lives on a broad spectrum in the way one photographs. On one end are the idea people: They have an idea, sketch out the details, choose props, models, locations, lighting—and execute.

On the other hand are the wanderers: They wander around making pictures of what is intriguing, beautiful, compelling, etc. On this end, if we stay true to intuition and continue to observe the images we choose to make, the photographs eventually inform us about the meaning and motivations beneath the surface. Sometimes only after months or years of working on a series of images, can we see them in their entirety and truly understand them for what they represented.

Amateur or professional, each photographer most likely runs along the spectrum with paid assignments, leisurely photo trips, book or exhibition ideas, or photography as pure play. It is important to identify where on this spectrum we most often find ourselves. Why? Firstly, to become aware and better acquainted with the methods that we enjoy or that allow us the most productivity. Secondly, to find our comfort zone, in order to step out of it, stretch our boundaries, and perhaps discover something new or unexpected about our photography in the process.

I was recently reminded of this on a two-day personal photography trip. In the past, I have been the wanderer, photographing anywhere and anything that inspired me. Since graduate school, I am more comfortable in the idea end of the continuum, and feel more motivated, focused and purposeful with a clear concept or plan in mind. However, for these two days, I was fresh out of ideas. All that was left (besides sitting idly and pouting while my friend madly photographed) was to pick up the camera and explore, experiment, and just shoot.

By the end of the first day, I was humbly reminded of the idea and value of pure PLAY. I also started thinking about the value I place on the images made from play. I might have fun shooting in my backyard or at a summer barbecue, but often I don't take those images seriously. On this scheduled two-day trip dedicated exclusively to photographing, the idea of play had seemed wasteful, non-productive, and futile.

But why shouldn't spontaneous images of homemade blueberry pie be as important, portfolio-worthy or saleable as an image completely conceptualized prior to taking it?

John Muir once said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." I believe every photograph we make is inherently hitched to all the others, to us as individuals, and—quite frankly—to how we live our lives. Maybe that simple photograph of blueberry pie, or light coming through a curtain, is part of the bigger picture, leading us to the next idea, project or way or working. Maybe it spawns some ideas for materials or presentation later. Maybe there is just a tiny, initially unrecognizable part that will hint at something to come.

Although the importance of understanding the way we work is crucial to maintaining motivation for that work, it is equally essential to break out of our usual and expected ways and diversify the way we move through our photographic process. Who knows what interesting photographs might emerge, what ideas might arise, and perhaps what it might teach us about ourselves in the process?

Here are a few suggestions for how to move along the spectrum to a varied way of working:

If you are someone who desperately needs ideas to proceed, try a day of shooting for pure fun. Or throw on a fixed 50mm lens once a week, and record the day as creatively as possible.


If you are a photographic wanderer, set out to complete an idea-based project. Sketch it out on paper, focus on that project, and compile it into a self-published book, or have a show in a local coffee shop. Or simply create a folder dedicated to that project, and continue to add to it over time.


An image made from a clear idea and a clear plan. ©EileenRafferty.

An image made on my trip, from pure play. ©EileenRafferty.

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Thanks Eileen.  Amen. I think about these things as I wander.  Clearly there is not one right answer.  Discovery though play is essential.  Rigid overplanning, not planning, promotes missed opportunities.


Both images are lovely.

Great article, Eileen!  As a wanderer, I've recently challenged myself to an idea-based project and have found the process of stepping outside my usual boundaries to be very rewarding.  Keep up the inspiring work!