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Friday, 27 August 2010


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Here we go, Mike:

1 camera, 1 lens, 1 year, 1 theme! :-)

One could do worse. [g]


This is a great, great point. And it dovetails very nicely with some of the stuff you and others have written about the GF1 and using a limited set of gear. Limiting choice in all aspects of life, but especially in art and photography, can be a very good thing. We tend to think that the more freedom and choice, the better, but the opposite is often true. Too much choice can be paralyzing. Whereas a more limited approach or mindset allows you to focus and let your creativity flow more easily.

The Paradox of Choice does a good job of addressing these issues if you're interested.

And motivated too. My meager contribution: http://www.pbase.com/robert_ottawa/eateries

My most thematic set of pictures is also the one which consistently gets the best feedback from viewers. Some day perhaps I'll turn it into a book. Click the image to see the set.

Another similarity between fishing and photography: the best times of day for these activities coincide. This is one reason I no longer fish.

I would edit out the word "meager."


When I began taking pictures a couple of years ago, I disliked the idea of themes. I wanted photographs that I felt could stand on their own.
I still don't head out with the express purpose of photographing X or Y, but I now enjoy placing my finished photographs into groups that reflect a common theme. And the themes I'm discovering in my work are a constant surprise to me. The last one was decorations in shop windows. Who'd have thought?

A nice idea, Mike, and by coincidence, it crystallised something in my mind that was kicked off by your "Year with a Leica" article that you recently brought back to the front page.

I've always personalised my computer screen with a desktop picture that I took, with normally about a dozen or so that rotate on a weekly basis. Mostly, they are natively 4:3 from my old Mamiya 645, so the dimensions worked well on my old screen. Since changing to an Apple Mac however I need pictures in the 16:9 aspect, and none of my favourite ones work well.

My project - for up to a year if needs be - is 16:9. The GF1 has a 16:9 mode, so here I go!

I can´t conceive an alternate way of working photographically than by a theme. Any other way is self delusion, relying on luck by heading out of home, hoping for a couple of "masterpieces" is a sure recipe to burning out and failure. I´ve been stuck for pretty much the whole damn year and I´m in fact deceiving myself by seeking the ultimate theme, the one nobody has attempted before. When the simple answer is something easy, probably right in front of my nose very quotidian which would certainly be the answer to my woes.
....It´s amazing but suddenly right here right now I´ve finally found a theme to work on which I chance upon as being inspiring! Thanks Mike for a timely post.

Mike, I completely agree, approaching photography with a theme, or two, in mind certainly makes for a happier and more industrious photographer. This is true in my case, at least!

My most successful period (in terms of finished prints that I actually like) was a week spent in Scotland with the sole aim of photographing Scots Pine. Other themes have only emerged recently after 30 years of sporadic contribution(in the Lee Friedlander way you described above). It may take another 30 years to round these themes out but having them, and being aware of them, keeps photography fresh for me.

Cheers, John


Of all the things I've learned so far doing the Leica Year project, this lesson has been the most important. Call it a theme, a project, or even goals, they make a big difference - especially as an amateur without deadlines, bosses, or a paycheck driving them to make pictures every day.

I've been meaning to write about this topic for awhile, but you saved me the trouble and did a better job than I would have.

I have found shooting to themes to be very liberating. For years I just took random photo's of scenes that appealed to me - which was fine as I did get some nice photographs. But there wasn't any direction to my work. Then a couple of years ago I was inspired by Kertesz's book "On Reading" and started to photograph people reading. The Reading theme is an ongoing one and one that I will keep adding to for as long as I am photographing! This in turn led to other themes and currently I have around four or five different projects on the go!

Some of my themed photographs can be seen here...




"1 camera, 1 lens, 1 year, 1 theme"

I seem to be heading that way.

5Dii, 35mm/1.4, Black and White, naked women on rocks.

Spent a week in Scotland taking pictures with a model, used the 35mm lens about 95% of the time, didn't really want or need the other lens.

Using one focal length only certainly helps produce a cohesive body of work.

Dunno if you'd call it a theme, but I've been shooting blues, folk and alt-country musicians for getting on twenty years--pretty much at the same club.

I'll never get rich doing this--let's face it, while the music is good, these people will never make it on big-time commercial radio.

But doing this allows me to combine two thing I love--photography and good music.
And I'm making a record of people who deserve to be recognized for their talent and their contributions to Americna music.

Who knows....one of them may be the new Dylan someday. And I was there at the beginning...

A few months ago, a brief email exchange with a wise photographer caused me to shift my mindset from "taking pictures of whatever strikes my fancy while walking the dog" to "making a set of pictures of my hometown." I started enjoying photography a lot more, and I like to think that my pictures got better (though I still have a very long way to go).

I couldn't agree more on the value of Themes and Projects. I've floundered around taking photographs of this and that for over 30 years, but it wasn't until this year that I started working on "projects", and it's really changed my photographic life for the better. It's been great fun to have something to work towards, instead of just "this and that". I also inadvertently entered into a "one camera, one lens" theme as well. I didn't mean to, but after buying a Pentax K-7 w/ DA35Ltd lens last winter I've used it exclusively ever since. I just haven't felt a need to buy another lens yet.

As for themes, I chose two things that I love - classic cars, and New York State's Canals. 99.9% of the photos were taken with the K-7/DA35. Check them out here if you are so inclined:

Themes... My photography has ups and downs, but I was motivated once, for quite some time, by a photographic theme that appeared in the movie "Smoke". The movie has a number of people in crises - some big, but most small. The owner of a Brooklyn smoke shop has a photographic theme, which he talks about when the protagonist comes to him with his troubles. At the same time every day, he photographs his smoke shop on a corner in Brooklyn. He's done it for years. As they page through the same scene through the years, you see the subtle changes and notice the little things in life. Great movie, and the little things in life is a great theme.

Our photography group, f8 Pasadena, has found the adoption of themes to be a great way to expand our skills and get us out shooting. We meet for coffee every Saturday am, but quarterly for dinner to review the results of our efforts. Having a photo assignment often stretches us outside the limits of out comfort zone, but has always been rewarding.

Here is the result of my photo-essay, "Mr Bill Rides the Goldline!" with all pictures taken on the opening day of the Goldline Metro in Pasadena, California.


If any of you are in Pasadena, we invite you to join us for coffee!


Shooting to a theme happens naturally to photographers that display their photos on the web using sites like flica and pbase.com. I stumbled across the theme idea very much by accident when I first started posting over at pbase. In order to keep my photographs organized I had to create separate galleries. Some of my galleries inadvertently became theme assignments.

I've been working nonstop for seven years on my "Pilot's Eye View" theme. My camera comes along on every trip I work. Over the years I think I have really improved my eye and photography skills. Right now, I am working on putting together a self published book that I plan on selling to my coworkers and other flying buffs. Without the theme I would never had gotten to this level of organization. You can see my flying gallery at here

Some themes are too simple. I saw an entire book once of (black-and-white!) pictures of sunflowers. About three would have sufficed for me. Pass!

Paul Caponigro's Sunflower?. I LOVE this little book. As B&W (by which I mean the play of light captured in silver, or rather ink here) it doesn't get much better than this.

The fishing analogy works.....
trouble is, I've been fishing downstream of some REALLY good photographers....

That's what SoFoBoMo is all about -- intense focus for a short period on a theme. I've done it twice now, this year with a GF1, and it's among the best photo experiences I've had.

Struggled with this all my photographic life. What the heck am I shooting? Anything I happen upon? What's the story here? What kind of photographer am I? Can I answer that question?

Still, a few worthy pictures have appeared. Enough to satisfy my creative needs and justify the gear purchases. So I continue.

It's with some dismay I admit that I need to travel to "get me out the door". In a new location - doesn't have to be foreign - I have no trouble stepping bright-eyed into the street or the landscape, even lugging a tripod, at six in the morning. By contrast, at home I am very lethargic. My own world doesn't always speak to me. Yes, it helps to contrive a theme.

I've gone to a number of countries - what were once called third-world - on my own dime, mainly for picture taking and I would get asked back home about poverty and danger, misery and otherness. That's when I realized I WAS shooting to a theme, without even planning it. I wasn't so interested in seeking out injustice and political unrest - the media is full of that. I am drawn more to how everyday life is lived in spite of that context. Us relatively wealthy westerners would be wise to see that a rich, "normal" life actually exists in these places: citizens getting along, going about their business, having a culture, maintaining a society.

So within that notion, occasionally digressing to architectural details and lovely landscapes, I try to make good photographs, because theme or no theme, you still want your pictures to pop.

"Paul Caponigro's Sunflower?"

No. Actually, I've never seen that, although I've seen some of his sunflower pictures elsewhere. The book I'm thinking of was titled with the photographer's name, and it's nobody I've heard of since. I don't think I'd mention her name even if I could remember it, simply so as not to give offense. The backdrops in many of the pictures were plain white bedsheets, if I recall, in which you could still see creases from when they were folded.


Self-assigned theme. Look (Google) at Sune Jonsson from Sweden. His life-long theme was the life of small farmers in the north of Sweden. He knew they would soon disappear. "A fly on the wall" with so much knowledge and empathy that it gave him Hasselblad´s prize. One of the masters.

Thanks Mike for your thoughts about themes...

A long-term project is likely to determine how one shoots in general. Starting my book project, Bangkok Hysteria, about five years ago, I was shooting Tri-X with the Leica M6, but the following year shifted to of small-sensor digital cameras whose RAW files I processed in black and white. I continued doing only black and white until I finished the book project a year ago.

At that point I found myself unmoored in that, without a project, I had nothing to guide me in terms of what I was going to shoot. But the realization suddenly hit me that, without a project that determined the mode, the situation was different from shooting film, where the choice of mode depended on whether one had color or black or white in the camera.

Shooting digital, I now had to choose at the time of framing, whether I had color or black and white in mind: although some pictures can work in either mode, I found that, generally, once I reacted to the colors, and framed on the basis of color, I couldn't get myself to process the resulting picture for black and white. As Alex Webb discovered when he first visited the tropics, and gave up black and white eventually to become a mater of underexposed Kodachrome and Cibachrome prints, color in the tropics can be overwhelming — and for this reason I found myself producing only color for the last few months, an example of which is my 12-photo series, Bangkok Shophouse Demolition.

While shooting on the basis of a project can be productive in the sense that once you know what you're looking for you find pictures more easily, there is also a benefit of shooting without a fixed purpose. The latter approach can open up new possibilities that eventually can lead to new projects. It can also produce results like this Barrier series, which I put together when I found that I had a lot of pictures with fences and other obstructions in them.

From my experience, then, it seems that it can be productive to shoot projects but also to alternate this with periods when one shoots without a specific purpose. In my mind, a "theme" as referred to in Mike's article, is something more general, something between shooting a project and explorative shooting. If I were trying to formulate a theme, I would think in terms of the way Ralph Gibson's earlier books are structured, such as Days at Sea, Déjà-vu or Chiaroscuro, in which the themes are visual and poetic and difficult to express in words. My still feeble attempt at this is Scratching the Surface.

So, we have projects, themes, and general explorative shooting — I find mixing also these can be productive; but when you get in a rut...

Mike, thanks, this was an inspiring article. I have been struggling with several themes this past year and nothing has hit, but I feel better knowing that I am not alone in not finding the "perfect"theme. Eric

The most motivated I've been in ages was during 2009 (with a bit of overlap into 2008 and 2010) when I had a theme of "clandestine street photography," meaning street photography shot entirely discreetly, "from the hip." Part of the idea was to do street photography that excluded people's faces, which is a bit like making a pizza without cheese and sauce -- after all, people and their faces are a cornerstone of street photography.

But no, I had to be different. This difference was motivated partly by the fact that photographing people without their permission is technically illegal here in Quebec. (For more on that, see the About page on the photo blog I was running for this project.) But I also wanted it to be sort of organic, and to not look too purposeful. I want them to read like glimpses, not like studied compositions.

It was great to have a theme, and to investigate my own thinking into it. I realized well into the project that I had actually been laying the groundwork for it two or three years earlier, although on the surface it appeared to come to me one day, out of the blue.

This project lives entirely on the web, where it is just more noise added to the din. But I really enjoyed working on it, and I'm thinking about moving some of it off the web and into print form. However, most of the pictures are very grainy, noisy, and blurry (part of the appeal, from my POV), but that means it will be hard to make good prints.

If anyone's interested, I've compiled what I think are the best of the lot into this small gallery (where I converted them all to B&W; originally about a third were color).

Now this is a post that has resonance for me.
This summer I spent time in the south of Utah and have enjoyed and pictured the parades and county fairs of the locals. Good folk there and a joy to be amongst them. It renews my faith in the youth of today.
Hopefully my images will conway my feelings. I can see this as a long term project, not to mention it really spins my prop.

Time will tell if it pans out.


All of my life, I've been interested in a number of "themes," two of which are churches and abstracts.

However, I don't always set out with the camera specifically to do a theme -- I don't want to miss the spontaneity of unplanned opportunities!

Often, one of my "themes" will present itself without my planning. I've gone to the Anza Borrego State Park here in Southern California during the past two springs to to photograph the beautiful wildflowers. On my first trip, while spending some time in the town of Borrego Springs, I saw a sign pointing to "Church Lane." Following it, I happened on three beautiful churches:

Borrego Springs Churches

Another theme is abstractions. While travelling to the Hubbell Trading Post in Arizona, I happened on this beautiful dunes scene:


I don't think I would enjoy limiting myself to just one theme for a period of time. There is just too much out there to enjoy photographically!



Thinking in terms of a theme has helped me enormously. This summer, after sending off my M8 for a three-month clean-lube-adjust session, I went back to B&W film using an M4 and Voigtlander's 1.1 50mm, generally wide open or close to it. One picture I took -- a balloon in a crosswalk -- led me to a theme: Searching for dreamlike scenes on my 50-minute walk to and from work through Manhattan. The theme made me concentrate on and be aware of what's around me much more than when taking random shots during the same walk. Some of the results are here:
(The gallery does include three older pictures that also seem to work in the theme).

I'm not taking a lot of photos these days, but I think that if I were to jump back into "serious" photography, it would definitely be a theme type of work. Growing up in rural(ish) Virginia, I have always been fascinated at the undergrowth found along the sides of the road. It's a special type of growth, lots of creepers, youngish trees, and usually fairly dense. I have thought many times of buying another large format camera (would love to do 5x7, but it would probably be 4x5) and making a go of it. If I'm going to do it, I should do it soon, before my MS makes that decision for me...

I love that FBI/CIA shot. That's urban surreality all right.


Generally I agree. However I also think that if you have an eye, then themes will emerge from your work naturally without consciously seeking them out, and it's from this that your style will develop.

Themes are cool! Especially when you are a non-pro who does photography for your own satisfaction.
When we moved to southern California 7-1/2 years ago, I began shooting photos of the funky things you see here and posted them on a website for our friends in Boston to marvel (and often laugh) at. I'm way behind on the website (http://www.jimhayes.com/cahome/OnlyInCA.html) which only has about 100 photos on it, since the current iPhoto album has over 500! Last winter I printed a selection of photos into a small book for holiday presents.
(Mike - email me a postal address and I'll send you one for your library-it will contrast well with the art books!-JH)
Last winter it was translucent fruit and veggie cross sections on a light table for a calendar for our remodeled kitchen.
Then there is the architecture series with 13 Frank Lloyd Wright sites, FLW Jr in LA, John Lautner, Soleri, Calatrava, and more.
Come to think of it, most photos I shoot are based on a theme. It makes photography more of an intellectual -as well as artistic - challenge.

07-22-10 14
Returning to photography after 30 years I found my self shooting anything and everything. I have finally settled into street photography, recording the homeless in Arizona. This theme challenges me. Here is my blog http://boxcustom.blogspot.com/

Thematically, I've been wasting my time for years, pottering around medieval churches. Hugh's inspirational 'nude women on rocks' is the way ahead, no doubt about it. A quick question, Hugh: do you find that you often forget to bring a camera?

Themes are nice, but add the constraints of a specific number of images and a deadline to make a project based on a theme. The project provides all the joys of working in a theme but forces you to make a decision on specific images.

I haven't read through all your comments to notice if it has already been pointed out.

The book "On Being a Photographer" by Bill Jay and David Hurn discusses very well the topic of a theme and photography.

A very enlightening book, well worth the read.

"A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened."
Albert Camus

Couldn't agree more. In fact, today's post on my Photography Improvement blog (before reading TOP) was titled The Best Images are in Your Own Back Yard - with a link to a book that I just updated yesterday that follows that theme.


Only one observation - your one-year time frame for your alley is what I'd consider a bare minimum ;-)

I don't think you can really take a good picture unless you have some particular theme or subject matter in mind. The picture is only interesting if you are interested in what you are shooting, at some level.

This is why people always take better pictures on vacation, or of their kids (vs. other people's kids), and so on.

I am a fellow Paris junkie. But I would need years more practice to get really good at it.


I never went out to find a theme but fell into one (along with other people) , I'm a great believer in working with what you've got and being as I live within an hour of the Scottish Highlands and I love doing landscape photography and I think I'm good at it

Richard Howe's project is amazing and inspirational. I am always impressed that people even undertake something as monumental as that project, let alone complete it. And the work is thoroughly engrossing. Well done!


Last year I found an interesting though little morbid theme I called "Flowers of the dead":

Some more here:


I'd like to return to it soon, as late autumn is the best time for this. Would be nice to combine it with the "Leica Year" I just started. Unfortunately, my "Leica" of choice – the Samsung NX10 with 30mm/f2 pancake – isn't very good for close up. In those cases I will cheat a bit and use Sigma SD14 with 28/1.8 – same focal length, but much better macro.

Themes also have the advantage of resulting in a series (and I start calling it a series from two photos onwards). And a series (again, however small) tells much more about this particular photographer, this particular vision than a single picture, as that just might have been the product of chance. (And that's why humility always befits the photographer - but that is another matter.)

re: Richard Howe's marvellous project: the building on the south-eastern corner of 81st and West End Avenue - an Englishman abroad (viz: yours truly), lived on its 9th floor in 2000/1, clattering out his first book while the Y-chromosomeless half of the partnership got on with the sordid business of keeping the bailiffs and starvation at bay. I notice no memorial plaque to that effect, however, that might otherwise edify the passing local and his/her bespoke-suited poodle (v. common on that stretch of the Ave).

Ah, those pre-digital days. My own, far more modest take on Manhattan was recorded entirely through the taking lens of a Rolleiflex T.

I prefer not to shoot to themes but to shoot what interests me, which perhaps is why I am drawn to photographers like Elliott Erwitt and Gunnar Smolianksy (whose first monograph, covering 50 yhears of work, came out last year).

Themes emerge unbidden in time whether we like it or not. No reason to restrict oneself to looking for shots that fit a theme, as one might miss out on pictures that don't fit the assignment.

I've little to add here, except to join the chorus of those who advocate project-propelled photography. The best work is often the result of propulsion (and, yes, even compulsion propulsion). Exhibit A: This thread is exposing some really wonderful work that should convince anyone with any camera to adopt one, or more, projects.

I am continuously working on themed rails, as evidenced by some of my online collections. I offer a few of my own projects to the collection we're gathering here.

Of">http://kentanaka.zenfolio.com/p587626973">Of Dreams did become a book last year. That's a good way to bring closure to a project, although I continue to add work to the collection.

Metropolis is perhaps 80% toward intermediate closure (book), although I'll probably be shooting it the rest of my life.

Themes and project need not be anchored around tangible things or specific venues. They can be sensory or emotionally-anchored. Cold Stares, for example. Or finding imagery in decaying pavement.

I am really enjoying seeing others work along these lines here...Post more!

Someone above mentioned the discussion of this topic in "On Being a Photographer," by Bill Jay and David Hurn. Bill Jay also wrote an essay titled, "The Thing Itself," which covers essentially the same material and is one of the best things ever written about photography. I know it's been mentioned before on this blog (by me, among others), but it's dead relevant to this topic. You can download it here: http://www.billjayonphotography.com/writings2.html

I guess I will be one of the cellar dwellers and make a late post to this thread on Shooting to a Theme and add a few of my thoughts. I work as a full time newspaper photographer at a small newspaper in Kelowna, B.C, Canada and throughout out my 32 year career I have always loved to get out and photograph on my time off including holidays, but what to shoot ? certainly not more accidents and fires. About 20 years or so ago I began working with a 4 x 5 view camera, which I thought would be a lot of fun to use and challenging. I'm not sure if any of my work is thematic but in terms of a theme, almost all of my work is in black and white and the subjects range from landscape images of Western Canada, ( in my back yard sort of ) plus, still life, portraits and nudes. Also sometimes I shoot themes within themes, like a series landscape images of trees or driftwood logs on the beach. Although I wouldn't want to pass up on a great picture possibility if its just a single image and doesn't fit into a theme, usually down the road I will find a place for that orphaned image, but all in all its great to have a theme to work towards, I think it gives more direction to one's work.

If you've not encountered Blipfoto(.com) yet, you should: a photo a day, no more and preferably no fewer, whatever you want.
I found adding a new social/sharing site a good excuse to create one theme in life: black&white "landscape intimates" of things I find in a half-mile stretch whilst walking the dogs, much as you say. Weekdays, that's what I shoot. (The sense of community's excellent, too.)

I've been wary of "thematic" photography after seeing far too many books with repetitive photography. To me, the idea of a theme should come naturally from inside the photographer, to be found and discerned at a later point. This way, deeper, more meaningful and interesting, thoughtful work can be produced, IMHO.

That said, the idea may be a useful tool for photographers who don't have a sufficient sense of direction in their art, or, like me, who are easily distracted ;)

"Getting out of the house with a camera in your hand is a very underrated essential component of good photography."

Mike, this may be 95% of photography. We all enjoy yappin' about which camera, the best lens, film vs. digital, etc., but none of this matters when you're sitting in front of a computer. The pictures don't take themselves - just go out and shoot!

I think we've gotten to "90% of life is showing up". Which is true, so there's no harm in having gotten there.

(But, Driver8, people said the same thing about darkrooms. "You're not taking pictures when you're standing in the dark!" In fact, you have to do post-processing and get the pictures to where people can see them, or you might as well not take them.)


A Sydney photographer seeks out a different suburb of Sydney each week and photographs it. Preferably one she hasn't been to before.

I'm sure TOP fans who live in big cities will relate. I know there are parts of Sydney I simply have never been to.

Great way to get out shooting (and to get a book deal!!).

Another great theme photographer from Sydney: http://www.aquabumps.com/

Also on Facebook - search for "Aquabumps".

Here's an interesting theme for a blog-based photoshoot. The theme itself is obviously still very young but the series is very interesting, creative, cute and funny.


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