I don't care if you are one of my keen competitors, a retired CEO who likes to take pictures or a tortured artist whose camera is the nexus of his identity. I think you need to have a personal project through which to better enjoy your personal art of photography. Let me tell you why from a couple different perspectives.
From a personal perspective, as a commercial photographer, one needs some sort of device or construction as an antidote to the cycle of collaborating with (compromising for) your clients in the creation of marketing images that are aimed at wide audiences and which have, as their sole intention, the focus on selling a product, a service or a concept. I have a number of personal projects that I pursue when I am not working or marketing to get more work. One personal project is the creation and constant gardening of this blog. To date I've published about 2200 posts. Some are good and some are mediocre and some (I am truly sorry) are just bad. But as a personal project the blog does two important things for me: 1. It keeps me practicing and fine tuning my writing (along with a writing feedback chain of my readers...). And, 2. It keeps me out shooting photographs all the time. Which is a good thing since I think fluency comes with quantity of effort.
The ongoing, personal project of making the blog gives me a reason to try new techniques and to try new subject matter. It cures the pervasive laziness of existence by pushing me to go out and make images that either bolster some positive point I am making about gear or to even push out a bit or social or aesthetic commentary. In about 6,800 more blog posts I should just about have enough practice so I'll be able to turn out one perfect post. A post with a breathtaking and life changing photograph coupled with writing the would make Nabokov and Hemmingway both cry with jealously, if they were still around to experience this 10,000th blog...
I have other personal projects that get my attention as well. One is making black and white portraits of friends and then making beautiful prints. Another is my seemingly endless documentation of two seemingly constant changing city downtowns. One in Austin and the other in my home town of San Antonio. These projects all provide a balance and a happy extension of the work that pays the bills.
Recently I've been pondering a project in the area of motion pictures. I'm toying with making a series of scripted interviews of fictitious characters who can say outrageous things and tell outrageous stories. It's nice way to lower myself slowly into the water of video. (I am normally the sort who jumps in quickly to get the immersion part of the entry over as quickly as possible and to save myself the discomfort of the slow torture of sliding in, inch by inch). In a longer time frame I would actually like to make a movie out of the Novel: The Lisbon Portolio. Any of these projects provides practice writing scripts and figure out how to solve all of the technical and aesthetic problems of video so I can provide better services to my clients and in return learn even more stuff to apply to my projects.
To an ardent hobbyist the personal project, executed with discipline, is the best way to move both the skills sets and the rigor of good seeing forward. Not only that but a personal project with deadlines and a goal at the end (A show? A book?) keeps providing a sense of direction and even meaning to their practice. Projects that require one to ask for collaborations and shared work build networks of people who can help each other succeed with their good work. You might need someone to help by holding a light in a kinetic and complex shooting situation. That person might need someone to sit for a narrative portrait. Everyone might need a volunteer crew for their video project and everyone learns more by being part of the crew for someone else's video project.
Having a show of work at a gallery or your favorite coffee shop or restaurant is a great way to get focused on what needs to get done and always informs me of just what the current state of my imaging inventory is. I have a rule that also keeps me shooting personal work: If I show at a gallery or the bakery or even in a social slide show I always want to show work that I've never shown before. It's exciting to see what other people think. If you have time to prepare you usually find that you need to fill in a bit around the edges and it's a great way of narrowing down your field of view and getting you out shooting to fill in the missing blanks.
Finally, a personal project helps you develop a style because, if you do it right, you've set some formal boundaries for the kinds of images that will all fit comfortably into the same presentation. That's a quick way to encourage a shooting style to emerge.
If you have a subject you are interested in, say beer, you can create something really interesting and beautiful by walking us through the whole process. And you'll learn more about that subject, not just photography.
All the images above are part of my "Austin Downtown Project." Over time I'll have a twenty year record of what's been added and what's been demolished and begun to fade from out collective memory. If I do a good enough job I'll donate a set of prints to the Austin History Center. If I do a bad job I'll be disappointed-----but I will still have a body of work to share.
The key is to define the project, define the parameters and the end goal and then get to work on it starting now. The pre-planning should not be the project. The image making and sharing is the project.
I have a friend who is just about to start a video on the Graffiti Wall here in Austin. He's a gifted film maker. I hope he starts on it this weekend, the weather is supposed to be beautiful.....